Earlier in 2008 I was moderating a couple of panels for new writers at the Crimefest Convention in Bristol, England. One of my discoveries was the work of debut author Lee Weeks, who is described as the female James Patterson. After reading her tough debut novel The Trophy Taker, I realised that Ms Weeks had talent when it came to writing page-turning thrillers. I noticed that she is represented by über literary agent Darley Anderson and published by HarperCollins imprint Avon Books. So she has heavy publishing backing, and it didn’t take long to get an interview organised; I was interested to discover more about her world.
Just released is Weeks’s second novel The Trafficked which again features her detective, Johnny Mann. I am pleased to inform Shots readers that it does not disappoint but for those with more sensitive natures, beware, it pulls few punches emotionally. What’s The Trafficked about? If the title doesn’t give you a clue, then this will:
DETECTIVE JOHNNY MANN IS BACK
Missing children. An evil racket. A race against time!
Summoned to meet his boss, rebellious Detective Johnny Mann expects to be told that he is being demoted. Instead he is ordered to lead the investigation into the kidnapping of Amy Tang – the illegitimate daughter of a major player in the skin trade, CK Leung. Mann is reluctant to help – he has crossed paths with CK before – but he has no choice. Nine-year-old Amy is the third child to be kidnapped and held for a vast sum of money, but while the other two children were released after the vast ransom was paid, Amy is still being held captive. Mann's investigation takes him to London, where he teams up with DC Becky Stamp. Within days of his arrival, an arson attack kills twelve women and children. The charred bodies of the victims are found chained to their beds – their injuries rendering them unidentifiable! What is the link between the kidnapping of Amy in Hong Kong and the deaths of these women and children and can Mann discover the truth before it's too late? Prepare to be terrorised all over again with this disturbingly addictive thriller from the writer hailed as the female James Patterson.
So we welcome Lee Weeks to Shots Magazine and I urge you to investigate her world of drug cartels, people trafficking and the dark under-belly of South-East Asia – Ali Karim
Ali I read that your writing career started aged eight when you won a writing contest. Can you tell us a little about your early life, and were you from a bookish family?
Lee My family were not bookish. They were childhood sweethearts from the Rhondda Valley [Wales] who married and had their first child at nineteen. They emigrated south because my father took a job in the police force which was the only job that offered a house at the time. My mother fell pregnant in the middle of her nursing training so started it again when I was nine. To an extent, we were always outsiders, being Welsh living in Devon and never getting the chance to settle anywhere. Plus, as a policeman’s family you always got to live on the roughest council estates – to oversee the locals – great for a wayward teenager but not much fun when you’re small. My parents did their own growing up mixing with the gentry in the country and the poorest in the towns – they brought us up to respect everyone, but never to belong to a class. My father loved art and was a wonderful sculptor (Henry Moore-ish). He encouraged me to paint, which was my forte as a child. He loved people. He was a great debater and a champion for women’s rights. He set up one of the first rape and child abuse centres in the country, so that victims would not have to come into the police station.
Ali With all this travelling around did you retreat into books?
Lee I definitely retreated into my own world but not always with books. Through difficult times (bullying, etc) I always went into my shell and created a different life for myself. I wanted to be Minnehaha! I wrote poetry from about age eight. Most of the poems (I still have a folder full) are religious which is odd because my parents were not very. Being always displaced and arty and finding life difficult, I brought in a self defence mechanism of being able to view the world as an outsider. I could distance myself from my own unhappiness.
Ali Can you tell us which books you read that perhaps fuelled your later interest in taking up writing?
Lee Last of the Mohicans was and is my all time fave book. For me it still has everything: unrequited love, massive fight scenes, the chase and the tragedy … perfect. Lord of the Rings. Wilfred Owen was my favourite poet. When I was really young I loved the Faraway Tree series. I created my own faraway tree. I would go into the garden and pick a leaf or a petal and be transported to somewhere else much nicer.
Ali And did reading crime and crime thriller novels feature in that time?
Lee No. In my teens and twenties I tended to go for the classics: Dickens and Hardy, or Henry Miller, road trip books.
Ali Tell us a little about your education and schooling. Were you academic and did you read or write much at that time?
