Lee Child: Legendary Late Bloomer

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

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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?

Child hit my radar when I met thriller author Diane Capri online. They’re colleagues and Diane wrote a great spinoff of Child’s first book, Killing Floor, called Don’t Know Jack.

I’d seen Child’s books in the supermarket checkout line, so I figured he must be huge.

Wrong author, unfortunately. I’d gotten Lee Child confused with Lincoln Child, another popular thriller writer. I had no idea who Lee was and needed to get it straight before I interviewed Diane.

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 RevisitedThe Jewel in the CrownPrime 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.

And just for giggles, 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.

Sources

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.

Post photo © Sigrid Estrada

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle

Debra:

I am a huge Lee Child fan. So glad you “accidentally” got his book and did this post. Love it!
Michelle recently posted..Technology Makes Everything Possible

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Michelle. I was thrilled to discover he was a late bloomer when I started researching him to interview Diane :) I’ve since read Killing Floor and am really looking forward to the movie!

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khaula mazhar

Nice post, although I haven’t read his book (now I will) it is comforting to know that it is not hopeless if you are nearing forty or any age and that anyone has a chance if they are willing to work for it. I love your blog Debra, I feel better when I come here and read all about late bloomers.

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Debra Eve

Hi Khaula, so sorry, I just rescued this from spam! Don’t know why it ended up there. I need to check more often. Thank you so much for your kind words!

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Catie Rhodes

I loved reading this article. I am older than I look in my pictures. I often feel as though I waited too late to actually do anything with my life–by that I mean anything I can be proud of. That Lee Childs did it (and not when he was twenty-something) is very encouraging.
Catie Rhodes recently posted..The Wicked Stepfather

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Debra Eve

Now I’m curious, Catie, because you do look under 30! Child made it clear in the interviews I read that he would have retired at Granada if he’d been given the chance, and been proud of that work. His story is astonishing, but it truly is never too late.

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Melinda VanLone

Great post Debra! I really hope I get to meet Lee Child someday. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. Kinda like Reacher ;-)

I’d love to pick his brain on the “sat down and wrote a best seller” part. He makes it look so freaking easy!
Melinda VanLone recently posted..Birthday Cake and My Anti-Aging Plan

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Debra Eve

He was in television his whole adult life, so he really knew what made a good story. Plus, Reacher is an ultra-American hero and I think sometimes it takes an outsider who admires the culture to nail that. But yeah, I’d like to know more too. Thanks for stopping by, Melinda!

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Barbara McDowell Whitt

My legend? I danced to the music of a different orchestra – but first I had to hear the music. What did I take with me? My diaries from the 1950s and ’60s. What did I overcome? My frustration with writers’ workshops of the 1990s.

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Debra Eve

That’s so cool, Barbara! Your site is wonderful. At least now, so much information for writers is available online.

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Marcia Richards

Love this post, Debra, and LOVE Lee Child’s books! It is heartening to know so many older adults have successfully changed careers. I don’t know if I have a legend…I spent most of my life as a wife and mother wondering who I really was and though the creative in me peeked it’s head out now and then I didn’t recognize her. It wasn’t until I met my 2nd husband 4 yrs ago that the ‘real me’ felt comfortable enough to come out. That’s when I began writing and living…happily ever after.:)
Marcia Richards recently posted..Indie Author, Elena Aitken – Moms, Books, Writing

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Debra Eve

Lee is definitely an anomoly. But having a house in St. Tropez is nice, but not necessary, to a life well-lived, as yours has been, Marcia!

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August McLaughlin

I met Lee Child at a conference where he was the featured guest. He had a Jack Reacher costume contest—no clue why I didn’t win! ;)

Such a wonderful post, Debra. I’ll have to think more on my personal legend, but I imagine it will have something to do with writing, music and possibly my dog? LOL
August McLaughlin recently posted..Mountain Man Willy’s Untimely Advice

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Debra Eve

Was just commenting to Ginger how many WANAs have met him. That’s pretty amazing. I’m sure the only reason you didn’t win is because you weren’t tall enough :) Thanks for stopping by, August!

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florence fois

Lee Child is not only a man who survived being downsized, he is also a writer who survived the “middle hell” of being a mid-lister for over ten years. It is recently that he is getting the recognition he deserved. I love Tom Cruise so I will adjust my perception … it has to be better than Morelli with light brown hair and yes (i.e. Janet E’s Stephanie Plum) … casting was so bad that no one who loved her books should see the movie … thank you Debra for another great Later post !!
florence fois recently posted..Part II Plot vs. Character-My Guest Throw Down …

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Debra Eve

You’re welcome! I’ve got to check out Janet E, Florence. Almost embarassed to admit I’ve never read her. My aunt has all her books and keep offering to lend them to me. I hope Tom Cruise can pull off Jack Reacher. Lee seems to have a lot of faith in him!

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Jennette Marie Powell

What an inspiring story! I have no idea what mine would be, but it wouldn’t be very legendary. I’ll have to think on that. :) But, being another writer who didn’t exactly hit the ground running under age 30, it’s good to see I’m in some great company!
Jennette Marie Powell recently posted..Last Minute Edits, and Awesome!

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Debra Eve

I think we’ve all got a legend (or maybe myth is the better word) to live, Jennette, even if it doesn’t involve a Jaguar. But you’re definitely in great company!

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Jami Gold

Great post! I got to meet Lee Child two years ago at the RWA conference (I have a picture with him and everything!). He’s a fascinating man to listen to as far as his understanding of his character and Jack’s popularity. He jokes constantly in a way that makes you wonder how much of Jack is based on him, or how much he wishes he was more like Jack. :)

And what a great late bloomer story. That works for me! :)
Jami Gold recently posted..Do Your Stories Match Your Voice?

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Debra Eve

Thanks for stopping by, Jami! I’m curious about Jack’s popularity, too, because in all honesty, he didn’t “grab” me, but I prefer historical genre. They’re both tall (Lee is 6’4″) :)

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Ginger Calem

Wonderful interview and post. I met Lee Child in New York a few years ago and he’s charming and witty and wonderful!

Can’t wait for the movie!
Ginger Calem recently posted..WritersButt Wednesday – Eviction Notice

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Debra Eve

Wow! All these people who’ve met him (August, Jami, and Diane, of course). So glad to hear he’s as nice in person as he comes across in print.

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samantha stacia

I just think you have the best blog on the web girlfriend! All these stories are so inspiring, I know I dont comment often but I wanted you to know while this article made me incredibly jealous it also made me hope it could happen to me! So inspiring!
Thanks for all the work you do!

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Debra Eve

Thanks so much, Samantha. That means so much coming from you!

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Emily Woodhouse

I will read anything that Lee Child writes, anything that Lee Child recommends, and anything that Lee Child might even use as a coaster- he’s just that good. He is a great source of inspiration for the people who’re struggling in their path to success! Thanks Debra for such a great post.
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Debra Eve

That’s a great endorsement, Emily! His unusual success is amazing, but more inspiring is how he reinvented himself after losing a whole career. Thanks for stopping by.

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Francesco

One Shot is the first Lee Child I read, followed by Without Fail. I am happy that the former will hit the big screen.

On an unrelated note, I still wonder how Reacher can still get it on with pretty women even if he is not changing his clothes frequently (and his underwear even more seldom).
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Debra Eve

Hey Francesco, I can’t quite see Reacher sitting around the local laundromat waiting for his skivvies to dry, so he must dipping into Target every few days and paying cash for a new pair. Who knows? I don’t expect Lee Child to enlighten us any time soon! Thanks for stopping by.

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