Authors

Lee and Andrew Child talk about collaborating on ‘The Sentinel’

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Jack Reacher enters a town smack into bad luck and trouble. Some unspeakably evil person decides to cross swords with the ex-military policeman and comes out the worse for it. And Reacher — part Rimbaud, part Rambo moves on to the next town in the middle of nowhere to put things right. The latest novel, The Sentinel (Penguin Random House, ₹699) also features Reacher getting off a bus at a nameless town outside Nashville, Tennessee for a cup of coffee and naturally gets embroiled in protecting a harmless Joe from dreadful people who do unspeakable things to the human body.

Fans of Lee Child’s knight errant are reading The Sentinel very carefully because this is the first of the collaborations between the 66-year-old Lee and his younger brother, Andrew (52). Are there differences to the character? Reacher seems talkative and uses a mobile phone. Incidentally, the sentinel in the title refers to software, not a person or a gun. Over a video call — Lee from Colorado and Andrew from England discuss collaborations, the web series, Reacher’s loquaciousness and more in this exclusive interview.

Excerpts:-

Could you walk us through your decision to pass the baton on to Andrew?

When I started writing, I was determined that I would never phone it in. I would always give 101% on every book out of respect for the process and my readers. Twenty-four years later, I am older and a bit worn out. I realised I could not keep this going forever. Once that thought was in my head, it became difficult to get rid of. I had to figure out a plan B. I could just stop the series but people loved it so much that I decided to try a hare-brained scheme to keep it going, which was to ask Andrew to do it.

What was your brief ?

It was easy because this was not a situation where I had to sit him down and say ‘there is this guy called Jack Reacher’. Andrew has been my first reader. We have lived with Jack Reacher like another brother. Nothing was out of bounds as I wanted Andrew to rejuvenate the series and to move it ahead into the future.

Why did you feel the series needed rejuvenation?

I try to be extremely self-aware and self-critical, and I realised that Reacher’s relationship with the modern world and technology was falling further and further behind. Thriller heroes are not realistic, but they have to look realistic and he wasn’t any more. That is what I mean by easing him into the 21st century. He can be 10 years behind the times but it should not be any more than that.

Could you talk about the collaboration process?

Every writer has a different method, especially in terms of how far ahead they can see. Some writers need to see the entire book in detail, before they can start to write. I am the exact opposite. I know nothing about what is going to happen in the book, not even in the next line, certainly not in the next scene. Andrew is not particularly a big outliner, but he is used to having a little more than I had. We would constantly have comical moments where we would sign off on a good scene and Andrew would say what happens next. And I would say I have no idea.

The pandemic threw a spanner in the works. We expected to be sitting side by side across the table thrashing it out. We could not do that and so it came down to emailing back and forth and like a lot of things about the pandemic, it was awkward at first but then became second nature.

Where there any arguments?

We never argue, he would definitely lose (laughs).

Writing is a solitary endeavour, so was collaborating difficult?

That is the fascinating part to me psychologically. It is the writer’s subconscious that defines the book. I think because Andrew and I have the same DNA, we have the same reactions, the same life experience and so on. We are about as identical as two people can be. The collaboration is instinctive, and about trust. If you trust somebody in life, then you can trust them as a writer.

Lee and Andrew Child talk about collaborating on ‘The Sentinel’

What is the status of the web series?

Reacher has been cast. Alan Ritchson is just right for the part. The first season is written, everything is planned but we are in a hiatus because of the virus. We are going to film in the spring and with a little bit of luck it could get on the air later next year. It feels like a new start. Tom Cruise is gone; we have a much better actor now and people are seeing it as phase two.

Could you comment on the audio books?

Personally, I used to find it difficult because I am a fast reader and audio is generally quite slow. But now they have this technology where you can turn up the speed without it sounding like Mickey Mouse. I think it has become a lot more popular. We have a whole generation of people that are used to constantly wearing earbuds.

Are there going to be any more prequels?

We don't know. I think it is inevitable that there will be. But we can't say yes, seven years from now we plan a prequel, it might happen next year who knows?

Andrew Child: ‘I am the oldest Jack Reacher fan’

Andrew Child, who has written nine thrillers as Andrew Grant, says he was shocked when Lee proposed collaborating on Reacher. “My solo book had just come out. We had driven down together to a bookstore in Denver, Colorado for a launch event — remember the old days when you could actually go places and do things in person! I was driving home and there was this incredible blizzard raging.” Concentrating on not crashing the car, Andrew says he could not properly react to Lee’s bombshell. “I was amazed because Reacher is this incredible creation, a worldwide phenomenon. That Lee would trust me with this was mind blowing.”

Lee and Andrew Child talk about collaborating on ‘The Sentinel’

Admitting to having a weakness for a challenge, Andrew says the clincher was he could not face a world without Reacher. “I am the oldest Jack Reacher fan. I remember reading Killing Floor when it was still handwritten in pencil. He has been with us for 25 years. I know what it is like when you are a Reacher fan. Every year, you look forward to the next instalment, you want to go on that incredible ride with him one more time. I knew that if I didn't say yes, that would mean no more Reacher.”

Describing Reacher as an eternal archetype, Andrew says there is nothing he would like to change about the character. “Changing him for change’s sake, would be wrong. We could nudge him forward in terms of the technology that he interacts with. What I want to do is, if we were taking one step forward with the technology, I wanted to take one step back in terms of his character, when wit and humour were a large part of him. We are used to seeing Reacher figure stuff out intellectually, and also crush people. But in the earlier books, he could also devastate people with his words.”

Of what would Reacher do in the pandemic, Andrew laughs saying, “He likes to travel so if he was in a place where you got thrown in jail if you are travelling then that would be an issue for him. Reacher is quite happy to interact with people if he comes across them and he is equally happy to just wander around and do his own thing.”

While Lee says collaborating on two or three books would ensure a smooth handover and reassure readers, publishers and critics, Andrew says, “It depends on the readers. If they are happy with the way that Reacher is going about his business then maybe three will be fine.”

Taking over a well-beloved series comes with attendant pressure. “Lee had 24 years to go from standing still to the speed that he was at when I came on. I liken it to those moving walkways in airports. It was a bit like leaping onto one, only it was going at 200 miles an hour. As you sit down to write, there is a little voice in your head that is telling you about how all of the hundreds of thousands of Reacher fans all around the world are going to be examining it through a microscope. You can't let yourself think about that.”

Describing it as the cost of entry, Andrew says, “Every writer I know will say that there is still that little voice of self-doubt, pulling you back and slowing you down. Stephen King talks about how he tries to write really fast in order to outrun the self-doubt. I made sure that if there were any moments where that kind of consciousness crept in, I pushed it back out again.”

The Sentinel seems like a reboot with echoes of Killing Floor. While Andrew hopes the book will introduce Reacher to a new batch of readers, he says, “I never think about that consciously. Deciding what issues, themes, audience and market you are going to address while writing sets you up for failure. I just try to write the best story that I can, and hope that people will respond to it.”

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