By Wendy Tyson
B. K. Stevens is perhaps best known for her short fiction. Truly a master of suspense, she’s authored almost fifty short stories, most of them published by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and has garnered a number of prestigious awards and award nominations. Ms. Stevens recently published her first adult mystery novel, Interpretation of Murder. Now she is using her talents to thrill the young adult audience. Her newest novel, FIGHTING CHANCE, tells the story of Matt Foley, a seventeen-year-old martial arts student and basketball player, in his quest to find justice when his beloved mentor and coach is killed during a tae kwon do tournament. A smart, gripping whodunit set in a small Virginia town, FIGHTING CHANCE is a must-read for sports and mystery enthusiasts alike.
The Big Thrill recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Stevens to talk about her writing career and her love of the mystery genre.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of FIGHTING CHANCE, your first mystery for a young adult audience. Can you tell us something about the book that’s not on the back cover?
I’ve sometimes described FIGHTING CHANCE as a cross between The Hardy Boys and The Karate Kid: It’s a fair-play whodunit laced with action and adventure, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenager growing into manhood while studying a martial art. And, since I’m a longtime English teacher, I made a conscious effort to include elements students can analyze in outside reading reports, such as complex characters and a sense of place.
Matt Foley is an interesting protagonist. A seventeen-year-old boy from small-town Virginia, Matt feels compelled to investigate the death of his coach. What was the inspiration for Matt’s character? Did you have to do any special research when writing FIGHTING CHANCE?
In various ways, Matt’s character was inspired by some of the boys I got to know when I taught high-school English. Whenever it was time to write outside reading reports and I suggested titles to them, they responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride: “Are there any sports?” So I began playing around with the idea of writing a young adult mystery with a protagonist those boys could relate to and respect. Matt loves sports, both basketball and martial arts, and he’s impatient with school. That impatience, though, is partly an act—Matt’s smarter than he thinks he is, and he enjoys intellectual challenges more than he’ll admit. I wanted to make this a novel that would appeal to young people who don’t think of themselves as readers, but who might discover they love reading after all. (And, by the way, I wrote this novel with boys in mind, but I think girls will like it, too.)
As for special research—yikes. I wanted to make sports a central element on the novel and decided to focus on martial arts because my husband’s a fifth-degree black belt who’s studied many martial arts including krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Matt learns about in FIGHTING CHANCE. I thought it would be helpful to have an in-house expert on hand, and it was. My husband choreographed all the martial arts scenes in FIGHTING CHANCE. I found I couldn’t describe those scenes realistically, though, unless we acted each one out several times—and since my husband knows a lot about martial arts and I know practically nothing, he always played the winner, and I always played the loser. I got some bumps and bruises during the course of this research, but it was worth it. My editor at The Poisoned Pencil says the realistic martial arts scenes are one reason she decided to accept the manuscript.
Your first novel, Interpretation of Murder (April 2015), was a traditional adult mystery featuring American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi. Your upcoming novel is written for young adults. Do you prefer writing for one audience over another? When do you know an idea is better suited for one genre over another?
FIGHTING CHANCE is my first mystery for young adults, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. When I started working on the novel, I wasn’t sure I could capture the voice of a protagonist who’s so different from me. Matt’s male, and I’m female. He’s seventeen, and I’m—well, not seventeen. And he’s an athlete, and I’ve never been athletic, not even when I was seventeen. But Matt’s voice came to me easily, and I think it rings true, maybe partly because I’ve taught high school and college and have had teenagers of my own. One reason I love reading is that it lets me share the lives and perspectives of people very unlike me; that’s one reason I love writing, too. Writing for young adults is an exciting challenge, but so is writing for adults, which allows me to enter into the lives of protagonists such as Jane Ciardi, who’s much braver and more outgoing than I am. Deciding whether an idea is better suited to young adults or adults depends partly on the age of the protagonist, partly on the subject matter. Interpretation of Murder, for example, is no Fifty Shades of Gray, but it does contain some elements that might not be appropriate for high-school students.
Even though FIGHTING CHANCE is only your second novel, you’re no stranger to the mystery market. In fact, you have almost fifty published short stories to your name, including one story that won a Derringer award for Best Long Story in 2011 and another (“Thea’s First Husband”) that was nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. What do you enjoy about writing short stories? Can you tell us a little about your journey from published short story author to published novelist? Do you continue to write in literary formats?
I love writing short stories, and I never plan to stop. While I was teaching, and sneaking in tiny bits of writing time between grading endless stacks of essays, writing short stories made a lot of sense. Now that my husband’s a dean and can assume primary (all right, just about exclusive) responsibility for supporting us, I have more time for writing and can focus on novels as well as short stories. But short stories continue to offer opportunities for exploring characters and situations that wouldn’t work in novels—at least, not novels I’d like to read. The protagonist of “Thea’s First Husband,” for example, is a mostly passive character overwhelmed by circumstances and incapable of acting decisively. I thought she deserved a short story—lots of evil enters this world because basically decent people are too weak to take action—but if I’d tried to stick with her for an entire novel, I’d want to give her a good shake and tell her to do something.
