No Cliffhanger: Lee Child on the Long Life of Jack Reacher
There are a few folks around our offices on a bit of a Reacher tear. I just overheard Dave saying to our local Lee Child evangelist, Daphne, "I did it. I read all the Reachers." I'm not sure if he was happy or sad to have caught up, but I know he tore through all 14 in just a few months. My introduction to the solitary ex-MP came on a solo 10-hour car trip this summer. I had put all dozen or so audio CDs of 61 Hours on my phone to play as I drove, and on the way back I pretty much had it timed to get to the end of the story as I pulled up at my doorstep. So when I got somewhere around Concrete, Wa., (yes, former home of Tobias Wolff) I was a little unhinged to find I had neglected to upload disc 9, and had to drive those last few hours home with Jack stuck somewhere in a wintry South Dakota town.
Daphne liked 61 Hours a whole lot (and you can listen to her interview with Child about the book and about the character of Jack Reacher below), but she liked this fall's sequel of sorts, Worth Dying For, even better, and made it one of our Best of October picks. Is it a sequel? Well, all the Reacher books lead from one into the other, although Jack himself tries to hold on to as little baggage as he can as he moves from adventure to adventure. The story of 61 Hours certainly ends with Reacher in peril, which isn't resolved until his story picks up again in Worth Dying For, but as Child himself argues below, did you really think Reacher was going down?
Lee Child on Ending a Story but Not a Character
Almost everyone has referred to the ending of my last book 61 Hours as a cliffhanger, and it’s true that Reacher’s ultimate fate wasn’t fully articulated ... but I never thought of it as a cliffhanger as such. In my mind the ending was the product of two different desires ... firstly, to trust the reader more; and secondly, not to feel trapped into writing the same formula every time.
When I worked in television, we gradually learned that our product was being consumed in a certain new way: unlike way back in the past, people no longer sat with rapt attention and concentrated solely on the screen. Instead, they kept half an eye on the show, while simultaneously cooking dinner and talking to their mothers on the phone. So, when an important plot point was coming up, we unconsciously developed a technique: tell them you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them you’ve told them.
I think I carried that unconscious technique into my books a little, and over the years I began to feel it was unnecessary. Book readers are probably smarter on average than TV watchers, but more importantly, even though reading can be fragmented in terms of time--ten minutes here, twenty minutes there--people are either reading or not reading, and when they’re reading, they’re paying attention. So what I try to do now is supply all the necessary information--all the clues, all the background--and let the reader work out the conclusion. In other words, I ask "Two plus two?" And instead of either me or Reacher promptly answering, "Four," I let the reader figure it out.
Which was the situation at the end of 61 Hours. All the information was there--both detailed, and in a more general sense. The physical layout was carefully described, and the arson investigators' theories were mapped out. And ... come on ... a jet fuel explosion? You think that's gonna take the big guy down? Really??
Plus, every previous book has a "Reacher walks off into the sunset/gets on the bus" scene at the end, and that time I just felt like leaving it out. I write entirely by instinct, and my instinct told me to leave it out. I don't want to do the same thing every time.
But, for those still in doubt, the new book Worth Dying For does explain how he got out--but only in passing. Reacher's not the kind of guy who dwells on past events. He moves right along into the future ... and in this case the future is a whole new separate adventure, in Nebraska, with Reacher coming up against some very bad people. But he's human, and he's hurting a little after the events in South Dakota ... will that slow him down, or provoke an extra 10%? Read on and find out.
And as promised, here is Daphne's talk with Lee Child, recorded at BookExpo in May: