Please welcome Lee Markham to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Truants was published on July 11th by The Overlook Press.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Lee: I’ve written for as long as I’ve been able to, all the way back to my early childhood. Storytelling has always been a big thing on both sides of my family. I’m Irish on my mother’s side, and they always like to spin a good yarn. On my father’s side, lots of Christianity (to which I seem to have an immunity, if not quite an allergy) – including quite a few preachers in the bloodline. So the why part of the question doesn’t really apply, or at least feels like it doesn’t – storytelling is something I’ve always been made of, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make stuff up.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Lee: OK so, here’s the thing – my internet is down right now, so I can’t read through what the other guys you’ve asked have said in response to this, so I’m going to have to answer it blind: is it actually possible to be exclusively one or the other? I do get what you’re saying, and am perhaps being (deliberately?) obtuse, but for me it kinda goes in zebra stripes – plot then pants, pants then plot – and if you fly through it fast enough perhaps it starts to look like the greyness of a hybrid approach… but I can’t begin to imagine that if you subscribe to pantsing (and on a side-note, while we’re here, can we think about addressing the terminology?! I mean, really: pantsing?!) that you don’t have to eventually stream it into some kind of structure. And vice versa, if you have too rigid a structure/plan, your characters will suffocate if you stop them wandering off-piste… they just become Sims ¬– just crappy automaton versions of you.
With The Truants it went like this – I had a neat idea: vampire blood on a knife, that knife ending up on the streets and dropped into the knife-crime mix – so I’d say that would fall at the ‘plan’ end of the spectrum. I then ‘pants’ed my way through the first few scenes of that scenario, and saw where it went. From there I could then see some very clear narrative pillars dotted right the way across the novel – so more plan (I’d say mapping actually feels nearer the mark). I then ‘pants’ed my way out from those opening scenes towards those new pillars on the map. And a ways across the map from there a huge twist (which lands about one third of the way in) came out of nowhere, took even me by surprise and so a huge pants moment, but from which the whole map then revealed itself, so plan plan plan to the end. But yeah – you gotta flip between the two, surely?
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Lee: Writing for me seems to be quite a visceral, primal thing. When it comes, it just explodes out of me, and oftentimes largely fully formed and ready to roll. The hardest thing for me to do is to tame it, and make it do what I need it to do. With The Truants, entirely by necessity (at the time I was working a horrible job for a sociopathic manager, commuting, all consumed) I accidentally stumbled across a process that worked – I set my alarm clock for 4am every day. Fell out of bed. Was writing by 4:15am. By 6:15am I’d have done 2000 words, half of them from somewhere unknowable between my conscious and subconscious mind. I did that for about 40 days straight and the book was done. I genuinely don’t recall writing huge chunks of it. But the question you asked was what’s the hardest thing about writing – my answer is this: getting up a 4am every morning until the bastard is done. That’s how I do it. It’s massively antisocial. I disappear from the world when I’m writing. It’s like a moon mission. I really struggle to do it around other stuff… and by other stuff I even mean the sound of my own conscious mind wittering about day-to-day rubbish.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Lee: At the risk of sounding pretentious, simply the pursuit of truth. Even if I’m writing about vampires. It’s just that constant internal churn of questioning about why we’re here, what we’re for, is it really worth it? I struggle sometimes with the world we live in, and have to battle frequently to work around existential impasses. My mind never lets it go. A line in a poem I wrote once rather neatly summarises this process as “Chewing on these same old rages, like dogs killing sticks”. It’s pointless, and no answer ever seems to stick, but that’s the essential machinery of me, and it can be quite exhausting (one reviewer has actually picked up on this, and yeah… it’s a fair cop, I’ll take it). On the plus side though, when I have a narrative idea (like for example a knife with vampire blood on it), I can throw it into that same machine and all sorts of interesting stuff comes out. So there’s that.
I have of course been influenced by other storytellers too – all of whom seem to chew on those same old rages too – and by storytellers I mean anyone working creatively, imaginatively. So not just writers. Filmmakers and musicians too. And journalists. All those guys lifting up the rocks, looking underneath, and reporting back. But to check off a few writers: formatively I went the Stephen King/Clive Barker route… alongside that there was David Cronenberg and John Carpenter working in film… more recently the writings of Robert Fisk, Blake Morrison (whose As If was the single biggest influence on The Truants), and Cormac McCarthy have hugely influenced my voice, if not my style. Alan Moore too.
But the thing that most fires up the 4am writing beast is music. Certain songs can hit a core id button and trigger off whole scenes of a story… the song that was most on a loop whilst writing The Truants is one called CPU by Skream. It’s quite cold and mechanical on one level, but has swirls of fractal undercurrents that perfectly tapped me into The Truants duality of the old-ones’ ancient manipulations contrasting the feral survival instinct that governs the world they’re thrown into. Too much other stuff to go into here – there’s actually a Truants playlist on Spotify and even that only skims the surface.
