Lee Weeks spoke to You’re Booked about how her troubled life led to a new career in crime fiction.
Reading the official HarperCollins biography for Lee Weeks, author of Kiss & Die, Death Trip, The Trafficked and The Trophy Taker, is like stumbling across the tip of an iceberg.
Consider the untold depths in these words: “She left school at seventeen and, armed with a notebook and very little cash, spent seven years working her way around Europe and South East Asia.”
As if, those years abroad were about waitressing, romance and writing teen poetry about her travels and not heroin addiction, the threat of becoming a sex slave, or being on the wrong side of the Triads.
Lee Weeks never set out to write a crime novel, it just so happened that her life could have been lifted straight out of one. “I was just really loosely telling the story of when I went to Hong Kong and what happened to me…it was basically autobiographical,” she explained. And when you hear her stories, it’s not surprising she felt the need to create her own hero.
Unlike many other crime authors, Lee isn’t a big reader of the genre: “I’ve only really read half a Patterson book and they compare me to Patterson on the front of the book.” She loves poetry and Gabriel Marcia Marquez. Her agent Darley Anderson represents some of the biggest blockbuster authors around – Lee Child, Martina Cole, John Connolly.
Weeks has always been clear that she wrote her first book for cash.
“I didn’t have any choice in the beginning because my marriage ended, I was left up the swanny, with a mortgage like everyone else…. I had to take the risk; this was the time to take it. I wasn’t going to lose anything by sending off three chapters to an agent, and that was it. I had to find money. If I wasn’t earning money from it I’d be doing something else.”
“Every year we moved on, my father was a policeman. And so that was very hard. I was a very arty child, sensitive, very shy.”
The real breaking point began aged just five when she was seriously sexually assaulted in the park. “Then I had four other strangers who sexually assaulted me before I was 14. So you’ve got to wonder. And I was terribly bullied at the age of nine.”
At 12, she began a new comprehensive that was rough. The tension of the place meant she skipped class and spent time on her own.
She entered her teenage years “knowing that nobody was going to come and help me, and knowing that for some reason I was…there was something not nice in me. Because you always think it’s you as a child, you take it on yourself, you think I’m not a very nice person because they are the adults, they must have treated me like that for a reason. And so you come away feeling very damaged, nothing gets repaired.”
Lee had a nervous breakdown aged 14. She had no one to turn to about the assaults, although ironically she says her father, who was a policeman, set up one of the first rape and abuse centres in the country so that victims would not have to go through the trauma of coming in the police station.
“You’re kind of left with a feeling of injustice all the time.”
Lee tried to commit suicide. “My father wasn’t good at mental illness, as lovely as he was, he wasn’t good at dealing with that, so he sent me to a convent. And I did nothing but try and escape, I was trying to repair myself, trying to understand.”
After achieving one O Level in art the nuns didn’t want her to stay saying she was a bad influence on the school. She went straight to art college but left as she couldn’t hack studying for the other O Levels she needed to do a foundation course. So she left. Lee spent the summer working in a hotel but was once more attacked – this time by a policeman, a friend of the family.
“That really finished me then, I then had this horrible realisation that it did come down to me. My mother regrets it now, but I asked her for help because this guy was stalking me. I was frightened to death, but she told me I mustn’t encourage him. It was the old fashioned way. And it all slotted into place, I thought that’s actually what I’ve been doing, it’s not them, it’s all me. I’m looking at them and something in my eyes is making these people attack me – I’m just not a nice person.”
Travel and Strife
After that summer, aged 17, she left the UK for Sweden. It wasn’t about seeking out adventure. “It was complete lack of self preservation,” Lee said. “I didn’t care if I lived or died. I was still quite suicidal. I felt very alienated from everybody else. I carried this kind of burden of knowing I didn’t belong but not understanding why I didn’t belong, or know where I was in the world. I just felt completely and utterly alone. And I didn’t like myself. I blamed my outside self for everything that caused all these problems. And I just didn’t care. So I did go to Sweden to escape after these series of attacks, I did go to escape everything. But at the same time, I didn’t care what happened to me there. I wrote copious diaries, I sill wrote loads of poems.
Then I started a whole series of travelling.”
While hitching round France she was broke and sick, “a pathetic creature”. An old man picked her up and drove her to Paris. She slept the whole way. The old man spoke to his wife and the couple looked after Lee for three months.
“I’ve had horrible times, but actually the more pathetic you get, the more you find these people who will take you in. I’d been sleeping rough. They were lovely to me, they took me round the market every day; I had a family life with them.”
Lee returned to London but seemed to be on a path of self destruction. She kept travelling after a brief stint in a coke den in London – working as a barmaid in Bavaria, a cocktail waitress and DJ in Munich. She came home again to try and finish her GCSEs and A-Levels.
“I did okay, but I realised I was never going to settle – I was still the one at the back of the class flicking aeroplanes, and I was like twenty!” she laughed. “I was never going to do it. So I took off again for Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong would prove to be the beginning of the end for her travels. She was completely unprepared. “I actually thought it was in Japan when I first booked it,” she laughed. “Geography probably wasn’t my strong point! I got off in thigh high boots and it was summer.”
