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Meeting Lee Child

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ShortList's Phil Hilton shares his experience of meeting Lee Child, best-selling author and devoted father to Jack Reacher.

So Lee Child is about to speak to 300 hundred of his fans. It’s an on-stage question and answer session and part of his British promotional tour for the 17th Jack Reacher novel. There will be someone up on stage with Lee in the Tyneside Cinema, someone who’s job it is to pose the one big question.

Everyone wants to know how the deeply 5’8 actor came to play entirely 6’5 Jack Reacher. Everyone wants to know what Lee Child – himself 6’5 - thinks. Everyone. It’s awkward. For years there was speculation about who would play this monumental, lone figure. In offices and homes around the world people would suggest Liam Neesom, or Hugh Jackman or Alexander Skarsgård. Tall actors, with height.

When Cruise was announced the internet was virtually broken by the weight of Reacher fans – baffled, disappointed, outraged or amused. So here in Newcastle finally, is the man and his people and the air is filled with Cruise and hight-related thoughts. Next to him is the man who’s task it is to make sure he doesn’t duck the issue. Awkwardly that man is me.

Three points: I have never done an on-stage interview before. I have never had to deal with a single emotional debate. I am 5’8 –like the actor Tom Cruise.

We walk up and the applause for Lee is deafening. I’m holding a now much-folded piece of paper containing 30 questions. (A Q and A novice, I fear the tricky pause)

I know I have to deal with the Cruise matter. I ask about Lee’s childhood. He is open and fascinating about his early life in Birmingham. I’m building to Cruise – give me time.

I ask about Lee’s life working behind the scenes in television. He is brilliant on this and reveals that he once had an indoor picnic with Larry Olivier!

“What about the really short Tom Cruise?” I can hear the audience thinking.

I move on to influences (Chuck Berry!), I tackle Lee’s redundancy aged 40– he was a battling shop steward!

His answers are complex and intriguing, he’s a natural raconteur. Also an inspiring, strong figure who’s unafraid of a fight. How can I break his flow? How will his mood change if I bring up the average-height, actor and Scientologist? He’s 6’5. I’m 5’8.

I throw him a question about the latest book – A Wanted Man. “It’s great I’ve read it” I tell the audience. They seem unmoved. Lee describes it perfectly, and builds excitement without compromising the plot.

I look at the borrowed watch clasped in my hand. My time it is up, the interview is over. Finished. I’ve failed. I have 27 or so unasked questions in my hand. Some of them about the new film…

Roving mics are ready for the audience’s own queries.

A man in the fifth row simply says, “Tom CRUISE?” His voice rises on the word “Cruise?” to convey his astonishment. Everyone laughs. This man, this row-five hero, has lanced of our actor-shaped boil.

Lee takes the question and deals with it head on, with charm and humour and sincere reassurances – it’s odd for a few minutes, he says, and then Cruise is Reacher and the film is good. He finally reminds us, “Tom Cruise will definitely not come to your house at night and steal your books.”

He and I leave the stage. The audience applauds a gripping performance from the tall, charismatic writer.

I remain 5’8.

The Lee Child event for his latest novel A Wanted Man was organised by New Writing North.

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