Maria Lewis: on Tommi Grayson and Who’s Afraid?

Who's Afraid? by Maria Lewis

Allow me to introduce you to Tommi Grayson: art curator and new werewolf.

The cover attracted me to Who’s Afraid immediately. Tommi isn’t showing her face, but she’s fully clothed, which in the urban fantasy genre I feel is a bit of an anomaly. Her hair is blue, her gloved hands on her hips, as if she’s facing someone down unafraid. Daring them to call her afraid. Throw in an Australian author and the urban fantasy genre, and I was hooked.

Judging a book by its cover

Released last week, the book has been getting rave reviews, not the least of which is my own! The first book, author Maria Lewis says, is a character study about Tommi as she discovers the new world she’s been thrust into.

“It’s a super-personal story,” Maria explains in our phone interview, late last month. “Readers are obviously exposed to the supernatural world, but it’s definitely Tommi’s story. It’s the story of one girl against herself, and that’s essentially what she’s fighting. It’s not the grand stakes of a superhero story, it’s a personal story.”

Maria’s love for Tommi is clear as is her love for the urban fantasy genre. She’s been reading it for about 16 years, so you can be certain Maria knows the genre and more importantly, the conventions that have been around for far too long. Like the scantily clad women on covers, with back-bending poses.

“I love the cover,” she says. “It’s more than I could have ever hoped for, and I was nervous about it because I’m a debut author. I don’t really have a lot of say about anything, but I sent through a list of the things I loved, and thought were clever, and I pleaded with them not to make her a skinny white girl dressed in leather.”

You know she’s not wrong, you just have to look at the urban fantasy section in a bookstore for evidence of that. But, Maria’s publisher, Little Brown, listened, and produced a cover she clearly loves.

When authors like Rick Riordan celebrate the covers of their books not being white-washed anymore and actually reflecting their work accurately, you realise that the right cover is everything.

“It is sad that we get so excited that the character that we’ve written is on the cover, but you know it’s definitely important. When I was shopping Who’s Afraid around originally, there was a publisher who asked me to change Tommi to be 16 years old and white. And that was baffling and crazy to me because they were asking me to make it YA essentially.”

Who is Tommi Grayson?

Tommi is in fact 22 and bi-racial, and Who’s Afraid contains a wealth of themes that would not be appropriate for a YA audience. For all the talk about diversity in Australian publishing, it seems the industry still has far to go. She never got an answer as to why the Australian publisher wanted that change.

“It’s funny that I got that feedback from within Australia,” she continues. “But internationally, where my deal is and where the book really started to gain traction, there was never any of that. Nobody asked me to change anything about her race or age, or anything like that. It was like Little Brown got it and they really understood it.”

Maria herself is of Polynesian heritage, and grew up in New Zealand, where part of the book is set (the rest of the time, the action takes readers to Dundee, Scotland). She’s the only one in her family who has moved to Australia, so Tommi came from a place close to her heart.

Maria Lewis author of Who's Afraid“I understood a lot of her struggle,” Maria explains, “and the publisher in question didn’t know that. It was super insulting to be asked to change her race. You don’t just pick a random race of a character. You choose it for a reason.”

Who’s Afraid begins when Tommi’s mother has passed away and she’s still dealing with her grief. Her only support network is a close-knit group of friends in Dundee.

“She’s someone who deals with a lot of anger issues, and she self-medicates with booze and friends so she doesn’t have to look closely at how she feels. She’s a hot mess,” Maria explains, summing Tommi up. A ‘hot mess’ of a character isn’t something that appears in the genre, and Maria says she kept reading the genre getting annoyed by things she didn’t like. The solution she thought would be to write something she did like and would want to read.

“I wanted a female character who didn’t have everything together,” she explains. “A lot of the stuff that I was reading at the time, and definitely sometimes a lot of the stuff that’s popular now, is it’s a 15-year-old white girl who reads William Blake poetry and is so mature for her age and has everything together. I’m like, ‘You know what, that’s such bullshit. At 15 I didn’t have my shit together. I could barely work out where my genitals were, let alone by the time you get to your early twenties when you’re paying bills and you have bigger problems then being a high schooler or letting your parents give you some freedom.”

Tommi is a work in progress, she says, and her aim was to get reader to feel like she was a realistic representation of a human being and not necessarily a Strong Female Character (caps intentional).

“A Strong Female Character to me isn’t necessarily one who can match a guy blow for blow,” she adds. “A strong female character can be dressed in a sundress and have conviction of soul. They’re loyal, passionate and intelligent.”

That said, Maria wanted to write about a female werewolf because there aren’t enough stories around featuring such characters. So with that, comes physical strength. But more than that, she explains, werewolves, like other monsters we have an affection for, represent a part of humanity.

“Werewolves have a duality I’ve always loved. It’s the whole thing that we all face in a way of living with a monster inside of yourself, but taking the metaphor out of it and making it completely literal and that the monster is literally inside of you,” she says. Female werewolves are usually supporting characters or the girlfriend, but she wanted to see a female character that readers could call a monster and be afraid of.

