Lee Markham wrote a little book called “The Truants”. Within a couple of months, Lee Markham went from being a writer to being a household name. He is a superstar. He is a great writer. He is a genius. No, I’m serious. Once you read The Truants you’ll know why (book links below!). We had the great pleasure and honour of interviewing Lee. Here’s what he had to say:
The Truants is undeniably one of the best books of the year. How do you deal with the positive comments about The Truants? How do you deal with criticism?
When the super-positive stuff lands, the immediate response is a combination of genuine head-spinning incredulity and childish glee. It’s a weird one, because there would be an inelegant degree of false modesty on my part to suggest I didn’t know what I’d achieved when it was done… or, perhaps more accurately, that I didn’t know from about halfway through writing it that I was on to something.
But up until that point, there were no guarantees. It could just as easily have been a piece of shit. So, I’m very conscious of the huge element of luck involved, and that helps keep me grounded: I feel a bit like how that Sully guy that landed the plane on the river must feel – pretty fucking chuffed (borderline smug) that I pulled it off, but also very clear on how unlikely landing it quite that smoothly really was, and very aware of how much the fates must have been smiling on me.
So that helps keep my feet on the ground. Also, and related to that, I do also feel like The Truants’ first reader and so, by extension, its first fan. I got to discover it too, even though I wrote it. It was written so hard and fast (5 weeks), with such an absence of rest, and around a hellish 9-5 job, that I kinda had to cede control to it – let it write itself to a certain extent. It is its own monster. It is itself feral and beastly. Not much stuff out there is I don’t think. So, if nothing else I know it does have that too. So I feel OK loving it the way you do – as its own entity.
I’m aware as well of how much of my own genuine emotional pain – everything from sadness to grief to despair – poured into it, that I didn’t bottle it and hold back… just put it out there… I always knew it was going to hit hard. But I did also think there was lots of potential for it to be hated. And there is some hatred for it out there – it’s even clocked up a ‘Biggest Disappointment of the Year’ citation from one reviewer. That I’m actually quite proud of too: it clearly fucked the guy off, and I’m glad. It’s supposed to fuck people off too. It’s not an entertainment. It’s not darkness for fun. It’s a state-of-humanity address. Which means that if denial and escapism is your thing, it’s gonna really spoil your day. But if you’re looking for something that maybe recognises your pain and your horror of what surrounds us, reflects and expresses your rage, then maybe it’ll make you feel less alone.
I think it’s the people that do respond to that aspect of it that might agree with you that it’s ‘undeniably one of the best books of the year’… but not everyone is on the same page. That’s also fine – I’d much rather have a bi-polar response to my work than universal affection. It’s not fucking Friends (and just for the record, I love Friends too – who doesn’t? And that’s my point: The Truants ain’t that). I don’t want to tell another test-screened, audience-tested one-size-fits-all Avengers tales – I’m definitely in the David Cronenberg/Irvine Welsh/Darren Aronofsky camp of not being massively interested in being your buddy. I want to rattle your cage. And I want to throttle a bunch of you. But I also want to fight for those of us that see things the way we do, to stand up and not be ashamed of our pain… to be proud of it in fact… I think our despair needs a lot more credit than it gets, and I’m tired of this constant Oprah-esque refrain that it fucking needs fixing.
Tell us a bit more about the man behind the writer
I took a run at this yesterday and managed to be a twat and not save it, computer auto-updated, answer gone. It was waffly, this in all likelihood will be too, but as a starter-for-ten, I’m clearly at least part twat.
The jist of my point when I answered this yesterday is that, at a core level, existentially, I’ve come to believe that there is no man behind the writer. No self. I don’t believe that the self exists, in any of us. I’ve come to believe that we are simply organic perception machines that process information from the reality around us and, over time, chart a course of decisions based on previous outcomes of prior decisions. At any given moment we can be conscious of the position of our trajectory through life, or its velocity, but never both. And perceiving either can lead to the easy misassumption that there is a thing blazing that trail – a comet at the head of the tail – but I’ve yet to find it. It’s never bottomed out to anything more solid than a bell-curve of complimentary and contradictory experiences and observations that accrues and collectively, over time, creates within us this holographic illusion of a ‘self’ captaining the ship, as opposed to what it really is: just a stream of data. It’s a comforting thing to think that might be true – that we are something, as opposed to nothing – but I don’t think it anymore. We’re just ripples in a river of experience.
