Interview: March 16, 2017
Chevy Stevens’ debut, STILL MISSING, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel in 2011. She has followed up that enormous success with one gripping psychological thriller after another, including ALWAYS WATCHING and THOSE GIRLS. Stevens' latest, NEVER LET YOU GO, introduces readers to Lindsey Nash, who leaves an abusive relationship and tries to start a new life with her young daughter, Sophie --- but will learn years later that it is almost impossible to escape one’s past. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Rebecca Munro, Stevens reveals why this book got such a late start; describes the challenges she faced in alternating the story’s points of view between Lindsey and Sophie; explains how she ensured that Andrew, the abusive ex-husband, wouldn’t be a cliché; and offers a few tantalizing details about her next novel, her first to be set outside of Canada.
Bookreporter.com: Every story has a starting point. What was yours for NEVER LET YOU GO?
Chevy Stevens: NEVER LET YOU GO got a late start. Meaning, I actually began with a completely different book, but after nine months my editor and I realized it wasn’t working. We talked about various ways I might be able to fix it, but I wasn’t enjoying the story. It just didn’t feel like a “Chevy Stevens” book, and I wasn’t emotionally connecting with the characters. I decided to toss it out and work on a different premise. This book grew from the realization that I tend to feel most comfortable (as my editor rightly pointed out) writing about blue collar, hard-working women. We brainstormed different jobs that we felt were difficult, and house cleaning was one that came up. Then we started talking about how it would be terrible to find something horrific one day in a house you were cleaning. I started thinking about who might want to scare this woman, and why. The story evolved from there.
BRC: In NEVER LET YOU GO, you alternate the points of view between Lindsey Nash, a formerly abused woman who has lived in fear of her husband since he first laid hands on her, and her daughter, Sophie, who remembers only the loving father she knew as a child. Together these wildly different perspectives give readers a picture of Andrew and his character. Was one of these points of view easier to write than the other?
CS: I enjoyed writing both of them, and each had different challenges. I had to show the progression of age and maturity with Lindsey, and also her initial hope and love for Andrew, and how that changed as he became more and more controlling. I needed to make sure she wasn’t too defiant in her mental thoughts while married as that wouldn’t fit the profile. She was young and naïve. Then I had to show her years later, still living with the lingering fear, but independent and stronger now that she was out from underneath his thumb.
Sophie didn’t have as much of a chronological change, but I had to be careful with her as she is a teenager to not slip into an overtly juvenile voice as this isn’t YA. I found it easy to write the scenes when she’s meeting with her father as I understand longing, fear, all of that. I remember the first time I saw my dad after we had been living apart for years. It felt awkward, tense, and all my emotions were raw. Sometimes I understood Sophie more than Lindsey, simply because of my own past. When Lindsey was talking about her love and fear for Sophie, I connected the most because that’s the love I have for my own daughter.
BRC: The driving force behind your novel is Andrew’s abuse and his family’s attempts to free themselves from him, but I was also captivated by the relationship between Lindsey and Sophie. What did you enjoy about writing the mother/daughter relationship in the book? And did your being a mom infuse your writing?
CS: I loved writing about their relationship, so I’m very pleased that you felt their connection. It brought me a great deal of pleasure, showing their interactions. Not just the big emotional ones, but the day-to-day moments of their lives. For Sophie’s younger years, I worked in a lot of little quirks about my daughter, some of our conversations, or things we will say to each other. Those memories are very precious to me, so I enjoy thinking that I have saved some of them forever between the pages of my book.
This story was also a way for me to project my future dreams for my relationship with my daughter. People are always telling me how different it is when your kid becomes a teenager. “Just you wait” is a common warning. Even though I am sure we will have our differences, I hope we will always be close and work through anything that comes our way.
BRC: In her post-Andrew life, Lindsey works as a caretaker for the elderly, often cleaning their homes and accompanying them on errands. It was interesting for me as a reader to note that Lindsey found such satisfaction in cleaning up other people’s messes following the dissolution of her own tidy, well-kept life. Was this a deliberate choice, or did Lindsey’s career come naturally as you wrote?
CS: I had already picked this career for her, but as I continued with the story, I wove in why it meant so much to her, how she found pleasure in taking control and organizing, and helping her clients. She is the sort of person who enjoys caring for others --- we saw that with her mother, and it is why she was more apt to be attracted to someone like Andrew, who she believed needed her. Cleaning gives her a sense of completion. She can see the results of her efforts. I feel the same way when I take apart one of our closets or go on a cleaning rampage. In fact, this morning I was feeling anxious about my upcoming tour, so I spent a ridiculous amount of time making our bed and even ironed the sheets. It was soothing.
BRC: I was initially worried that NEVER LET YOU GO would feed me the same abusive male character that I’ve read about in countless other stories, but Andrew is truly an original creation. As I was reading about him, I often wondered if you’d conducted any psychological research to help round out his character. Did any of that come into play?
CS: He developed as time went on --- and both my editor and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a cliché. I rewrote him several times, several different ways. I also spent a lot of time talking with a friend of mine who is a therapist. She’s also brilliant at brainstorming and understands the anatomy of story. So she would tell me when my characters weren’t behaving true to that type of marriage or dynamics. She read the final result recently and wrote me a lovely letter, expressing how she felt I’d really gotten inside their world, and that meant a lot to me. I’ve also had my own experiences to draw on. Though I didn’t set out to write about my life, or my mother’s life, my father was a binge drinker and would have massive rages where he’d smash all our windows, throw plates, and do other terrible things. But he also had a wonderful, charismatic side, and I loved him a lot. That’s why it was easier for me, maybe more than others, to see that it’s this dual nature that is the hardest to cope with. I’ve also listened to my mother, and through this book I was able to understand her even more. This is also why I was able to identify with Sophie so much.
