If you don’t recognize Lee Child by name, chances are you will recognize his billion-dollar brand: Jack Reacher, portrayed by Tom Cruise on the big screen. Child is the author of 24 New York Times bestselling Jack Reacher thrillers with 14 having reached the #1 position and the #1 bestselling complete Jack Reacher story collection, No Middle Name.
All his novels have been optioned for major motion pictures—including Jack Reacher (based on One Shot) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Foreign rights for the Reacher series have sold in 49 languages and 101 territories. With more than 100 million books sold, the series has commanded over a billion dollars in global sales. In addition to books and movies, there is a Jack Reacher custom coffee blend, songs by Child and Naked Blue from Reacher’s perspective on CD and digital download and now a soon-to-be television series on Amazon. A native of England and a former television director, Lee Child lives in New York City.
I sat down with him to talk about how he balances his billion-dollar business with his personal life and his own self-care. We talked about mindful productivity, wellness and how he describes his “workplace.”
Bryan Robinson: Great to talk to you, Lee. I wanted to begin by asking how you would describe your workplace.
Lee Child: The physical locale doesn’t matter that much. As a writer, your workplace is inside your head in your imagination. You need a certain amount of resources such as a desk, keyboard, Internet and reference books. Inevitably you end up with an office somewhere, and I have one in every one of our houses. That’s where I work.
Robinson: Is there any particular place you prefer to write either inside or outside?
Child: At a desk inside. Although there’s the usual thing with writers when you go for a walk or take a shower, you get the ideas you need. It’s quite a skill in tricking your mind into relaxing and therefore giving you what you need.
Robinson: So how does Lee Child relax?
Child: Mostly reading or music. And TV third. I rarely get too far down the list because normally I’m either reading or listening to music.
Robinson: You’ve done some music with Naked Blue from Baltimore.
Child: Yeah, we have a CD out. It was a weird coincidence. If you put it in a book, nobody would believe it. I was independently a fan of theirs, they were a fan of mine and we found each other out about 15 years ago. I wrote the lyrics, and they wrote the music.
Robinson: Do you sing or play an instrument on the CD?
Child: I don’t. I probably could have, but I felt like it was more respectful to let the professionals do it.
Robinson: I understand that you have a coffee brand.
Child: Yeah, we do. Reacher’s famous for liking his coffee, and that was about the only thing we could merchandise for a guy who owns nothing. We were approached by a coffee roaster, and we did a deal. Jack Reacher coffee is for sale worldwide online.
Robinson: So you got the coffee, the books, the movies, the band and now Jack Reacher will be a TV series on Amazon.
Child: Yes. We switched away from the feature film world to streaming television. We plan to reboot it with Amazon starting pretty soon I hope.
Robinson: Do you know who will play Jack Reacher yet?
Child: We don’t. That’s the next big decision, and obviously it will be a crucial decision in light of the movies. The casting was never thoroughly approved of among the readers in the feature films, so we’re going to be very careful this time.
Robinson: With all the irons in the fire, what would you say are your biggest pressures?
Child: Deadlines always. Not so much the books because it’s the primary function. I’ve never run into too much stress with that, but it’s everything else. It’s the promotion, endless interviews reading books for blurbs. Everyday has 10 things that have to be done. I’m probably a bad subject for this article because I don’t do anything to mitigate pressure. I don’t look after myself in any way. Thinking about it deeply from my point of view, it is a kind of toxic masculinity. To admit weakness or anything like that. It’s unthinkable. I grew up with the catch phrase which was, “I’m not afraid of stress; stress is afraid of me.” It’s not very mindful or certainly any part of this modern wellness thing. I’m aware deep down I’m reacting against my own interests. But it’s part of being a man of my age. You can never admit anything like that.
Robinson: Do you think that works for you? In a way, it sounds like that is a form of resilience because you consciously have that mindset.
Child: Yeah, I very much do. I imagine other people might disagree. It’s both selfish and aggressive in that I won’t be beaten, certainly not by something like stress or overwork.
Robinson: So you do have a mindful approach to this. You have an intentionality about it. Do you feel like your life is pretty balanced?