It wasn’t what she expected and she ran out of money fast. “I had no money left at all, and I thought I’d wash dishes or anything. I went up to this nightclub and said to this guy, have you got any work – waitressing, bar work, anything – and he said yeah I’ve got the job for you, and I became a hostess.”
The Drugs Don’t Work
She began to take speed to keep her weight down for modelling work after meeting a girl called Teresa. “She was quite loud and I said to her have you got any speed, and she said she had local speed. I said it’s not heroin is it, because I’d never taken heroin. No, no, no. It was heroin of course. And as an addictive character I became hooked quite quickly. It’s a horrible drug, it makes you puke all the time, it makes you feel like you’re in a glass bubble, like you’re looking through the world through glass bricks and nothing can actually touch you, and before you know it you crave that kind of space.”
Teresa began getting beaten up. The Triads were after her. She had no money to fly home and had been put up as a guarantor for the debt of a gambling friend who had borrowed from loan sharks. The friend had left her in the lurch.
“And so the Triads kept coming back,” Lee said. “She gave them what money she had but it wasn’t enough. Because I needed her so badly, I paid her what little money I had, I didn’t realise that she sold me as well, she sold me as part of the debt, I didn’t realise that at the time.”
Lee and Teresa moved out to the new territories where it was much cheaper to live. But the drugs had taken grip. “I was getting sicker and sicker because my doses were going up and up, I was having a hard time to work at all.”
The region was then undeveloped, a tiny fishing village vulnerable to typhoons and mud slides. Cut off and increasingly dependent on heroin, “It was hell,” Lee said. “I knew I was really sick.” But it was a depth she felt she needed to plummet. “I hadn’t contacted my parents for six months; I knew I meant nothing to anyone. I knew that if I died there, they wouldn’t find my body – who would look? No one knew where I was, I felt nobody cared, but also the most important place I reached was when I thought, what was I doing? I thought you’re only 23, you can die here and nobody will find your body and you’ll mean nothing to anyone. Or you can live for your self. And that was huge for me.”
She had decided she wasn’t going to die. She called a taxi driver, escaped the village and got onto a methadone programme. Effectively on the run from the Triads, she moved hotels every few days and went back to work as a hostess, moving from club to club. Every night she’d be picked up by the same taxi driver and taken to the village hall for her methadone. Then she met a prominent married Hong Kong lawyer in one of the clubs she worked at and fell in love. He warned her about the Triads.
“The Triads knew where I was, they knew where the club was, and actually I was to be trafficked out probably to Taiwan and used as a sex slave and disposed of in a snuff movie or something like that. That’s what I was destined for. And I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave Hong Kong whether I liked it or not, because everyone in Hong Kong owed the Triads a favour: I was that favour.”
She left her lawyer, took a final dose of methadone, and got on a plane home. “I was still withdrawing and in lots of ways it didn’t end, but that particular part of my life ended.”
Crime Fiction: Writing Wrongs
Unlike most novelists who have to imagine the worst, Lee has lived it. “There are not many experiences in life that I can’t tell you how it’s like. I can tell you the most horrible things and what they feel like. Because I sent myself out into the world and didn’t care what happened to my body or to my self.”
Perhaps she wouldn’t be a writer if she’d had a happy youth. Her life is a book.
“I feel that what I have to give is all my experiences. To be able to talk about sex trafficking and abuse of children is really relevant to me, the damage, when you damage a child…Writing is therapy but there’s a big part of me that’s permanently damaged. And I accept that.”
Lee works with abused children, making regular visits to a refuge in the Philippines. “I see it in those children. If you catch them quick enough you can try and repair it. But they want justice and they want certain things to make them a whole person. If you damage a child, that’s our future, so I feel passionately about that. And luckily I’m in a position to write about it.”
And of course writing a crime novel is one way of ensuring the good win and the bad get their comeuppance.
“Yes it is,” Lee agreed. “Johnny Mann – he’s my hero – but the flip side is he’s a lot like me, he’s a damaged hero, he’s not ever going to find happiness probably. His happiness is in helping other people or being a vehicle to help other people.”
But Lee’s outlook on humanity isn’t completely bleak: “There are all sorts of tiny kindnesses that you find even in the depths. I go to places where you find people living in desperate situations, but they’ve still got a smile, they’ve still got something to give you. But we can’t ignore the trafficking, the paedophilia, the pornographic stuff that comes out of that, we can’t ignore it because it won’t go away.”
Lee comes across as warm and bubbly, is she happy now? “It’s ever such a hard question to answer. I feel permanently damaged.”
But more fulfilled?
“On a day to day level I’m a really happy person…On a deeper level I’m too scarred to be able to look on life in the way that other people look on it. Or to ever trust, or to ever repair, or to ever forget.”
But there’s no doubt that her extraordinary life experiences drive her writing. “It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to unleash all these things.”
Find out more about Lee, or sign up for alerts on new releases, visit her website here.