Interview: The Knife author, Lee Markham
‘The Knife’ is the startling first novel from Eastbourne-based author Lee Markham. It’s a gritty, ferocious and angry indictment of social inequality and institutional neglect in 21st Century Britain. It also happens to be the best vampire story since ‘Let The Right One In’ and a bleak and bloody antidote to the romanticised prettification of the vampire myth popularised by ‘Twilight’, ‘The Vampire Diaries’ and other toothless, teen oriented nonsense.
Markham takes the vampire mythology and twists it into fascinating new shapes in this tale of ancient vampires, tired and empty after centuries of immortality, finding a new and terrifying drive among the forgotten underclass of inner city London. ‘The Knife’ is clearly inspired by real life events with obvious nods to the Baby P case, the Damilola Taylor murder and the London riots of 2011 and in the wrong hands it could have been crass and exploitative. Markham does an excellent job of using these real life tragedies to drive a story fuelled by outrage at the original events. ‘The Knife’ is definitely one for your must-read list and is part of an exciting new approach to storytelling and publishing.
Neil Martin spoke to Lee about “The Knife”, self-publishing and his plans for a broader Knife universe.
Why did you set up your own publishing company to release The Knife?
We’re not a publishing company. We’re a storytelling company (even if it sounds massively pretentious). The fact that our first story has been published in the traditional sense is just circumstantial – book publishing is now the easiest way to get a story out there but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been film, or a comic, hell, even a computer game. As we grow and evolve the stories will exist in whatever format or medium the storytellers want to employ.
But you asked why? Primarily because I don’t have the time or the temperament to do it the conventional way – pleading letters to agents, eight weeks for feedback, make the story smoother, pull this punch, soften that blow. Life’s too short. If it’s good enough for Dickens and Twain, it’s good enough for me. It’s a punk ethos – make it in the basement, sell it out the boot of your car and in fact the music industry isn’t a bad comparison. Why are Indie bands cool and respected whilst indie writers are often still viewed as desperate self-promoters? Most of the best, or at least progressive, material in the music industry comes from those who set out their stall without major label support. They just get on the road and gig, build up a fan-base. We feel that’s where the publishing industry is headed now that the internet and self-publishing technology has given storytellers the tools and platforms equivalent to the gig circuit. Writing and reading is egalitarian now. We can build our own fan-base. So, The Knife is raw, edgy, starts with a crunch, hurtles through some brutal chord changes, sticks its fingers up at you and then it’s done. The rulebook hasn’t exactly been thrown out, but it’s certainly been scribbled and spat on. Think Fup by Jim Dodge, or God is a Bullet by Boston Teran. There’s a good argument to suggest publishers have become, if not entirely redundant, then certainly optional. 10-15 years ago, writers needed publishing houses: because it’s a big, complicated, production and distribution model. If you wanted to print a book, you had to print 100s or maybe even 1000s of them to get the economy of scale right so you could sell at a price people would pay. Which is a huge investment and gamble. Back then you’d need, maybe 10,000 people at least to buy your book to make a return, nowadays you don’t – if I only sell 100 copies of The Knife, I’d make my money back. It’s a no brainer really, economically speaking.
I do find it somewhat ironic that there can be a sniffiness about self/small-publishing – that it is inherently low-art, not literary… the irony being that our storytelling is actually 100% true to our creative intent – and therefore artistically uncompromised – whereas traditional publishing is by necessity populist, and therefore much more susceptible to being a bit… gutless.
So I’ve set up no man, because I know how I want to tell my stories, I know there’s an audience out there for them, and I know I’m not the only storyteller that feels that way. We’re not interested in genre or rules or whatever… just awesome stories.
Who/What are the main influences on your writing?
From a story point of view: Stephen King, obviously. I think the big learning from him was that you gotta get the characters right. If they’re not real, believable people, you can forget the rest. But if you get them right, and ensure you don’t then change them to fit the story – you can get away with anything. Readers will believe. So he’s the foundation… but in terms of style? I’d guess Iain Banks probably twisted me sweetly out of true. Alan Moore. Cormac McCarthy. Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort was a huge influence – and probably the biggest single influence on the supernatural element of The Knife. But the biggest overall tonal influence on The Knife was actually As If by Blake Morrison – an incredible, devastating book covering the trial of the boys that killed Jamie Bulger. There might be a pinch of Kes in there too – I was force-fed that at school. Seem to remember it sending me into a tailspin of existential torpor, so wouldn’t claim to have enjoyed it, but there’s little escaping its impact.
The book is clearly inspired by real-life events. Why did those events in particular strike a chord?
