Dispatches with Jonny Eberle — Season 2, Episode 10 Transcript — “Perilous Times” with Thomas D. Lee

[Soft, vaguely ominous and mysterious music plays]

Thomas D. Lee 0:04
You’re listening to Dispatches with Jonny Eberle.

Jonny Eberle 0:09
Welcome to this very special episode of Dispatches, a podcast about writing, travel, and the creative process. I’m your host, Jonny Eberle. And the voice you heard at the beginning was that of my guest. Thomas D. Lee is a fantasy author and today, we’re gonna be talking with him about his debut novel, Perilous Times.

Thomas D. Lee 0:29
Hi, my name’s Thomas D. Lee. I’m a fantasy author. I’m currently doing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Manchester in the north of England, and my debut novel, Perilous Times, is out in the U.S. on the 23rd of May.

Jonny Eberle 0:47
Well, would you, would you like to regale us with a little bit of Perilous Times?

Thomas D. Lee 0:51
I would love to. But I’m going to read from the first chapter because I agree with Julie Andrews—I think the beginning is a very good place to start.

Jonny Eberle 1:00
Perilous Times is a contemporary fantasy that pits the legendary Knights of the Round Table against the existential threats of the modern world. Thanks to an ancient spell, Sir Kay, one of the book’s protagonists is resurrected every time England is in danger. He has fought at Hastings and Waterloo and the Battle of the Somme. But this time, he isn’t faced with an invading army, but the ravages of a changing climate–foes that even King Arthur’s bravest knights may be unable to vanquish. Kay will have to team up with a young woman if there is any hope of defeating the magical forces that are allied against the realm in these perilous times. England doesn’t just need a knight, it needs a leader—and Excalibur is just within reach. In today’s episode, I’ll talk with Thomas about the inspiration for the novel and his writing process, why stories about King Arthur continue to resonate with us today, and how he went from writing student to published author. But first, here’s an excerpt from chapter one of Perilous Times:

Thomas D. Lee 2:03
Kay crawls up from under his hill up through the claggy earth. For the last thousand years, the land around his hill has been dry, drainage and farming and modern miracles kept the water away, he remembers. Now the ground is waterlogged as it was when he was first buried before the fens were drained. He starts to wonder why but then he gets a worm in his arm, which is the sort of foul development that drives the thoughts from your head. He makes a small disgusted sound and wipes the worm away. This part’s always disagreeable, the brute scramble up towards daylight. He burrows through clay, grabs at roots, until the earth falls away and is looking up at a vaguely yellow sky. He gets his head out first and then an elbow before taking a break to catch his breath. The air doesn’t taste particularly good. The sun is baking down on his face. It must be midsummer. He has another go at getting free. The earth’s pulling down on his legs. But the slippery mud slickens his chainmail and provides some lubrication. Finally, there’s an almighty squelch and he feels the earth let go. His leg comes free, his hips get past the roots. And when he’s out to his knees, he almost slips, falls back into the strange hollow that he’s climbed out of. But he manages to stop himself. He gets his shins above ground and then he’s up, kneeling in the sun, panting in the heat, wearing a coat of mail and a green wool cloak, both rhymed with muddy afterbirth. His dreadlocks are matted with earth.

Sure enough, his little burial hill is surrounded by bog. The waters have risen. This is how it was when he was buried before the tree grew from his stomach. He gulps down air trying to fill his lungs, but the air feels heavier than it ought to feel. It doesn’t look like there’s anyone here to wake him up this time. In the old days, there were bands of horsemen, sometimes even a king in person when the need was dire enough. Then it became army lorries or circles of druids in white shifts, always slightly surprised that their dancing had actually achieved something. More recently, a man in a raincoat, checking his wristwatch with a flying machine roaring on the grass behind him. Nothing today. It must be one of the more organic ones where the Earth itself decides to shake his shoulder. Something shifting in the spirit of the realm. Well, maybe the birds in the sky have held a parliament and voted to dig him up. He looks around. No sign of any birds either.

