If Lee Child’s devoted fans want a true-life thriller, they should check out the author’s numbers. Child, whose iconic character Jack Reacher is now an internationally celebrated hero, has more than 60 million copies of his novels in print in 96 countries and nearly 60 languages. His 17th Reacher book, A Wanted Man, just hit shelves. And in December, Hollywood hopes to ride the Reacher rocket with a Christmas film based on Child’s book One Shot, and starring Tom Cruise. TIME caught up with the prolific author by phone at his home in New York City:
TIME: Your 17th book! How do you keep it fresh?
LEE CHILD: I made one very smart choice in the beginning, which was to give Reacher no job and no location. Unlike any other series, he’s not a cop in LA; he’s not a private eye in Boston. He can be anywhere and do anything. So to me, each book is entirely fresh and new. I’m really excited about each one.
What’s different about A Wanted Man?
This one is faster—it literally starts at 80 m.p.h. and it gets quicker and quicker all the way through. It’s a very compressed time period, and it really is accelerated. They’re all page-turners, but this one really goes hell to leather.
Tell me about Jack Reacher. How would you describe him?
He’s two things in one. On the surface, he is an ex-military cop who is suddenly dumped out into the civilian world. He doesn’t fit in, and he spends his time wandering America, seeing the things that he’s never had time to see before. He’s trying to stay out of trouble, but masterfully once a year getting into trouble. He’s also the descendant of a very ancient tradition: the noble loner, the knight errant, the mysterious stranger, who has shown up in stories forever… He is a truly universal character. I think I lucked into a very fortunate position, where I’m writing the modern iteration of a character who has existed for thousands of years.
Is he you? How much does he share with you?
All of us write wish fulfillment. It’s all some kind of idealized autobiography. The answer is that I would be him if I could get away with it.
The film Jack Reacher will be out as a film as of December, and Tom Cruise will be playing the title character.
I’m very excited about it, and I was never worried about it. I probably was the least worried person involved with the whole thing. I used to do this for a living, more or less. I was in television drama, which is a first cousin to the movies, and I trust myself to make the right decisions. I sold it to the right people, and they have done a fantastic job. The proof of that is took seven years for it to happen. That is because the team around it was so committed to getting it right.
There’s been a little bit of griping that Tom Cruise isn’t exactly the right actor to play Jack Reacher, partly because of height. Jack Reacher is 6’5’’ and Tom Cruise is not known for being tall.
Cruise is a character actor. He really gets into a role. He can understand the role. He can project the vibe. But the only real answer is go see the movie. I guarantee you will come out of it and you will think, “What was I worried about?”
Were you there for the filming?
Yes, I was there for quite a lot of the filming. They even gave me a little cameo part. I play a cop.
Some of your readers probably don’t realize that you’re British by birth. You’re writing about America. How does that affect your perceptions?
One of the reasons people like the books is because I am an outsider, in the same way the reader is an outsider. Both of us see things that are too commonplace for Americans to see because they have lived with them all their lives. I think the outsider’s point of view is always illuminating.
Is there a big difference between what American readers want and what British readers want?
I really don’t think there is. The reactions are exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic. As you move a little more into western and northern Europe, they’re a little more worried about how lawless Reacher is. They love him, but they’re kind of cross at themselves for loving him, because they think he should be a little more law-abiding. That’s where the divide occurs—in the English Channel, rather than in the Atlantic.
Are you an American citizen?
No, I’m not. I’m eligible, but I kind of prefer being an outsider.
I heard that you’re a smoker. Does that go along with your writing?
I think we all have some vice. Usually it’s drinking, but I don’t drink much—I smoke instead. I understand that it’s not good for you, and I understand that it might produce a bad end, but what I’m saying to people is, “My 60 years have been a lot more exciting than your 90, believe me.”
Who would Reacher vote for?
Obviously, he can’t vote. But he’d look at the candidates and say he’s voting for the black guy who came of age on the streets of Chicago. That’s Reacher’s type of guy.