Lee Murray is a versatile author from New Zealand, having written a multitude of short stories for various anthologies, young adult literature, and speculative fiction. Recently, her book, Hounds of the Underworld, co-written with Dan Rabarts, won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel. Murray is also the author of Into the Mist which sees men of the NZDF take on a giant lizard monster deep in the Te Urewera Forest of New Zealand. Into the Mist was recently re-released through Severed Press.
The following is an interview with Murray. In this interview, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor Nicholas Diak chats with Murray about her giant monster/men-on-a-mission/adventure/thriller novel, its new life, drawing elements from her native New Zealand into her writing, and more!
Nicholas Diak, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor: Into the Mist was originally released by Cohesion Press back in 2016. What can you reveal about the circumstances for it seeing a re-release by Severed Press?
Lee Murray: Oh, there’s nothing sinister about the circumstances. No cloak and dagger scandal. A small press finding itself growing too fast, Cohesion Press decided to pull back and refocus on their core which is high-action military short fiction. To that end, the company let all their novel projects go, leaving me looking for a new publisher for Into the Mist and its sequels. Happily, Severed Press stepped in and signed all three. I’ve had Severed on my radar for some time, since some of my favourite writers appear on their list: thriller and suspense experts like Tim Waggoner, Matt Betts, JH Moncrief, and Jake Bible, so, naturally, I’m excited to see my work appear alongside theirs, as well as titles by my former Cohesion colleague, Greig Beck (Primordia), and my Kiwi colleague, Paul Mannering (Eat, The Trench, HardCorps).
ND: Were there any alterations, edits, or changes in the text when it was re-published?
LM: In this edition, you’ll find a sampler of Deb Sheldon’s creature-feature, Devil Dragon, in the back of the book. Deb’s a fantastic writer, and Devil Dragon is a spine-crunching, action-packed read which Into the Mist readers are going to love. Otherwise, the text is word-for-word the same story that won Into the Mist Best Novel 2016 in New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing. Cohesion was kind enough to allow us to keep the fantastic cover art by award-winning designer Dean Samed and including the wonderful endorsement from Aussie thriller king Greig Beck, so, outwardly, the book looks very similar
ND: Into the Mist is the first book of adventures of NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna, with planned subsequent books to follow. Were there any unexplored concepts, discarded ideas, or other things that didn’t make it into the book that you want to realize in the sequels? How is it different to revisit the material and continue the adventures onward?
LM: The biggest change in Into the Mist was request from the publishers to shift the entire narrative from present to past tense, otherwise changes to the text were minor clarifications rather than any reworking of major ideas; however, the success of the title meant the publisher approached me for a second book. Not having planned to write a sequel, writing Into the Sounds has been more difficult, with two key story threads being removed and another strengthened after a structural edit. As a writer, I can tell you it was very hard to “murder those darlings.” I believe the changes create a stronger story.
Because I hadn’t intended to write a series, there was no preconceived, long story arc to hang a second book on, so, instead, I carried several characters over to the new adventure ‒ Taine McKenna, Jules Asher, Matthew Read, Trevor "Trigger" Grierson, and Rawiri Temera ‒ and set about developing their stories inside a fast-paced, full throttle adventure. It helped that I picked another isolated and treacherous area of New Zealand, this time right at the bottom of New Zealand in Fiordland. Then, I threw in a lost tribe, more of that Kiwi mythology, and a monster lurking in the waters… It was a new approach for me, and one I found challenging, but my early beta readers assure me that the final product, Into the Sounds, is a ripping read. I hope they’re right!
On leave, and out of his head with boredom, Sergeant Taine McKenna of the NZDF joins his girlfriend, biologist Jules Asher, on a Conservation Department deer culling expedition to New Zealand’s southernmost national park, where soaring peaks give way to valleys gouged from clay and rock and icy rivers bleed into watery canyons too deep to fathom. Despite covering an area the size of the Serengeti, only eighteen people live in the isolated region, so it’s a surprise when the hunters stumble on the nation’s Tūrehu tribe, becoming some of only a handful to ever encounter the elusive ghost people.
But a band of mercenaries saw them first, and, hell-bent on exploiting the tribes’ survivors, they’re prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way.
A soldier, McKenna is duty-bound to protect all New Zealanders, but after centuries of persecution will the Tūrehu allow him to help them? Besides, there is something else lurking in the sounds, and it has its own agenda. When the waters clear, will anyone be allowed to leave?
ND: There are quite a few military horror books out there. What would you say distinguishes Into the Mist from other books of a similar ilk?
LM: In my view, Into the Mist’s point of difference has to be its strong Kiwi flavour and, particularly, its setting, and I think readers would agree. Here’s what some Amazon reviewers had to say:
“…loved the Kiwi setting…”
“Really good novel in a completely new country…”
“Love how it’s firmly set in New Zealand.”
“If I had a dollar for every story I have read where a team of soldiers are hunting, or being hunted by something in the jungles of South America, Africa or Asia then I could’ve retired by now. Instead, Murray chooses New Zealand; an area she is obviously familiar with (being from New Zealand) and creates a story filled with culture, myth and difficult to pronounce words.”
