MysteryPeople Q&A with Beth Lewis

Beth Lewis stunned us all with her forceful debut, The Wolf Roada psychological thriller that follows a Elka, a half-wild girl, as she flees from her evil guardian across a post-apocalyptic landscape. As she flees through a Black Forest fairytale version of British Columbia, she works to come to terms with her own part in her guardian’s crimes. New friendships with a protective wolf and a sassy female traveler help Elka clarify the horrors of her past, reclaim her identity, escape the long arms of her psychotic guardian, and build the future she wants. We caught up with Beth Lewis about the perfect crossover read that is The Wolf Road. 

 

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Some reviews of The Wolf Road have focused on the relationship between Elka and her dangerous woodsman savior, rather than the equally important dynamic between Elka and her female companion on the last leg of her journey. I spend a lot of time thinking about representations of female community, and I loved that Elka got a chance to form a healthy friendship with another woman as a counter to her previous replacement family unit. What did you want explore in the novel’s depiction of female community?

Beth Lewis: I love depictions of strong female friendship. Too often in my opinion female characters seem to be shown fighting over a man or competing in some way, otherwise the friendships are written as quite superficial. There aren’t enough deep and abiding friendships, ones with life and death stakes, and I wanted to write one that felt real and almost unconditional. Elka and Penelope save each other, physically and emotionally, multiple times and as such, their bond becomes iron. This is going to sound a bit precious but I’ve always felt that, when I’m writing, the characters appear. I don’t decide on their gender or appearance or voice, they just are, as if I’m meeting a real person for the first time. I didn’t consciously set out to write about these two women but I knew that I wanted them both to have ultimate trust in each other, which is something neither of them had before. It’s something special to trust someone so completely, it’s powerful and rare to know without a doubt that if you put your life and your safety into this person’s hands, they wouldn’t let you down.

MO: Elka’s world is haunting. How did you build the post-apocalyptic world she inhabits?

BL: Sparingly! I didn’t want it to be a huge part of the story. The Wolf Road is Elka’s personal story, not an examination of a society gone wrong and the post-apocalyptic elements are there because I didn’t want to write within limitations of history or gender politics or the like. I wanted to write a totally free character and landscape with only minimal human constraints and boy, was it fun. I also wanted the world-building to be true to her character and her experience. Would a girl raised in the woods care about the details of a decades-ago war? Would she know the terminology to describe the state of society? Wouldn’t she be more focused on hunting a meal or getting to the next ridge to get her bearings?

MO: The Wolf Road is many things. Dystopian fairy tale, road trip adventure, survivalist nightmare, feminist bildungsroman, domestic suspense thriller – a multi-genre masterpiece. Which of these sub, sub genres do you identify the book with the most? How do you feel about being shelved in the mystery section?

BL: I don’t mind where it lands, I’m still thrilled it’s shelved at all! To be honest, the only genre label I don’t think it fits with is dystopia. I think that’s a used and abused term whose meaning has been somewhat diluted. Dystopias are (or should be) written to say something about society, to show characters struggling through a life where everything is oppressive, unjust, or suspicious, where there is a defined and negative structure to rail against. They should strive to provide new perspectives on our own society. They also tend to delve quite deeply into the reasons and machinations behind such a state. Elka’s world isn’t that, she’s free and she follows her own laws. In terms of labels, I think ‘multi-genre masterpiece’ is my favourite so far!

MO: The Wolf Road explores the thin line between perpetrator and victim, and how the experience of shared guilt can reinforce, ahem, bad behavior. How would you describe Elka, on a moral compass? What was your inspiration for her moral quandary?

BL: Elka very much follows her own moral compass. She lives by nature’s rules when it comes to people and survival. I’ve always been fascinated with good people who do bad things and my main inspiration for Elka was to write a character who did some of the worst possible things a person could and yet was still someone you ended up rooting for. It was a challenge but I loved throwing Elka into the fire, only to have her climb out shouting it was too cold.

MO: If I was to describe your novel as “Angela Carter meets Cormac McCarthy,” how would you feel about that? Who are some of your influences?

BL: I would feel extremely flattered and humbled if you said that! Would it be a surprise if I said I hadn’t read either? I have a few key literary influences – Emily Bronte, David Mitchell, Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Wyndham, Sarah Waters. But I think I’m influenced far more by film and TV. I watch far too much TV, it’s unhealthy really, but I’m quite a visual person so I like to see a world and characters and describe them for myself rather than read how someone else has done it. I devour nature documentaries and Discovery channel is never off. I love sci-fi and crime, especially shows that do something new like True Detective (season one, of course!) and Stranger Things. I’ll watch all kinds of movie, my favourites at the moment are Mad Max: Fury Road and Carol, both masterful in their execution yet totally different. I’m a bit of a sponge and tend to soak up everything I watch or read and it all feeds into the writing.

MO: You’ve created a particular language for The Wolf Road that helps reinforce its post-apocalyptic setting. How did you come up with the novel’s language and Elka’s distinct voice?

BL: It was entirely organic. I love strong, rhythmic accents and I love the Southern Storyteller tradition. Movies like Forrest Gump and Fried Green Tomatoes have always stuck with me because watching them I felt like I was being told a story and that’s something I wanted to get across with Elka. I wanted the reader to feel like they were being told a story, rather than reading a book and the voice is pretty key to that. I tried to make Elka’s voice accurate to her education level and that was another way the post-apocalyptic world came into play as I didn’t have to adhere to a strict, location-accurate accent. While some people say it’s Appalachian, others say it’s more Kentucky or Ozark, then someone else may read it in a British regional accent like Cornish, there’s no right answer. Again, it’s part of Elka’s freedom and it came to me fully formed. I heard her voice so strongly that I started talking like her, texting, emailing (at work!) and it was difficult to break out of that mindset. I have absolutely loved the response to Elka’s voice, it’s such a source of pride for me. My partner and early readers started talking like her, making their own ‘Elka-isms’, I’ve seen tweets and reviews in her voice too. It was a big risk to write a whole novel in such a strong dialect but I’m so glad I took that risk. It’s my favourite part of the book.

MO: Elka is such a strong female character, yet never a sexualized character. Was it challenging to get a novel about a young woman into the published realm without introducing a love interest?

BL: You know, that’s not an issue that’s ever come up or I ever considered. None of my editors or agent ever talked about Elka’s lack of romance except as a refreshing positive. They were more worried about the level of violence she experiences and how graphically it was described. Believe it or not, the published book is the toned down version!

MO: The Wolf Road could be described, at parts, as a cat and mouse game, as Elka is pursued by a killer and a sheriff on her journey to the North. Much of the novel’s suspense comes from Elka’s attempts to both figuratively and literally escape her past. Was it challenging to keep up the suspense of the novel, while still letting Elka wander and grow?

BL: It was and it was an area I worked on quite a bit from first to last drafts. I tried to keep both Kreagar and Lyon as presences in Elka’s journey but I didn’t want her to always be running. She needed time to learn about herself and form new relationships, good and bad. She needed to find out what she was capable of but also needed to understand that no matter what, your past will catch up with you. I didn’t set out to write a chase thriller, it’s more a story about a girl’s journey so keeping that interesting and suspenseful was a challenge. It was also a calculated risk to include the first chapter and then jump back. I think I’m a bit strange in that I’m the kind of person who likes to know the score of a football game before I watch it. I’d rather appreciate the skill and the game without panicking about the result. I wanted the reader to concentrate on Elka’s journey rather than her destination.

You can find copies of The Wolf Road on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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