I’m not sure they struck a chord more than any of the other terrible events that happen every day in the news – these ones just happened to fit both the story, and the theme of childhood neglect being allowed to fester and metastasise into something more socially toxic. But I have children, and so stories of child neglect and child-on-child violence are particularly haunting to me. I think there’s something uniquely devastating about the innocence of childhood being devoured by a cruel world. And it’s all so avoidable – the excruciating, unbearable, incomprehensible sadnesses that these kids have to endure – and I think it’s important that we are made to look and to see it… even if it’s through the more bearable lens of fiction: better that than not at all.
Why make a story so fuelled by social injustice into a horror story with vampires?
Well, I do subscribe to the view that storytelling is not unlike archaeology – the stories are all already out there in the dirt, waiting to be dug up. With The Knife, I didn’t sit up one day and think, ‘I must write a story about social injustice’. The first thing to pop into my head was the opening scene – the old vampire on the bench waiting to die, getting held up at knife point, is stabbed as he bursts into flames. He’s dead, but his blood is on the knife, and the next person to get stabbed with the knife turns into a vampire. Simple, high concept, elevator pitch stuff. But then when you then start filling in the gaps (or keep digging), that’s where it started getting serious. I didn’t know or plan for it to get serious: but going back to the point earlier about convincing characters, it was inevitable… where would an old man get held up and stabbed whilst minding his own business? Probably not in Eastbourne. Could well believe it happening in a city. What city do I know? London. OK, so we’re in London. And what about if this old vampire guy, what if his spirit is trapped in the knife, and he gets pulled back with every new stabbing into the body of each new knife-made vampire. That could work. Especially as he hates humanity, thinks they’re vermin, so what would be the very worst outcome for him? To wake up in the body of a helpless child… and the guy with the knife. he could be running around stabbing people, but it’d be a bit of a stretch. More likely that someone accidentally nicks their finger on the knife. Probably a child. A young, curious child – ah, OK… and so on – all those initial steps need to be careful and believable. But having taken them, I found myself in a dirty London flat, with a neglected child, surrounded by addiction and criminality – at which point I had two choices: walk away from it, or commit myself to it and do all I could in the telling of the story to do right by those children. It’s just what came out of the ground. But when I saw what I had – and how delicate and sensitive some of the subject matter was – I was fucking careful with it. I had to be.
You and no man have some interesting and innovative ideas for a broader Knife universe and developing new writing talent. Can tell us more?
The idea with no man is really just something that the comic book houses have been doing for ages: world creation. And I guess, as we think of ourselves as storytellers as opposed to publishers, we’re probably closer to them in mindset anyway – we just can’t draw. Yet.
So with The Knife, for example, I’ve written the first story in that world. But that doesn’t mean I have to write the next one. And in fact, we’re already mapping out a couple of Knife stories to follow this one – one of which follows an incidental character from the first book, who won’t be in the second book proper at all – but whose absence will be keenly felt: that story might appear as a journal, or a blog, or who knows what – but it’ll be written in character, a female character, with a female writer at the helm. Then there’s another character (again female) who will feature centrally in the next book who will appear in person at some point in the real world as a blogger… So I suppose the idea is method-storytelling. We want to expand and enrich this world by populating it with real people dealing with unreal shit. And it’ll be out there for discovery and exploration…
That’s the creative angle. But from a business angle the idea is that we can find great new writers, give them a ready-made fictional world to cut their storytelling teeth in, allow them to dazzle and build up their own audience within an established universe. And then of course encourage them to create their own universes that we can all then play in. But in so doing, we can create myths, and go back to the storytelling ideal where the legends get passed around and grow, holistically and organically…
What is next? The book makes it very clear that the story isn’t over so is a sequel your next writing project?
As I mentioned above there are more Knife stories in the pipeline. There are the two that will be picked up by the no man team that sit between the first and second main narratives… I’m mapping out that second one as we speak. I envisage there being a third, and again I’d imagine there’ll be tangential episodes in between two and three. There’s scope as well to go back and explore the history and pre-history of the old ones, but I’d be happy to let someone else play with those… So – my next project is either the next Knife story, or a novel I’ve been working on for years called The River.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
We’ve got another novel by a writer called Vanessa Austin Locke but that’s under wraps for now. She’s also writing us a series of kids books called The Dyslexic Vampire Babies, to be illustrated by Gary Goodman. Which brings me on nicely to the children’s arm of no man, called no kidding. Our first no kidding book is co-written by me and Vanessa and it’s about where universes and babies come from – that’s ready for illustration. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s more than we have time for at the minute! Plus everything else in the collaborative vein that’s at the core of no man, and that could be anything, go anywhere… who knows?
The Knife is available from Amazon (UK/US/Europe) and The Nile (AUS/NZ). For more details and links head to the no man website.
Interview and review by Neil Martin.