Last month I read a surprisingly dark and well-written vampire tale by a new-to-me author, and you may have seen my review of The Truants a few weeks ago. Today I’m thrilled to welcome author Lee Markham to the blog to talk about the book! You guys, what a cool interview! I hope you take the time to read it all (it’s long!). Lee is so interesting, and after reading the answers to my questions, I understand the book a lot more. Not only that, but the publisher is kindly offering THREE FINISHED COPIES of The Truants to any U.S. or Canadian readers, so please read to the end so you can enter this awesome giveaway!
Welcome to the blog, Lee! Let’s start with the basics. Please introduce yourself!
Hello, my name is Lee, and I am a postman! True story. I’ve not always been a postman—I’ve done time (and I use the phrase ‘done time’ for its allusions to jail-time deliberately) in branding and marketing—but the commute, the 24-7 emails, the ‘always on’ lifestyle got pretty tiresome. So, once the book was picked up by the publishers, I took a chance, sacked it all off and took a round as a postman to cover the bills. I’m a lot happier now. It’d been a bumpy road pretty much the entire way up to that point but right here, right now, everything is good.
I understand The Truants is a re-worked version of your novel The Knife. Can you tell us how this transformation took place, and how you came to find The Overlook Press as a publisher? Did the book change at all from its original version?
Sure. The Knife was written a few years ago now and, coming off the back of my work in branding and marketing, I figured that I’d rather try publishing it myself than try to pitch it to agents and publishers (something I’ve always struggled with—I swear it’s much easier to write a damn novel than a 1-page synopsis and cover letter). I decided I’d just get it out there, see if it could find its audience and then take it from there. And I was really fortunate—one early fan of the book was the renowned comic book artist Liam Sharp who shouted far and wide about it (it was in fact Liam who coined the whole “Trainspotting of supernatural prose” thing) and even produced an incredible piece of cover art for it. That really helped it lift off, which in turn encouraged folk beyond friends and family to take a look at it.
From there it snowballed until eventually it landed on the desk of renowned literary agent David Godwin. He called me and said he’d love to help me make things happen and away we went. It wasn’t long before I then found myself sitting in a sun-soaked patio garden in the middle of London with Peter Mayer, who owns Overlook in the US, and Duckworth here in the UK, having to talk him through how I might create a world for this and subsequent stories to exist. I guess I must have somehow muddled my way through that conversation, because Peter made the decision there and then to take it on, and has championed it ever since. It’s been an amazing and humbling journey—kinda weird too as these guys, as far as I can see, are heavyweights in the literary world, and I’m sure The Truants must be pretty off-piste for them—but that’s how I found my way to Overlook.
And yes, there have been some changes to the book from the original version. It’s been slightly re-sequenced—when I returned to it ahead of submitting a proof to Duckworth, I found that some of the sub-chapters were simply in the wrong place. Not in a cock-up way, more in terms if slightly mistimed story beats. I did also write an entirely new chapter (Chapter 7, Sunburn and Deadlight), which both bridged a fairly sudden jump in the timeline and sowed some important seeds for future books in the series.
Your story takes place in a low-income, drug infested part of London. How did you choose this setting, and does it have any special significance?
It was the only setting that really made sense for the initial high-concept idea—the knife with vampire blood on it creating more and more vampires—that’s an idea that would be most convincing in a milieu where knife crime was a real issue. So, a deprived inner-city location was the most logical place to set the story. It is also a setting that I’m very familiar with—whilst working in London I’ve lived, at various times, in Brixton, Stoke Newington, and Clapham, all of which have estates like those featured in the novel. And as a child I spent a bit of time in emergency housing with my family when we lost our home as well. A lot of that stuff is therefore drawn straight out of the ‘write what you know’ toolbox—as is some of the drug abuse/addiction stuff. But it was happenstance that the big-idea overlapped so conveniently with the ‘what I know’ stuff—so I guess I lucked out in that regard. Having said that though, writing a lot of it was incredibly painful, so that luck came with a pretty punishing existential flipside. That’s also probably why the book doesn’t pull any punches or let readers off the hook with that stuff—a lot of it is drawn from actual experience, plenty of it my own, and it isn’t fiction at all—to pull those punches, as far as I’m concerned, would have been to let those kids down.
What authors and vampire stories did you draw inspiration from when you started writing The Truants?
Vampire stories? I can honestly say that none were particularly at the forefront of my mind. I’m not even a particularly big vampire fan—by and large I find them, whilst often entertaining enough, a bit daft. Probably the only pure vampire tale that I’d say might have been a subconscious influence would be Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark. That was very much about making vampires ‘real’—so, essentially human, but burdened with bloodlust, agelessness and social exclusion—but none of the no reflection, turning into bats/smoke/wolves silliness you get with most vampire stuff.