TQ: Describe The Truants in 140 characters or less.
Lee: A desperate prayer for love and purpose in this endless age of rage and sadness
TQ: Tell us something about The Truants that is not found in the book description.
Lee: I think what perhaps gets lost in the description is the truth of it. That it’s more about love, and grief, and the futility of being, than it is about vampires and neglect. But – and this is a huge but – I don’t feel comfortable claiming any higher-ground credit for that. The Truants really did explode out from somewhere deep down and hurt, and it is what it is. It’s not easy. It assaults. For better or worse it is the sound of my soul weeping for us all, and raging at us all. And it doesn’t have any answers. I don’t know… it seems to catch a lot of readers off guard – they come in expecting something they’ve experienced before, and it breaks the rules. No-one, and nothing is safe. Nothing is assured or sacred. It’s asking, it’s pleading… it’s destabilising… because that’s where I was when I wrote it. Where I still am, really. I think, when it’s boiled down to a soundbite, what’s missing from the book description is this: The Truants hates you, but it wishes, more than anything, to be loved by you. Just like the children in the tale it tells. It’s hoping you will tell it everything will be OK, whilst blaming you for everything being screwed. It wouldn’t blame you for fearing it, but really it just wants to hold you. It’s complicated. It might make you sad. Or angry. Or both.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Truants? What appealed to you about writing a dystopian novel?
Lee: I’m not sure I would actually call The Truants dystopian. To my mind it’s simply the here and now. With vampires. The world of The Truants is very much a documentary vision of the world we already live in. And so in that sense the inspiration to write The Truants was simply this: how might this horror high-concept (Vampire knife!) play out in the real world? What might that story look like as an after-the-watershed BBC Panorama documentary about inner-city strife? Or what if we looked at the events in this story in the same way Blake Morrison looked at the events in As If? Might it be possible to drag horror, vampires and all, back into reality like Romero did in the 60s with Night of the Living Dead? What might something like that look like today?
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Truants?
Lee: Obviously As If formed the core of that research – although interestingly the crime it details is far less alluded to in The Truants than other incidents. Those incidents that do form key pillars in the novel – the murders of Baby P and Damilola Taylor, as well as the shooting of Mark Duggan and the subsequent city riots of 2011 – are all events that received extensive coverage in the media both at the time and subsequently. To an extent these things are key strands in the weave of the narrative that currently exists in the UK about our inner cities – with one side seeing these horrors as symptomatic of how far people have fallen from decent society, whilst the other side sees them as symptoms of how much decent society is actually failing its people. Round and round, tit-for-tat. The Truants dives into that debate, lives in the minds of both sides, and tries to explore how such opposing views have become so hopelessly entrenched. So from a research POV, I just buried myself in as much objective, inquiry-based reading on each event as I could – which was pretty rough, especially in the case of Baby P – as well as then swinging to each end of the commentary-spectrum. In terms of locale for the story – I just set it in the city I’ve known and lived in for years.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Truants.
Lee: The cover for The Truants is by a guy called Zack Crook. I think it’s an incredible piece of work. In fact, when the book was initially going through preparations for publication, it went through a name-change – it was originally called The Knife – and I wasn’t 100% sold on the new title. I was open to persuasion, but had my reservations. But when I saw the new title dropped into Zack’s cover design, everything came together for me – that was the moment I thought “OK, cool – we’re all on the same page here.” He may not be aware quite how pivotal he was in putting my mind to rest on the matter, so quite nice to be able to put it on the record here.
TQ: The vampire is often used as a metaphor for something else. Are the old-ones of The Truants a new twist on the vampire mythos? What do they stand for in your novel or are they simply another type of vampire?
Lee: If anything I’d say they’re a metaphor for society itself – a representation of what humanity, and the so-called civilization and social mores it has accrued over millennia, might look like as an individual – which is then used as a device to explore the notion that society might be just as susceptible to patterns of behaviors – doubts and insecurities, judgments and belief systems, a conflicting sense of purpose/purposelessness – as we all are as fleeting, mortal individuals. And then what was interesting was to force this immortal psychology to exist within its constituent mortal ones and see how, perhaps, it’s not as different/superior as it thought it was. For that to work though, I did have to twist the vampire mythos into a new form, so that’s true as well.
TQ: In The Truants who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Lee: None of the characters were technically hard to write. They all represent voices that chatter in my own journey through life, and so it was easy enough to allow them each time on the platform to say their piece uninterrupted. But writing as Peter was especially tough existentially – painfully heart-breaking – certainly his early scenes.