Not conventional fare, but Maria has always been interested in the twisted, horror-inspired parts of genre.

Urban fantasy

“I grew up in New Zealand in a town just outside of Queenstown called Arrowtown. It’s a very small town and very remote. So when I was growing up, my granddad used to read and make up werewolf stories for me, so they were the first thing I became obsessed with. I come from a family that aren’t necessarily into pop culture, but when I started to show an interest in reading and fiction, they really encouraged it and took me to the library for hours on end. They never policed what I read, which explains why I am really into horror and things like that. It really broadened my mind and my horizons. But genre has always been what I’ve been super passionate about and what I consumed.”

Tommi is named for her granddad who inspired her with his stories, and she was borne as a distraction, keeping Maria from her research into a different book — an Egyptian mythology version of the X-Men (hands up if you really want her to finish that story?)

“Because I have a very active mind, I get to sleep imagining stories instead of counting sheep, and Tommi just popped into my head. I imagined someone’s journey, following their family tree and finding her family’s roots to be something out of this world,” she says. And that’s exactly what Tommi goes through when she discovers her father’s side of the family tree is filled with werewolves.

While her dreams were her inspiration for her fiction, Maria has solid training and experience writing as a journalist. She’s been a writer since about two weeks after graduating high school when she started working as a journalist. You’re thrown in the deep end, she says, explaining that she spent two or three years writing police stories before she moved into entertainment and features.

“So, by the time I started writing Who’s Afraid, I’d been a journalist for about four or five years. When I turned to writing fiction, it was definitely an easy process of getting the word count out.”

However, after writing the first chapter, she realised it read like a news story. “I needed to rework the whole thing,” she says. “I didn’t do a course or anything until I had written the thing, which is probably not the best way to go about things, but it seems to have worked out okay.”

Talking to her, her passion for urban fantasy is clear as it was in person when I saw her at a book event promoting Who’s Afraid last week. What is it exactly that keeps bringing her back to the genre?

“Genre has always been my thing,” she says, “and the three most important things in urban fantasy for me are action, horror and romance.”

Romance is a staple of most urban fantasy novels, but Maria explains that “romance” doesn’t necessarily mean a love story between a man and a woman or a man and a man.

“I just as much love love stories that are between best friends. It can be a love story about friendship, but I like there to be some kind of love arc in there,” she explains. “Action because I like a page turner. I’m under no illusions about Who’s Afraid – it’s not going to win literary awards, but I hope it’s a book that will make people turn pages, and it will entertain them.”

She explains that Who’s Afraid is very event-driven, much like the work of authors like Charlaine Harris and Laurel K Hamilton. She loves the inventiveness of the genre, she adds, and the world-building that can expand book by book in a series.

“The world-building, I think, is really, really clever,” she says. “Look at how many vampire stories are out there and how different they are from one another: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter compared to Morganville Vampires or compare that to Anne Rice or Charlaine Harris. They’ve all put a fantastic spin on vampires and they’ve found inventive ways to make it work with characters and settings.”

She’s been reading urban fantasy since she was a pre-teen and is continually surprised by the genre.

“I’m continually delighted by the wacky stuff that people come up with. Sometimes, you read crime fiction and it becomes a little bit tired: every story’s about a serial killer who’s the worst serial killer ever to kill, and you’re like ‘Oh God, this again?’”

Urban fantasy, she explains, keeps things fresh.

Love triangles?

Except maybe when it comes to love triangles, the thing she doesn’t like about urban fantasy. Another publisher asked her to slip in a love triangle in Who’s Afraid, which she politely declined to do. In fact, there is one love interest for Tommi, with complications of his own in abundance, that is guaranteed to keep things interesting between them as the series progresses.

“It’s perhaps a blurry line between YA and fantasy, but I like to think I’m a pretty worldly person, but I’ve never been part of a love triangle,” she said before bursting into laughter. “And they don’t happen every five minutes like it does in urban fantasy. In worlds where you can have mythical creatures or magic, I think it’s important to keep some grounding because that’s the urban part in urban fantasy.”

The long road to publishing

We get to talking about publishing next, about her experiences during the process. It took six years and 115 versions of the manuscript before Who’s Afraid was published, and the one thing she learned was that writing the book is the first process.

“I went to a lot of author Q&As, those who were successful and who did what I wanted to do and listened to how they interacted with fans. And one of the pieces of advice they said was that the hardest thing is to finish the book, but I already had. The hardest thing I found is maintaining passion and endurance once you’ve finished it.”

Maria goes on to explain that after the editing process, there’s the hustle of getting your manuscript out to get an agent and maintaining the enthusiasm and hope while you’re trying to find a publisher, and then pitching the story over and over again.

“The process of getting it out there can be really, really soul-sucking, but it’s worth it,” she says. And it certainly is: it’s already garnered attention in Hollywood as a possible TV series. Not to mention, that four out of a five book series are complete, with the fifth being plotted as you read this!

Buy your copy of Who’s Afraid

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