Today on Reade and Write I welcome B.K. Stevens, author of short stories almost too numerous to count (most of which appear in “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine”), fiction, and non-fiction. She is the recipient of the Derringer Award (from the Short Mystery Fiction Society) and has been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. It’s an honor to have her here today discussing her book Fighting Chance.
Tell me about your book.
Fighting Chance could be called a cross between The Hardy Boys and The Karate Kid: It’s a young adult mystery laced with action and adventure, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenager growing into adulthood while studying a martial art. When seventeen-year-old Matt Foley’s coach and mentor is killed in a sparring match at a tae kwon do tournament, the police decide it was a tragic accident. Matt’s not so sure. With help from a few friends, including the attractive but puzzling school newspaper editor, Graciana Cortez, Matt learns the coach’s opponent, Bobby Davis, is a brutal, highly skilled martial artist, the central attraction at an illegal fight club. Now, Matt’s convinced someone hired Davis to murder the coach. But who would want to harm the coach, and why do it at a tournament? Matt’s efforts to find the truth pull him into some dangerous conflicts. To improve his self-defense skills, he joins a Krav Maga class taught by a man who becomes his new mentor. Matt suspects that he’s going to need those skills, that some day he’ll have to face Bobby Davis himself. Fighting Chance was a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony awards for Best Young Adult Novel.
Who is the audience for the book?
When I was teaching high-school English in Cleveland, it was easy to find outside reading novels to recommend to girls, not so easy to find ones to recommend to boys. Often, when I started to recommend a book to a boy, he’d interrupt with a question straight out of The Princess Bride: “Does it have any sports?” So I started toying with the idea of writing a sports-oriented mystery for teenaged boys. And since my husband’s a fifth-degree black belt, using martial arts as the sport seemed like a natural choice—I’d have an expert advisor I could consult without leaving the house. But I don’t want to define the audience for Fighting Chance too narrowly. The novel has several strong female characters, including Graciana. When a high-school book club read Fighting Chance, I was pleased to hear that both girls and boys enjoyed it. And adults who have read the novel have said they enjoyed it, too.
Tell me about the setting of your book—how did you choose it, what kind of research did you have to do, why did you choose it?
By the time I started writing Fighting Chance, my husband and I had moved to central Virginia, and that’s where I decided to set the book. We lived for several years in the small city of Lynchburg, then moved to the small town of Farmville (site of the recent vice-presidential debate). I’ve enjoyed getting to know this part of the country and the students I’ve met here, so I created a fictional small city/town called Ridgecrest, which I’ve imagined as midway between the sizes of Lynchburg and Farmville.
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
One of the big challenges in writing Fighting Chance was making the martial arts scenes realistic and exciting—since I wanted to make the book appeal to young people interested in martial arts, I knew that was important. I was lucky to have my husband to choreograph those scenes, but in order to get things right and make sure I knew how to describe them, we had to act them out. And since he knows a lot about martial arts and I don’t, he always got to play the winner and I was always the loser—ouch. I often had to cry out, “Stop! Let me write that down before I forget it!” or “I didn’t quite get that—let’s do it again.” The process took a long time, and it sometimes got uncomfortable. But I’m pleased with the way the scenes turned out—my editor told me she found them gripping, and that was one of her reasons for deciding to accept the novel.
If your book were made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the main characters?
As I was writing the book, I had one actor clearly in mind—Chuck Norris. He’d be perfect in the role of Aaron, the Krav Maga teacher who becomes Matt’s mentor. Thanks to my husband, I’ve seen all of Mr. Norris’s movies (most many times), and I think his gentle, encouraging demeanor is just right for Aaron. As for Matt and Graciana, I don’t know the names of many teenaged actors, so I’ll say Matt could be played by a seventeen-year-old Mark Wahlberg, and Graciana could be played by a seventeen-year-old Eva Mendes. And I think William H. Macy and Karen Allen (first and fourth Indiana Jones movies) would be great as Matt’s parents.
Tell me about some other books you’ve written.
Many years ago, I wrote two college textbooks and a book on Jewish education. My first mystery novel was Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal books, a traditional whodunit that offers readers insights into deaf culture and sign- language interpreting. (One of my daughters is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter, and my other daughter has significant hearing loss, so hearing issues are important to our family). Last April, Wildside Press published Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection of eleven of my short stories—most first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (I’ve published forty stories in that wonderful magazine), a few first published in Woman’s World, Family Circle, or anthologies. The collection includes stories that were nominated for Agatha, Macavity, and Derringer awards, along with the winner of a national suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark.
