No doubt the best thing about becoming a legendary author is writing your own legend.
According to Lee Child’s official biography, he was “fired in 1995 at the age of 40 as a result of corporate restructuring.”
He then spent $6.00 on paper and pencils and wrote an international bestseller.
Now Child commutes between homes Manhattan and St. Tropez. He drives a turbocharged Jaguar, “built in Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant, thirty yards from the hospital in which he was born.”
Sacked at 40, millionaire author within a decade. Does Lee Child have anything to teach Later Bloomers? And how much of his legend is true?
I’d seen Child’s books in the supermarket checkout line, so I figured he must be huge.
Lee Child was born Jim Grant in 1954. He grew up in Birmingham, England and detoured to law school at the University of Sheffield.
At age 23, he joined Granada Television as a Presentation Director, responsible for trailers, commercials, and press releases. During his tenure, Granada produced such British TV classics as Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, and Cracker.
Granada ran their outfit like a family business and Child loved it. But as time passed, they became more corporate. The new management lined their own pockets by cutting costs.
Those cuts included loyal employees and their pensions.
Taking Out The Trash
At age 38, Child made an insane career move. He became shop steward for the now defunct Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians union, an unpaid job on top of his regular one.
Granada wanted to destroy the union and had fired two previous stewards on trumped-up grounds. Why did Child do it?
In his own words:
In the years ’78 through about ’91, thirteen years, [Granada] won probably four hundred Emmys. It was a factory that produced the most marvelous product — and they were vandalizing it, just trashing it from top to bottom. So initially, I was trying to protect the legacy, I guess. And then it was about protecting the actual people who were being just appallingly treated.
But in 1995, right before Child’s 40th birthday, Granada’s new management “restructured” him and hundreds of his coworkers out of their jobs. Child and his family were on holiday when he got the notice.
He had car payments, a mortgage, a daughter just two years from college.
“I don’t want a boss,” Child thought. “What can I do to keep myself in the entertainment world?” He decided to write thrillers. His family supported him. His wife Jane (who’s American) got a job and his daughter Ruth waitressed on weekends.
Did Child really just walk out and buy $6 worth of writing supplies?
Actually, it was £3.99 and he’s still got the pencil:
It was a yellow shorthand pencil, and it started out the regular length, and now it’s this long [spreads fingers a tiny distance]. I’ve still got it.
The gamble paid off.
What’s a Foot Between Heroes?
Child has written sixteen books about one character — Jack Reacher, an ex-military cop who got downsized from the Army.
Reacher is 6’5″ with steely blue eyes and a 50-inch chest. He’s a loner and drifter who wanders into town, dispatches the bad guys, hits the road again. You want him on your side in a fight. He’s a man’s man and ladies’ man.
Child’s personal values also define Reacher:
Anybody who is helpless or oppressed needs standing up for—you shouldn’t pick and choose, based on your own preconceptions.
If Lee Child had been writing in the 1970s, Clint Eastwood would have made the perfect Reacher.
As it turns out, Jack Reacher will finally hit the big screen on December 21 in One Shot, based on Child’s ninth novel and starring—Tom Cruise (see video below)!
These days, Lee Child spends more time in his native England. In 2008, he became a Visiting Professor at this alma mater, University of Sheffield, where he has funded 52 Jack Reacher scholarships, worth £2,000 each.
“I was very happy to help out,” he said. “My generation went to university for free, and I believe in paying things forward.”
What Can Late Bloomers Learn from Lee Child?
“If you’re fired at 40, it’s not all about hurt and betrayal and fear. It’s about opportunity.”
What About You?
If you could write your own legend, what would it say? What tool (like the yellow pencil) would take you there? What did you overcome? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s a two-minute clip that highlights Child’s charm as he defends the studio’s choice of 5’6″ Cruise to play his 6’5″ hero.
Lee Child’s website
Parade Magazine: “My Good Life After Being Fired”
The Mirror UK: “Lee Child”
The Guardian UK: “Students offered scholarships from fictional crimefighter, Jack Reacher”
Robert Bidnoto: “An Interview With Lee Child (Part 2)”
Don’t miss my interview with Lee Child’s colleague Diane Capri here.