Sheena Kamal’s debut thriller, The Lost Ones, releases this week. Kamal is a former crime and investigative journalism researcher for film and television. She has a background in political science as well as activism and community leadership. The Lost Ones, set in Vancouver, features a smart and fearless protagonist, and a breathtaking landscape as backdrop to a harrowing tale of darkness and discovery.
MW: First off, I have to ask, why does this novel have two titles? The Lost Ones (US) and Eyes Like Mine (UK).
SK: I often wonder the same thing myself! I mean, what an identity crisis. It’s simply because the original title of the manuscript, Deep Current, didn’t appeal to my publishers. The UK preferred Eyes Like Mine and the US suggested The Lost Ones. I like both and deferred to their respective expertise in placing the book for their markets. I thought about being a diva and insisting on just one, but that’s not my style. Plus, I was just happy that anyone would publish it so I said yes to just about anything.
MW: One of the most unique and sometimes uncomfortable traits of the protagonist Nora Watts, is that she often reads like an antagonist. She is the hero and at the same time, her own worst enemy—so fearless it’s scary. What was it like to create her and be in her head? Were there any heroes or heroines you looked to while creating her?
SK: In a way, we are all our own worst enemies, aren’t we? Nora is so self-destructive it hurts. When I first started writing her, I was trying to extricate myself from a toxic relationship and switching my career focus. I felt isolated and Nora is informed by a very jaded part of my imagination. She’s been compared to other badass women in crime fiction like V.I. Warshawski, Smilla Jasperson and Lisbeth Salander, but I didn’t consciously look to anyone else. I think if I tried to base her on a character that’s already out there, it would have fallen flat. I did want to throw away this notion of the femme fatale in crime fiction, or the hard-working female detective who’s also some kind of fantasy woman. Nora’s the opposite of all that, and has an uneasy relationship to her own sexuality—which gives a bit of a different perspective.
MW: Vancouver, BC makes for an extreme setting in The Lost Ones and it’s interesting because I don’t think most people think of it as such. But here the inhabitability of the land, is both pristine and harsh and it reflects Nora’s character who is mixed race. What can you tell us about Vancouver and creating this landscape?
SK: The Pacific Northwest is a rich setting. It’s as atmospheric as anything you’d find in Scandinavian fiction, so-called Nordic Noir. And, on the one hand, Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, surrounded by stunning natural landscapes. On the other, there is grinding poverty here. It is home to one of the worst high-risk drug areas in the region and is the epicenter of a serious opioid epidemic. The city itself is a bustling immigration center that lies on the unceded territory of three different First Nations… It’s a compelling place, one that I just knew I had to use for my book. I grew up on the east coast, in Toronto, but Vancouver called to me for this particular story.
In a broader sense, the history of this country fascinates me. I’m an immigrant and my family moved here with a certain idea of what Canada would be. We found out that the story is a lot more complex. I created a character that is hopefully as complicated as the land she lives in and tried to give her fertile ground to solve the mysteries that come her way.
MW: Maternity seems to be an important and reoccurring theme in the novel, as does gender violence. Nora, herself motherless, searches for the child she gave up. Any of the characters who attempt to nurture Nora are confronted with rejection. And yet the biological bloodline plays an important role, are you making a statement about parentage?
SK: Hmm, maybe I am—but I’m not sure how intentional that is. I knew a musician in college who’d been adopted at a young age. He looked South Asian to me, but actually had no idea where his parents were from. He indulged my questions about his experiences for a while, but I noticed that whenever we talked about family there was a wall he put up. He would never know certain things about his own history, as well as the part of identity that is inherited, that he wears on his skin—and he has to live with the fact that he has no knowledge of his own blood ties. It moved me a great deal, and some of my thoughts on this inform Nora’s character.
I think Nora’s fear of rejection is what makes her reject people in turn. In that way, she’s extremely fragile. As a child, she was rejected by her mother and had to deal with her father’s death almost alone. I don’t think she ever got over that. Nora never knew her parents and had to make her way in life without them. Yet she wears evidence of her bloodlines on her skin. Sometimes lineage, where we’re from and who we count as our family, is not always straightforward. As a parent herself, she doesn’t know how to be a mother because she never had one. She doubts her own importance in her child’s life, but the extreme circumstances set up in the book force her to confront these very tough issues as she delves into the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance.
MW: Speaking of statements, The Lost Ones is an incredibly diverse novel which includes both main and supporting characters from many different walks of life. The book also contains some politically toned environmental controversy over land development for mining. Are these elements conscious ingredients or casualties of the plot.
SK: Both conscious. The mining angle came to me as I was writing and was informed by the almost daily coverage it gets in Vancouver. Again, there is that duality here. That the Canadian government expresses concern for the environment while supporting extractive industries nationally and abroad interests me. I wanted to see how that would play out in this story.
Regarding diversity, I am very aware of issues around representation. I grew up in the east end of Toronto, one of the most ethnically mixed parts of the city, and went to school with people of all backgrounds. It’s normal for me to think broadly as I write. When I worked in the film and television industry, however, I became despondent at how many projects don’t reflect the diversity I saw in my daily life— and how underrepresented characters were used to prop up stories that were never about them. I wrote Vancouver as I saw it and tried to be as inclusive as possible of the kind of people you’d find here, starting with my mixed-race heroine and tapping into the Asian influence in Vancouver, as well as having characters who are part of the LGBTQ community. I’m from an underrepresented background myself when it comes to pop culture, so I know how important it is for people to see themselves reflected on screen and on the page.
MW: What do you hope readers take away from The Lost Ones? Should we expect a follow up with more from these characters?
It’s a thriller so, at the end of the day, I can only hope readers will be thrilled. This will be a trilogy that will see Nora pitted against some extreme obstacles at every turn. The second book is written and will take place largely in Detroit—a city that I’ve felt an attraction to for a long time. It will have mostly the same cast of characters around Nora, plus some new ones to spice things up. And a dangerous new mystery to get to the bottom of.
You can read more about Sheena and her work on her website: https://www.sheenakamal.com or on her Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Sheena-Kamal/e/B01MCQY14X/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1