“Bad then,” he mutters to nobody. There’s something new across the bog. He squints at it because the sun is bright and reflecting off the metal parts, and ugly cluster of low buildings with pipes running everywhere, like a massive serpent. In the center is a silver tower shaped like a bullet. A fortress, perhaps, bigger though than Arthur’s fortress at Caer Moelydd ever was.

“That didn’t used to be there,” he says to himself. It seems like a good place to start if he’s going to figure out why he’s back.

[Soaring, heroic music]

Jonny Eberle 5:45
Thomas and I go way back. How far back you may ask? Well, I’ll let him tell it. I would love it if you would tell listeners how you and I met.

Thomas D. Lee 5:56
[Chuckles] Well, me and Jonny met in approximately the year 2003. But also at the same time, the year 2265 on the bridge of the Starship Intrepid in a small Star Trek text-based role-playing game. Back in the day, there were all sorts of little places where you could go and pretend to be a Vulcan or a Klingon if you wanted to. And me and Jonny were both on the senior staff of the Starship Intrepid exploring the galaxy and fighting Klingons. And eventually I ended up commanding the Starship Intrepid, which, you know, I always want to put starship captain on my CV, when I do literary events, but I think it would just confuse people really. But Jonny was a very capable doctor and medical officer. And so he was the Bones to my Kirk. And we explored the galaxy together for about, I don’t know, five or 10 years before, sort of, the Intrepid finally got mothballed. And we had to get normal jobs and not pretend to be Starfleet officers anymore, which was a great shame.

Jonny Eberle 7:01
It is. I don’t know if I’ll ever top that in my my life or career. But we aren’t here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about fantasy. We’re here to talk about Perilous Times. Let’s go back to the beginning. At the risk of making a Star Trek pun, would you tell me about the genesis of this idea?

Thomas D. Lee 7:17
So I think I’ve always, at some level, had King Arthur on the back of my mind, although I kind of forgot all that. And recently, when I was sorting through some papers in my old childhood bedroom, I found a drawing of an Arthurian knight that I didn’t remember making. It wasn’t a very good drawing. But I obviously already wanted to tell the stories about Arthurian knights, I just didn’t really know what those stories were. And then fast forward to about 2016, after I’d been to university and everything, and the Brexit vote happened in the UK, which people of my generation were broadly unhappy with and annoyed by. Because we felt like we were being cut off from the European community and all the rest of it. And there was a great sense of the country being mismanaged. And people were joking on Twitter about now might be the time for King Arthur to come back and fulfill the ancient prophecy of returning in times of peril. And I thought that was very funny. And I, you know, I myself had the thought of it would be great if there was some kind of magical solution to this problem. Because that would stop us from having to actually do any hard work in the present to solve the problem if King Arthur would just come back magically and make everything better. And that was the sort of kernel around which the novel was built, because I thought it was an inherently funny idea about King Arthur and his knights coming back. And I instantly had this very strong sense that it wouldn’t help and that they wouldn’t be very good at it. And that there was something quite comical about that, that ancient warriors coming back with a sword and shield is actually useless in a funny way. And the novel, the novel sort of grew from there. And I spent a very long time struggling to figure out what the structure and plot of Perilous Times would be, approaching it from different angles and never quite getting it right. And it was several years later, in 2018, when I was reading the IPCC report on climate change, that I realized that the climate was, was at the heart of the book, and that this was going to be a book about ecological problems as well. And that sort of gave me the landscape I needed because I realized it was a book about Britain, not just the British political landscape, but the actual landscape as well, the ecological landscape, and how that has changed and how we need to try and protect it from all sorts of malign forces that really do exist in the real world.

Jonny Eberle 9:58
I find it so fascinating that you’re using fantasy as a vehicle to deal with this real-world problem, with climate change. Why do you think it’s important to read and to write climate fiction right now?

