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'I've got nothing bad to say about Tom Cruise, he's a terrific guy, but readers didn't like him as Jack Reacher ... and my loyalty is first and foremost to my readers'

With his latest hit, Past Tense, on the shelves, bestselling thriller writer Lee Child talks to Hannah Stephenson about Hollywood royalty and why, unlike Trump, Brexit is forever

Action hero: Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
Action hero: Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
Lee Child

Lee Child's books are not made to be read slowly. Fans of his action hero Jack Reacher devour his addictive page-turners in hours, rather than days. "It takes me months to write them - and then I hope people are going to read them in one day," the Coventry-born author observes.

In fact, no sooner had his 23rd thriller, Past Tense, hit the bookstands, than it was top of the bestseller list by a huge margin.

As one of the world's most successful crime writers, with a book sold every nine seconds, the former TV director, whose real name is Jim Grant, says that sometimes his world seems surreal.

Today, looking across the skyline from the 15th floor of a central London hotel, Child (64), dressed head to foot in black - jeans, T-shirt and jacket - seems a pretty unassuming character for somebody who has amassed a multi-million-pound fortune.

He lives in a huge Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park and also has a farm in east Sussex, a collection of high-priced cars, including a vintage Bentley, and more than enough money to fund a lavish lifestyle.

"I sort of have a glamorous life," he says, slightly embarrassed. "If I have to go somewhere, I'll go on a private plane. But I use money for convenience, rather than anything else."

He counts Hollywood star Tom Cruise, who has played his action hero ex-military policeman Jack Reacher in two movie adaptations, among his friends - even though he recently announced that Cruise wouldn't be returning to the role, as he's too small physically compared with the character in his books (Reacher is 6ft 5ins with "hands like dinner plates").

"We are all in business to serve the audience. Although Cruise is a lovely man and a great actor, the readers felt that he's not physically right for Reacher. Reacher is a big, intimidating man and not particularly good-looking."

Child is rebooting Reacher for TV, to create a new streaming show with a new actor.

"The whole landscape has changed. Now, TV and Netflix is the way to go. We want to do long bingeing seasons, which are streamed, much more character-based, with much more time and space to tell the story.

"I've got nothing bad to say about Tom Cruise. He's a terrific guy and a pleasure to know, but readers didn't like him as Reacher. My loyalty is first and foremost to my readers."

Child is quick to defend his superstar friend, whose links with Scientology have caused controversy over the years.

"He's never mentioned Scientology to me. He's just a guy. We hang out. We were here a few years ago when I was promoting a book and he was in London making a movie. He heard I was passing through and called me. He said he'd been speaking to David Beckham and that we should go and see the Manchester derby.

"I said, 'That's 200 miles away, how are we going to get there?' He said, 'We'll go in my helicopter'. That's the sort of fun you have with him. It's completely surreal."

When Past Tense was launched in New York, Child found himself being interviewed by former US president Bill Clinton, who's a fan of his books. He also met Barack Obama, whom he backed with donations when he first went into politics.

"He was a very honest politician. He said, 'I haven't read your books, because I don't have time'. You would imagine a lesser politician would fudge it and pretend."

They've kept in touch a little, he says, but he hasn't seen him since the end of his presidency.

Has Donald Trump made contact?

"No, thank God. I doubt if he reads. If I got invited to the White House, I'd say no thank you to Trump."

Child has retained sole British citizenship, although he's lived in New York for 20 years. His wife, Jane, a New Yorker - with whom he has a grown-up daughter, Ruth - much prefers England, he says. When Trump became President, Child considered moving back to the UK.

"Trump is an embarrassment and a disaster and a stain on American history," he says. "I was tempted to move back and then, sadly, Britain voted for Brexit the same year, I think from the same motives - inchoate anger and resentment about something.

"We will get through Trump, as he's time-limited. He can only do a maximum of eight years - hopefully it will only be four years. What we won't get rid of in America is that core of his support. We have to live with the knowledge that 35% of the population is enthusiastic about him.

"The Brexit situation is different, in that we won't get rid of it. Once it's happened, it's happened."

Child only started writing at the age of 40, after being made redundant from Granada TV after an 18-year career. It's become his tradition to start each book on September 1 and he's usually finished by March.

In the latest novel, Reacher is on a quest into his father's past, which culminates in a nail-biting, deadly, cat-and-mouse scenario in the woods, involving night goggles and bows and arrows.

Child doesn't plan his storylines, just attempts to write 1,500 words a day and makes it up as he goes along. He doesn't know the start, middle, or end, of each book as he's writing it.

"I do it that way, because I think it comes out better. If you had a plan, you would be strait-jacketed and deny yourself the opportunity of going with the flow. It's a high-wire act when I'm doing it, but it's better in the end."

He recalls the days when, like many commercial fiction writers, he was the butt of jokes among literary snobs.

"I wasn't reviewed in certain publications. First of all, you're ignored, then you're sneered at and then they get on board.

"Would 100 million people read something that's not good? To get that level of success, you have to be a solid craftsman."

He used to think he'd kill Reacher off at some point, but not any more.

"People love him and it would be gratuitously cruel if he actually died."

Child admits he has been considering when to retire, though.

"I'm not a workaholic. I believe people should work hard while they're working and then enjoy retirement. It's also on my mind that, in any kind of entertainment, you do not want to be the embarrassing guy that sticks around one season too long.

"I'd much rather that people remember the books as great, rather than remembering a couple of bad ones at the end. You've got to pick your time."

Past Tense by Lee Child is published by Bantam, price £20

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