Are you in one or more critique groups or partnerships?
I’ve participated in manuscript swaps through the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime, and those have been very helpful. Honestly, though, my best critique group is my family. My husband isn’t much of a critic—he’s so sweet and loyal that he likes everything I write—but he’s incredibly generous with his time and insights, spending countless hours discussing ideas and manuscripts with me, often making suggestions that help me solve plot problems and make many other sorts of improvements. My daughters, on the other hand, are ruthless. They’re always happy to rip apart anything I write, to point out problems I’ve missed, and to suggest solutions. My younger daughter is also a demon proofreader. I know how lucky I am to have such perceptive readers so determined to help me make my manuscripts as strong as they can possibly be.
Do you write every day?
I try to write every day, but I don’t always succeed. I think writing every day is an excellent goal, but I don’t think writers should despair if they can’t meet that goal. If I’d told myself that I absolutely had to write every day when I started writing—when I had young children, a full-time job, and time-consuming volunteer responsibilities—I would have given up long ago. Write as often and as much as you can, and console yourself with the thought that not every writer has to follow the same path.
What authors do you like best? What genres do you like best?
I have rather old-fashioned tastes in novels: I tend to prefer authors such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain to more modern ones. I think my preference for traditional novels helps explain my love of mysteries—I like novels that actually have plots, and I like characters that actually do things, rather than characters who simply suffer and feel sorry for themselves. (I say more about this preference in an essay called “What’s Wrong with Mysteries?” which you can find here.) My favorite mystery writers include Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Harry Kemelman, and Dick Francis. I won’t name any living writers because I have many friends who write mysteries—if I mention some, I might hurt the feelings of others.
Where would you like to go more than anywhere else on earth?
I would love to go to Israel. I’ve always wanted to go there, but it’s never worked out—problems with time, problems with money. I’m still hoping I can go there before I die.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
In an 1884 essay called “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James offers the best advice for writers I’ve ever heard: “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!” James describes experience as a “huge spider-web” that can catch “every air-borne particle in its tissue.” Like a spider web, an imaginative mind “takes to itself the faintest hints of life.” Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at “the faintest hints of life” and use them to create compelling characters and situations. A writer who’s truly alert may get the idea for a novel from a scrap of conversation overheard in a restaurant.
What is your favorite movie and why?
Like almost everybody else, I love Casablanca—the clever dialogue, the incredible acting, the moving and noble themes. I’ll also mention a movie mystery that isn’t as well known, Dead Again. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should definitely watch it as soon as you can. The acting and directing are wonderful—it’s as suspenseful as Hitchcock at his best—and it’s also a beautifully constructed whodunit. Not all whodunits work well as movies, but this one definitely does.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d say, “Start writing mysteries sooner.” I did a lot of creative writing in elementary school and junior high, but in senior high I got discouraged—I realized I’d never be as good as Shakespeare or Jane Austen, so I gave up completely. I did academic writing but no creative writing until I was in my mid-thirties, when I got an idea for a mystery novel that just wouldn’t go away. That novel never got published—I still hope to go back to it some day, now that I know what changes I need to make—but while I was working on it, I fell in love with writing mysteries. I finally realized that not all writers have to be Shakespeare or Austen. As long as we do our best and work hard at improving at our craft, there’s room for the rest of us, too.
Describe yourself in three words.
curious, hard-working, grateful
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you wanted me to?
I was hoping you’d ask me, “Do you think Fighting Chance would be the ideal gift for any young adults on my holiday list?” My answer would have been, “You bet!”
Where can readers connect with you?
The best place is my website, http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com; I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, including a humorous whodunit I wrote as a tribute to my dog after he passed away. I also have an Amazon author page at https://www.amazon.com/author/bkstevens, but I need to work on it—the bio is outdated and boring, and I should delete some things nobody has any interest in reading. I don’t have a Facebook author page, but I do have a personal page at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003534785806&ref=bookmarks, and I’m always happy to connect with readers. I’m not yet on Twitter or Goodreads or any of the other things I know I should be on, but I’m working on it (or, at least, I’m planning to).
Where can readers find your books?