BRC: One of the most striking elements of Lindsey’s character is her ability to hone in on even the smallest changes in the atmosphere --- a talent driven, sadly, by fear and necessity. When she notices that her keys have been moved in her purse, for example, she senses that Andrew is near, even when there is no other evidence. She truly lives life on edge. How did you come up with these tiny, seemingly unimportant details?
CS: That was the challenge I set for myself with this book. I wanted to create fear and suspense without overt violence or a direct nemesis attacking and interacting with the main character all the time. It needed to be a slow and distinct, but no less frightening, onslaught. So I spent a lot of time thinking or brainstorming with author friends --- and my therapist friend --- about various things we would find creepy, but that weren’t clichéd or obvious. They all needed to seem like subtle messages from Andrew, and because of the memories I wove through about their marriage, we understand, like Lindsey, the implied threat: She’s not safe.
It wasn’t that hard for me to understand her fixating on tiny details. Having grown up with an alcoholic parent, you learn very young to sense any changes in the air. Your survival depends on keeping the peace and heading off the next problem before it arises.
BRC: Although I loved Lindsey and was rooting for her all along, Sophie really tugged at my heartstrings --- she was so trusting and naïve, yet willful in her own ways, and beyond talented with her art. Her love for her dad is so strong. She has a boyfriend and the usual teen angst. The note that closes the book is lovely. Was that coda always a part of the story?
CS: I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to end this book. For the longest time, I wasn’t even working on the final third of the book. I left it alone until I had the first two parts solid. Then I used that as my springboard for the last moments. At the end of the book, everyone was still very raw and emotional, and I couldn’t wrap that up in a pretty bow. As I considered different ways of showing how the characters are faring farther down the line, I thought about how Sophie had written letters and decided to try ending on one. I wrote it in a stream of consciousness, and it didn’t need much editing as it was from Sophie’s heart. When I sent it to my editor, she loved it, and so we left it in. So far the feedback has been great, and that means a lot to me. My own mother loved the letter.
BRC: One of the strongest aspects of your writing is your character development. Do you work on that before you start writing or let it evolve along the way?
CS: I do work with beginning concepts of my characters, but they definitely change and grow with the story. Initially, they are just rough sketches as I feel my way through the story, often very one dimensional, with brief descriptions and the barest sense of their personality. I start to flesh them out when their arc and role in the narrative become clearer to me.
BRC: Your plotting is deft. Seriously. You know how to create heart-pounding scenarios. Just when the reader thinks it’s all under control, things ramp in a new direction. How do you unwind after writing such tense situations, or do they not take an emotional toll on you as their creator?
CS: Thank you so much! I work darn hard on my plots, and they never come easy. I don’t usually write a tough scene all at one time. They are a process over days, or weeks. So I move in and out of the intensity. When I need to write a more powerful scene, I have to gear up for it. I make sure to start on a morning when I feel fresh and clear-headed. To go into someone’s thoughts and fears and emotions so deeply, I almost have to put myself into a zone. I can only stay there for so long before I pop out for a breath of air. That’s usually when I will switch to more of the diagnostics of a scene, or edit another page.
In my personal life, I no longer seem to enjoy reading or watching anything too upsetting or dark. I lean far more toward humor now, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m very tired by the end of the night, and also, I think I’m just in an overall happier place.
BRC: NEVER LET YOU GO is the perfect title. Did you have that right from the start, or did you come to it later?
CS: Because I started with another book for those first nine months, there was a completely different title in place, which I carried over even when I was working on the new premise. When I was finished, my editor and I discussed how it no longer fit the story. She was the one who came up with “Never Let You Go,” and I instantly loved it and knew it was perfect.
BRC: Many readers remember when you burst on the scene with STILL MISSING back in 2010. What, if anything, has changed about your process of writing along the way?
CS: I wish I could say that I have streamlined my process, but so far my pattern typically involves going off in all the wrong directions, then eventually figuring it out and making it work, while gaining more gray hair with each new draft. Two things are consistently different since STILL MISSING. Now I start with an outline (even if it changes), whereas with that first novel I only had the premise and a few key points in mind before I started banging away at my keyboard. Also, I now send my editor chunks at a time, so I don’t spend nine months on the wrong book again. This process is working really well to build a stronger book up front.
BRC: What are you working on now, and can you give us a hint as to what it will be about?
CS: I’ve had to set my current project aside for a little bit because of all the marketing leading up to the launch of NEVER LET YOU GO (a good problem to have), but I am looking forward to reconnecting with the story and digging back in soon. I am superstitious about sharing titles, especially because they change so often, but I will share that this one is set in Seattle. It’s very exciting for me to move a book outside of Canada --- and also a little nerve-racking because it’s not in my comfort zone. Of course I love Canada, but my instincts were telling me that this book needed a different location, and I really like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region. It feels similar to Vancouver and Vancouver Island, so it’s not too far out of my world. Plus, I have an author friend who lives in Seattle that makes research a lot easier --- and more fun. Thankfully she’s been willing to share her police sources at the Seattle PD.
I don’t want to divulge much of the plot, but it’s about an exhausted mother who is trying to balance running their family restaurant with raising two young children, when she discovers her husband has a female stalker. It’s going to be scary!