Thomas D. Lee 10:11
I think it’s growing increasingly important. And if it wasn’t important for me to write this book a few years ago, it would be even more important for me to write it now. Because the problems that we’re facing—as a species, as a civilization—aren’t being solved, we’re not really taking the action we need to take to protect our home. There’s a huge debate to be had about whether fiction has the power to change anything, politically, and I’m not sure whether it does or not. I think its main function might be to entertain, rather than to influence anybody, because broadly, the sort of person who picks up a book like Perilous Times probably already agrees with me, and isn’t really going to have their opinion challenged by it. But maybe there’ll be one or two people who feel differently about the importance of climate breakdown by the time they finish reading. I’m just sort of doing a disclaimer where I don’t, you know, I don’t have an inflated sense of my own importance or the book’s importance in fighting climate change. There are people who are doing much more heroic stuff, being modern knights and lying in the path of oil lorries. But I think the reason we’re seeing more books like this is that more and more authors feel like they have some cultural responsibility to address climate change. And that if they don’t mention climate change in their books, they’re writing fantasy, almost more than I am. My book has knights and dragons in it, but it’s addressing a real problem that exists. Whereas there are books that are sort of putting their heads in the sand and not trying to address big problems like climate change.

Jonny Eberle 12:02
I was really struck when I read the first chapter of Perilous Times. I knew it was going to be about climate change, I knew the themes could be quite heavy. And what I was not expecting was to laugh out loud in the first chapter. It’s really funny. Why was it important to you to include humor in this book?

Thomas D. Lee 12:21
In order to satisfy my own internal demands of what fiction should be, and I don’t, I don’t sort of expect anybody else to meet those demands, but I expect myself to meet them. It needs to be funny and serious. And it needs to deal with serious issues in a way that’s not boring in a way that’s thoughtful and funny at the same time. And that is a difficult thing to navigate. And I was struggling to navigate it until I read, or rather reread Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and her entire series of books about Thomas Cromwell. And they’ve got this brilliant dry humor to them. But they’re written in this extremely thoughtful and contemplative style. And it was only once I reread Wolf Hall that I started a brand new draft of Perilous Times, which I think at first was just saved as “contemplative draft” or something like that. And then that became the book and I kept writing. And it was the first time I’d ever really just started a blank new document and started writing and it completely snowballed and turned into a finished novel. Humor is very important, especially if we’re dealing with a dying world. And when we’re not really doing much to fix it, I think it’s important to have a sense of humor, because that’s part of what defines us as humans is the ability to laugh at our misfortunes. But I think it’s important to blend that with, with the more serious themes that you’re trying to present. My writing mentor, Beth Underdown, who’s a brilliant writer, has this sense that my writing is funny, but wearing a serious backpack. I’ve always quite enjoyed that way of thinking about it. And that’s that really helps me to remember to keep that balance right when I’m writing as well because sometimes I get it completely wrong, and it’s far too serious or it’s far too silly. The scales need to be roughly in balance, I think.

Jonny Eberle 14:13
So, it’s interesting that you’ve written this fantasy novel and, you know, fantasy has some baggage, obviously of white saviorism, colonialism, toxic masculinity, how did you navigate that? Because you’ve written a beautifully inclusive book with a multicultural cast of characters. How did you approach that?

Thomas D. Lee 14:32
With a sledgehammer, really. And with great glee. There’s quite a few authors nowadays who are doing that. And I encourage it, and I think there’s such a very such a long, long history of books about white men who are cis-bodied and straight and able-bodied. And we have enough of those books. There’s, there’s lots of them. People can go to the library and get them out if they want to read books like that. And I just enjoyed writing a book that was a bit more diverse and representative. So I used to work at a high school in Greater Manchester where there was a young student, a young Muslim student who was a voracious reader. And she would always be in the library at lunchtime and break where I had sort of library duty as a teaching assistant. And she read all sorts of fantasy books which she really enjoyed. One day, she just sort of looked up at me with a very sad face and says, “None of these books have any Muslim girls in them.” And I felt this very strong urge to correct that if I ever had the chance. And that’s, that is the reason why one of this book’s protagonists, Mariam, is a Muslim woman because Britain, in particular, has a huge Muslim population. And Manchester is a city with lots of Muslim people living here, and they’re welcomed as a, you know, as part of the community. You know, it’s about time we celebrated that eviction. And I wanted to make a point as well, that Britain has not been an historically white place. And there’s a lot of debate about this. I remember a while ago, there was a museum that had a depiction of a Black Roman soldier. And there was all sorts of controversy about it, despite the fact that the Roman Empire was an enormously multicultural institution, and that we have physical evidence and we know for a fact that there were Roman soldiers garrisoned in Britain, who were from all corners of the empire. And that’s the point I was trying to make with Kay, who, in my version is Black. And I envision him if they ever make a film or TV production, I will insist on it being Idris Elba playing Kay. The point I was trying to make there is that there were black people in Britain in the sixth century, which is the sort of post-Roman period in which Arthur was supposed to have existed, if he ever existed at all.