TQ: Which question about The Truants do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Lee: Ha! OK… The question would be: is it just me, or is there something being said about gender roles, and gender politics, in the final chapter? Yes. Absolutely. There’s a lot of noise out there at the moment about what constitutes the family unit, and the argument that parenting should ideally consist of a male-female/mother-father double-helix. The final chapter is a discrete parting shot that calls bullshit on that. And on notions of gender and sexuality being defined simply by physical biology. It’s not a core point of the novel, but it pleases me to think some readers might think “Hey, is he saying here that it’s OK for two people of the same gender to start a family?” Yes, I am saying that. Although to be fair it could be argued that the way the point is only very lightly alluded to it might suggest I’m saying the opposite – let me clear right here that I’m not saying that at all. But yes, there is a nod to that debate tucked in there at the end.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Truants.
Lee: Probably my very favourite quote in the book is also kinda silly, certainly throwaway. And divisive. Most readers I suspect don’t even notice it, but some laugh out loud at it – much like I did when it came to me – others think it’s really annoying (one reviewer went so far as to accuse of it “triteness bordering on the twee”, which also makes me smile – the contrarian in me likes to think the publishers might one day even put “Twee” on the cover in amongst the other reviews because that would tickle me). But anyway, that quote is:
“She didn’t put food down for the cat. She didn’t have a cat.”
The next two are particular favourites with readers. Both capture the melancholy that underpins the whole novel, but the second one punches through into the actual grief of losing a child and forms part of a longer passage that I’ve heard a number of times has left readers on the floor:
“The black tiger-stripes burnt into the blade reminded him of the trails raindrops would weave as they fattened and became too heavy to cling to rain-struck windows. He remembered watching the rain on the windows when he was little. He remembered liking it. He remembered when he was little and would sit and watch the rain on the windows for what seemed like hours and he would feel OK. It had made a kind of sense to him that he couldn’t put into words, but which made everything else seem acceptable. It made everything seem as if it had its place, even the bad stuff, and that if things got too much, they’d simply roll away under their own weight.”
“She hadn’t turned any lights on when she’d got in. She’d gone through to her room, in her coat and her shoes, and she’d lain on the bed and looked at the ceiling. She hadn’t cried. She barely even made a sound. She tried not to breathe. She tried not to blink. But in the end her body would oblige her. That’s just the way it was built. She felt guilty about that. Eventually she got tired, and eventually she slept. She’d felt guilty about even countenancing the idea of sleep, but it had crept up on her in the end and taken her away from it all. She hadn’t dreamt. When she’d awoken there had been a few moments when it had all been a dream. A heavenly interlude of untruth, swaddling her in the beautiful notion of her boy not being dead. It had been her shoes that had shattered that moment. The shoes still on her feet. On her bed. They were the vicious little detail that moored her to reality. It had been her shoes that had appropriately repositioned her existence from hope to despair and had reset the trajectory of her life ever since. It had been her shoes that had calibrated the sine wave of her grief. Set in motion the pendulum of her pain.”
But the passage I think I’m proudest of, and which is one of a few passages that I don’t quite recall writing – I channelled it from somewhere in an early-hours haze between sleep and waking – is this one:
“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.”
TQ: What's next?
Lee: I have a lot of ideas for a follow-up to The Truants. It’s set about 7 or 8 years after the event of the first novel, and goes a lot deeper and wider. That’s something I’d love to get stuck into. I’m also keen to finish work on a novel I’ve been kicking around for about 25 years now. That one is called The River, and would I suppose be my own Dark Tower – the one that forms the spine into which everything else might plug into. Beyond that, I’ve a few ideas for some other stories in the vault that look pretty interesting. And I’m also working on a series of children’s stories – Chestnut Tree Tales – that have gathered some dust recently, but which I’d love to get up and running again.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Lee: You’re welcome!
The Overlook Press, July 11, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 272 pages
A fresh twist on the vampire mythos, The Truants is a dystopian novel of startling intensity, narrated by immortal old-ones.
Contorting the conventional vampire narrative into a startling tale of immortality, blood lust, and rage contaminating London’s inner-city youth like a virus, The Truants tells the story of the last of the old-ones―creatures afflicted with a condition not unlike vampirism: ancient, bloodthirsty, and unable to withstand sunlight.
The last old-one has decided to end his life, but before he can act he is held up at knifepoint. His assailant disappears, the knife in his pocket, the blood of the old-one seared into its sharpened edge. The knife trades hands, drawing blood again, and the old-one is resurrected through his victims’ consciousness and divided, spreading through the infected. With his horde of infected youth, the old-one must reclaim the knife to regain control of his soul. But someone is out to stop him...
Lee Markham is the founder of the children’s publishing house Chestnut Tree Tales and No Man, an independent publishing house. He has previously worked as a brand content developer, and he has written articles for magazines including Admap and Brand Strategy. The Truants is his debut novel.