Lee Child: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale changed me – hopefully for the better’

The Jack Reacher novelist on the joy of Jane Eyre, the first thriller that inspired him, and the transformative power of Margaret Atwood

My earliest reading memory
The first coherent sentence I read was a newspaper headline: “Manchester closes down.” I learned to read aged three, by eavesdropping on my mother going over my older brother’s primary-school lessons, and I practised off the back of my father’s paper at the breakfast table (the Manchester Guardian, as it happened). I knew about shops and factories closing down, but I couldn’t understand a whole city suffering that fate. It turned out to mean that share prices on the Manchester stock exchange had declined the day before.

My favourite book growing up
I remember books, plural, as series, in retrospect all of them orphan fantasies involving independence and agency for children, as antidotes to my own repressed and restricted family situation: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and so on. I also loved Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter books – incomprehensibly, since their world was a million miles from mine.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Technically I was a preteen, aged 11, and it was Anne Frank’s diary. The last line in my edition was: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” In context I found that bitterly ludicrous, and it accelerated my personal transition from a sunny and happy infant to a cynical and disappointed adult.

The writer who changed my mind
Margaret Atwood, with The Handmaid’s Tale. I was 31, married, the father of a daughter, and I thought I had it all figured out. But Atwood laced that narrative with micro-traps for people like me. Time after time I thought my reactions were right on, only to discover a line or a page later I was part of the problem. That book changed me profoundly, hopefully for the better.

The book that made me want to be a writer
The Lonely Silver Rain by John D MacDonald, the 21st and last in the Travis McGee series, but the first I read. An excellent thriller, but at 35, after 32 years of voracious reading, I truly sensed for the very first time what the author was doing, and how, and when, and why … and what an absolute blast it must be to do those things.

The book I came back to
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. As a teenager and into my 30s I found it arch, odd, artificial and generally unsatisfying, but on about my fifth try I suddenly found it wonderful. Now the intimate, through-the-proscenium narration made sense, and I felt the pain and the passion. Only 150 years late, but hey.

The book I reread
I don’t reread much (too anxious for the next great thing) but the leading candidate would be The Last Frontier by Alistair MacLean – at first glance a conventional cold-war pulp thriller, but remarkably astute about character, and very perceptive about the eastern bloc. I read it every 10 years or so, and always find something new and resonant as times change – especially now.

The book I could never read again
Probably The White Rajah by Nicholas Monserrat. Pirates, adventure, a good brother and a bad brother, the first real OMG plot moment I remember. I loved it as a kid, but the baked-in racism and acceptance of colonialism would repel me now.

The book I am currently reading
I read a lot of pre-publication books, and right now it’s Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, out next January. It’s an epic crime-family saga set in India, and it’s magnificent. I’ll try to help it with a cover quote.

My comfort read
Shakespeare generally, often The Tempest or Romeo and Juliet, for the sheer incandescent joy of seeing magic invented before my eyes. I have felt intense euphoria after writing a great line maybe six times in my career – Shakespeare must have felt it six times an hour, or more.

• Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child is published by Bantam Press (£20); to support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

• Andrew Child appears at CrimeFest in Bristol, 12-15 May.

Lee Child

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