Jonny Eberle 16:47
Changing gears a little bit, I’m curious about the actual publication process. You’ve been in the midst of this, of actually getting this book from draft to something people can buy, but how has that been for you?

Thomas D. Lee 16:58
It’s sort of like having a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. In that, you don’t know what the next room looks like until you’re actually through the door. And somebody says, “And this is what the editing part looks like.” And then you get a very brief introduction to that. And all of these people, editors, and agents who are wonderful and do very good jobs, sometimes forget that debut authors haven’t been through that room before. And you kind of have to figure it out by yourself, and come to your own conclusions about “Oh, I guess it works like this.” But it’s been, I mean, I’m very, very lucky. I’m very, very privileged to have the editors that I do, and the agent that I do, and I’ve had a comparatively easy ride, compared to a lot of people. There’s people who I was on the MA program with here at Manchester, who’ve written absolutely incredible books and don’t have an agent yet. And I don’t understand why my book got picked up, and theirs didn’t, and sometimes it just comes down to weird marketing trends. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve written a very good book, but it’s amazing to me how the industry works and how it makes its decisions. But it has decided to pick up my book and turn it into a hardback debut that’s getting a lot of press and buzz on social media. And I’m very, very grateful for that.

Jonny Eberle 18:10
Yeah, that’s interesting, trying to pick apart and guess maybe at what the business of publishing is, because clearly it, right, it is a business, they have to make money, they have to know what’s going to sell before they buy something. So, I guess it’s up to us to write the best thing that hopefully arrives at the right time for the marketing machine to pick up, right?

Thomas D. Lee 18:29
Absolutely. And it’s impossible to predict that if you write from a place of thinking what’s hot right now, what’s trending, “oh, I should write something like that,” by the time you’ve finished the book that will not be trending anymore and you’ll have missed the bus. So the best advice I think, is to write what you want to write. Because you have no control over what’s trending and what’s not. So you might as well write what you want to write in the hope that it might be trending by the time you’ve finished it. There’s a slim chance that it will be if you really want to write something about werewolves and somebody tells you add that’s not really that’s not really selling at the moment, you should ignore them and write it anyway. Because by the time you’ve finished, maybe werewolves will be having a renaissance. We’re not Merlin and we can’t see the future. So we have to just keep trudging away like confused knights and doing the best we can in the moment.

Jonny Eberle 19:22
I like that answer. That’s very good. And that also jumps ahead to my next question, which was if you had any advice for aspiring writers?

Thomas D. Lee 19:29
Write as much as you can and practice as much as you can with the hours that are available to you. But also look after yourself. Because it’s, it’s a really punishing job. It’s a really it’s some people who’ve never written a book seem to have the idea that writers live an easy life and we really don’t. It takes a lot of heart and a lot of effort and determination to even finish a book, let alone dealing with everything that comes afterwards. There’s this myth of the struggling artist and the starving artist who lives in a garret somewhere and lives off absinthe and cigarettes, and never eats anything, and is just constantly crouched over the typewriter kind of wild-eyed writing something. And you don’t want to live like that, because you won’t be happy, and you also won’t produce any good work. So the first thing you should do, if you want to be a writer is look after yourself. And then you should try and write as much as you can. And in terms of practical advice, I find that weekly deadlines—weekly word count targets—are what got me through the first draft of Perilous Times. Just writing things on the calendar and writing about 4,000 words a week was what I did during the first draft.

Jonny Eberle 20:40
Well, all that writing paid off because Perilous Times is out now. Once listeners have finished this episode, run to their local independent bookstore, bought it and torn through it from cover to cover, what should they read next? Because there are a lot of Arthurian retellings being published right now.

