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Interview with the best-selling thriller author Lee Child

The best-selling author Lee Child is world-famous for his thrilling Jack Reacher novels. It’s said one of his novels is sold every nine seconds. Now he’s published a collection of short stories about the much-loved character. He talks to Sophie Haydock about how his impulse to write came from “rage and anger” and shares tips on how to write books that make readers miss their Tube stops

  • The 12 stories in your latest book, No Middle Name: Jack Reacher – the Complete Collected Short Stories, offer new insights into the life of your famous hero. Why did you write them this way rather than as a novel?
    We’ve been experimenting with the digital marketplace for a few years now, and short stories seemed like a good way to test the waters. I’m not sure Reacher’s past and childhood would work in a novel, so the format seemed ideal. But not everyone reads digitally, so it seemed like a great idea to collect the stories in a physical book.

    How have your fans responded? Eleven stories in the collection have been published as ebooks, so were there any objections to the shorter form along the way?
    No objections, per se – in fact, a lot of readers seem to have enjoyed them. The only negatives have been that some people seem to think that they’re getting a full-length novel, so sometimes there’s disappointment about that.

    You lost your job just as you were turning 40, and the same day decided to write your first novel. Did you already have the idea for Jack’s character in mind then? Where did the inspiration for that first book come from?
    The impulse came from rage and anger – and the need to make a living. I didn’t plan Reacher too much – I felt it was better to let him emerge organically. But I suppose he was always there in my subconscious.

    Do you find writing easy? What are the biggest challenges for you when it comes to writing something new?
    Compared to being an A&E nurse or a cop or a coal miner, sure, writing is very easy. That said, it’s always a challenge to start rolling the rock up the hill every year.

    You’re incredibly prolific as a writer and produce at least one novel a year. How many words do you think you’ve published now? Do you ever get writer’s block?
    I’ve probably written somewhere between 2½-3 million paid words by now. I don’t think writer’s block is a real thing. It’s a fancy name for not wanting to go to work that day, which is something I’m sure everyone feels from time to time. But we all have to.

    You’ve sold over 100 million. How does it feel to be Britain’s best-selling author in the thriller genre? Did you ever expect this incredible level of success when you wrote your first book?
    Every writer wants to be read, and it feels great to meet that goal to this extent. In private moments, yes, I hoped for it, but to expect it would have been nuts. Anything involving an audience is completely unpredictable.

    Your books appeal to everyone, and a huge number of your readers are female. What do you say to people who think they “just don’t like” thrillers?
    I always say: if I had a pound for every reader I’ve met who says normally they don’t like thrillers… actually, I do have a pound! I think genre labels are mainly for retail organisation – there are really only two kinds of books: those which make you miss your stop on the Tube, and those that don’t. I hope my books fall in the first category. My stylistic approach is to promise I’ll do all the work, and the reader can have all the fun.

    Are you a fan of the short story? What are its strengths, for you as an author?
    Certainly I have read some truly great ones. I like the concise focus.

    Do you have a favourite short story, one that’s had a big impact on your writing? Or do you admire any short story writers in particular?
    I read one years ago by Ruth Rendell, which seemed to me totally perfect. Unfortunately I can’t remember the title and I can’t find it now.

    Do the elements of the thriller genre have a place in short stories? What would you say to writers looking to inject more of that into their own work?
    Most thrillers depend on a long, long build-up of tension, so it’s a huge achievement to make a short thriller work. On the other hand, it strips the form down to the basic proposition: what’s going to happen? That’s what writers should do: ask a question, and come up with a great answer.

    No Middle Name: Jack Reacher – the Complete Collected Short Stories is out now (Bantam Press £20);