I’d also cite Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as an influence in the sense of having no qualms about taking the bits that worked and dumping the rest. Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort also hovers in the background, in particular the mind-control aspect at work in The Truants—although even there there are significant differences to the mechanics of it. So, if you wanted to find the core DNA of the vampire aspect of the story, that’s probably where you should look.
Having said all that though, the biggest single influence, and a very conscious one, on the book has nothing to do with vampires at all. It’s called As If by Blake Morrison, and it’s his account of the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger, and the subsequent trial of his two 10-year old murderers—it’s a devastating read that says so much about the neglect into which so many of our children are born and subsequently raised, and the consequences of that neglect. That book was my guiding light when I wrote The Truants, and that’s perhaps also why The Truants is a tougher read than some readers are expecting when they go in. It’s not escapism because it is in fact very much about, and intentionally so, this actual world of ours, not an imagined world.
What’s one of your favorite quotes from the book, and why?
You mention in your review “that sections of The Truants bordered on existentialism. It felt more like the author was trying to come to grips with things himself, rather than the characters, and it pulled me out of the story and made me want to skim those parts.” That is an entirely fair cop and I put my hands up to that—in the sense that you’re absolutely right, but not in the sense that I’d want to take those bits out. A funny thing letting it go snapping and snarling out into the world is seeing such polarized responses to it. There are some passionate rejections of it out there—just wholesale NO! responses. Then there are those that love the vampire stuff but can take or leave the existential stuff—and others that think the vampire stuff is just a metaphorical device used to explore the social stuff. Then there are those that get swept up in the existential stuff and everything else is a bonus—that there’s a story for the existential stuff to hang from is way better than just another chin-stroking existentialist tract. There are even a few people that love the whole thing.
As far as I’m concerned I reckon the way to get the most out of it would be to approach it as you would a music album—first time through, some of the tracks really stand out, others less so, some are just flat out ‘meh’—but subsequent listens begin to bring others to the fore and it all starts to change and gel in different ways. I certainly know from messages I’ve had from readers that have re-read The Truants, the optimal reading seems to be third time through—that’s when they’re going through with all the narrative pieces in place and can really start to pick out the bits they love—the loops and whirls. But anyway, that’s all essentially a long-winded way of me apologizing in advance for choosing a passage that is probably one of the more existentialist ones you’d choose to skip!
The reason I’ve chosen this passage is because I have no recollection of writing it. I wrote the whole book between the hours of 4am and 6:30am, and there are chunks that just fell out of my mind before I was even fully awake. Just these streams of consciousness that, when I re-read it, I think “Where the hell did that come from? How the hell did I even think to express those thoughts and where did I find those particular words and metaphors?”. This passage is the purest one of those in the book, and so the easiest for me to love as a reader (i.e. like it wasn’t me that wrote it):
“For so long, he ran with me, hunted with me, lived with me, and he was beautiful.
But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then time serves only to blind us. Or perhaps time merely serves to erode beauty’s myopia and reveal the base offal at our core, that writhing, desperate need to be something more than life-struck mud and barely repressible appetites. Engines of procreation and decay. Bubbling and gurgling towers of digestion and waste.
I don’t know. I think these things, and I sound like him.
I see him now, as he sees everything. That too, I suppose, has been gifted to us both by age.
After all these years, lifetimes really, I still don’t even know what beauty is, much less love. Other than that once I found him beautiful, and that I remember thinking I loved him.
But he changed. Of course he changed. Everything changed, everything changes. And perhaps that’s what really happened to him – he stopped changing, stopped moving. And like a shark that stops swimming, the stasis brought him low. His vision clouded over and he lost sight of beauty. He started to hate.
He started to die.
He got old.”
Every reader wants to know: What are you reading now? What did you just finish? What will you read next?
OK, confession time—I don’t get writer’s block, but every now and then I do get reader’s block and I have hit a bit of a wall at the moment. I had been halfway through Clive Barker’s Imajica, which I’ve actually got stuck in before. It’s an odd one in that as a rule I love Barker’s stuff, and it’s not even that I think I don’t love Imajica, it’s just I keep seeming to get stuck in the fucker. I think immediately before that (and probably the reason I’d gone back to Imajica) I read his The Scarlet Gospels, which I enjoyed, but which felt a bit like a Clive Barker The Force Awakens—a hugely entertaining but, overall, a somewhat throwaway, greatest hits tribute album more than a full-tilt return to the fray.