Lee My schooling was a mess. I went to nine schools. I never fitted in, wrong uniform, a nuisance to place, different curriculum in every school. I was a pain in the neck for teachers who knew we would be moving on within the year. Being an arty child I needed stability and got the reverse. My parents both worked full time, odd shifts – nurse and a detective. I was badly bullied by two female teachers when I was nine and that changed my life. After a year of it I became able to put my head somewhere else whilst it was going on. But I was never the same. I lost trust in adults and I questioned what kind of a child I was that they would treat me in that way. It didn’t help that I was also sexually assaulted by five strangers from the age of six to fourteen. I went to two more schools, both disastrous in their own way before I stopped going to school at the age of fourteen and got my education from the bikers who hung around the bottom of town. I had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a convent for a year. I came out of there with one O level in art. I was accepted into Art College on the strength of my portfolio but I couldn’t settle. When I was seventeen I went on the first of my travels – to live in Sweden for a year.
Ali I understand that you did some modelling – how did that come about?
Lee I started modelling when I was sixteen for a lovely man who did ghost book covers – a lot of walking around castle walls in muslin. I always dipped in and out of modelling because, as a person used to distancing herself from her body, it came easily to me.
Ali What made you venture to South-East Asia?
Lee I had come back from Sweden, hitched around France, lived in Paris for a while, lived a year in Germany. Then I came back to do my GCSEs and A levels in an intensive course but I realised I was not able to settle. I knew that Hong Kong was a British colony. People raved about it, so, along with a friend, I bought a one-way ticket hoping to get enough modelling work to make it.
Ali I recall moderating a panel at CrimeFest earlier this year when you mentioned that The Trophy Taker was somewhat autobiographical in parts, so before we discuss your debut, would you be happy to tell us about this?
Lee I went to Hong Kong having been a drug user for many years: to keep thin for my modelling, I was prescribed speed – diet pills – by the doctor. Plus, I was a barbiturate user. Within a week of getting there I met a girl, Teresa, in a bar and she offered me some local speed. It wasn’t speed, it was heroin and within a short time I was hooked. She had trouble from triads because she had stood guarantor for a friend’s gambling debt and because I needed her so much at that time I gave her what money I had to help pay it off (I was working as a hostess in a nightclub) and she moved in with me. We moved out to a fishing village in the new territories and my hell began. The house began to be a prison for me – Teresa controlled my heroin supply, which was increasing all the time, and I was less and less able to make it into work. I became very sick and lay there sorting my life out until I realised that I would die in that place unless I did something about it. I was petrified by that thought and ran away from Teresa, entered into the methadone programme and met someone in a club who I fell for – a prominent Hong Kong lawyer named Philip. It was as our relationship grew that we discussed what was best and both decided that being a concubine was not for me. It was then that Philip discovered that I was not allowed to leave Hong Kong and that my fate was determined by the triads who had come after Teresa. He found out that when Teresa paid back the debt I became part of it and I was being groomed to be taken underground, possibly to Taiwan, where I would be used as a sex slave in various clubs and houses until I was of no more use, then killed. As is the way in the Chinese community, you either owe a favour to a triad or you are owed one. Philip was owed one, and my freedom was it. On the last dose of methadone we spent our last night together and then I got on a plane home.
Ali And do you know what happened to Teresa and Philip?
Lee Philip would have been OK. Teresa would not have been. I don’t know what happened to them.
Ali So was the writing of The Trophy Taker cathartic or did it open up the wounds of your past?
Lee Strangely enough, because my life has been full of adventures, Hong Kong was just something that happened to me that I thought I could turn into a thriller. It was not something that needed sorting out. It was a useful time in my life because I turned a big corner out there fixing heroin and being close to a self-induced death. I managed to lay the past to rest; I grew up. I had no lasting trauma to exorcise.
Ali Where did Johnny Mann spring from?
Lee JM started as the love interest for my main character who was loosely based on me. I only knew I was going to pitch it as a series when I sent the manuscript off to an advisory agency and they told me that my lead character was no good because she was a victim and that my detective was the man to see it through and I could be looking at a series. I said OK!!!
Ali You told me that The Trophy Taker was your first attempt at novel writing, so could you tell us a little about your writing process? Did you redraft extensively? And what sort of time frame was The Trophy Taker written over? And who were the early readers of your manuscript?
Lee For years the vague idea of writing a novel sloshed around my head but, with a failing marriage and the economics of earning a living, I never really got past constantly rewriting the first few chapters. When my marriage turned terminal I had to find a job, try and save the house and look after my kids, so I reworked the first few chapters and sent them off to an agent thinking give it a go...
Ali I see you got picked up by Darley Anderson who has a keen eye, so can you tell us about how you got the manuscript accepted and did Darley suggest any changes?