It was a painful experience to let go of that comfortable delusion of substance – with it had to go all its associated macro social concepts: hope, purpose, society, truth, humanity and morality even… shit like that. But having let go of that stuff, I was able to tell The Truants honestly – to give every character in that tale a fair amount of time on the platform, and without judgement. I think they all have an understandable viewpoint. And collectively they too perhaps create a holographic portrait of the ‘me’ that I don’t really believe exists in reality.
I do feel a capacity to detach from this apparently widespread imperative to make a commitment to what is or isn’t real, to sign up to any social contract of an agreed shared reality. I just don’t buy it. Many viewpoints and voices argue incessantly in my mind, all of the time, many of them respectfully and politely, a few of them viciously. Some are lost in the most profound despair, others think they’re gods, yet others monsters. And I genuinely don’t know which of them is or isn’t the real me. All of them? None of them? Some of them? How am I supposed to figure that out?
But none of them are in control. And so perhaps that’s where there might be a me after all – a ‘self’ – whatever force it is that holds them all in check – the parliament of them. A centre of gravity. That’s what I think we have – centres of gravity – but that doesn’t mean that something is actually there – it’s just the midpoint of all these voices. Either way, I’m comfortable and functional with my new-found absence of self, regardless of what anyone says. If nothing else, it’s certainly handy from a storytelling POV.
So that was the waffly bit. Am guessing you asked as well because you wanted to know actual stuff about me? I’m a father, a divorcee, a lover. Going waaaay back I’ve survived addiction and at one time even managed to skirt a planned suicide attempt. I built a career out of spinning words for other people, ended up heading up the chain in branding and marketing, didn’t particularly enjoy it, certainly didn’t dig the commute and the rat-race aspect of it all. Wrote a book. Quit the job. Got divorced. Let go of delusions of self. And am now a postman (gots to pay them bills) whilst waiting for this thing to blow the fuck up so I can write some more. And there is more. There’s lots more.
What inspired The Truants?
Three things really. The first was this dead simple idea – what if you got vampire blood on a knife and then stabbed someone with it. Would they become a vampire too? If yes, then holy shit, we could probably make some hay with that idea.
The second thing was the state-of-affairs in our society, but primarily our ever-expanding cities – child neglect, knife crime, depravation, the denaturing of us as animal beings, all of that stuff. And the other side of that coin, all the commentariat voices arguing on the right that those in poverty are vermin, and therefore authors of their own grim existences, and on the left that a neglectful and selfish society fails to provide for those at the bottom of the pile and detaches them from the freedom to live visceral, primal lives – that they’re battery hens, hamsters in wheels. Touchstone events in that mix around which so much wailing and gnashing of teeth accrued were the murders of Baby P and Damilola Taylor, and those murders are strongly alluded to in the book, as is the police shooting of Mark Duggan and the subsequent city-wide riots that ensued across the UK in 2011. But it could just as easily have been Trayvon, and Baltimore, and so on and so forth. And within that second inspiration was Blake Morrison’s book As If, which bore witness to the murder of Jamie Bulger by two ten-year old children, and their subsequent trial. That book is an immense work of empathy and loving, yet dispassionate and agonisingly honest, witness to terrible things that happen to kids when we fail them, and was probably the greatest single narrative influence on The Truants.
And then the third thing was all that absence-of-self existential shit I wittered on about above. That played a huge part in the book, but is probably only something I’ve come to recognise since writing it and putting some distance between me and it. Writing The Truants I think actually catalysed that internal process, and that’s something that some reviewers have picked up on. It bugs some readers, but I think it’s actually what others love most about it. But that’s cool – because there’s vampires and shit in there too for those not so in to all of the existential stuff. Win-win, no?
Is there a sequel in the works?