Next on my list—bit of a backlog brewing now—is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which at three books and more words than the bible is perhaps not the best bet for helping me break the block! I’ve also lined up a double whammy of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus, but again probably not ideal soft re-entry material. I am also keen to check out both Tarn Richardson’s Darkest Hand trilogy and Jack Ketchum’s Off Season—they’ve both said amazingly generous things about The Truants and I’m desperate to catch up with their stuff. Having said all that though, I did pick up the play script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the supermarket the other day, so it’s quite feasible that’s where I’ll end up heading next—let’s face it, you can’t really go wrong with Harry can you? And if that gets me jump started then I can plough on through the rest of the pile…
What’s up next for you? Are you currently working on your next book?
I’m currently putting a treatment together for a follow up sequence of stories to The Truants. I’m dead keen to tell them, and the publishers seem interested to see where it might go. It kicks off about 8 years after the events of the first novel and follows Danny as an angry teenage old-one alpha as he mobilises a pack of subordinates and goes to war with society and, to all intents and purpose, life itself. So hopefully that’ll all happen. I’m also keen to re-write and finish work on another novel that’s been kicking around the vaults for years now—that one is called The River, and is a whole different kettle of fish to The Truants. That one is much closer to the Clive Barker/Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman end of the spectrum, and so a much broader more psychedelic thing altogether, but we’ll see…
Please tell us three things about you that people may not know.
Ha! OK… I’ve taken the liberty of throwing this one out to my nearest and dearest (in part so that I at least have a pinch of plausible deniability). Here’s what they came back with:
- According to Professor Santos, I have a rogue African gene somewhere in my DNA (but, if we’re gonna get all scientifical about it, who doesn’t?!)—as evidenced by my super-curly hair (which has now sadly largely both passed its sell-by date and is on the retreat) which could only ever be worn one of two ways: cropped short or dreaded. There are pics kicking around social media of the Markham mane in its heyday which always entertain and amuse.
- I assume everyone has a bestie whose role is to keep one grounded (i.e. forever pick apart any delusions of grandeur one might consider entertaining)? The Jack Lemmon to their Walter Matthau? Well, I asked Joyrider for something to write here and he said that the aforementioned delusions of grandeur might, and I quote, “not actually be that deluded, although I’d never tell you that.” Now, being the master of the backhanded compliment, and given that he constantly assures me that I am in fact a pretentious waffler [cf. abundance of existentialism in The Truants ;p], that can only mean one of two things: that either I might actually be a half-decent writer, or simply that he thinks I might be a half decent writer. Given the fact that most of the time tradition dictates that I have to argue his point—whatever that point is—into the ground, I can’t help but worry that this might be a lose-lose situation for me and that the fucker has stitched me up again.
- Apparently I have a shoe fetish. This assertion from my other (and much better) half, Becky. I’m not convinced this is entirely fair. I do like a good pair of trainers this is true —Adidas as a general rule, which is a holdover from the whole Run DMC/breakdancing thing in the 80s. But seriously, when they’re good they really are good, aren’t they? That’s not just me, is it? I think the other thing that she’s basing this on is the fact that I did once buy a pair of shoes in an end-of-line sale which were a bit of a gamble—I suspected they might be fucking cool, but they did have the potential to be a massive faux-pas in practice. Turned out they were fucking cool. So, I tracked down a few more pairs of the exact same shoes online, bought them, and have them stored away in their boxes, unworn, for when the original pair wears out. Seems perfectly rational to me and, I’d say, is more of a Seth Brundle thing (I don’t need to, and nor will I ever now need to, shop for a replacement pair) than an Imelda Marcos shoe-fetish thing. But what do I know? I do like shoes. It’s true. It’s weirding me out a bit now.
So there you go… thank you so much for inviting me over to waffle on your blog!
Thanks so much, Lee! This was such a great interview:-D
LEE MARKHAM has written and published stories for all ages, and is the founder of the charitable children’s publishing house Chestnut Tree Tales. He has previously worked as a brand content developer, creating narrative architecture and content for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Disney and Playstation, and he has written for a variety of periodicals in the field including Admap and Brand Strategy. The Truants is his debut novel.
And now, are you ready for the giveaway? Thanks to the publisher, Overlook Duckworth, I have THREE finished copies to give away if you live in the U.S. or Canada. Please note: The Truants contains graphic violence, and I personally would not recommend it for teens under sixteen or seventeen. Just saying. Ready to enter? Simply fill out the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway will end August 31st, after which three entries will be randomly selected. Good luck!