Feminism, she-hulk & werewolves: An interview with Maria Lewis

If you haven’t heard about Maria Lewis’s new urban fantasy novel Who’s Afraid you must have been living under a rock (although you might have just been hiding from the rampant werewolves). Maria was born in New Zealand but is based in Sydney, and has worked as an arts journalist and movie reviewer. She’s an aficionado of horror movies, modern feminist theory and comic books. Maria describes her book as ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but with werewolves, feminism and cussing’, and her character Tommi Grayson carries the tagline ‘she’s all bark, and all bite’. We shot Maria a few questions about her awesome new paranormal series, and she told us about her inspirations, Daniel Radcliffe reading her book, and the ‘Sexy Lamp Test’.

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 You’ve cited Buffy, Daria, the Powerpuff girls and Storm as some of the protagonists you grew up watching. What does Tommi Grayson have in common with these kick-ass characters, and what sets her apart?

The thing Tommi would have in common with all those characters – who, might I add, have all different ages, ethnicities and abilities – is her own sense of agency. She is who she is, unashamedly so.  One of the things about those women that you mentioned – and one of the things that made me fall in love with them growing up – is they’re defined by not only their strengths, but their flaws. I’d say Buffy thinks with her heart more than her head, Storm is perhaps a little too trustworthy and Daria can be conceited at times. Tommi too has a lot of flaws, which I feel are what make her jump off the page and seem real and relatable, despite the fact that she’s a huge-ass werewolf. You’re rooting for Tommi, yet simultaneously you can be cringing at something she’s doing or whispering ‘oh girl, no’ under your breath. As for what makes her standout, she’s not a perfect, fully-formed human who has everything together. Few people do at 22 and I wanted the audience to be able to grow with her as she develops throughout the course of not only Who’s Afraid? but the rest of the books in the series.

Tommi too has a lot of flaws, which I feel are what make her jump off the page and seem real and relatable, despite the fact that she’s a huge-ass werewolf.

How do you engage with feminism and feminist theory in your book?

Great question, and in a lot of ways that was a natural aspect for me to incorporate as I wrote the book. Tommi is a feminist character but she’s not the only one: Who’s Afraid? is sprinkled with them, both men and women, which I feel is indicative of the real world at the moment and the kind of messages I wanted to be sending to readers. Given that I tend to sit at that intersection of pop culture and commentary in my everyday work, some of my favourite feminist theories come from the comic book world like the Bechdel test, Gail Simone’s ‘women in the fridge’ syndrome and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test (if you can remove a female character from the plot and replace her with a sexy lamp and the story still works, then you fail). Who’s Afraid? was always going to leap those bars (which are set intentionally low for a reason), so it was more about weaving in feminist ideas and scenarios to examine them into the text in a way that felt cohesive and not preachy.

We’re used to reading paranormal novels set in the woods of North America or in medieval Europe, whereas Who’s Afraid is partly set in New Zealand. Are there many other paranormal novels set in your home country that you know of? How does this setting influence the story?

This is a rad question and no, there’s not. Although I can’t say definitively because as much as I like to consume a lot within the genre, I have never read any paranormal novels set in New Zealand and the only one I can think of that’s set in Australia is Keri Arthur’s ‘Riley Jenson’ series. Genre fiction sells well, but convincing publishers to accept a story set within Australia and New Zealand is an uphill battle because it still seems like quite a foreign, unrelatable location to a lot of people. Who’s Afraid? was originally set in Australia and New Zealand, yet it was Matthew Reilly who suggested I move it offshore to broaden the appeal. He was right and by picking Dundee, Scotland as a location – while holding on to the New Zealand aspects – it gave the story more breadth as I was able to incorporate unique historical and geographical elements. I was also conscious of taking the readers somewhere they hadn’t been before – especially within the urban fantasy genre – and Dundee definitely is that.

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Maria Lewis

Is it true that you’re of Maori ancestry? Do you borrow from Maori folklore in Who’s Afraid?

Ha, yes – that’s true. Kia ora! My father is Maori and hails from the South Island in New Zealand, which is where I was raised and I borrow very loosely from the folklore in Who’s Afraid? I say ‘loosely’ because ultimately this is a fictional world and I’m inventing a supernatural hierarchy for the Ihi pack inspired by Maori folklore in the same way the Praetorian Guard is extrapolated from Roman history and the Treize, Askari and Custodians from other countries and customs.

At your book launch, there was a showing of art inspired by your novel. Could you tell us about some of the pieces? What was it like to see other people’s interpretations and creative spins on your characters?

