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Then it struck him: “Wait a minute, Andrew is me 15 years ago. I don’t want to deny him his individuality but, fundamentally, deep down, we’re the same person. So can I ask him? Does this make any sense?”
The question was as dramatic as their circumstances in which it was raised as heavy snow gusted across their frozen windscreen, and would have enormous implications for them both: Would Andrew take on writing the Jack Reacher novels?
“It was the most horrible blizzard and I waited till he was really preoccupied,” Lee, 65, explains.
“It was a hare-brained scheme, there was no guarantee he would agree. I thought, ‘He’s concentrating on keeping us alive so if I ask him now he won’t react 100 per cent. He’ll think about it’.”
Andrew, already an established thriller writer himself, albeit with a fraction of Lee’s global audience, takes up the story: “Lee just said out of the blue, ‘Hey listen, I’m thinking about getting ready to retire but I don’t want to kill Reacher off. People want more Reacher books and I don’t want to let them down, so how about you do it?’”
The offer to take on one of the world’s most lucrative publishing franchises – with a staggering 100 million books sold, reputedly one every 13 seconds – left Andrew, 52, “utterly gobsmacked”.
He says: “Reacher’s this phenomenal achievement, this unparalleled, worldwide success, and Lee was prepared to let me be involved with it! I was totally taken by surprise. Then there was an element of me thinking, ‘Could I actually do this?’”
The Coventry-born blockbuster writer had faith in his brother, although he wasn’t initially convinced Andrew would agree, despite the life-changing implications, not least of all financially, in doing so. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Andrew’s the most stubborn and obstinate human you will ever meet,” he laughs. “I’m his big brother so I knew we’d get along but people have pride. Would he put his own stuff on pause to do Reacher?”
Andrew continues: “Somebody once told me the two saddest words in English are ‘What if?’ Lee’s shoes are really big to fill, not only is the character so distinctive but his style of writing is too. But I’m a fan like everybody else. The only way to find out if I could do it was to try.”
As a result of that road trip, the pair began their unprecedented collaboration on September 1 last year, the date Lee traditionally (superstitiously perhaps) starts each new book. Characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne have continued under new writers, but normally only following their creator’s death; not while he’s as hale and hearty as Lee and still pumping out an annual bestseller.
Talking from his Wyoming home this week, a profoundly relaxed Lee said: “I’m pretty sure it’s unique, in the sense of planned while the author is still alive, but then I’ve always tried to do what everybody else doesn’t. In a way that’s been my mantra. Why do the same as everyone else?
“That’s always done me good, to be honest. My biggest fear is that Andrew’s going to be better than I was at it. He’s a smart guy and a good writer. That’s the downside for me, if people ask, ‘Why didn’t he do it from the start?’”
Their first Jack Reacher collaboration, The Sentinel, is published later this month. It’s the 25th book featuring the ex-military cop turned crime fighting drifter created by Lee 25 years ago after he was made redundant by Granada TV. The reviews are already overwhelmingly positive.
In a plot largely dreamed up by Andrew, and prosecuted in Lee’s famous staccato style, Reacher strays into a small town that has been paralysed by a ransomware attack – taking him out of his comfort zone.
“He wouldn’t really have a clue about ransomware and how it worked,” explains Andrew. “And I thought it was a really fertile environment for conspiracies and plots. What might have caused it? What might people be trying to hide?”
Lee says: “Reacher is always behind the curve on technology. We like that about him. But this is the 21st century and we needed to ease him forward. It had to be subtle, it had to be nuanced. That’s down to Andrew.”
All in all, the new book bodes well for the future. The brothers plan to collaborate on the next few novels for continuity before Andrew goes it alone. For the father-of-two who spent 15 years working for British Telecom before taking redundancy himself to write full-time, it was a tacit acceptance his own nine thrillers have not been as successful as his brother’s.
