Interview: July 9, 2010
Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub recently spoke with Chevy Stevens, author of the newly released debut thriller STILL MISSING. In this interview, Stevens discusses how her “day job” inspired this story centered on the captivity of a realtor abducted during an open house and explains the slow evolution of protagonist Annie O’Sullivan over the course of several early drafts. She also recalls the lengthy process of writing and publishing her first book, shares her favorite works from an influential writer, and describes her next work in progress.
Bookreporter.com: I confess that when I first picked up STILL MISSING, I thought the story wouldn’t work. How wrong I was! The narrative consists of Annie O’Sullivan, the survivor of a brutal kidnapping and captivity, describing her ordeal to her psychiatrist. I’m thinking, Okay, we already know she survives. What’s the point? As it turns out, plenty. By the time I was at page three, I knew I would not be able to put the book down until I finished it. STILL MISSING is horrific, features all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, and it’s hard to determine which ordeal --- the kidnapping or its aftermath --- is worse for O’Sullivan. You break a number of rules with the novel’s structure --- there’s no question from the beginning that O’Sullivan survives the ordeal, for starts --- but do so with a purpose and a point. Did you conceive the story order and structure from the point you first started writing it? Or did you gravitate gradually toward changing things around?
Chevy Stevens: The wonderful thing about not knowing much about writing when you start a book is that you don’t know you’re breaking any rules! I had no preconceived notions of what I should --- or shouldn’t --- be doing, so I just did what felt natural. When Annie’s voice came to me, she was already home and telling her story to a “shrink,” so I began with her first session. I had a few key plot points in mind, which never changed from that initial draft, but the rest unfolded organically.
BRC: As with many authors who write a strong debut novel, you seemingly came out of nowhere. To the public at large, you got an idea for a novel, sat down, wrote a book, and got published. The actual process is significantly different and much longer. Can you take us step by step through the process whereby STILL MISSING went from a concept to a published work?
CS: Ah, yes, the mythical author who goes into a room and comes out with a book a month later. I wish it had been that easy! I’m not sure when the premise first came to me, but it was at least a couple of months before I started actually writing. I played with the idea mentally for a while, and then in March 2005 I walked up to my office, typed “Session One,” and was off and running! Within three months I had a first draft, which was really more a stream of consciousness. I had a story, but I needed to learn how to write. So I joined online forums, studied books on writing, and went to conferences. I rewrote, rewrote, and rewrote. I also sold my house and hung up my real estate license so I could write full time.
When I’d gone as far as I could on my own, I hired a freelance editor, Renni Browne from The Editorial Department, to critique the book and she became my mentor, or, as I like to call her, “My university education.” When the book was finished, she called an agent she was in contact with. Thankfully, he loved the book and we began working together. I was almost out of savings by that time, so I went back to work as a sales rep. I revised some more, then my agent sent the book to my editor at St. Martin’s Press and she offered a three-book contract, which was incredibly exciting. Six months later, I left work again to write full time. Since then, the book has sold to 16 countries and I get the same thrill each time. When the book hits the shelves, it will have been five-and-a-half years from when I sat down to type the first page.
BRC: Like Annie O’ Sullivan, you have worked as a real estate agent, and in fact developed the idea for STILL MISSING while on the job. In the book, O’Sullivan is kidnapped at an open house; few people are aware that real estate agents in fact are often the victims of assaults, robberies, and worse while conducting open houses and showing vacant homes. Was there any particular incident that you heard about that sparked the concept of the novel, or was it your imagination gone wild?
CS: The premise first came to me when I was working at an open house. As a new real estate agent, I used to hold them almost every weekend, sometimes in empty houses, which of course was perfect fodder for an overactive imagination. One day I started wondering what would happen if I didn’t come home that night. Who would notice first? What would happen to all my belongings? What if I was gone for a long time? What would it feel like to come home? For me it was less about the initial abduction and more about the survival --- the after effects --- that I wanted to explore.
BRC: One of the most striking and shocking aspects of STILL MISSING is the psychological effects that the kidnapping and captivity had on O’Sullivan in the weeks and months following the end of her ordeal. Did you research case studies of individuals who had undergone similar experiences in order to create such a realistic portrayal? Do you have any background in the study of psychology?
