Author lets out the werewolf inside

WHEN there's a werewolf inside your head, you've got to let it out.

Six years ago, journalist and movie buff Maria Lewis did just that.

She was playing with an idea for a TV series while on holiday in Egypt when she had a light bulb moment.

She put pen to paper and now, after a long road to a publishing deal, she is the author of the bestselling novel Who's Afraid? at age 27.

The urban fantasy tale introduces Tommi Grayson, a junior art curator from Dundee, Scotland, who discovers at age 22 she's a werewolf.

"This character Tommi strutted into my head one night as I was going to bed," Lewis tells Weekend.

"She was fully formed. Everything she is on the page now she was then in my head. And then she just wouldn't go away."

Lewis initially tried to flesh out her new imaginary friend in a short story, but after an inspiring trip to San Diego in California for the Comic Con pop culture convention, where she met genre authors including Isaac Marion (Warm Bodies) and Veronica Roth (the Divergent series), she knew Tommi would need more space than that.

"I'd read a lot of fiction but I'd never done any courses (in writing it). Being a journalist the first four chapters originally read like a news story with the most important information at the top, which is terrible for a novel," she says.

"I rewrote those first four chapters on my way back to the Gold Coast from San Diego.

"I was consumed with this character and her story and what I could create in her world. I finished the first draft (for the novel) in November that year and everything spiraled on from there."

It would be easy to draw comparisons between Lewis and her fictional she-wolf Tommi, who is named after her grandfather.

Maria Lewis’s debut novel Who’s Afraid? is a bestseller.
Maria Lewis’s debut novel Who’s Afraid? is a bestseller. Louis Dillon Savage

Both have bright hair - Lewis's is an ever-changing shade of purple, her favourite colour, and Tommi's is a long streak of electric blue.

Tommi's father, from whom she inherited her werewolf genes, is Maori. Lewis's mother's side of the family is Kiwi.

Lewis was born in Arrowtown on the South Island but grew up in Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast.

There are plenty of personal touches in the novel's 340 pages, but she's keen to point out they aren't limited to Tommi.

There's Tommi's best friend Mari, who is a reporter covering the police rounds just like Lewis did during her Bond University cadetship at the Gold Coast Bulletin.

The novel is also scattered with film and pop culture references, subjects Lewis regularly writes about and discusses in her podcast Eff Yeah Film and Feminism.

"When you write a book you throw yourself at it," she says.

"You get shattered into a million pieces and those get scattered throughout the pages."

After being encouraged by her friends to publish Who's Afraid?, Lewis went in search of a literary agent and publisher.

One Australian publishing company wrote back, but it wasn't the response she expected or hoped for.

"They said they liked it but on the stipulation I would rewrite it to make her white and 16, which defeats the purpose of everything I was trying to do," she says.

"I was writing the kind of book I wanted to read and what I wanted to read was about a heroine who is biracial… who is an adult but still has a lot of growing to do.

"If you make your characters very young in my mind that limits the kind of things I could do. It wasn't just about the fight of good versus evil. It was about how do you deal with having a monster inside yourself, not metaphorically, literally a monster inside yourself? To do that you can't really have a 16-year-old."

After receiving similar responses from other publishers, Lewis was close to self-publishing Who's Afraid? when she was finally picked up by UK literary agency Little, Brown.

With a roster of authors including JK Rowling and Keri Arthur, it turned out to be the perfect home for her and Tommi.

Who's Afraid? didn't just do well upon its Australian and New Zealand release last month; it sold out on Booktopia, Australia's biggest book stock list, within 24 hours and is still sitting at No. 2 on the retailer's romance chart (Lewis is keen to point out she doesn't consider the book an "anti-Twilight" supernatural feminist tale rather than a romance novel).

The book also sold out at Dymocks in Sydney and Melbourne and debuted at No. 1 on Better Read Than Dead's bestseller chart.

Who's Afraid? follows heroine-in-the-making Tommi as her investigations into the identity of her birth father uncover both her own shape-shifting abilities and a wider world of supernatural creatures living secretly among humans.

But Tommi's not ready to give up her old life, including her job and her close-knit group of friends.

"In a novel where you have werewolves and immortals and supernaturals, the elements where you can make it realistic and grounded, it's important you do that," she says.

"I think that's why people have responded to things like Game of Thrones really well. Yes there are dragons but the parts of humanity that can be grounded are really grounded."

Not one to sit around while she was trying to find a publisher, Lewis has already written the next three Who's Afraid? sequels.

"When it wasn't going anywhere I was getting very frustrated," she says.

"I still loved the characters and had ambitions for them and one of the best outlets was writing the other books."

Somewhere in between her upcoming UK book tour and her work for SBS's The Feed, she plans to start writing book five this year.

"I'm a big fan of stories that have an ending," she says.

"It adds a gravity to it if it will end eventually."

Lewis is not ruling out potential spin-offs for other characters and there's already interest in adapting Who's Afraid? for the big screen.

Director Lexi Alexander (Punisher: Warzone, Arrow, Supergirl) recently tweeted her interest in the story to her 25,000 followers.

"She's been very vocal and passionate about wanting to make it into something," Lewis says.

"Whether that happens or not, it's just a matter of waiting.

"Having written about movies for a decade, I'm very aware of how often things don't happen or can get pushed into development hell… but I think it's in the right hands."

Maria Lewis will be a special guest at Contact 2016 in Brisbane from March 25 to 28 and at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre from April 8 to 10.



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