Lee Child's Introduction to Nothing to Lose
The Mysterious Bookshop has been privileged to begin publishing the complete Jack Reacher series in elegant bindings of marbled boards and leather spines. Limited to only one hundred numbered copies ($150) and twenty-six lettered copies ($275), each volume is signed by the author and features a new introduction, written especially and exclusively for these books. These prefatory essays provide extraordinary insight and context for the books. Here is the most recent example, produced for Nothing to Lose. For more about the series, click here.
I lived in the south of France for most of 2006, and in March of that year bought a fourteenth-century row house to serve as my office, in the Arab quarter of Lorgues, our local town. It was a tumbledown place - in fact part of it had tumbled down hundreds of years earlier, creating an interior courtyard, which I quite liked. The house was arrayed over three narrow floors, linked by a winding stair. There was a small roof terrace, from which the previous owner had jumped to his death just weeks before. He was a graphic designer, depressed by the onset of Parkinson’s disease, which destroyed his ability to work. I bought the place from his widow, and brought in a desk and a chair, and on the first of September I sat down to start my twelfth book.
As always I had no specific plot in mind, but the background to the story had been building for more than three years. The U.S. military had moved into Iraq and Afghanistan in great numbers in March 2003. Quickly their duty settled down to extreme danger when out on patrol, and a measure of boredom and claustrophobia when holed up inside their fortified posts. They passed their downtime watching DVDs and playing video games, and when those attractions were exhausted, they read books, including mine. The posts and bases all had Internet connections, and they took to e-mailing authors, including me.
At first their communications were all brusque banter and trash-talking. They liked Reacher, and saw him as one of their own, but a jokey sense of alpha-male rivalry made them competitive. They said, “We could kick his ass!” I would write back in the same spirit and say, “No, he could kick your ass with one hand behind his back! And his head in a bag!” This went on for a couple of years, from Delta Force in Afghanistan, and the Marines in Iraq, and all points in between. But gradually I noticed my most regular correspondents edging slowly and tentatively toward more intimate subjects.
Which interested me because, years earlier and for unconnected reasons, I had followed a research project at the Imperial War Museum in London, where letters home from British World War One soldiers were being analyzed. (We had donated my grandfather’s letters to the archive, and were therefore kept informed.) The scale of mobilization had been so huge there were literally tens of millions of letters. The sample size was unparalleled. One minor and very interesting theme quickly emerged: these were literate people, even the enlisted men. They were the second generation after the 1872 introduction of compulsory education (until the age of fourteen) and their requests for books to be sent out to the trenches revealed a staggering range of interests and capabilities – Greek, Latin, all kinds of novels and history titles and polemics. Back then public education was working, clearly.
But the major theme was psychological. Soldiers found it hard to convey their secret worries. For reasons of peer pressure, they couldn’t communicate sideways; for reasons of command presence, they couldn’t communicate downward through the chain of command; for reasons of protocol, they couldn’t complain upward. They never, ever, revealed their worries to their families back home, especially not to their mothers or younger brothers. There were constant examples (my grandfather among them) of grievously wounded men with limbs blown off writing “Just a scratch, nothing to worry about” letters. There were constant examples of clearly terrified men writing home in a chirpy and confident manner. A lucky few had close friends with whom they could be more open. Those letters were grim.
And those were the kind of e-mails I suddenly started to get from Iraq and Afghanistan. A tipping point had been reached. Soldiers out there felt close to Reacher; then, as readers often do, they assumed an identity between the character and the author; so now they felt an illusory intimacy between themselves and me. I wasn’t their mother or brother. I was a safe harbor, an empty vessel. They felt they could be open with me. I began to receive long, from-the-heart messages. All revealed the same thematic progression. The war was badly run; they were risking life and limb for careless and self-interested politicians; they didn’t know why they were there; they knew the war couldn’t be won. In particular I received a message from an infantry company commander, who argued long and eloquently that duty was a two-way street, and that the civilian leadership in the Bush administration was failing the troops in the field they professed to admire so much.
So this was the background I had in mind. My vague intention was to give public voice to those soldiers. I started in the kind of fictional location I love to create – a pair of towns in Colorado that I named Hope and Despair, on a wandering road long ago bypassed by the Interstate system. I let the story develop from there. Hope was a nice place; Despair wasn’t. Reacher was thrown out of Despair because of archaic vagrancy laws; on his walk back to Hope in the dark he stumbled over a corpse, literally.
Then a serious family emergency brought me back to New York, and I never used the French office again. Years later I went back to sell it, and found it like a time capsule – a newspaper from November 2006 still open on the table where I had last eaten lunch, and so on. A thunderstorm had fried my modem and blown up my computer. The courtyard had been colonized by pigeons. It was a sad place. I couldn’t find a buyer. The locals had no money, and the 2008 crash had dried up second mortgages for Europeans seeking vacation homes. In the end I donated it to my alma mater as a student resource, and took the tax deduction. Better than nothing.
I continued the book back in New York, in a rented penthouse at the top of my building. The family emergency had short-circuited our real estate plans – we didn’t have enough space in the city to both live and work. Progress was slow, distracted as I was. But I felt the story was developing in a way I liked. Eventually I needed Reacher to comment on the issues raised by my military e-mail correspondents. I used the long message from the infantry company commander, word for word, as the basis of a fifteen-line speech. (It’s on page 353 of this edition.) It came out well, and was by definition completely authentic. It distilled Reacher’s dramatic motivations throughout the book. Mixed in along the way was considerable skepticism on Reacher’s part about evangelical religion. I thought that was the component that might attract negative comment. I was wrong.
The book was finished, slightly later than normal, in May 2007. Back then I was still a year ahead, so it waited a year to be published, in May 2008. It went straight to number one on the New York Times list – my first hardcover number one in America. It was number one in the UK too, and the Bad Luck and Trouble paperback was simultaneously number one on both countries’ paperback lists – a quadruple number-one week. By a weird coincidence, the day I found out I was on promotion tour and my hotel room number that night was 1111. All good. On top of the world.
Then the hate mail started. The professional critics had been kind, but some amateurs weren’t. Random House US is singular among all my publishers in not vetting reader mail before sending it on. Every day for months I would get rubber-banded wads of letters. Most called me an unpatriotic pinko communist, because of Reacher’s attitude to the war. Most included page 353, torn out of the book, sometimes shredded, sometimes spat on, several times used as toilet paper. I responded on line as often as I could, calling those correspondents chickenhawks and armchair warriors. I reiterated my tour schedule, inviting them to show up and confront me in person. They never did. Just like they never showed up in any war zone anywhere ever. Bullies and cowards.
I never revealed that the fifteen lines they hated so much came straight from the kind of hero their pathetic “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers purported to lionize. That was a private satisfaction. I remain relatively pleased with the book. It’s probably not my best, but it’s an honest, solid product. The threatened backlash didn’t amount to much. I was carpet-bombed with one-star reviews on Amazon, but they didn’t have much effect. The next book went straight to number one. too, with increased sales, as have all the subsequent titles. It was a tough couple of years, overall, for personal and professional reasons, but ultimately it was just a tempest in a teapot.