My God, the art was so incredible! I can’t tell you how hard it is to see such beautiful pieces come in – of something you invented out of your head – and having to hand them off into the big, bad world to be sold. Although, to be fair, I did buy a few myself as I found it impossible to part with some. Basically I had 20 artists from around the world – everywhere from Berlin and London to Hong Kong and Fargo, North Dakota – interpret the book through their chosen medium of art. Some artists focussed on specific themes or used quotes from the novel, a lot were drawn to the character of Tommi and brought her to life. All of the art was on display at Kinokuniya in Sydney for two weeks as part of The Art Of Who’s Afraid? exhibition and the reaction from people was insane. Basically I came up with the idea for the show because I thought it would be something I personally would like to see as a reader and I knew how much visual storytelling had impacted Who’s Afraid?, so it made sense. But it wasn’t until the sold-out opening night that I was sure anyone else would actually find it as interesting as I did.

Why werewolves?

I’ve always been fascinated by werewolves and it was a mythological creature I grew up with: my granddad reading me werewolf stories as he tucked me in at night were my version of fairy tales. Yet I was always disappointed with the amount of female werewolves out there, or lack thereof, as it seemed to be a monster almost exclusively reserved for men. That felt kinda rubbish to me, as I thought women would be able to relate more to the werewolf mythos. When putting Who’s Afraid? together I wanted it to be a very intimate, character-driven story about someone discovering there’s a monster inside of themselves and how they go about dealing with that truth. The duality of lycanthropy offers a lot of great opportunities for character development, yet I also wanted to pay homage to some of my favourite aspects of werewolf pop culture – namely the grisly, horrific and painful side of the transformation.

Is it true that his holiness Daniel Radcliffe has read the book already, or at least has a copy in his possession?

Yes and yes! The boy who lived! I was in London to interview him about his flick Victor Frankenstein (which is totally underrated, by the way) and I was able to give him a copy in person. Technically we didn’t have hard copies yet but the amazing team at Little Brown Books/Piatkus in the UK whipped up a copy in less than 24 hours just for him. He flipped straight to the back of the book and read the acknowledgements first, which was really cool and surprising (as my acknowledgements section is pretty meaty). Unfortunately he’s not on many public platforms but I heard from a producer friend of his that he read and liked it. To be honest, the response from people like him and Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander (who tweeted that she’s hoping to adapt Who’s Afraid? into a TV series or movie as her next project) has been insane, like fever-dream hallucinatory insane. I always hoped the book would find its level and reach its audience, yet the wider appeal it has seemed to have so far has been bananas.

I was always disappointed with the amount of female werewolves out there, or lack thereof, as it seemed to be a monster almost exclusively reserved for men. That felt kinda rubbish to me…

What kind of research did you have to undertake for this book?

Everything and all of it, genuinely. I’ve been a journalist for over a decade so research is one of the essential parts of my process and when it comes to digesting information, I always find it insanely helpful to get it directly from a primary source. From full moon experts to friends who were much more knowledgeable about Maori customs and language than me, a lot of the work I did was first hand. I also lived in Dundee for a period of several months to research the city on the ground and really get a feel for the people and the dialect. The second book is set in Berlin and I did much the same thing there, with all of those personal experiences and anecdotes weaved into the story.

What are some of your favourite book-to-film adaptions?

Hoo, how long have you got? Generally that’s a tough one because the thing with text-to-screen adaptations is you have to change the source material to make it work as a movie – you just have to – but the tricky part is tweaking with events or characters while maintaining the themes of the text. I thought Gone Girl was a pretty extraordinary example of that, but it did read like a David Fincher movie to begin with so … the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films are flawless because those books change genre with every novel and that’s difficult to maintain as a franchise but they nailed it. Unpopular opinion but The Lovely Bones was gorgeous and very tasteful, The Shining, Kick-Ass improved on the source material, Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon were all solid, The Witches, Jurassic Park, Persepolis, The Thing, Little Women, Jack Reacher, The Boxtrolls, Fight Club, The Bone Collector, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, Coraline, L.A. Confidential, Matilda, Jaws – I could really go on forever.

A pack of enraged werewolves are on a rampage headed straight for you. If you could assemble a five-person dream-team from any corner of the globe to protect you (fictional or otherwise) who would you choose?

She-Hulk (because she can ‘Hulk smash’ anything in her path and is basically indestructible), Blade (because it’s fucking Blade), Negasonic Teenage Warhead (even werewolves are susceptible to human fireballs), Gina Carano (because she takes no shit), and Wanda Jackson (to provide some jaunty tunes that can play over the ensuing battle).

Read the blurb | Read an extract | Author website

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