Yep. I’ve actually got a sequel trilogy planned. That trilogy will be the Lord of the Rings to The Truants’ Hobbit. Don’t worry though, no orcs of hobbitses. The trilogy will pick up about 8 years after The Truants, and at its core will be the story of Danny’s end-of-childhood transition into an old-one alpha, and subsequent rise to underworld/old-one power and dominance… his trajectory will have echoes of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films in that he starts innocently enough but is seduced by his power, his rage, and ultimately becomes perhaps the most dangerous iteration of the monster he is that the world has ever seen. But as with The Truants, it will all be fuelled by empathy for him, and will be heartbreaking. It will also continue to explore many of the themes of abandonment, poisoned attachment, grief and all of that existential stuff touched upon in the first book. But as it broadens out, it’ll be able to take a hard look at things like ISIS, the rise of Trump, environmental collapse… it’ll take that hive-mind device and look outwards at everything, rather than simply focus in on a micro-situation like inner-city depravation. Plenty of room for me to spectacularly fuck it all up, but hey – go big or go home, right?
What is your biggest fear as an author in this continuously changing industry?
I don’t really have any fears. Partly because of how I’m built emotionally (again, see waffle above) – none of this really matters, ultimately none of it is going anywhere, and who’s to say we’ll still be here in 5 years, let alone 25 years or, heaven forbid, 100? If I had any assumed dependencies on the publishing industry to feed my kids and pay my bills, I’d be an idiot. Even if the industry was what it was 20 years ago! If that industry still existed, we wouldn’t even be talking. I self-published the v1 version of The Truants using the Print on Demand and eBook tools available to writers now that presumably are one of the things I should be worried about. To me, the very notion that I could survive in this life by just writing stuff seems a hugely privileged and indulgent absurdity – so if it happens, what a blessing… but if it doesn’t, well, there’s always some mail to post, and I’m pretty happy doing that. I guess what would bother me would be the thought that I couldn’t get my writing to those that might want to read it, and that’s one thing that is actually becoming ever simpler.
What advice would you give unpublished authors?
Christ, I don’t know really. I suppose it would just be this:
- Write something, and fucking finish it.
- Make sure it’s good.
- Find your own audience by whatever means you have at your disposal – don’t wait for/ask someone else (an agent or publisher) to do that for you.
- Then, once you’ve got an audience backing up your assertion that what you’ve got is something people want, maybe then talk to agents/publishers. Ideally wait for them to come to you. But if not, don’t worry about it.
Who is your favourite writer and why?
All-time favourite? Stephen King. He’s the writer that raised me, and so to name anyone else would be a lie. Why? Because he just told it like it was… he’s the guy that hit me in my early teens and woke me up to the fact that just because you were writing about vampires or ghosts or whatever, didn’t mean that you weren’t telling the truth. HHe
He’s the guy that made me want to try. But then I’d say Alan Moore would be a bigger influence on my adult mindset and viewpoint. His lysergic approach to narrative is closer to what I’d like to do over time if I’m given the opportunity. I’d probably cite Iain Banks and Cormac McCarthy as the two writers whose word-craft are simply the most perfect. But then there are so many others as well who’ve influenced my storytelling… David Cronenberg, massive influence… Prince – I kinda see Prince almost as a surrogate father, I fucking loved that man. And dammit, in 4 minutes he did with Sign o’ the Times what took me 5 weeks in The Truants. Unbelievable.
Why should someone read The Truants?
You tell me?! To feel alive? Just to feel something, anything? I dunno… I’ve been asked who I think should read this, and I reckon the closest I’ve got to answering that is essentially anyone who’s ever looked at life and wanted to scream or punch something… I’ve repeated this analogy elsewhere, but reading The Truants is, by all accounts, a bit like getting CPR – it’s rough, it’s brutal, probably pretty fucking unpleasant – but it’ll get your heart beating again… it’ll stop you from being dead.
Gonna go meta here: why do you think someone should read the Truants?
Lastly, what inspires you as an author?
Just having to live a life that makes very little sense to me, surrounded by 7 billion co-existees who, by and large, seem to think they have it all figured out, that there’s a plan. I see all this stuff happening – babies dying in bedsits, kids stabbed by kids in stairwells, infants washing up on beaches, famines and endless cycles of war, environmental catastrophe – then I have to, as a parent, reassure my children that world I’ve created them in makes sense, and shit is under control, when I know it’s not. Nothing is under control. So I’m desperate to either find some paradigm that will either convince me I’m wrong, and that things might be OK after all; or I need find a way to create and seed that paradigm myself as a blueprint of hope for my kids – that’s what inspires my work as an author. Everything else is just whistling in the wind.
LINKS TO BUY THE TRUANTS