Photo credit: Malcolm Tweedy
Crime fiction snuck up on me when I needed it the most. It was a genre that I read often, but not something that I considered as a potential avenue for my writing. I wanted to be a screenwriter, and perhaps one day write a novel. You know, sometime in the future, down the road, when I was older and wiser. As the years passed, however, I became older, but wisdom was nowhere to be found. Believe me, I looked. Screenwriting wasn’t working out, and I felt like I wasn’t where I wanted to be, creatively speaking.
One winter, I was sitting in a production office for a film/TV company in Toronto, where I worked as a researcher, when an idea came to me in logline form. "Logline form” is the term the film/TV industry uses to describe a one-sentence synopsis that gives you the essence of a story — so that people know what they’re signing up for. Here's mine:
A woman discovers the child she’d given up for adoption many years ago has gone missing, and now she must delve into the dark events of her past to find the girl — a child she’d never wanted to exist in the first place.
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At the time, I was researching the criminal justice system in Canada, and was gripped by the issue of gender violence here. It was like a light bulb went on and a flash of wisdom came to me. I knew there was something to this idea. Despite the logline, this story didn’t strike me as a screenplay. And I didn’t want to go through the formatting that is particular to writing for the screen. I wanted to try something different. This story, for me, began as a book.
I obsessed over it while trying to do my job, but any hopes I had of putting this project on the back burner while I earned a living disappeared. With the line, “I know a little something about the blues,” Nora Watts burst out of my imagination and onto the page. Nora: a woman with a terrifying past, a complicated identity, and an artist’s soul. A former blues singer whom trouble seems to follow around like the horny stray dog that she’d picked up along the way. What other music could capture a woman like that? What better character to write about for my first novel?
The blues became the key to Nora, and it was also the key to my book.
Suddenly, with this musical cue, I understood her and I knew what her story would be. She is a product of an often misunderstood land, a mash-up of fractured identities and influences that I hadn’t seen represented in popular fiction before. She excited me. With Nora, there are no easy answers. Only difficult questions, and the vexing woman at the center of a girl’s disappearance.
With little more than an idea and some scattered notes, I moved across the country, from the east coast to the west, to see if I could write a book. I was familiar enough with film and television writing to recognize structure. What I had was a bit of light plotting, and a character who wouldn’t allow herself to sing anymore. Everything else I left up to the devious way my mind works, and the moody atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.
This story, from inception to publication, has been about place and music — and the price that a woman must pay to save a girl who is the living embodiment of the darkest chapter of her past.
Some of the people in my life thought I was crazy for moving, and maybe they were right, but I imagined the path ahead if I kept doing the same thing that I had been for years — and I didn’t like what I saw. Back in Toronto, I’d been going nowhere fast. I had long since abandoned my political science degree and youthful forays into social activism. There was a creative drive in me that couldn’t be ignored any longer. For quite a while I had pursued acting and screenwriting. I had been a professional actor, stunt double (for children, because I’m a hobbit), film extra, Muay Thai practitioner, paid note-taker, and television researcher. Nothing was panning out. I was stuck in a rut, repeating the same old mistakes, constantly putting myself on the line and only hearing, “You have to pay your dues” in return. It didn’t feel right anymore, and quite honestly, I was bored.
So I packed up my life and moved to Vancouver to prove to myself that I could write this book. It was the best decision I ever made.
It wasn’t by chance that I chose the rainy west coast as the setting for The Lost Ones
. I had been to Vancouver once before during one of its famous wet winters. I was supposed to stay a few months, but managed only a few weeks before I threw in the proverbial towel. Not knowing any better, I had stayed in the worst part of town: the Downtown Eastside. I had been shocked by the conditions when I got there. Three weeks of filthy streets, rainy skies, soggy clothes and I’d had it. I needed the sun. But something about the experience stuck with me; perhaps it was a seed of an idea that took another several years to germinate.
The Downtown Eastside, notorious for its high crime rate and open-air drug trade, is one of the most compelling places I’ve ever been. Although I’d volunteered with the homeless in Toronto as a teenager, the streets of Vancouver felt different somehow. These are the same streets that Nora walks, and the novel is influenced by the same things that make the west coast of Canada so interesting to write about — the beauty, the poverty that is hidden in plain sight, the endless rain. I was born in the Caribbean and was not made for these incessant downpours. I put it all in the book, and thought of a Bessie Smith lyric from “Backwater Blues”:
When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night
Then trouble’s takin’ place in the lowlands at night.
It seemed fitting that the rain would bring trouble for my main character. Several years after that first trip, living in Vancouver was still a struggle, but the rain and the blues kept me writing. This story, from inception to publication, has been about place and music — and the price that a woman must pay to save a girl who is the living embodiment of the darkest chapter of her past.
In “Bright Lights,” when Gary Clark Jr. sings, “You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” I think of Nora’s resilience and courage. Hozier’s haunting guitar intro in “To Be Alone” — that’s the beat that Nora walks to. Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a plea that Nora would never allow to cross her lips — but it’s her secret desire. There are so many other songs that spoke to me while I was writing, music that might never have affected me the way it did if it wasn’t for the book.
Rain and the blues. Place and music. I’m not sure I could have written The Lost Ones
without these two elements, which build the atmosphere that is so critical to the feel of this book. Although I had read a lot of crime fiction before tackling this project, I had never before written in this genre. These two elements guided me as I felt my way through Nora’s story.
Now, as I work on the sequel, I am still consumed by Nora. My musical taste has grown by leaps and bounds in order to write her, and I’m still learning her through the music that I think she’d be drawn to. She represents one of the most passionate love affairs of my life, and I’m so excited to share her story with the world.
'The Lost Ones' Playlist:
"Bright Lights" by Gary Clark Jr.
"Hound Dog" by Big Mama Thornton
"Be My Husband" by Lisa Hannigan (cover)
"Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Nina Simone
"Way Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits
“Delicate" by Damien Rice
"The Dark End of the Street" by James Carr
"I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" by Bessie Smith
"Back Water Blues" by Bessie Smith
"To Be Alone" by Hozier
"Back Door Man" by Howlin’ Wolf
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holds an HBA in political science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. Kamal has also worked as a crime and investigative journalism researcher for the film and television industry — academic knowledge and experience that inspired this debut novel. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. The Lost Ones
is her first book.