Author Q&A: Bee Lewis

Liminal (Salt, £9.99)

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Esther, a pregnant amputee, and her husband Dan retreat to the Scottish Highlands to make a new life for themselves and their baby. Isolated by day, by night she explores the surrounding forest and over the course of their first week there Esther’s body, marriage and life begin to dramatically change.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you’ve come to publish Liminal.
I’m from a working-class background, with a strong Irish heritage. I was lucky to grow up in Liverpool with easy access to the arts and culture. Even in the bleakest times during the 1980s, the city provided a wealth of opportunities for new writing and performing. I knew I wanted to write, but for a long time I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t really know where to start, or whether I had anything interesting to say. I enrolled on a writing course with the Open University and went on to complete an MA in creative writing with Manchester Metropolitan University. For that course, I had to submit a novel – and that was Liminal. After all those years of not writing, I’m like a tap that won’t turn off now. I’ve started the second novel. I write in my spare time as I work during the day.

You were born in Liverpool and live in Sussex. Why did you choose to base Liminal in the Scottish Highlands and what research did you do to get it right? 
I used to work on the railways, and so train travel was very accessible. It meant that I got to spend a lot of time exploring Scotland and so was familiar with the landscape. I got the idea for Liminal when I was travelling home, by train, from a week’s writing retreat at Moniack Mhor. The landscape was fresh in my mind and it set me thinking. However, it’s one thing knowing what a place looks like, but another thing entirely trying to figure out which animals, plants, and trees thrive in that environment. Fortunately, there are some great sources of information on the internet, such as the Cairngorms National Park website. I sourced much of my information from there, but then delved into mythology and folklore to narrow down the species I name in the novel. Each one has been chosen because it fits with the landscape, but also for the symbolism attached. For example, the rowan is known as a ward against evil in Scottish mythology, and the Scots pine is a pioneer – known to thrive in a hostile environment.

Why is the hare a significant image in the story?
There’s a staggering amount of folklore and symbolism connected to hares. They are synonymous with Easter, fertility and the moon – among other things. In many cultures, they also symbolise transformation and there are tales of women, often portrayed as witches, who can shapeshift into hare form to escape or evade capture. The idea intrigued me, and I wanted to incorporate some of that symbolism into the novel. There are several themes running through the novel but, for me, the key one is transformation – hence the title. And it seemed fitting that Esther, an amputee trying to navigate a hostile environment, would identify so strongly with a hare – the fastest land mammal in Britain.

Characters with disabilities are stereotypically portrayed as villains. Was it important to you to write a positive representation of disability with Esther?
Absolutely. People come in all kinds of different packaging and so should characters in stories. I wanted her disability to be just something that is part of her, in the same way her hair colour or mannerisms are. It’s true that it might be the feature that other people notice first, but in no way does her disability define her. I think that we should re-examine how people with disabilities are perceived. Technology and healthcare are so advanced now, that some of the barriers that people with disabilities faced historically just don’t exist anymore. However, society isn’t as quick to catch up and, for some, accessibility and equality remain out of reach. People with disabilities are under-represented in fiction and I wanted to both highlight that and to create a character who gives the reader something new to think about.

While her physical disability doesn’t get in her way too much Esther is not particularly emotionally strong. Why does overcoming her physical disability in the fantastical strand of the novel help her overcome her emotional weaknesses in the realist strand?
I wrestled with the idea of Esther gaining her independence through the interaction she has in the fantastical realm because I didn’t want it to appear as though I was advocating that she needed a fully functioning body in order to improve her situation. I tested the idea out and was encouraged to hear that one of the most common dreams that amputees have is of running. That gave me the confidence to use it as a metaphor for Esther’s own confidence rising. She learns to be herself, she learns through her nightly explorations that she can survive, she is strong.

Dan’s controlling behaviour is mirrored by the physical violence in Esther’s childhood, in which you invert a stereotype. What are you attempting to convey about domestic abuse?
There are a number of issues to unpack here. Firstly, research indicates that there is a higher likelihood of someone who has been abused to go on to abuse someone else – and so the cycle continues. But there’s also evidence to show that people who have witnessed abuse in their childhood often end up in similar relationships themselves. Esther’s co-dependency on Dan is a direct result of her parents’ marriage. When we discuss domestic abuse, there is a tendency to think about violence against women – and there are very good reasons for that. Women are more likely to be killed by partners or ex-partners. The battered wife narrative is out in the mainstream, as it should be. But at its most basic level, I believe that if it’s wrong for a man to hit a woman, then it’s wrong for a woman to hit a man. There is more acceptance however of a woman coming forward and asking for help – and there is more help available for women who are victims of abuse. Men are chained by the reins of social stigma in the same way women used to be.

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