CS: I never researched any real abduction cases. In fact, I tried to avoid reading about any that were remotely similar, as I wanted the story to come from inside me. I also never spoke to any therapists about the book. I did a little online research, confirming the five stages of grief and PTSD, but the majority of the psychology of the book comes from my own personal life experiences and my fascination with psychology in general. I’ve always been intrigued with the process of recovery, how some people manage to move past horrible crimes and terrible tragedies while others remain stuck in a place of pain.
BRC: On a related note, O’Sullivan is not so much a victim as a survivor. What prompted you to set up your character like that?
CS: In early drafts she was far more angry and bitter. But I think it was because I was still learning what it means to be a survivor myself, how to stop approaching life as a victim. I’ve had some bad things happen in my life, but I wanted to overcome them. I wanted to grow past my baggage and get to a place of acceptance. When Annie went through her healing process and worked through her anger, I did too.
BRC: There were elements of STILL MISSING that put me in the mind of John Fowles and (middle period) Stephen King, yet you definitely have your own voice --- a chilling one, I might note. What authors of any genre influence your work? And was there any particular writer --- or anyone, for that matter --- who inspired you to become an author?
CS: There’s no author in particular who inspired me to be a writer, although I’ve always been a voracious reader from the time I was young. I read in many genres, anything I can get my hands on really. For me it’s always about the characters. I’m emotion-based, so I prefer stories that resonate with me on a deep level, stories of survivors or about family dynamics. But Stephen King is one of the writers I really respect. I love his style and his voice. He’s just a regular guy telling you a story. STANDY BY ME and IT are two of my favorites.
BRC: You can divide STILL MISSING into roughly two sections: the first deals with O’Sullivan’s kidnapping and captivity, while the second concerns the aftermath and investigation. There were passages in the first section where I found that I was trying to read while covering my eyes. You would have to know me well to realize that is one of my highest compliments. But did you ever reach a point where you wondered whether a certain passage or event might be too much and have second thoughts?
CS: Not in the final draft, but yes, some of the earlier drafts were even darker. I know, hard to imagine, right? But because my own nightmare imagination was running rampant, I was terrifying myself with some pretty horrific scenes. On subsequent rewrites, I cut out anything that made me cringe or gave me that this-might-be-going-too-far feeling. I tried to be truthful to the story, and what would’ve likely happened in that situation, while being sensitive to the subject matter.
BRC: One of the things I noticed that made this such a terrific book to read is your ability to drop bombshells, or to create an unforgettable image, in just a couple of words. I’m thinking of the sundial image, for one of many examples. Was this something that came to you naturally while writing the book, or gradually as you sharpened and refined it?
CS: The sundial image was one of my favorites! I think I have a tendency to pull intense moments like that out of life, to find the absurd or poignant in quick snapshots, but certainly the more I tapped into my creativity and developed my writing style, it sharpened.
BRC: At one point, it struck me that you perhaps know quite a bit about field dressing game. Are you an experienced hunter, or did you acquire your knowledge second-hand?
CS: Ha! I don’t think I could shoot an animal to save my life. If I did I’d probably cry. No, my hunting information all came from my aunt and uncle who live in the interior of BC. My uncle is a true outdoorsman and a great source for anything gun- or hunting-related.
BRC: STILL MISSING takes place on Vancouver Island and Clayton Falls. Vancouver Island exists, of course, but what is the real-world model for Clayton Falls? To what extent does the Clayton Falls of STILL MISSING conform to the city?
CS: There is no real-world model for Clayton Falls. It’s a little like the town I grew up in, Shawnigan Lake on the Island, and partly Campbell River, another town I lived in for a few years, and it probably has some Nanaimo thrown in as well. If I had to pick one I’d say it’s the closest to Campbell River, but it really just became its own city, or what I needed it to be anyway!
BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
CS: THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE by Carla Buckley is a great family drama. I also recently read THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett and loved it --- her voice is fantastic. I finished MUDBOUND by Hillary Jordan last night and thought it was a powerful read.
BRC: You are currently at work on your second novel. What can you tell us about it?
CS: Sara discovers that her biological father is an infamous killer who’s been hunting women every summer for over 30 years. She tries to come to terms with her horrifying parentage --- and her fears that she’s inherited more than his looks --- with her therapist who we first met in STILL MISSING. But Sara soon realizes the only thing worse than finding out your father is a killer is him finding out about you.
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