Erika Lewis is a powerhouse. A remarkably prolific, inter-genre writer, she seamlessly transitions between genre fiction to comic books to TV writing. It helped that she cut her teeth in the Television industry, laboring for 15 years in TV development and production for studios like Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Television and G4 before breaking out on her own as a free agent to create and produce her own stories.
Her debut novel, Game of Shadows (released earlier this year by Tor Books), is an adventuresome read about a fledgling teen necromancer who must travel to a hidden world from his home in Los Angeles to save his mother who’s been kidnapped by a sadistic sorcerer.
Most recently, Lewis has teamed up with actor John Barrowman—yes, the British actor known for his roles in Dr. Who, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow—who moonlights off-screen as a book comic writer. Lewis, Barrowman and his sister Carole Barrowman are co-writing a new comic series called Cursed. It debuts in 2018 from Legendary Comics.
Lewis’s newest graphic novel, The 49th Key, newly released this month by Heavy Metal, is an arresting story that follows an antihero archeologist on a perilous journey to bring home a mute boy who is the key to a magical realm below Earth’s surface. J.K. Woodward’s ruggedly brilliant artwork gratifies the imagination. It’s mystery and it’s thriller; it’s noir, it’s cat-and-mouse chase intrigue; it’s cosmic prophecy in Tudor England. It’s everything you might want, and more than you’d expect to get. It’s now out in comic book stores (find one near you through this fabulous database), and will appear in book retailers, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com starting on December 19th.
SCHIVONE: We’re talking at a moment when the release of your next graphic comic installment, The 49th Key, was pushed back by the publisher because of too many pre-orders. It’s already in its second printing before the first printing has even been released. Has that ever happened to you before?
LEWIS: Not before the release of the book. It’s exciting and I’m so grateful to Heavy Metal. The dedicated readers of the story in the magazine really pushed the buzz, and with new pages in the book, hopefully they’ll want even more.
How does it feel? Vindicating?
The 49th Key is one of the first things I ever wrote. It’s a story with a message, one that is important to me. A boy born to a world without weapons and violence as we know it is thrown into our world. Raised here for a bit…and then subjected to a terrifying run for his life, trying to get home. How will that affect him when he gets there? Will he be forever jaded against our kind because of the actions of a few humans while he was here? Not wanting to give away too much of the story: if you picked random moments in time to look at the human race on Earth what would your perception be of us? At a time where we’re writing a U.S. history full of violence, one filled with guns and deadly attacks, seeing it through a lens of how others see us is what Bodi represents to me.
Let’s switch to your fiction now. Stan Lee called Game of Shadows a “riveting page-turner.” Not bad for a debut novel. Coming from the comics world before fiction, how did Stan Lee’s work influence you?
Stan Lee is a story master. He loves New York, so we love New York. He connects you with a character, superhero or not. He makes every character feel like real people, so they become real. Peter Parker is a nerd in high school who wants the girl he’s crushing on to know who he’s Spider Man. Tony Stark is an arrogant rich genius, a guy who gets all the girls and yet is completely unfulfilled in his life. Sue and Johnny Storm, the sister and brother of the Fantastic Four pick at each just like I do with my brother. Oh, and did I mention they have powers too? Stan didn’t make reluctant heroes. He created heroes that knew they’d been given something special, powers that brought out even more of their personal struggles and personality, but they always knew they were going to save the day. These characters make us laugh as much as cry. What did I learn from Stan? Everything.
And so how did you feel to get that review from the man who taught you everything?
Like I’d been given an ‘A’ by the toughest professor on an assignment I’d been working on for years.
Your book also got praise from an academic specialist of Celtic Studies. What was your research process like?
It all began with a trip to Ireland during college. I wanted a cold Guinness in Dublin. I fell in love with the people, and decided to stay for a bit and see more of the country. At the Hill of Tara, I got the idea for Game of Shadows. It would be more than twenty years later that I would write the book. When I started writing, I began like we all do, searching the internet. I then moved to books from various professors and historians. Also translations of the ancient myths and legends.
But once I started writing, I needed a sounding board for some of my insane ideas.
Are you a writer who has to know everything that will happen to your characters before (or as you begin) the writing process? Or were there any surprises along the way?
I plot and then prance, meaning I write a detailed outline but many times (especially with Ethan Makkai, the frustrating kid that he is as the teen protagonist in Game of Shadows) the characters don’t do what I want them to do. I rarely re-outline. I just keep going. With book two of this series, I have a very detailed outline because it takes place in both Tara and in places in the U.S. and Ireland. It also jumps to various POVs, telling two stories at the same time that collide in the end. So I really had to plot all that out. Now, if it ends up exactly as I started? Only time will tell.
Let me ask you about your impressive genre-trotting. What’s it like going from TV production, to comics, to, now, fiction? Is there a natural progression among them or are you fulfilling interests? Because thinking in terms of narrative fiction must be very different from writing in media like TV and comics which are more visual, right?
Working in television gave me a foundation and education in storytelling that is definitely visual. I love watching television shows. I love reading comics and graphic novels too. Both are very visual. But novels are an altogether different experience, one where the art and visuals are left to your own imagination to visualize, all based on the descriptions by the author, with some creative license by our own tastes and sensibilities. I love that too.
When it comes to telling my own stories I don’t set out to write one versus another in format. I break down the idea, listen to the protagonist, and then figure out which will work best for the kind of story it is.
For me, novels usually begin with someone talking in my head. A character whispering to me about a world I don’t know well, telling me secrets, talking hardships, sometimes just making small talk. Everything these days takes place in Tara, as the Game of Shadows saga continues.
Talk about your role organizing the expansion of women working in the comics field. I understand you and others managed to put together an all-women team for your Webtoon series, Firebrand, which was just picked up for a second season on Webtoon after a huge first season. That’s remarkable to me because there’s plenty of genres where women are minimized as minorities, but in comics they are—at least by appearances—near non-existent. One of the only big names out there is the great Fiona Staples. And an excellent comic artist I’ve worked with named Anna Wiesczcyk. What are your experiences with others who are breaking down barriers at the ground (as well as production) levels?
Fiona Staples is incredible. Saga is one of my favorite series. Jessica Chobot and I went into Firebrand hoping to find a female artist. Legendary Comics was very supportive. The search went on for some time for two reasons. One, there aren't that many woman drawing comics. Two, with this being about witches in both a modern and period setting, we needed someone who could excel at both, and create the world quickly. Claudia Aguirre was the perfect match and luckily we got her when she was available.
Growing up, comics were a "boys" thing. I was a tomboy and read lots of them. Other girls did too. And that brought women into it. There are women writing, drawing and editing comics now, but it's hard to find any available because they're so busy. We need more. Yes, that's a serious call to action!
I know for me personally I got into comics to tell stories that I'm excited about reading. I loved My So Called Life, a ground breaking TV show that was cancelled after a single season because at the time there were no CW or Freeform channels. No place for young adult programming. The television landscape is filled with stories influenced by that show. Teen angst. Insecurities stemming from feeling like you just don’t fit in. Firebrand tackles many of these issues. Natali is a witch and never fit into her father’s perfectly human world, and runs away. In her twenties, she returns to her hometown of Seattle to protect humans from the dangerous elements of her kind, and still isn’t sure where she belongs. Half witch, half human. But when she gets back to Seattle, she finds a home, a place that’s filled with acceptance and love. A place and people worth fighting for.