Lee Darley phoned me almost straight away and was very enthusiastic. I went to see him and he told me what I had to do – short chapters, shock every few pages, etc and he asked me how long I would need. I said realistically a year – my father was dying of cancer, my life was in tatters, and I had to rewrite the whole thing from JM’s point of view and that was worse than just writing a new book. When I think about it – a year!! Now I just get five months!
Ali Apart from seeing you speak at CrimeFest, I’ve seen you out and about at Reading and other festivals – how important is promotional work for a new writer?
Lee It’s vital to be seen. So many books come out every month – only a few can make it. You are part of the package these days. You have to undertake to sell yourself as well as the book.
Ali There are some rather disturbing passages in both The Trophy Taker and your follow-up The Trafficked – what is your take on violence and visceral elements in crime fiction?
Lee I used to have a firmer opinion than I do now!! I have met all sorts and types who like violent books. Some people read it because they identify with it, it’s their world, and others because it’s pure escapism.
Ali Your work is set in South-East Asia, and in particular Hong Kong, which adds the authentic smells of the street-markets and bustle; have you visited Hong Kong since, and if so, do you care to share your experiences?
Lee I have been back there several times in recent years. The first time was a little scary but I love it now the way I never could when I lived there. It has also changed into a better place now that it is no longer a British colony – the snobbery has gone and everyone gets on better. It is the most exciting place on earth – big adrenaline rush – I recommend it.
Ali You work has been tagged with being a female James Patterson, so how do you feel about this association?
Lee I am flattered of course, but before I was called it I had never read any of his or heard of him. I still sometimes call him Chris Patterson by mistake. I have now read a couple of Alex Cross novels and like them. Although I get a lot of people telling me I am like him, no one actually tells me how …
Ali Now, you have the difficult second novel The Trafficked, so can you tell us a little about why you decided to continue with Johnny Mann?
Lee Strangely enough I flew through The Trafficked – found it a dream compared to The Trophy Taker. Now I have got the hang of it, it’s much easier. I am still getting to know JM. But I rather enjoy the process of uncovering him for myself as well as others. I am very lucky that I can take my books anywhere in the world and pick up any story. If I had based them on an Exeter council estate I would be having trouble thinking of plots now.
Ali Did you have any concerns about the plot, considering the Madeleine McCann case? And how did Avon Books [HarperCollins] and Darley Anderson react when you discussed the plot for The Trafficked with them?
Lee We did alter Georgina’s name, she was called Madeleine before. When I wrote The Trafficked, I wondered whether it would be too near the knuckle for people but it was very well received by agent and editor.
Ali Your research took you from Hong Kong to the Philippines and London, so tell us about what you learned on your travels.
Lee The most shocking thing to me is that my plots are nothing to what is actually going on every second in the world. I think we bury our heads and have become desensitised to many issues such as trafficking and child abuse. Until we get a sense of outrage back we will carry on letting it happen. But, along with the monsters of this world, I discovered some wonderful people who risk death to help the nameless victims.
Ali And what have you in store for Johnny Mann in The Trafficked?
Lee JM is on the case of a missing triad’s daughter which leads him from London and an arson attack that kills trafficked victims, to the sex trafficking mafias in the Philippines.
Ali Without giving away the ending, are we likely to see Johnny Mann in book three or are you planning something else?
Lee Book three is set in Thailand mainly. It brings out more of JM’s personal life and past. It has him tracking a group of missing gap-year kids through the jungle.
Ali And any news of overseas rights for your work yet?
Lee The Trophy Taker was sold to Germany and Russia but they take ages to bring it out. My agency will start punting The Trafficked now I guess …
Ali What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
Lee I do so much research I hardly have time but I still love reading any Lee Child on holiday. I am reading Get Shorty right now – Elmore Leonard. I have loads I need to catch up on in my genre. To be honest I am really itching to reread Last of the Mohicans (sorry).
Ali And, if the older Lee Weeks were to travel back in time to speak to the younger Lee Weeks, what words of wisdom would she impart?
Lee I am still a little sad when I look back and see me as a child and I would give myself a cuddle if I could. The rest of the mess … I would simply watch it as an observer and say nothing – I wouldn’t change any of it.
Ali Thank you for your time.
Lee You’re so welcome. See you soon I hope.
The Trophy Taker published by Avon Books pbk £6.99
The Trafficked published by Avon Book pbk £6.99
THE TROPHY TAKER