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Squamish author pens heart-pounding thriller

Q&A: Amber Cowie on following the story into the scary places it wants to go.

Squamish author Amber Cowie embraces both the dark and light of life personally and in her stories.

Cowie's fourth work of fiction, Last One Alive, was recently released by publisher Simon and Schuster Canada.

The tense tale is set in a fictional version of Squamish. 

Described by USA Today as "A haunting, claustrophobic, unpredictable thriller," this latest book centres around bestselling debut novelist Penelope Berkowitz. 

With a team of researchers, she heads to a mysterious and remote eco-lodge to investigate the myth of a witch on Stone Point.

"When bodies turn up, it's up to Penelope and the remaining members of the team to solve the mystery of the Stone Witch before the killer is the only one left alive," reads the book's description. 

The Squamish Chief sat down with Cowie for a wide-ranging chat about life in Squamish, past pieces she has written and the ride she hopes this latest thriller takes readers on. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

When did you move to Squamish, and what drew you here?

My family and I have been here for close to six years. We moved here in October of 2016.

We were in Vancouver and living a very hectic 9-to-5 career life. We had a three-year-old daughter and a newborn son. And then, my mother-in-law, who lives in Ontario, had a severe fall and ended up with a very bad head injury. It really turned our life upside down. 

Our life became something we were scrutinizing really heavily. My mother-in-law got through it, and she didn't require us to move back to Ontario. But what happened in that process of everything being turned upside down is that we realized we really didn't want to live the life that we were living. 

I had a manuscript that I had been working on for a long time for my first novel, and my husband was a home brewer. He had always dreamed of being able to work in beer as a full-time career. So, we sold our house and used the money we made to bet on ourselves and our dreams. And so here we are six years later. He's the head brewer of Backcountry Brewing. And I have four novels out.

Before we talk about your latest book, I want to hear a bit more about your "Mothers and Monsters" article in Salon, which talks about the dark places new moms can go in their heads.  

I got some backlash. Even the beginning of the piece talks about some of the ways that people have interacted with the stuff I write and how I sometimes think. 

But I've had so many young moms reach out to me to tell me they felt the same. I am so glad that that resonates with people who are in that place or very close to it. And in a way, it makes me really sad, because I think that there's such alienation for women when they first have babies. And I think that's a real failing of our culture, and it makes me sad that so many people do feel the way that I did — it was such a wonderful time to have a new tiny creature that I was keeping alive. But it was also, I would say, one of the hardest times in my life.

Yes, the horror and violence in darker content — scary books, movies or true crime podcasts — is somehow as terrifying as the day-to-day life of a new mom. And that can be weirdly comforting if that makes sense?

Absolutely, it makes sense. I've always written and read true crime, mystery and thrillers and stuff from the time I was quite young, but I never felt that I could identify as strongly with the violence in a way and the sort of darkness within them as I did, once I had my daughter. And I realize now that I think part of the reason — probably not fully, but part of the reason — is because, often, the way that these stories are written is that it's a puzzle to be solved. The problem that's presented, even when the resolution is terrible, has a resolution. And so, in a way, you get to work through something that is absolutely mystifying.

You get to a point where there's a conclusion, and you're able to know why it happened or how it happened. 

And if that's at a moment of your life as a new mom when you just don't have any answers. I think there's such a comfort in that.

If you are comfortable, I also wanted to ask about your 2019 piece about your brother's toxic drug supply death that was published in The New York Times

I want to talk about it. It is something I've really wanted to put on the public record. 

The hardest thing to see is how much more is needed now than three years ago because people are dying at an astonishing rate. It is a public health crisis. And more importantly, I think there's a social misconception about what addiction actually is.

There's some language, and some acceptance around mental health issues and how every brain works differently, and some of them are, I think, pre-conditioned to a particular path of destruction. Unfortunately, we don't know why addiction exists or what particularly drives it. I think there's a lot of powerful research about the connections to trauma, but there's so much more to be done.

There are so many different kinds of people who have died because of this. And I think we really need to start asking ourselves why.

Turning to the latest book, 'Last One Alive', it reads a lot like a movie. Did you see it that way when you're writing?

Not necessarily. I had a podcaster ask me who I would cast. And I find it a really difficult question because the characters have a shape and a face to me that I don't necessarily, like, match with actors. 

But I feel like where we live — and this is based in Squamish, but it's an imagined location on the west coast in an abandoned Eco Lodge — is extremely picturesque. So, in some ways, I'd love the setting that I've envisioned to come to the screen because it does feel really cinematic.

Lots of blurbs describe your book as having an eerie feel. Can you tell me more about that?

I find the macabre and the eerie quite beautiful because of the scariness underneath.

I'm the kind of person who can't cross a bridge without thinking about jumping into the river, you know. I think those things are so inextricably linked. I guess I do bring that into the work, just because it's probably how I see the world. I grew up in a really small town north of Kamloops, and we used to play outside all the time. There were forests everywhere, but the whole time we were playing, we were always aware that bears were there. And sometimes they came into our yard.

So I think that the power of wilderness to me is the fact that there are things that are beyond your control and that you are just one piece of it. I like feeling small in the world. That sometimes makes me feel really special that I exist. And sometimes, it makes me feel really inconsequential. And sometimes, it makes me feel fearful. I like all of those different feelings.

With this book, when readers get to the end, do you hope there is a release through having gone through the scary journey you're taking them on?

Absolutely. I really wanted them to feel a powerful sense of resolution at the end. I wanted people to feel that when they close the book, what they had been seeking, they had found. 

Throughout the whole story, the main character doesn't feel like she's enough. And I thought that was a feeling that a lot of people could relate to, especially at this moment when everyone's so down and isolated and feeling very anxious about the state of the world. I just wondered if there was a way to create a thriller that answered that question for people. And so I really wanted the ending to come to that, and, hopefully, it's helped people feel whole, you know, by experiencing it through someone else. 

You know, when my agent first read this book, his comment to me was, "Wow, a lot of people die in this story." It is the story I've written that has the highest body count. But I also feel like it is the most hopeful, because I did try to create a sense of catharsis for my main character, Penelope. And I hope that people take that away when they finish.

Locals interested in her book can find it through her website or catch Cowie in person at the following upcoming events:

Author Signing: at Little Bookshop (38041 2nd Ave. Squamish)

  • Saturday, May 14th, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Last One Alive: In Conversation with Amber Cowie at Whistler Public Library (4329 Main Street Whistler)

Killer Crime Club

Reading and Discussion at Squamish Public Library (37907 2 Ave. Squamish)

  • Wednesday, June 8th, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.


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