Interview with Heather Martin Author of The Reacher Guy: A Biography of Lee Child

An exquisitely written and nuanced biography of an exceptional individual and writer who has created the # 1 international bestselling hero Jack Reacher, revered by dedicated and loyal readers worldwide. 

Lee Child has a great public persona: he is gracious and generous with readers and fans. But Jim Grant is a reticent and very private man. 

This rags-to-riches literary and social biography is based principally on disarmingly frank personal conversations and correspondence with the author since 2016 and privileged access to archival materials. It consists almost entirely of original material, and is the nearest thing the world is likely to get to the autobiography he does not intend to write. 

There are a handful of great Lee Child/Reacher stories that have been recycled over and over again. They are so good that no one has bothered to look beyond them. This book revisits (and sometimes revises) those irresistible stories, but goes back further and digs deeper. The emphasis on chronology, accuracy and specificity is unprecedented.  

The Lee Child origin myth is much loved. But mostly it sees him springing fully formed from the brow of Granada Television. There are glancing references to Aston Villa and the schoolyard, but no one has examined the social and historical detail or looked closely at where Lee really came from: the people, places and period.

This is the first time someone has described the Lee Child arc: from peaceful obscurity in the Yorkshire Dales and Upstate New York to cult figure, no. 1 in America, rock star, celebrity and publishing institution through to backlash, the changing zeitgeist, and intimations of retirement. The analysis of the emotional power and significance of Lee’s work in the final chapters—the themes of happiness, addiction, dependency, loneliness, and existential absurdity—and the first-hand retrospective accounts of his life and second-act career are all exclusive to this definitive biography
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Mystery Thriller Week – Benjamin Thomas

 

Heather Martin – The Reacher Guy

 

  1. How did you develop a love for reading?

 

Family. I was lucky. I clearly remember my father reading aloud to me at bedtime: The Wind in the Willows, The Magic Pudding, The Way of the Whirlwind, the highly coloured bush poetry of Henry Lawson. He sang a lot of songs to me, too, which are little stories in themselves. His parents had a houseful of books, including all the popular series of the day: the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, My Naughty Little Sister, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables. I would sit on the floor with our dog, reading, or take a book and disappear up the mulberry tree. This was in West Australia, not England where I live now!



  1. What was your first impression of Lee Child after reading his books for the first time?

 

I had no impression of Lee Child after reading his books for the first time. I gave the writer no thought at all. It was Reacher who filled my mind. When I finished one Reacher book, all I thought about was where I was going to find the next one. Which Lee would entirely approve of. I only really started to think about the writer after I met the man. It was only then that my attention was drawn explicitly to the skill of his writing. But I suspect my willingness to submit to the power of the story without stopping to think where it came from (this despite my professional background in literary criticism) is itself testament to that skill. Very quickly, however, the writer became even more interesting to me than his creation – as the origin of Reacher, because he contained Reacher within him, but also in many ways exceeded him.



  1. What fascinates you about why people love telling and hearing stories?

 

I notice you’ve adopted Lee’s preferred terminology, of ‘telling’ and ‘hearing’, which emphasises the aural, which reminds us that in one form or other storytelling goes right back to the beginning of human history, back before the invention of writing. I find his view compelling: that stories were, and remain, important because they encourage, embolden and empower us, by allowing us to see the world in new ways and glimpse new possibilities – different plot lines and alternative endings, if you like. An effective story takes us out of ourselves for the duration of our reading – like a song does, but for longer – while also inviting an intense connection, through empathy or identification, with the characters, and beyond them, even if we don’t realise it, the writer. For better or worse, we escape our own lives and live instead in the world of the book. 

  1. What do you appreciate about the way Lee Child tells a story?

 

Another big question! Presumably the fact that it feels like someone’s ‘telling’ me the story! What is commonly referred to as narrative ‘voice’. His voice has an effortless quality to it, which is down to his acute sense of rhythm and timing. But the appearance of effortlessness tends to be an effect of great artistry – the accomplishment of someone who is master of his craft. And mixed in with those musical qualities you have the sweeping historical vision, the unique mix of humour and pathos, and plenty of painterly and poetic touches too, especially in the depiction of weather and the evocation of landscape. I’m always surprised by the range and rhetoric of Lee’s discourse, and his idiosyncratic turn of phrase in both speech and writing. Contrary to popular opinion, I think his voice, while very distinctive, is almost impossible to imitate without lapsing into parody. 



