Updated: May 5, 2022
Many of you will know the story… a man called Jim Grant is made redundant from Granada TV in the mid-1990s. He’s an avid reader, reading (by his calculations) an average of 300 books a year. Reading brings him so much, and he wonders if he could bring something to other readers. So rather than look for another job in TV, he decides to have a go at writing. He writes a novel called ‘Bad Luck and Trouble’ and sends it to Darley Anderson’s agency using the pseudonym ‘Lee Child’. After a rigorous editing process, all done long hand / via fax machine, and some intense negotiations, a novel is published under the title ‘Killing Floor’ (‘Bad Luck and Trouble’ was later used as the title for the 11th Reacher novel). It is the first of 24 novels featuring the same character, Jack Reacher. The series has now sold well over 100 million books in 40 languages. There are two feature films, controversially starring Tom Cruise. And the new Amazon Prime series, Reacher, broke viewing records this very January. A commercial phenomenon, and Lee Child is a rock star author who lists ex-US presidents among his friends.
But there’s so much more to it than that. Lee Child announced his retirement back in 2018 as his 24th Reacher novel, Blue Moon, was finished. The University of East Anglia (UEA) responded by asking what he planned to do with his archive – all of the notes and drafts and fan mail and other correspondence Lee had accumulated in the 25 years since he’d first put pencil to paper. Lee replied that he hadn’t thought about it, would the UEA be interested in it? ‘OM actual G!’ the venerable temple of creative writing responded, which is the academic way of saying ‘yes’. So last Thursday, 31st March 2022, the UEA held a symposium to celebrate Lee’s archive, and his work, and him, and invited Lee along. As a Lee Child fan I was giddy with excitement, and as a UEA Alumnus I was eligible for a discount, so off I went.
The day comprised:
Several display cases containing samples from Lee’s archive, selected and displayed by Justine Mann, the UEA archivist. This included the first query letter Lee sent to Darley Anderson, samples of Lee’s edits in response to editorial feedback that show how his voice developed quickly and precisely for that first novel, and ‘fanmail’ expressing opinions on the casting of Tom Cruise as Reacher in the two films.
Several academic papers
1. Dr Heather Martin’s summary of Lee’s life and approach to his work. Extracts from her authorised biography of Lee, ‘The Reacher Guy’, which I have subsequently read. It is a superb work in its own right, and contains much interesting information, and many useful insights, being tragic, gritty, and amusing in turn. As useful to the writer as Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, but for different reasons.
2. Dr Elspeth Latimer’s insights into Lee’s use of space in the Reacher books, how they needed the landscape of the obscure corners of America, a real prompt for the writer to think about how their settings shape their story.
3. Dr Jacob Rollinson’s insights into Lee’s use of sound, and silence. ‘Reacher said nothing,’ being one of the most common phrases in the 24 books. How the reader is left with silence in which to think for themselves. Again, a prompt for me as a writer to think about how I use the sounds made by objects and creatures as part of the rhythm of my voice, and how I use silence to control the pace.
4. Professor Gill Plain’s analysis of the thriller in the aftermath of World War II, especially the work of Hammond Innes, and his use of demobilised soldiers, as an examination of the antecedents of Reacher as a character moving from the structured nature of army life to the alien experience of civilian life. A prompt to think of the importance of a protagonist’s backstory in several dimensions.
5. Ayo Onatade’s history of the thriller as a genre, looking at the definition of ‘thriller’, and putting the Reacher books in the context of the canon. Lee himself, when asked what the first thriller was, uses Homer’s Odyssey as an early example. A timeless genre, and whilst I’ve studied crime fiction and read right the way across the genre and many sub-genres, Ayo referenced writers I had not heard of and added a couple of dozen works to my TBR pile in less than 20 minutes.
Then a Round Table talk between Professor Henry Sutton, Julia Crouch, Tom Benn, Dr Elspeth Latimer, and Linda Temienor-Vincent, discussing what we can learn from Lee Child and the contemporary crime thriller.
In the evening, the headline event, Richard Beard introduced Margaret Drabble (yes, THE Margaret Drabble, a little heart-fluttery fan moment from me there – Margaret’s 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature saw me through my O level and A level English Literature, and I still have it), who interviewed Lee Child about his writing, his decisions, and the world in general. Most crucially, a member of the audience asked which Reacher book will the next Amazon Prime Reacher series be based on, to which Lee answered ‘I’m afraid I can’t answer that for contractual reasons.’ You heard it here first!
Finally, the Vice Chancellor of UEA popped in to award Lee an honorary PhD of Letters, before Lee and Heather Martin, his biographer, signed copies of their books. Heather said this was the first time that Lee and she have signed copies of the biography in the same place due to the pandemic. Given Lee’s retirement, I suspect there won’t be that many more. So all in all, a very special day, hugely informative, inspirational, and it was a privilege to have been there.