Thomas D. Lee 20:56
Absolutely. Well, in the spirit of the Round Table, I feel like all three books should be equally promoted. One of the really nice things about King Arthur is that he is in the public domain. And everybody, everybody, is doing rewritings of King Arthur, and they always have done. But at the moment, there’s this enormous explosion of queer Arthurian stuff happening, and it’s just absolutely wonderful. I’m reading a book called The Winter Knight by Jes Battis at the moment. And I’m having so much fun reading that it’s about an autistic young knight called Gawain living in Vancouver, and just trying to get through his degree, and Morgan le Fey is the dean of the university, and there’s valkyries is flying around and it’s enormous fun. And there’s a young adult book called Gwen & Art Are Not in Love, which is by Lex Croucher, who is very well known on YouTube. And I’m looking forward to picking up a copy of that as well.

Jonny Eberle 21:48
Those are great recommendations. And you can find the links to those books as well as a link to buy Perilous Times in the show notes. Well, we’re just about out of time. But before we wrap up, do you have any questions you want to ask me—kind of flip the script?

Thomas D. Lee 22:03
Yeah, sure.

Jonny Eberle 22:04
Interview the interviewer.

Thomas D. Lee 22:06
I always ask this of all of the writers I know and I don’t accept “no” for an answer. I want to know what you’re writing at the moment. And if you’re not writing anything at the moment, I want to know why you’re not writing anything at the moment.

Jonny Eberle 22:15
It’s a good question: too many things. I am always distracted by the next shiny idea. So I have a I have a novel draft that I have been avoiding editing, because I think it’s probably very terrible. Which I think all first drafts must be.

Thomas D. Lee 22:28
Yes. No, there’s no such thing as a first as a good first draft.

Jonny Eberle 22:31
I don’t think so. But it’s intimidating to even think about how bad it is, before I get into that. And that is a historical drama about the Las Vegas mafia.

Thomas D. Lee 22:41
Hopefully, it’s historic enough that nobody’s going to come knocking on your door and you’re not going to end up wearing concrete galoshes, or…

Jonny Eberle 22:48
Yeah, that is an occupational hazard when you’re writing one of these books. So when I’m not avoiding that book, I’m usually writing short stories, currently about a floating city on Venus that is sinking and they’re trying to keep it quiet.

Thomas D. Lee 23:01
That sounds good. I’d like to read that. You should send me that Venus story and the gangster story once you’ve finished writing them.

[Soaring music]

Jonny Eberle 23:15
Well, this has been just a really nice treat for me, just a nice excuse to talk to you.

Thomas D. Lee 23:19
Yeah, it’s been lovely. I don’t think we’ve ever had a voice or face-to-face conversation before even after all of our long years of exploring the galaxy together. Have a good rest of your day. This has been really fun.

[Soaring music]

Jonny Eberle 23:42
Thanks to Thomas D. Lee for being on the show. You can find Thomas on Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok. Or you can cruise over to thomasdleewriter.wordpress.com to learn more about him. Perilous Times is available now wherever books are sold. If you want to order it online, you can find the link in the show notes to my Bookshop.org page. I’m a Bookshop.org affiliate so I may earn a small commission if you buy it from that link. If you’re curious about how I met Thomas and our shared love of Star Trek, check out the episode right before this one. It’s season two, episode nine: A Trek Through the Stars.

You’ve been listening to Dispatches with Jonny Eberle. I’m Jonny Eberle. I’m a writer, podcaster, filmmaker, and photographer. I live in Tacoma, Washington with my family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. My fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can find more of my writing, and subscribe to my monthly email newsletter at jweberle.com. You can also listen to my debut audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, anywhere you find podcasts. Dispatches with Jonny Eberle as a production of Obscure Studios. It was written and edited by me with music from Pixabay.

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This is the final episode of season two of Dispatches. I’ll be back soon with more episodes, but in the meantime, you can check out my whole back catalog wherever you’re listening right now, and be sure to hit the follow or subscribe button to be notified as soon as new episodes start dropping. Thanks so much for listening!