With more than 100 million books sold worldwide, translated into over 100 languages and purchased at a current rate of one every nine seconds, Lee Child is one of the most successful crime-fiction writers on Earth. His ex-military-policeman vigilante anti-hero Jack Reacher has “a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and a chest like a suit of NFL armor, and biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue,” despite being played by the somewhat less hefty Tom Cruise in two action thrillers based on the books. Described as “the best desert island reading” in the New York Times, Child’s novels have been instantly topping the NYT bestsellers’ list with each release—he turns out one every year—since 2008.
We caught up with Child over lunch in New York, where the 62-year-old British-born author lives. Dressed in an ordinary T-shirt and chinos, the tall, crisply good-looking former TV executive turned novelist is “doing fine,” he says modestly, with his latest book, Midnight Line [Jack Reacher #22], out in November. Plain-spoken and down-to-earth for a man with an annual eight-figure income and millions of faithful fans, Child confesses that “I’m a fan” of High Times, because he just happens to love smoking pot.
How did you feel when a story in London’s Daily Mail newspaper in 2013 first outed you as a pothead?
I was kind of insulted, because the story said I smoked pot five nights a week. What kind of dope addict am I—do I take the weekend off? It can be two or seven times a week, or whatever. It’s not a regimented thing for me.
How would you characterize your use of marijuana?
I do nothing that I don’t enjoy, and I’ve just always enjoyed weed. The psychological roots are incredibly interesting. From when I was a tiny kid—and I saw the same thing in my daughter—I know that children love spinning around and around until they get dizzy and fall over. Seems to me there is a basic built-in instinct to alter your consciousness. You experiment with this or that until you find something you really like.
For you, it’s weed?
I’ve tried practically everything else. Weed is the thing I really enjoy. It makes me feel really good.
In your first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, your hero says he’s thinking of spending the winter “in a hut on a Jamaica beach. Smoke a pound of grass a week … maybe two pounds.” Is Reacher, an ex–military policeman, a pothead?
Well, Reacher’s problem is that he avoids any kind of commitment or regularity. He has no fixed address, no community, so it would be hard for him to score on a regular basis. But I did that [writing about Reacher’s penchant for weed] to reflect the enormous drug problem within the military. Military drug use is pretty big. Because of the Reacher books, I’ve gotten to know lots of real military policemen. They write to me; they invite me to come visit. I’ve been to a few of the big MP and CID [Criminal Investigation Division] operations, and anecdotally, drugs is what they do. I guess that’s a hangover from Vietnam, where thousands came home addicted to heroin and where weed use was common. I’m trying to make Reacher an exception to that, to make him non-judgmental about drug use. Because I think my whole thing is all about judgment, and I think it’s completely ludicrous to be down on weed while accepting of other things.
So what is your position on marijuana—should it be legalized?
I don’t want it to be legal … I want it to be compulsory.
When did you first smoke pot?
I remember the exact weekend—April 1969, in Birmingham, England. I was 14. A weekend party at a guy’s house—it started Friday night and lasted until Monday morning. Had sex for the first time with two sisters in quick succession. Smoked my first joint. One of the greatest weekends of my life.
In a recent book about you [Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me,” by Andy Martin], you’re at your writing desk, lighting up a pipe and saying: “This is just a maintenance dose. Just a top-up.” What did that mean?
I didn’t need to be sky-high. It was just a question of staying in the zone.
What does smoking marijuana do for you, as a writer?
The word I would always come back to is “acuity.” Back in those early days, I would smoke while I was listening to music. And I found it really makes a huge, perceptible difference: My hearing—or at least my understanding of the music—was much greater. Now, when I’m writing, over the 20 years I’ve been doing it, it’s gotten weirder and weirder because, the bigger you get as a popular writer, the more other things you have to do—the more on your mind, with all these things buzzing around in your head. I find the weed just increases my focus tremendously: I can eliminate all the irrelevancies, and I’m right there in the zone. I’m there, I’m living it, and all the background noise is suppressed.
Many musicians say that smoking pot helps inspire them, spurs creativity. Does cannabis do that for you as a writer?
All writers secretly want to be musicians. There’s a certain similarity between the two art forms: You start somewhere, you travel to a destination, and you finish somewhere. I can totally understand how a jazz musician will spontaneously generate a great improvised phrase. I do that as well. A sentence or a combination of words will pop into my head—which I would not have thought of otherwise, I can guarantee that. And maybe three times out of 10, you’ll look at it the next day and say, “What was I thinking?” But seven times out of 10, it’s pretty damn good.
How did you score weed when you were growing up in the UK in the 1960s?
Britain was a little behind the curve compared to the US. London was always the center of things, but even just an hour away, towns were really isolated and provincial. I was never really aware of weed being around until 1969. There was always some older guy who had some, or somebody’s big brother—limited quantities, expensive enough that you had to make a choice: Would you smoke or drink? And I’m kind of grateful for that, to be honest. So many other people became mindless boozers. I couldn’t afford that. Would you buy a bottle of cider, or were you going to score a joint?
Were your parents afraid you’d become a drinker?