Our dense New Zealand bush definitely plays a starring role in the story, since sergeant Taine McKenna and his NZDF section are in New Zealand’s Te Urewera ranges to protect a team of civilian scientists on a government-sanctioned gold hunt. Well, that’s the official reason for the mission. In truth, another section has mysteriously disappeared while investigating a slew of missing persons in area, and Taine and his men are charged with getting to the bottom of it. But despite its beauty, the Te Urewera forest can be fickle and treacherous, with hidden ravines, rivers quick to flood, and thick mists to confound the uninitiated. The site of years of political and religious conflict, the forest is home to the mighty Tūhoe tribe, commonly referred to as the Children of the Mist, as well as the patupaiarehe (fairies) of Māori mythology, and perhaps something else… This dark and haunting place was the perfect place to set my story.
ND: Into the Mist combines both the giant monster/animals run amok genre with the men-on-a-mission genre. In addition to Into the Mist, you have a forthcoming short story that’s slated to be published in the anthology, Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters II. In terms of subject matter, are your writings in the giant monster genre happy accidents and coincidental, or have you always had an adoration to the genre?
LM: The answer is a bit of both really. My first three books were in middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction genres, and while they all did reasonably well, they didn’t do so well that I could afford a second house by the beach! If I was going to have a sustainable career as a writer, I needed to grow my readership, which meant writing something with broader appeal, although I was determined that whatever that was, it would still have a strong New Zealand flavour. And perhaps it was Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, who gave me the idea. I was in the forest with some friends, doing a long run of around 36km and we were discussing how while our country can be lethal, the dangers stem from the climate and the terrain itself, and not because of our fauna. (Thirty-six kilometres is a long way, talking several hours to complete so the conversation can cover a lot of ground). New Zealand is devoid of nasty beasties which pose a threat to humans. There are mosquitoes and sandflies, and you could get a painful sting if you disturb a wētā beetle or a wasp, but really that’s it. There are no cougars lurking above you in the trees or bears crossing the trails, no cassowaries to eviscerate a hapless runner, or snakes underfoot. Certainly, nothing big. Well, naturally, that got me thinking what if there was? What if a group of people were in the New Zealand bush, and they were confronted with something large and deadly? I went home and opened a file which I flippantly called “Global Blockbuster,” and that was the start of Into the Mist. I must have had some success, because Nick Sharps and Alana Abbott then approached me to write a story for Kaiju Rising II. I asked if they’d like my story to be tied to the New Zealand landscape and Nick’s response was an emphatic yes.
ND: Was there anything you took away from writing Into the Mist that you were able to apply to your story in Kaiju Rising II? What can folks expect to see from your contribution to that anthology?
LM: In writing Into the Mist, I understand that the New Zealand landscape, with its geysers, crater lakes, and mountain ranges, is a wonderful source of story, and New Zealand storytellers have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. And if we imbue our stories with our history and culture, throw in the call of the kōkako and the pranks of the demi-god Maui, then there is a point of difference, something unique that doesn’t appear in other literature. As a New Zealand writer, I feel there is a responsibility for us to tell our stories, to offer our perspectives in this moment. As for my story in Kaiju Rising II, it was conjured in part from the landscape in and around Lake Taupō, and from New Zealand’s living mythology.
ND: What is the primary goal that you wanted to accomplish with Into the Mist? Would you say you’ve been successful with it?
LM: Well, I haven’t bought that second beach house yet! In all seriousness, the book has achieved exactly what it was intended to do: create a broader readership for my work. If it has also introduced readers from other countries to take a look at fiction from other speculative fiction writers, then that is a plus. Literary recognition for Into the Mist from my peers in the writing community has been a special bonus with the book long listed for the Bram Stoker Award, a finalist in the Australasian Shadows, and winner of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But mostly, I hope it’s a book that readers will continue to enjoy, finding themselves transported into New Zealand’s wilderness for an hour of two of escapism.
ND: What have been the barriers for the success of Into the Mist, especially in regards for being a New Zealand story vying for success in an international market. What barriers do you have to negotiate with being a writer from across the sea?
LM: I’ve found that while the bigger publishing companies with the big print runs and higher publicity costs are reticent to take a chance on a New Zealand stories, small presses are far more avant-garde, and as a result most of my work has found a home with indie presses. International readers’ reactions to Into the Mist have been positive, although one of two haven’t liked the use of local/Māori terms. I admit some of them can be tough to get your tongue around! Some publishers will demand that writers revise their work for American audiences, taking out local content and Americanizing the text, but I’ve been very lucky to have worked with open-minded publishers who have embraced the differences and seen them as a positive aspect, adding flavour and depth of the story.
For Kiwi writers, getting our work in front of publishers is an uphill slog. As far as I’m aware, there are only two literary agents operating in New Zealand and both of those specialize in children’s titles, so for the most part, we represent ourselves. I suspect that means Kiwi writers are on less lucrative deals that our counterparts overseas who have agents working on their behalf, negotiating advances and championing their next project.
ND: Without giving too much away, for giant monster/animal fans out there, how would you sell your taniwha to them? What makes your creature fascinating when compared to the likes of Japanese Kaiju or even the volley of Sharknado/Dinocroc-esque films that are popular now?
LM: I think the appeal of the creature in Into the Mist is its plausibility. Therapod remains have been discovered in the Ureweras, albeit only a toenail, so why couldn’t a larger version of our little tuatara also have existed? Then, there’s the plethora of written and oral reports from Māori and Pakeha (white people) that New Zealand was, and still is, inhabited by serpent-like taniwha, which also lend the story its credibility. To be perfectly honest, I’m not convinced my monster doesn’t exist ‒ we just haven’t found it yet.
Lee Murray’s Website
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Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, peplum films, and H. P. Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.