It’s no secret that books with paranormal or supernatural themes rate pretty highly with me, so when I heard about Maria Lewis’ debut novel, Who’s Afraid?, I had to get my proverbial paws on a copy.
Who’s Afraid?: The Novel.
Who’s Afraid? is the story of Tommi Grayson, a young, blue-haired art curator who is learning to live with the loss of her mother, who raised her alone. She knows next to nothing about her father or his side of the family. It’s a subject she learned to avoid; asking her mother caused obvious pain so she pushed her curiosity aside. With her mother gone, Tommi, with the help of her closest friends, works out who her father is and that he lives in New Zealand. She decides to make the journey from her home town in Scotland to see if she can catch a glimpse of Jonah Ihi, her Maori father whom she knows little about- and the little she does know is disturbing at best.
When Tommi arrives in New Zealand, her plans go awry on learning of Jonah’s death. She does, however, meet her extended family. They are not what Tommi was expecting. Curious about her, seemingly needing her but also hostile towards her because of the actions of her mother in the past. It’s a lot for Tommi to take in, coupled with the fact that they are also werewolves- one of the most powerful packs on the planet who have just lost their alpha wolf- Jonah Ihi. Tommi had struggled with her temper in the past, something she’d channeled into martial arts, but otherwise her own werewolf blood had remained mostly dormant, until this meeting with her family. Things go from awkward and tense to horrible quite rapidly and Tommi is lucky to get away alive, although not completely unscathed.
After enduring her first (viscerally described) transformation alone, Tommi escapes New Zealand and returns to Scotland with the help of her new guardian, Lorcan, who is appointed to train her and to help her adjust to her new wolfish life. The Ihi family cast a long shadow, but Tommi must learn to about to her new supernatural status while still living as a young woman with close friends, her remaining family and a career to contend with.
It’s easy to see that this book was written by a feminist. The main character is a kick-arse, bi-racial woman; a survivor and someone comfortable in her sexuality and strength. The characters are diverse and representative of a broad spectrum of people without being tokenistic. As a departure from many supernatural novels that I’ve read, that can be somewhat formulaic, Who’s Afraid? actually kept me guessing. It took turns I was not expecting and the characters were allowed to develop in such a way that their flaws and weaknesses, as well as their strengths, were on display. This made them more real and human (or super-human, as the case may be!) and easier to relate to. The main characters had the potential to become stereotypical but Maria Lewis successfully avoided that by giving them greater depth and backstory than many others I’ve read.
I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that I highly recommend Who’s Afraid? and you can grab your copy here.
Who’s Afraid of Maria Lewis?
I was lucky enough to be able to ask the author of Who’s Afraid?, Maria Lewis, a few questions. Maria is a journalist, feminist and pop culture commentator as well as an author. It turns out that she’s not scary at all- she’s tops!Who’s Afraid? centres on a very strong female character in Tommi Grayson. Did anyone inspire you to shape her character and personality the way you did?
No one person specifically inspired Tommi, but there was a plethora of fictional people that inspired her. I grew up consuming and loving pop culture feminists like Buffy, Lt. Ripley, Scully, Adelia Mapp, Daria, Huntress, Clarice Starling, Wonder Woman, Vasquez, She-Hulk, Xena so she’s somewhat of an amalgamation of those women. I wanted to create a character that I felt would fit comfortably alongside those BAMFs, but at the same time be something uniquely her own. She’s complicated, she’s messy, she’s conflicted and I’m a big believer in her flaws being one of the things that make her interesting and fully-dimensional on the page.
I’d never really come across a novel that was centred on werewolves before- some where they are secondary characters but this one is very werewolf-centric, which was awesome. What about them appealed to you strongly enough to write Who’s Afraid?
Werewolves are the perfect monster to examine that idea of duality and how you go about living with and managing the beast inside yourself. I’d say Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was the first piece of popular fiction to truly do that, but the adapted werewolf mythology really ran with it and expanded it in (mostly) movies, with the occasional novel and TV show. Those were the kind of stories I became obsessed with as a kid, yet it was always men battling ‘the curse’ or going ‘full wolf’. I mean, there are a few great examples of lady lycanthropes – the Ginger Snaps franchise, When Animals Dream, Blood & Chocolate – but there weren’t enough to quench my thirst. With Who’s Afraid? I wanted to fill that void with not only a female werewolf as the central character, yet one that was truly horrifying, ferocious and deadly. Bring on the feminine grotesque.
I know you’re a feminist from your podcasting and writing and loved your column about publishing your debut novel under your own, clearly feminine, name rather than the more androgynous initials and surname combo. Can you summarise your thoughts on doing that and do you think it’s made any difference to how your novel has been received?
I think publishing your work under gender-neutral initials or a male pseudonym is a really genius solution that women have come up with to conquer any inbuilt sexism on the shelf. Why wouldn’t you want your book to have as large an audience as possible? And if that means disguising your identity because 60 per cent of men are less likely to pick up a novel if the author is clearly identified as a female on the cover, then power to ya! It’s bullshit we have to even do that in the first place, but for me personally that was never going to be an option. Who’s Afraid? is a feminist werewolf novel so the kind of guy who won’t buy a book because it’s written by a lady? Not my audience anyway.
I noticed the diversity of sexual orientation of some of your characters, the wry acknowledgment that the main character is into martial arts, posses an androgynous name but is undeniably someone who embraces her womanhood and her sexuality. Would I be correct in assuming this was a deliberate move away from an exclusively heteronormative narrative still found in many contemporary novels?
It was a deliberate move in so much that I wanted the characters to reflect real life. Yeah, okay, the novel has werewolves and supernatural creatures but there’s no reason not to ground other aspects of the work in reality. My godfathers are a gay couple, when I first moved out of home I lived with drag queens for a period and I went to more gay weddings than I did ‘hetero’ weddings last year. That is not an unusual experience, that’s just life to a lot of people. The human condition isn’t a straight, cis, largely white one and Who’s Afraid? was never going to be that. None of my novels will ever be that, because it’s just not reflective of my experience but also what society actually is today.
The cultural aspects, particularly in New Zealand, were interesting. Does this stem from your own heritage or is it simply a culture that interests you?
It stems from my own heritage and finding myself in a place not dissimilar to Tommi’s, where you become interested in your heritage later in life while simultaneously being very aware how far away you were raised from it. My father is Maori and from the South Island in New Zealand where I grew up, so it was a combination of wanting to incorporate some of that into the context of a supernatural novel. Thankfully I have a lot of friends also from that background who were able to help me on that journey but also suggest cool ways to extrapolate known elements into something that could work as a paranormal hierarchy.
I have to admit, I’m a tiny bit in love with Lorcan (and not at all bothered by our age difference) and I wish Tommi was my bestie. I’m also sure that we haven’t seen the last of the Ihi family. Any hints about Who’s Afraid Too? And when can we expect it to be out?