Lee Child is the author behind Jack Reacher, America's favorite tough guy. And after 20 novels and one Tom Cruise movie, Child knows a thing or two about best-sellers. But what about worst sellers? We've invited him to play a game called "I know I sold at least one copy ... unless Mom lied?" Three questions about books that sold really, really badly.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we like to ask famous people about obscure things. It's called Not My Job. So the story is that Lee Child had just been fired and he was angry, so he sat down to write a novel about an immensely strong and resourceful hero who responded to insults with his fists. Twenty novels and one Tom Cruise movie later, Jack Reacher is America's favorite tough guy. His creator is one of the countries best-selling authors. Lee Child, welcome to WAIT WAIT …DON’T TELL ME.
LEE CHILD: Thank you so much. It's great to be there.
SAGAL: It's great to have you. So first thing's first - is that origin story of Jack Reacher true?
CHILD: It is basically true. I had a job in British television that I absolutely loved. I loved that job. I was there 18 years, and no doubt I would still be there except one day my boss said something to me that made it just impossible for me to continue. He said you're fired.
SAGAL: Oh, yeah.
SAGAL: That is a difference in artistic vision, isn't it?
CHILD: Yeah, there was a basic incompatibility there. And I was 39 years old, very nearly 40. And of course, being European, my first instinct was to retire. But...
CHILD: Being 40, it was a little too soon. I couldn't bridge that gap. So I thought all right, what shall I do now? And I thought you know what? I'll write a book. I've read some. How hard can it be?
SAGAL: And is it true that Jack Reacher came to you as kind of a creature of your own anger at that time?
CHILD: Yeah, very much so. You know, and also he had a parallel story that he was let go from the U.S. Army during that downsizing in the 1990s.
CHILD: And so he had the same issue that I had - what are you going to do now? And he's just a very happy wanderer, except by some amazing coincidence, once a year he runs into some terrible trouble, and there's a book that comes out of it.
SAGAL: Well, that's - there's a couple things I want to ask about Jack Reacher because I have become somewhat addicted myself. And first of all, can you explain - because I have my theory - can you explain, though, why he is so appealing to so many readers?
CHILD: Because he lives in a fictional universe where he can do whatever he wants. But also, seriously, he does the right thing. And I think everybody wants to do the right thing. The problem is we can't most of the time.
SAGAL: Right, although in his case, the right thing often includes beating bad guys to death with his enormous hands.
CHILD: Yeah, he sort of skips to the conclusion quite a lot. The trial phase is usually pretty brief, and he proceeds directly to the punishment phase.
SAGAL: He does do that quite well. Having not engaged in horrible fist or gunfights myself, I can still say that the fights seem very realistic. How do you find out about all that brutal stuff?
CHILD: It's all based on memory from when I was about 9 years old.
CHILD: That's who I was - I was Jack Reacher when I was 9 years old. I was a huge kid. I lived in a rough area, and my parents were very aspirational. They wanted me to do well in school, and that puts a target on your back. So every day, twice, I would face all these people that were - that thought I was too big for my boots and wanted to prove a point, and I loved it. I loved every second of it. It was a big part of my day.
SAGAL: So you're telling me that when I read the next "Jack Reacher" book, and Jack Reacher is beating the hell out of some terrible drug dealer or kidnapper, that's really you beating the tar out of another 9-year-old?
CHILD: That was two 9-year-olds scrapping in - behind the bicycle shed at school, sure.
ADAM BURKE: So when you were 9, what did you do with the bodies?
SAGAL: Now, one of the things - I read this about you, I couldn't believe it, which is that every September, you sit down at your desk, and you start a new "Jack Reacher" novel. And you finish it by - when do you usually finish it?
CHILD: I usually finish it - should be March and sometimes April.
SAGAL: Right. And so one a year, and this has been true for 20 years, and I haven't noticed any slip in quality. But do you ever worry that when you sit - come September, you're going to sit down, rub your hands together and say what's Jack up to now, and you got nothing?
CHILD: Everybody worries about that. Yeah, I worry about it. And you know what? If you don't worry about it, then you're doing it wrong. That's something I learned from my fellow writers that everybody thinks the current thing they're doing is the worst ever, the worst thing they've ever done. You know, it's the end. It's all fallen apart. This is terrible.
BURKE: Yeah, I always thought that, and it turned out it was true.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: I have a question, Lee. This is Roxanne. Do you - if he's this sort of wandering enforcer around the country, do you tend to go to the places and hang out for a while to get a feel for the place, or is that sort of a parallel universe?
