AUGUST 7, 2017
SHEENA KAMAL’S DEBUT novel The Lost Ones is primed to explode this summer in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and a dozen other countries. Early praise is comparing her protagonist Nora Watts to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. A Canadian originally from Trinidad with a political science and researcher background, Sheena Kamal was a struggling actor and screenwriter before deciding to write this book. She took a pause between edits on the second in the series to speak with LARB. We chatted by phone and email; our conversation has been condensed for the reader.
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: The Lost Ones is the first novel of a planned trilogy. How did this begin?
SHEENA KAMAL: I got the idea for The Lost Ones in Toronto while I was working as a researcher for a crime drama television series, Shoot the Messenger. I’ve been involved in the film and TV world for many years; I tried to be a screenwriter, an actor, it really was the industry that provided me my bread and butter while I cut my teeth as a writer. For this particular job I had to pay attention to the criminal justice system. On a personal level, I was very affected by stories of gender violence. Then my imagination spawned this woman, who, when the daughter she’d given up for adoption many years ago goes missing, gets confronted by her past and her past trauma. My main character Nora Watts consumed me. Her story felt quite urgent.
At the same time her story came to me, I was feeling like I was in the wrong industry, that I was going nowhere. I wasn’t happy and I needed to grow as a writer. Along comes this idea that is clearly a novel, which I’d never written before. It compelled me, and I had to do it. And I knew this story had to unfold on the West Coast. It was moody, it was atmospheric, it was dark suspense that had the qualities of Nordic noir and Scandinavian crime fiction.
I packed up my life, and I moved across the country to write it. It was a struggle at times, but I felt like I was doing the right thing.
It seems almost as if Nora came to you fully fleshed out.
Yeah, kind of! One thing that cinched her for me was this idea that she was a singer. Because I tried to be an actor for so many years I have a real soft spot for artists and people who struggle in the arts and try to be seen, and who are never seen! I imagined her as a blues singer because she has that gritty, soulful sense about her. Then that was it! I saw her and I knew her.
Sometimes violence against women is almost a gratuitous plot device. How were you able to address this without ever appearing exploitative?
What I wanted to do was to make it personal. So instead of there being a detective that is investigating something devastating that happens to a woman, I started with the woman. I wanted to show her struggle, her after, and what that recovery was like. When you have people dealing with trauma, it’s an ongoing process. This story really is about a woman who has not dealt with her past in a very healthy way. That is also what happens when people experience trauma and violence. Their recovery takes a long time, and sometimes people don’t fully move past it. Nora has not recovered, and I wanted to show it from a personal point of view, from her perspective, in her head. That way the reader is not projecting violence onto somebody, but is actually there with her.
This is uncomfortable for some readers, and some of them don’t respond well to that, actually! Certain comments that I’ve gotten have been that people don’t like that kind of experience from the first-person perspective, even though they enjoy crime fiction. They prefer the distance — but for me it was really important to erase that distance and show that this is a person.
Explain a bit about the mixed heritage of your protagonist, and the choices you made. How does this fit in the world of crime fiction?
I love crime fiction and there are some amazing writers out there that write women, but non-white women are generally underrepresented in this genre. Because I was looking at themes of gender violence, I knew I couldn’t ignore how race and class also intersected for my heroine. I remember reading a crime novel that dealt with race, one where violence was inflicted upon a woman of color. The protagonists tackling the case delved into racial disparities, but were able to retreat back into their safe spaces when the mystery was solved. For Nora there is no retreat, no safe space.
With regard to Nora’s background, identity in Canada is more complicated than our benign international reputation might suggest, given our shameful colonial history and calls for assimilation for both indigenous and immigrant populations. I’d always thought of Nora as an outsider, so I made her cultural heritage an uneasy mix of these two — and largely unknown to her. This creates tensions with the way she interacts with the criminal justice system, but also feeds certain internal tensions within her. This way I could grapple with some of these tough issues without crossing lines of appropriation. It worked well because Nora being an outsider, feeling like one, is something that I needed for this kind of suspense narrative. She embraces it because it’s the only identity she feels she can claim.
The relationship between the sisters is fraught!
People who have substance abuse problems can drain their family resources. As much as Nora’s sister Lorelei wants to love her, and be there for her, when you’re dealing with someone who has serious addiction issues it is too much. Lorelei is trying to live an upstanding life, and Nora is the wrench in her gears.
There’s so much loss and pain in your book. How were you able to process all that emotionally?
I find this question very interesting because to be honest I don’t know how I did it! I did not realize how hard this writing process was on me until I was doing a connection exercise with a scene partner in an acting class. I’d never had trouble with these kinds of exercises before, but this time I just couldn’t bear the intimacy of it. It was just an eye contact drill, and I was so overwhelmed by simply making eye contact, keeping it, and stepping toward my partner that I simply couldn’t do it. To put myself in Nora’s head took a toll — I had distanced myself from people in order to take my imagination to this harrowing place and let it sit there.
Thinking about this journey to publication, what surprised you?
I discovered how much I need people, which is strange for a writer to learn about herself. Before my agent sold the trilogy, I was quite the misanthrope. I used to be, “Dogs only, no people!” and now I need people. I crave them, I want them to like me and my writing. When they don’t, I’m devastated. When they do, I want to move in with them and adopt rescue animals. Which is weird!
Who are you reading?
Lately Roxane Gay. I am obsessed with her work, as are many people. Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin write thrillers with incredibly drawn female characters. Sam Wiebe is a favorite of mine when it comes to West Coast crime fiction. A few of my go-to authors who have written about the Canadian identity in the most moving, intricate way are Katherena Vermette, Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, and Eden Robinson. I also quite like Cockroach by Rawi Hage (his follow-up to De Niro’s Game), which is a striking and unusual immigrant story set in Montreal.
Speaking of immigration, that’s a story line familiar to many Americans. I’m wondering about your immigration story, if you don’t mind sharing, from the perspective of a Canadian.
I find that immigrant narratives are very similar the world over; you leave one place and you go to another for the chance at a better life. That’s what my parents did. They left Trinidad to come to Canada for more opportunities for their children.
I was born in the Caribbean but I’ve lived in this country for almost 30 years. It’s my home; it hasn’t always been easy being an immigrant, but I’ve had so many opportunities here. There’s a sense in Canada that immigrants are an essential part of the Canadian identity. Of course there are detractors from this, and the topic of immigration can be contentious when certain issues come up, but by and large Canadians are welcoming. I don’t know if I could live for an extended amount of time anywhere else. I travel as much as I’m able to, but there’s this sense I have that I always have to come home to Canada.
Without spoiling anything, what’s ahead?
I’ve always been interested in writing women who have complicated, messy lives. Who get themselves in and out of trouble. I will get more into Nora’s story, and Bonnie’s as well. In the second book, Nora goes to Detroit looking for a piece of her father’s history and she gets herself into some trouble there. I’m quite excited about it.