Lee Weeks tells Audrey Ward how her shocking past in Hong Kong and escape to Britain inform her thrillers
Lee Weeks has had a strange journey to the top of the bestseller lists. Now 54, the thriller writer is a divorced mother of two living a sedate life in Exeter. Apart from the odd glass of chardonnay, she claims to have only one other vice. “I hang around for a bit of passive smoke wherever I find it,” says the ex-smoker.
It was not always like that. In the summer of 1982 she was 23 and working in a Hong Kong nightclub when a friend offered her a drug that she said would help her stay slim. Weeks thought it was speed, which the locals smoked, and which she believed was fairly innocuous, but it was heroin.
She soon became addicted and ended up in the hands of a triad criminal gang, who were planning to traffick her as a sex slave.
It all seems a world away from the hotel in Bristol where she sits down to tell her story. She has a sun-kissed glow and there are no signs of the junkie she once was. She laughs easily and talks quickly.
Her days are now spent on writing, and in the evenings she works out at the gym. Once a month she goes dancing at Mama Stones, a nightclub owned by the mother of the singer Joss Stone.
As a child, Weeks moved around a lot with her policeman father, which caused her problems at school. Other children bullied her and she says she had a breakdown at 14 that wasn’t diagnosed. Aged 17, she took off and travelled around Europe and Asia.
Eventually, she fetched up in the Hong Kong club and met a businesswoman called Teresa. They were soon spending all their time together. Only later did Weeks realise Teresa was not what she seemed.
Once Teresa had got her hooked on heroin, she persuaded Weeks to move to a house in a remote fishing village on the Chinese border. The pretext was that they would be able to save a lot of money.
Instead, Weeks’s life spiralled out of control.
“I was lying in a room, cut off from civilisation, incapable of functioning,” she recalls. “There were spiders crawling up the walls, lizards everywhere. I couldn’t eat anything; I was vomiting all the time. I was looking at my pupils — were they dilated? Was it time to fix again?” Day and night, triad loan sharks would arrive and engage in heated conversations with Teresa. It turned out that she had stood as guarantor for a friend who had borrowed from them. When he fled to Japan without repaying the money, she was saddled with the debt.
As the hellish days crawled by, it dawned on Weeks that her “friend” was controlling her. “Every time I said I was going into town she said she’d order me a taxi, but the taxi never came. Other times she’d say, ‘I don’t think you should go out. There’s something happening in the village — there’s not a nice atmosphere.’ “I realised I had to get away from Teresa.”
That was easier to think than to do. She was dependent on drugs and in a village where nobody spoke English and there was no public transport.
She had broken off contact with her parents months earlier and nobody knew where she was. “I could see death was on the cards and I was worried that no one would find my body. I became obsessed with the fact that I had lived for nothing.”
Weeks started planning her escape. Teresa rarely left her alone, but when she finally went out one day, Weeks seized her chance. She still had the card of the taxi driver who had driven the two girls to the village six months before. She phoned him and although he had poor English, he recognised her voice.
“I didn’t think he would come, but I packed a bag and waited. I was in a blind panic and terrified that Teresa would come back.”
After an hour the taxi driver appeared and drove her to a hotel in Wan Chai, on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island.
She was not in the clear yet.
Teresa tracked her down and turned up at the hotel. She had been so badly beaten by the triads that she couldn’t walk and the hotel porter had to carry her up to Weeks’s bedroom. Teresa pleaded with her to return but she refused to go back.
With the help of a government methadone programme she kicked drugs and began an affair with a Chinese lawyer. He made inquiries and found out about the life that Teresa and the gangsters had planned for her.
“It was through him that I discovered I was triad-owned and that Teresa had sold me as part of that debt.” She had been keeping Weeks compliant until they were ready to send her to Taiwan to have sex with strangers.
Weeks was horrified and returned home to Cornwall as quickly as possible. There, she married and divorced a college friend before starting to write.
It was something that she had wanted to do since she was 17 and, if her recall of her past seems remarkably detailed, there is a reason for it: all the time she was travelling, she kept notes, even in Hong Kong.
Given her narrow escape from the sex trafficking industry, it is no surprise that many of her books are set in this murky area. Her latest novel, Dead of Winter, delves back into that world.
“I know the other side of life, the seedy and dangerous side,” she says. “And I know how it feels to be trapped by another person.”
It is a popular theme. Her five books have sold almost a million copies and been favourably compared to the novels of Martina Cole.
For her research she has travelled to the Philippines and returned to Hong Kong. “The places I saw were like a Disney World for sex. The pimps were British, Australian and American and on either side of the streets were the sex workers.”
She shudders at the thought of what could have been.
Dead of Winter is published in paperback by Simon and Schuster at £6.99
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