“On the one hand, I’d have loved it if my first character, David Trevellyan, had become the new Jack Reacher,” he smiles. “But the publishing industry changed, that wasn’t ever going to happen. You know, it’s a stupid way to make a living but I was very lucky with my own books.”
As for picking up the reins, he says: “Fundamentally I’m a Reacher fan like everyone else. In fact, I was the first Reacher fan.”
Lee explains: “It’s not like this is new to him. Andrew was the first person who read Killing Floor when it was still in pencil.”
So what was it like for Andrew reading that first draft copy 25 years ago? Frankly terrifying, he admits: “At the time, I had a good job in the telecoms industry and Lee was out of work and broke. I was conscious of the fact everything was riding on it for him. He had no Plan B, so it had to work.
“My main worry was, ‘What if it’s cr*p?’ because my brother will starve and I’m the one who’s going to have to say, ‘Hey, it’s not very good.’ But obviously it’s a brilliant, brilliant book. The words ‘Jack Reacher’ don’t come out for several chapters. Yet I knew that character because it’s generated from my brother’s psyche.”
The siblings are strikingly similar and have always been close. Andrew, the youngest by far of four brothers – “Our father was an accountant, he used to call me the ‘bonus issue’,” he jokes – grew up in St Albans, Herts. Both went to Sheffield University, married Americans and moved to the States to pursue their careers.
Then three years ago, in search of more space to work and live, Andrew and his thriller writer wife Tasha Alexander, 50, moved from inner-city Chigaco to the vast open spaces of Wyoming.
Larger than the entire UK, the US state has fewer inhabitants than their old Sheffield stomping ground. Initially sceptical, Lee visited with his wife Jane, fell in love with the place and bought a ranch house. Now, the brothers are practically neighbours.
Perhaps their only major difference is in their writing methods.
As Lee explains: “I’m a zero planner, I start and if it’s a good first line, I think, ‘Great, now what’s a good second line?’ Andrew likes to see a little bit further ahead. I’d just plug away.”
They are, naturally, already working on an as yet untitled follow-up to The Sentinel, having started as usual on September 1. But even if they just published a single book together, presumably that would make Andrew financially secure? Unless, I joke, Lee has him on an hourly rate?
“If he did, I’d suddenly become the slowest writer in the world,” Andrew laughs.
Andrew adds: “I suspected Lee probably did more than he let on but, having experienced writing a Reacher book, the planning wouldn’t work. I came up with detailed plans for a couple of scenes and they just wouldn’t fit – Reacher refuses to cooperate.”
“For your average author, it’s hard to make a living. In the States where there isn’t really a health service, private insurance is ridiculously expensive. I didn’t have health insurance until the Reacher book came along.”
In the past, when asked by interviewers, Lee has always suggested he’d kill off Reacher after 21 books, and even had a great title in mind: Die Lonely.
“When I was seven or eight books in, people were constantly asking how long I’d keep going. I picked 21 based on the writer John D MacDonald who did 21 books in the Travis McGee series then died,” he recalls.
“Because it was so far in the future, it was a throwaway answer. Being a reader first, you notice series tend to go downhill because authors get tired or lazy. I made myself a promise, I would never phone it in and I never have.”
Lee remains involved in the forthcoming Amazon Prime TV adaptation of his books, for which relative US unknown Alan Ritchson, 37, has been cast in the title role. At a strapping 6ft 2in, he is closer in stature to 6ft 5in Reacher than Tom Cruise, who played him in two movies that were hits despite a reader backlash.
“I made it clear I want a cameo in every season,” says Lee. “Alfred Hitchcock did it in his movies and Colin Dexter was in every Morse episode somewhere.”
Other than that, he intends to take it easy.
“For people my age, you went to school for a little bit, then you worked for a long time, then you retired,” he explains. “That’s what I’m going to do. I’ve bought a new sofa, I’m going to lie on it and read every book I haven’t been able to get to.”
- The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child (Bantam Press, £20) is out October 27. To pre-order with free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order: expressbookshop.co.uk
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