Child: I find that to be almost a circular question. Part of being masculine in my generation is you just knew that you’d go to college and work really hard the rest of your life. So to what extent is work different from life? In a lot of ways life is work. Therefore, the balance thing is almost an empty question. What else am I supposed to be doing other than work? So in a lot of ways the balance thing is a non-question. You’re going to work so you just get on with it. The idea that you have these other activities that you should be balancing doesn’t really come into it.
Robinson: A lot of people are talking about work/life integration instead of work/life balance. Work is where some people have their significant relationships, friends and social connections. Does that resonate?
Child: Yeah it does. Looking back, I would say you generate almost all your friends and your ongoing relationships through the job. I don’t have any friends who are not from those worlds.
Robinson: You’ve written so many books. Do you still love writing as much as you used to?
Child: That’s part of the fascination of it for me. On the one hand, it’s an absolute joy and pleasure. When you’re making up a story and it’s going well–which it is most of the time–and it’s sometimes unbelievable that you get paid for that. On the other hand, there is the fact that it’s a job and career. At a certain level if you get as far as I’ve been lucky enough to do, you’ve go a lot of people depending on it: publishers, the book trade, agents and lawyers. So it’s a very real career–a real job with multiple people planning their bottom line that year. You got to be 100% aware of that and 100% blind to it so that the joy and fun continue. You don’t want to be sitting there writing aware of the stakes. I think that’s the main trick to me.
Robinson: Of all the contributions you’ve made, what are you most proud of?
Child: I’d have to go to family for that. My daughter, I think, has brought me the most happiness. I’ll be leaving behind a number of books that will quickly go out of print and be forgotten. But I’m also leaving a human being who will endure and carry forward her values into the future which is the thing I’m most proud of.
Robinson: Is there any wisdom you want to share, based on your experience, with people in today’s workplace?
Child: That’s a tough one. I’ve been successful in one narrow field, but I think overall if it’s a question of what would I tell my younger self, I think I would say, “Trust your gut a little bit more than I did.” I can pick out a couple of times when I should have done something differently, but because of conventional pressures or advice I didn’t. None of them were particularly fatal or disruptive, but I can see afterward I should have trusted my gut. You know we live in a data-automated age where everything is researched to the nth degree, but there’s still plenty of room for those gut decisions which can be superior to all that. Data is great and research is great but at some point you must make a decision on it. Your subconscious decisions betray an analysis of that information that is made more sophisticated than the conscious mind.
Robinson: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Thrive.com?
Child: Sometimes I wonder where all this wellness stuff came from. I think it is possibly explained that people of our age are going through issues with their elderly parents. You see these decrepit old people and think, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to get like that.” And that spurns this wellness mania amongst the second generation. they’re trying to avoid that fate. But my approach has always been different. I don’t want to get that old in the first place. I’d rather burn out and have fun at a younger age. My attitude to wellness is to avoid it rather than to indulge it.
Robinson: Well, that’s a refreshing approach. You’re saying there are different ways to live fully.
Child: Yes, exactly. My internal motto has always been, “I’ll have more fun in 60 years than you’ll have in 90,” and that’s how I’ve lived. Now I’m over 60 and living on borrowed time.
Robinson: When you’re on vacation, do you work or do you take time off?
Child: I have a writing season where I write every day until the book is done. That’s usually six or seven months of the year. Vacation comes after that, and I never, ever work on vacation. I also never work on a day when I’ve got something else to do because I have a mental block where if I know I’ve got to finish at a particular time, the day is useless because I’m always feeling it’s not worth getting into that now because I’m going to have to stop. It handicaps me. I’m not one of these guys that works on a plane or in the airport. I need to have a completely dedicated day in the office to get anything done of quality.
Robinson: It sounds like you’ve got good boundaries between work and play. When you’re on vacation, you take that time to relax and have fun. One last question. Who are some of your favorite writers?
Child: Oh, too many to mention. All my peers and contemporaries. I like to catch up with what they’re thinking and doing and also a completely random selection. When I was a kid, of course there was no Internet or structure for recommendations, none of these algorithm that if you like this you’ll like that. Every discovery was to some extent random. And I try to replicate that whenever possible. For instance, when I do go on vacation, I forget that I’m in the business and try to look at everything just as a normal consumer, so I will choose books randomly based on how they look, how they feel just to get the filter out of my bubble.
Robinson: I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me, Lee.
Child: It’s a real pleasure.