Thomas D Lee is a Manchester-based author of fantastical and historical fiction. He has recently sold the rights to his debut novel, Perilous Times, to UK publisher Orbit, Ballantine in the US, and Heyne Books in Germany.
Perilous Times has been described as a “sharply witty and relevant” novel, mixing Arthurian legend with contemporary fantasy (as well as several other timely topics such as climate breakdown, Brexit, toxic masculinity, talking squirrels, and flying ice cream vans). Orbit editorial director, Jenni Hill, believes Tom’s novel is likely to delight fans of Pratchett’s Discworld, Gaiman’s Good Omens, and Rucka’s The Old Guard comics.
Between his writing and academic career, and his aspirations of becoming a hermit in the woods who speaks only in riddles (that’s what his website says, anyway) Thomas was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss his book, journey to publication, his writing process, and more.
MSF: Hi Thomas, first things first, massive congratulations on your book deal and many thanks for taking the time to give us this interview! Out of curiosity, is this the first time you’ve given an interview?
TDL: Thank you! Always happy to make time for Manchester’s premier group of sci-fi and fantasy authors. This is actually the second interview that I’ve been asked to do since the book deal was announced. I’ve been working with the Invisible Worlds project, who are doing some very cool things with folklore and cultural memory over at Alderley Edge. I’m still pretty flabbergasted that anybody wants to interview me at all, but here we are.
MSF: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where are you from and how did you end up here (i.e. being interviewed by such a prestigious outlet as the MSF website)?
TDL: Well, I spent most of my childhood in Cheadle Hulme and south Manchester (perilously close to Alderley Edge) before moving out to Shropshire as a teenager. My parents live in the shadow of the Wrekin, an old Iron Age hill fort, which is mentioned in the poetry of A. E. Housman. The combination of Alan Garner and the Shropshire hills was bound to lead me in Arthurian directions, eventually. I came back to Manchester ten years ago for university and I never left, which is why Manchester features so prominently in the book.
MSF: Perilous Times deals with a number of sensitive and socially relevant themes, while also being relatively bonkers (you know, talking squirrels and flying ice cream vans and all). Can you tell us a bit more? What’s the novel about and where did the idea come from?
TDL: I remember having the idea as a teenager of an Arthurian knight coming back from the dead during the Second World War. I saved that concept away for a very long time until 2016, when the Brexit vote happened, Trump was elected, and the skies seemed to be darkening. I thought ‘maybe it’s time for King Arthur to come back’, and that seemed like a funny idea for a novel, and I ran with it. Then later on it became a book about climate breakdown, as I got more and more concerned about the ecological crisis. I hope people read this book and get angry with the oil barons, the politicians, the newspapermen, who are making the planet uninhabitable for the rest of us.
MSF: I’d just moved to the UK when all that (Brexit, Trump) happened. Perilous times indeed… How long did it take you to write the beast?
TDL: I actually shelved it for three years, and didn’t come back to it until I was halfway through my master’s degree at the Centre for New Writing, here in Manchester. In February 2019, it was time for me to write something for our student workshop, so I sat down in the university library and wrote the first chapter in one sitting. I didn’t type THE END until halfway through the pandemic, August 2020. So eighteen months, all told! With lots of procrastination and anguish in the middle.
MSF: What about the journey to publication? What was that like?
TDL: I’ve been very, very lucky and haven’t had the typical experience of getting published, which is often a process of agonising rejections and banging one’s head against the doors of literary agencies. My mentor Beth Underdown, who has been championing this book since day one, opened a lot of those doors for me.
Harry Illingworth at the DHH Agency picked me up, and then the UK rights ended up going to auction in a three-way bidding war. I’m still blown away by how positive the reaction to it has been from the publishing industry, but I’m very aware of my privilege and good fortune. I had an easier road than most aspiring authors.
MSF: Can you share a little about your writing process? Any tips or tricks you could give aspiring writers out there? Also, what are some do’s and don’ts that you’ve learned as a debut author?
TDL: I think the most important thing to learn is that there are no tricks. It’s as easy and as difficult as just sitting down and getting the bastard thing written, one word at a time. It took me a very long time to learn that lesson. You need to cultivate qualities like patience and bloody-mindedness and the ability to keep going even when it seems like you’re writing rubbish—none of which come quickly or easily. But there are practical things you can do, like weekly word-count targets. And it’s important to be kind to yourself.
MSF: Hark, hark! Wise words there. Did you ever consider self-publishing or was the “traditional” route always your endgame?