  1. What was your initial reaction when Lee Child asked you to write his biography?

 

It wasn’t really like that. He never outright asked me. It was more an agreement we reached over the course of a long conversation. Whenever we met, which at first was a purely social thing, he would tell me stories about his life growing up in the Midlands, which was very different to mine growing up on the west coast of Australia. It was the same when we corresponded. I loved those stories in miniature, that teased and tantalised and left me wanting more. I guess I was always asking questions, with one question leading inexorably to the next, a form of research that was entirely organic, but when the idea of a biography took hold it proved impossible to shake off. It felt to me like the book I was meant to write, and I think Lee, in his empathetic way, sensed that too. But to be given formal permission to go ahead? That was a thrilling moment, and that’s for damn sure! 



  1. What was it like working with him?

 

Pure unalloyed pleasure. Because of the situation I’ve just described – the ongoing conversation. And we got to meet up in all sorts of places, many of them new to me. I’d try to catch him on the wing in the UK whenever I could, and then I had the great good fortune of spending a year in New York, which made it easier to fit in with his crazy schedule. It was there I did most of the writing, and had the chance to look through family photos, which was so illuminating. He was very generous with his time, and remarkably non-interventionist. Maybe I was just good at self-censorship, but despite this being an authorised biography there were very few things he asked me not to write. He never tried to tell me how to do things, but simply encouraged me to follow my own storytelling instinct. So yes, emboldening and empowering, without a doubt!

 

  1. What were some of the challenges of writing?

 

The biggest challenge was structure. I wanted to tell the story in a broadly chronological way (and I did), but there was no escaping Reacher from page one. It was immediately obvious that anyone reading the book would already know that Lee Child was the author of a bestselling series, so to wait until his thirty-ninth year before introducing Reacher would be absurd. Instead I found myself telling the stories of Lee Child, Jack Reacher and Jim Grant (who created them both) all at once. But I tried not to overthink it. I just let Reacher pop up where the narrative journey took him, as is the case in the novels. And I conceived of each chapter as a self-contained story, governed by a single moment or idea or image, which I think helps the reader too. It’s a big book, but that approach makes it easy to dip in and out. If you were to ask Lee the same question, he would say the biggest problem was that of memory – how individual it is, and how different people often have differing recollections of the same event. 



  1. After writing his biography, how has your view of storytelling, the works of Lee Child, and his craft changed? 


Though all the words remain exactly the same, his books resonate with me now on a more personal level. And even as he has so spectacularly escaped his origins, as was always his wish, I see that his loyalty to the Midlands remains as fierce as ever. We’ve had some fascinating conversations since The Reacher Guy was published at the end of September, mostly in the context of all the brilliant digital festivals we’ve done in lieu of our planned live events (postponed, circumstances permitting, to next year). Reading the story of his own life has given even Lee new perspective on it, and brought certain moments and experiences more sharply into focus. At the same time, we’ve both become more conscious of the overlap between fiction and creative non-fiction – two variations on the storytelling theme.


About Heather Martin

Heather Martin (author photo © Brian Aris) was born in West Australia. She grew up in Aix-en-Provence, Paris, and Perth, where she would fall asleep to the sound of the Indian Ocean. She left Australia for England to become a classical guitarist but found herself singing with a Venezuelan folk group and learning to speak Spanish instead. She read Languages at Cambridge, where she also did a PhD in comparative literature, and has held teaching and research positions at Cambridge, Hull, King’s College London, and most recently, the Graduate Center, City University New York. Heather is a long-time Reacher fan. While waiting to get her hands on the next in the series, she once read a Lee Child book in Spanish and wound up writing to the author about the fate of his character in translation. ‘The Reacher Guy’ is her first biography.

Lee Child comments: “I met Heather Martin some years ago, and we started talking about why people love telling and hearing stories. To get more depth and detail we started talking about why I do. Eventually I said, ‘If you want to really get to the bottom of it, you’re going to have to write my biography.’ So she did. It was a fun and illuminating process. I had forgotten a lot, and it was fascinating to be reminded. Now it all makes sense.”

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