My parents were obsessed with the idea that I might drink and ruin my life. I’d be going out, and they’d say, “Don’t drink!” I could look them in the eye and say, “I won’t drink,” and mean it absolutely truthfully. And they were utterly unaware of any drugs or weed. So were the cops—it was totally under the radar. This was in Birmingham, England’s second city—a manufacturing town, sort of like Detroit.
Where did the pot come from?
Birmingham had a lot of immigration, especially from the West Indies. Jamaican people lived in my neighborhood, and they were heavily into weed as part of their culture and religion. I imagine that’s where we got ours. Busts were aimed mainly at the Jamaicans, which you have to say was heavily racist and not necessarily a matter of public health.
At what point did you try other drugs?
The warnings were that weed was bad for you, and it would lead to other things. Well, it wasn’t bad for you—it was great. Secondly, it did lead to other things, if you wanted, but not if you didn’t. Because I was enjoying it, I thought, “Yeah, this is really great, so maybe the other things are really great, too.” The more modern stuff like Ecstasy, I’ve never tried—that’s not my generation. But a little coke, smoking and sniffing a little heroin … I’ve never injected heroin.
You liked opiates?
I’ve never tried pure opium. In a way, I would really like to, and in a way, I wouldn’t. I do understand that opiates are incredibly addictive, and I am basically an addictive person, so I wouldn’t want to get into something I couldn’t get out of.
Especially at this point in your career.
I could probably get away with it now—I do a lot less public stuff than I used to. One of the conundrums of being a writer is that you promote like crazy so eventually you can stop doing that. Other writers, like Stephen King, John Grisham—they don’t do much promoting at all, because they don’t need to. So we’re all desperately trying to work our way to that situation. I’m about there now, so I only do what I feel like doing, and I could probably get away with being unavailable for a few weeks at a time … although the book has got to be written every year.
When you’re at your desk, how do you light up?
The irony of it is that, after doing this for 48 years, I’m a hopeless joint-roller. People used to do that for me. I smoke weed neat out of a pipe. Finding the perfect pipe is an ongoing challenge. For a long time, my favorite was made of clear glass. It had a little mesh screen that immediately clogged up with tar, so I ditched the screen and that was great—and then I dropped it and broke it. So now I have a variety of little smoking pipes.
You buy them at a head shop?
No, a convenience store a few blocks away. I’m always on the lookout for a good pipe, but they’re hard to find. I don’t know how bongs work. I’ve never used one.
Do you vaporize?
No, I’m a cigarette smoker, so I have no problem with smoke. I smoke a pack a day. Filtered Camel Blue, allegedly mild. I’ve been smoking since I was 11 in 1965, when everyone smoked.
How are you supplied with cannabis?
I have a guy here in town. He wears one of those fisherman’s vests with numerous pockets. He comes over and unveils bags of this and bags of that—one out of every pocket. I find that extremely civilized. The other thing I do is, I have a house in Wyoming, which is right on the border with Colorado. I turn one way and buy cigarettes at Wyoming prices, which are $10 a pack cheaper than in New York. That about pays for the Wyoming house. If I turn the other way, I’m in Colorado, so I go down to Fort Collins, and there are seven or eight boutiques there where you can get whatever you want.
What’s that like?
I did that for the first time last fall, and I have to say what an amazing thing that is to walk into a store and buy weed legally and walk out with it in your hand. It feels like progress to me.
Do have a special variety that you prefer?
I’m not hugely into that wine-tasting kind of shit where they publish menus of incredibly detailed descriptions. I find that pretentious and silly. I’m fairly agnostic about it—it either works or it doesn’t. But I will always buy an eighth of the strongest thing available, Super Skunk or something, and honestly it feels normal to me.
What’s your consumption level?
I will buy a couple of half-ounces of my dealer’s standard everyday house weed, just to have on hand. Then he has what he calls “exotics.” I’ll listen to his spiel about “This is a great body high” and “This is a great head high,” and I’ll say, “Yeah, gimme this, gimme that.” I’ll usually spend $800 to a grand, and he leaves. That gives me a couple of ounces, and I’m good to go for a month or so.
How about when traveling?
Depends on where I’m going, and how. It’s not a physical addiction—I’m not going to fall apart if I go a week without.
What does your wife think about it?
We enjoy it together, always have. When we had a kid, we both took a break, and she never really came back to it—although the other day, we shared a pipe.
How do you feel about your children smoking pot?
We have one daughter. At some point, we decided to have “the talk.” We thought about what to say, because it was stupid to be repressive, to have hundreds of rules. So we said, “There are no rules except ‘No unprotected sex,’ ‘No intravenous drugs’ and ‘No religious cults.’” She thought about it and said, “Does that mean I can smoke weed?” We said, “Yeah.” And so she’s been a solid consumer of weed since her college days. For a time, she would supply me, or I would supply her—whoever had the best connection. She’s 37 now.
What are you working on now?
Checking the copy edits on Midnight Line. I’ve got two more books under contract, and then I’m going to retire. I’ll quit before I’m 65. Get out a year too early, not a year too late.
Then what will you do?
I’ve got a couple of musician friends who want me to write songs for them. Maybe that’ll be my second career.