TDL: I always wanted to go down the traditional route. The industry is still hard to break into unless you’re doing so from a position of privilege, and I’d like to see that change. But the problem with self-publishing is that you have to be your own publicist, do your own marketing, blow your own trumpet. Whereas traditional publishing companies have the money and the know-how to get your book into bookshops, advertise it on the side of a blimp, send a copy into orbit, or whatever. Self-publishing and viral marketing can work for some people, though. I have a deep professional respect for Chuck Tingle.
MSF: Don’t we all. Any prior publications? You attended a Manchester Speculative Fiction meeting or two a while back and, if I recall correctly, put a short story through the group about a goblin-haunted mill somewhere in Manchester, right? Do you still write short fiction?
TDL: I remember that! I’d been doing some work at Quarry Bank Mill and it inspired a short story about goblins. I think it joined the slightly sad elephant’s graveyard of other half-finished books in my BACK BURNER folder. I don’t write much short fiction, but I’ve abandoned dozens of novels over the years. Perilous Times is actually the first book I’ve ever finished, if you can believe that, though the first chapter was in the Manchester Anthology a few years ago.
MSF: Can I ask you, candidly, what did you think of the group? Were there any other writer groups in your life?
TDL: The feedback I got from MSF really emboldened me to trust myself as a writer, back when I didn’t have many other points of contact with the writing world. I think writing groups are a really important part of developing your confidence as a writer when you’re starting out. Later on during my MA, I had the privilege of being part of two really great peer workshop groups set up by graduates of the program, and it was one of those groups that encouraged me to keep going and finish Perilous Times. I’d certainly advocate MSF to any young writers in Manchester who want some feedback on their sci-fi, fantasy or horror writing.
MSF: Thank you for your kind words. Perilous Times will be coming out in early 2023. That seems quite far away. How are you dealing with the wait? What are the remaining steps before publication?
TDL: It’s amazing how long it takes to turn a typed manuscript into an actual book. Still, the long lead time means I have more time to edit it and make it as good as it can be, with help from my wonderful editors, Jenni and Julian. It’s fascinating how the process works once they place a book on the publishing assembly line. And I have another book to finish, before Perilous Times hits the shelves!
MSF: So, we know what’s going to happen in the short-term. What about the middle- and long-term? Any sequels or other books in the pipeline? Any other writing projects keeping you busy?
TDL: There won’t be any direct sequels—I don’t see myself ever wanting to write a big twelve-book fantasy series – but when you’re writing about Arthurian knights, there’s plenty of room for prequels. I’m writing a book about Lancelot as part of my PhD, alongside my thesis and my next novel, which Orbit and Ballantine have also picked up. So I’m certainly keeping busy!
MSF: We’ve only talked about writing so far, but, tell me, what does Thomas D Lee do when he isn’t writing?
TDL: He mostly plays a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, which became a bit of an obsession during lockdown. I’m cutting back on it now and emerging back into the world, like a hermit coming out of his cave. I enjoy rambling up hills and exploring the green parts of England.
MSF: Finally, here’s the MSF interview trinity question: what’s your favourite book, movie/TV show, and video game?
TDL: If my flat burnt down and I could only save one series of books it would be the Aubrey/Maturin naval adventures by Patrick O’Brian. But I love Wolf Hall, I love American Gods, and I love Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I don’t watch enough TV but I’ve been working my way through the Studio Ghibli films recently. And my favourite video game has to be Red Dead Redemption 2, which is one of the greatest storytelling experiences I’ve ever encountered. When I get annoyed with the resurgence of fascism in the world, I play Wolfenstein for a bit of therapeutic Nazi-killing.
MSF: Any questions you would have liked me to ask? And if I’d asked it, what would you have answered?
TDL: I always try to talk about mental health when I talk about writing. Writers tend to tie up professional aspirations with mental wellbeing in ways other people don’t, which is very unhealthy and can lead to writers being very unhappy. I think it’s important to remember that the ‘poor suffering artist’ stereotype is bollocks. You produce the best art or writing from a position of happiness and self-love, not when you’re miserable and burnt out and being hard on yourself. So don’t crucify yourself for your art. Give yourself a break every now and again.
MSF: That’s a great question and answer to wrap this up. Thanks again for talking to us. I think I can speak for all MSF when I wish you the best of luck for the journey ahead and mucho, mucho success with Perilous Times. Live Long and Prosper, Mr Lee.
TDL: You’re very welcome. Peace and long life!