Are you having a good time? It’s the most important question for Lee Child, creator of the ever-popular Jack Reacher novels, film and TV series. He may get some answers this month as he e-meets his audience in the Suffolk Libraries Online Book Festival

When bestselling author Lee Child first met movie star Tom Cruise for dinner, Jack Reacher had just been released. Tom had scored another success as the title character in the film based on Lee's 2005 novel, One Shot. They should have had plenty to talk about, but the two struggled to strike up a conversation.

‘We were in this bizarre situation, constantly asking each other questions without answering them,’ says Lee. ‘I was thinking one day I might like to write about an actor, so I wanted the inside juice on Tom’s life. But because he’s an actor, he was thinking one day he might have to play a writer, so he wanted to know about my life.’

Eventually they fell into a rhythm of taking it in turns to ask each other questions. They were both anticipating their next project, even as they were basking in this latest success. ‘That’s how we live – we have to inhabit other characters. A writer lives and thrives on other people’s stories, other people’s experiences,’ says Lee. ‘Whoever I’m talking to, I’m fascinated by them.’

He’s certainly been attentive in gathering material. His 28 Reacher novels, which track the peripatetic former military police officer as he exacts revenge in various perilous situations, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. A second movie followed, and season two of the TV Reacher series, starring Alan Ritchson, has just aired.

Lee is much in demand, but admits he finds it frustrating to be the subject of interviews or events. ‘I’m constantly having to talk about myself, but what I’m really thinking is “I’d like to hear about you, I want to know about your life”.’

We met in the foyer of Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair, where Lee was staying for a couple of nights during his promotional tour for the latest season of Reacher on TV. He’d made time to speak to me after completing 12 interviews in the morning and before being driven to another hotel for a further 12 interviews that afternoon. Somehow he'd squeezed in lunch. The timetable was to be repeated the next day.

‘We’re trying to cram everything in,’ he says. ‘I thought it was going to be a fairly relaxed visit to London for a couple of lunches and a couple of dinners, but I’m working constantly every day.’

Nevertheless he is a charming, generous and focused interviewee, fascinating to listen to as he eloquently describes his career, his love of reading and the writing process. He’ll be sharing something of this during the Suffolk Libraries Online Festival this month, to which he was invited by fellow author Anthony Horowitz. Not that it was a hard sell.

‘What does he not do, that guy? I thought, “you wrote Foyle’s War, pal, I’ll do anything you want me to do!” I certainly want to support Suffolk Libraries. They have a good reputation and are very connected with the community in a lot of ways.

‘I’m intensely aware how important libraries are. If you ask any writer, they’re going to tell you the same thing, that fundamentally their entire life is enabled and even, to some extent, created by libraries. And that’s certainly true of me, so I’m always anxious to support them, but it’s fun for me to be associated with other talented people.’

Great British Life: Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. (Image: archive)

Lee’s referring to the other authors on the programme; historian Tracy Borman and crime novelist Cara Hunter, as well as Horowitz. ‘There are three great writers doing this thing.’

And though the event takes place online, there is some consolation for Lee. He doesn’t have to drive all the way to East Anglia, for one thing. Although he's visited to watch his beloved Aston Villa at Portman Road, and has family connections with Aldeburgh, he views this region as England’s equivalent of the American mid-west. ‘Going anywhere in Britain is pretty quick, down the spine of the country, but you’re driving for hours through East Anglia.’

Also, by being online, Lee can see inside the homes of the members of the audience. ‘I’m always looking at what's on their bookshelf, you know? What is their decor like? I find that fascinating.’

Originally from Coventry, Lee has lived in the USA since 1997 when he moved there after being made redundant from his job at Granada TV. Angry, and determined to prove his former employers wrong, he set about dissecting bestselling novels to establish how he could make his fortune writing thrillers.

‘It's because I come from Birmingham, a pragmatic artisan city, where the whole point was to make something useful,’ he says. ‘The problem with writing is that people are regarded as mysterious and artistic and so on. But I wanted to make a living. Then you've got to write something that people are going to enjoy.’

Because he worked in television, people assume he had a headstart as a writer, but he insists that's not the case. ‘They’re such different media. But the one thing you can transfer from television is that it’s not about you, it’s about the audience – are they having a good time?

‘If people buy my books they know what they are going to get. I think that’s really important. Predictability is necessary. If you go to Yankee Stadium, you know you're going to see baseball. You’re not wondering if it will be basketball today or rugby. That’s very important in consumer choice.’

Lee’s books draw in people who don’t usually consider themselves readers, he says, who may only pick up a book once a year, on holiday perhaps. So he mustn’t disappoint them or they may never read a book again.

And he’s annoyed by people underplaying his achievement. The idea that writers of popular fiction ‘just crank it out. It's a formula. That was always dumb,’ he says. ‘It's extremely difficult. The easy thing is to write a book that will appeal to 3,000 readers; you'll always find 3,000 people who will like anything. But to write a book that appeals to 3 million people is actually very difficult and it's far more of a responsibility.’

The wealth of Lee’s insight and experience is now held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. They asked to hold his archive and he supplied 50 boxes of notes, letters and contracts about five years ago.

‘It was so disorganised,’ he says. ‘There were birthday cards for my daughter and mail order forms for T-shirts – they were all thrown in there. But I had it shipped [to the UEA] and they sorted it. It’s a curiosity in that it is illustrative of one person’s career and everything is on paper. There are typed letters with my handwritten scribblings in the corner. We won’t have things like that in the future with everything being digital.’

Great British Life: Lee Child's new book. Lee Child's new book. (Image: Penguin Random House)

He hopes that the material will be useful, and that it will be testament to the progression of his career. ‘They think that I was this instant superstar, this instant bestseller. But it was seven or eight books before anybody had ever heard of me.’

This year, though, Lee has officially retired. After four books in which he collaborated with his younger brother, Andrew, he has now stepped away from Reacher’s story. Andrew Child will release his first solely authored book in the autumn.

Will we see any changes? Well, in one aspect; Lee has tasked Andrew with ‘dragging Reacher a little bit into the future’. But the reader essentially doesn’t want change, he says. ‘The cliché is like putting on a favourite sweater. The reader feels comfort from the predictability, the familiarity.’ And for Lee there is now another stage of his life to explore.

‘I remember when I was starting primary school, my grandfather was retiring. I didn't know what that word meant. So I asked my mother and she said “he’s just going to stay home now and never do anything”. I was starting at school and struggling with reading and writing and arithmetic and I thought, that sounds pretty good.

‘I think retirement is a big part of your life. You go to school for a bit, then you work for a very long time, then you retire; it's a meaningful part of your life. And I'm totally looking forward to it.’ He says he’s going to spend more time reading...

Suffolk Libraries Online Book Festival, February 23-25

How to join the festival

Suffolk Libraries Online Book Festival offers live online interviews with bestselling authors Lee Child, Tracy Borman, Cara Hunter and Anthony Horowitz, about their careers and latest work. The festival raises funds to support the vital work Suffolk Libraries does for the community.

Tickets are £7. The live online event will not be recorded.

Friday, February 23, 7pm: Lee Child and the latest Jack Reacher book, The Secret.

Saturday, February 24, 7pm: Tracy Borman and Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Changed History.

Sunday, February 25, 2pm: Cara Hunter and her latest murder-mystery, Murder in the Family.

Sunday, February 25, 7pm: Anthony Horowitz and his upcoming thriller, Close to Death.

Suffolk Libraries Online Book Festival, February 23-25