Jane Ciardi, the protagonist of Interpretation of Murder, was introduced in a 2010 story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine—that’s the story that won the Derringer. I always liked Jane, and I thought her job as an American Sign Language interpreter offered lots of opportunities for interesting mysteries. But in the story (“Silent Witness,” now available on Kindle), she doesn’t speak out when she encounters a possible injustice. She doesn’t think she can succeed, so she remains silent. When I decided to use Jane as the protagonist in a novel, I had to transform her character, to make her much stronger and more active, much less willing to tolerate injustice. I also gave her a more definite sense of humor. For me, that’s essential for a protagonist I want to follow for more than thirty pages or so.
On your author website, you wrote a wonderful article titled “What’s Wrong with Mysteries?” I loved it. Please tell us a bit about why you write mysteries. Whether you’re writing short stories or novels, what themes do you find yourself drawn to again and again?
I have old-fashioned tastes in literature: Most of my favorite novels and stories were written during the nineteenth century, not the twentieth or twenty-first. I love the fiction of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain, much more than I like most of the “literary” fiction being written today. And I think mysteries, more than most contemporary novels and stories, preserve the qualities I like best in old-fashioned fiction. I like novels and stories that have plots, ones in which things happen—and happen because of the actions characters take and the decisions they make.
I like characters who do things. I get impatient with characters who just sit around being sensitive and feeling sorry for themselves. And I like stories and novels that affirm a rational, moral universe. As I say in the article you mentioned, mysteries acknowledge that truth is often hard to discern and that justice is often difficult to achieve. That’s why there’s a mystery, why the protagonist has to take action. But mysteries also maintain that we should try to discern the truth and to achieve justice, and that life will be better if we do. In FIGHTING CHANCE, Matt and his friends feel compelled to try to uncover the truth about their coach’s death and to see that justice is done, not because it’s their job but because they think it’s the right thing to do. That’s the kind of theme I feel drawn to, and those are the kinds of characters I love writing about. That’s why I write mysteries.
What does your writing routine look like? Where is your favorite place to write?
One of the biggest challenges many writers face these days is limiting the amount of time spent online—if we’re not careful, social media and all the fascinating websites out there can eat up our writing time. I’ve found it helps to use a timer. I sit down at my desk when my husband leaves for work at 8:30, set the timer for twenty minutes, and check my e-mail. When the timer goes off, that’s it—any e-mail I haven’t gotten to will have to wait until later in the day, or sometimes until the next day. I try to follow the principle of “write first” and stick to writing until lunch—but I’ll admit other things sometimes get in the way. After lunch, I again set the timer for twenty minutes and open Facebook. When the timer goes off, it’s back to writing, and to household chores such as laundry. Several times during the day, I take ten-minute exercise breaks. (I use the timer for those, too.) I put writing aside when my husband gets home but often go back to it in the evening. If I’m facing a deadline or I’m at a particularly exciting stage in a writing project, I’ll sometimes work very late (much too late, to be honest).
My favorite place to write is my big, old-fashioned desk, complete with a file drawer, shelves for more files, and a bookcase section for reference books. I love my desk so much that it’s hard for me to write anywhere else.
Any tips for aspiring authors?
This may sound evasive, but I really think every writer has to discover his or her own writing process. We can all learn a lot from reading books on writing—I especially recommend Stephen King’s On Writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. We can gain helpful insights from reading articles and blogs, too, and from going to conferences and workshops, and from talking to other writers. I think it’s great to experiment with new approaches and see what happens. Just a few years ago, for example, I read two articles that transformed the way I approach revision. In the end, though, we have to figure out what works for us, even if all the authorities tell us we’re doing it wrong. Stephen King may insist you need to write every day, but if you find that you’re more enthusiastic and productive if you write just three or four days a week, I think that’s what you should do.
What’s next for you?
I definitely want to write more mysteries about Matt and his friends—I’ve got a couple of ideas and will probably start taking notes about them soon. (For me, taking many, many pages of notes is usually the first stage in the writing process—I find it a tremendously helpful way of thinking things through on paper.) Right now, I’m revising a mystery novel for adults, using characters from one of my series for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I’m also doing the final editing on a story I plan to submit to Hitchcock’s soon, and I’m starting to take notes for a story about Jane Ciardi. I like having several projects going at once, at various stages of the writing process. That way, if I get stuck on one, I can switch to another for a while. I also have several stories coming out soon, one in Hitchcock’s, one in an anthology called Jewish Noir, and one in the Bouchercon anthology. (I have a story in the Malice Domestic anthology, too, but that won’t come out until next spring.) So I’m keeping busy, and I’m loving every minute of it.
B. K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published almost fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Some stories have been nominated for awards such as the Agatha and the Macavity; another won a Derringer; and another won a suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark. Her first novel, Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal Books in April, 2015, is a traditional whodunit that offers readers glimpses into deaf culture and sign-language interpreting. Her second novel, Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults, will be published in October, 2015, by The Poisoned Pencil / Poisoned Pen Press. She’s also published three nonfiction books, along with articles in The Writer and The Third Degree. She blogs at SleuthSayers and also hosts The First Two Pages. B.K. and her husband live in Virginia and have two grown daughters.
To learn more, please visit her website.