CHILD: No, I do, but I - I don't do it for the book. You know, I'm not that organized that I think OK, this book is going to be in such-and-such a place, so I'd better go there with a notebook and a camera. What'll happen is I will have been there for some other reason or some other purpose, and it'll kind of lodge in my mind, and I'll remember it. Like in "Make Me," some of it takes place in Lincoln Park, right in Chicago, where my brother lives with his wife.
SAGAL: Yes, I noticed that. I was proud to see...
SAGAL: ...That somebody got killed here. It was a nice thing.
BURKE: Who is the Lincoln Park villain? Is that someone who doesn't use locally sourced grains for their doughnuts? Is that...
BURKE: Well, is this of the...
SAGAL: Reacher noticed he had come to Whole Foods without his own bags.
SAGAL: His fists clenched. I could see it.
SAGAL: Well, Lee Child, I love your books. I'm delighted to talk to you. And today, we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: I Know It Sold At Least One Copy Unless Mom Lied.
SAGAL: Every book you write, as far as I know, has become a New York Times best-seller, so we thought we'd ask you about worst-sellers. Answer three questions about books that sold really, really badly. Answer two of them correctly, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - that's Carl Kasell's best-selling voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is author Lee Child playing for?
KURTIS: Ellen Dodson of Canton, Miss.
SAGAL: Here is your first question. So we went spelunking down into the Amazon rankings, and we found what may be the worst-ranking book sold on the site. Is it A - "The Complete Guide To The New Jersey Turnpike Rest Stops," B - The Joy And Passion Of Toothpick Collecting" or C - "100 Years With A Library Of Congress Subject Headings System."
CHILD: Well, you know, I can only base this on my own personal feelings. Would I buy these books? And I certainly would buy the New Jersey Turnpike book - that sounds really good. And the Library of Congress one, I think there's going to be at least a three or four people who are interested in that kind of thing. And so I would say the toothpick book. I bet the toothpick book has not sold a single copy.
SAGAL: It hasn't because it doesn't exist. Sadly, it was the Library of Congress subject headings book, big book on library science. All right, you have two more chances. Now, as you can imagine, there are a lot of self-help books on the site. Some of them don't sell well. Which of these was the worst-selling self-help book we could find? Is it A - "Castration: Its Advantages And Disadvantages"...
SAGAL: ...B - "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise - Live Life The Gomer Pyle Way"...
SAGAL: ...Or C - "Feel The Nausea And Eat It Anyway."
CHILD: That's got to be...
SAGAL: I should say, by the way, that only one of these really exists.
SAGAL: The other two were made up.
CHILD: I'm going to say the only one that really exists is the castration book. And therefore, that is not only the worst-seller but the bestseller, too.
SAGAL: You're right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: It is, in fact, "Castration: Its Advantages And Disadvantages." According to the author, quote, "the simple 15-minute surgery gives a whopping 13 and a half years of average life expectancy increase, cures prostate cancer and improves the body's immune system functioning.
CHILD: You know what? I'm not going to try it.
SAGAL: All right, this is exciting. It's exciting, so Lee, if you get this one right you win. Now, do-it-yourself books are always a big seller, except for this one. Which of these is ranked 536,000th on Amazon? Is it A - "Optometrist Schmoptometrist - Your Guide To Home Eye Surgery"...
SAGAL: ...B - "Fancy Coffins To Make Yourself"...
SAGAL: Or C - "De-clutter Your Bookshelf, a 28-Volume Set."
CHILD: Well, I'm going to say whatever the third one is the real one and therefore, obviously...
SAGAL: So that would be "Fancy Coffins To Make Yourself."
CHILD: Yeah because people can make their own coffins. Why not?
SAGAL: That was - you did that just like Jack Reacher without the lethal blows at the end. Yes, it's "Fancy Coffins To Make Yourself."
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Bill, how did Lee Child do on our quiz?
KURTIS: He is Jack Reacher. Two right means you're a winner.
SAGAL: Just like Jack would do it himself.
SAGAL: Lee Child's new book in the "Jack Reacher" series is "Make Me." It's out now. Next year, we'll see the next "Jack Reacher" movie with Tom Cruise as well as another "Jack Reacher" book. Lee Child, thank you so much for the books, and thank you so much for being with us on WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.
CHILD: Thank you. My pleasure.
SAGAL: Fun to talk to you. Bye-bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF "JACK REACHER" FILM)
SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill shows off his potty mouth in our Listener Limerick Challenge game. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
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