B.K. “Bonnie” Stevens has had distinguished careers as an academic and short story writer. Almost fifty of her stories have been featured in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman’s World, Family Circle, and anthologies. Untreed Reads published her e-novella One Shot. Her “Thea’s First Husband,” which appeared in AHMM in 2012, was nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards and also made the list of “Other Distinguished Stories” in Best American Mystery Stories. Now, Bonnie is achieving her dream of having a novel published. In April, Black Opal Books released Interpretation of Murder and in October, The Poisoned Pencil, the new young adult imprint of Poisoned Pen Press, will publish Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for teens. Congratulations, Bonnie, and welcome to WWK!—Paula Gail Benson
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. Before I could actually write, I dictated stories to my father, and he typed them up. One of my first masterpieces was “The Grandson of Frankenstein,” written (or, actually, dictated) when I was in kindergarten. I’d seen an old movie called The Son of Frankenstein on television and was upset when the monster was killed. So I rewrote the story with a happier ending. As I recall, in my version the family’s butler is killed accidentally, and Dr. Frankenstein gives the monster the butler’s brain. After that, the monster is gentle and elaborately polite, and he takes great pleasure in serving the family at dinner. I hope some of my later efforts have been more successful. For years, I wrote constantly—stories, poems, plays, a hopelessly episodic novel. When I reached high school, I realized I’d never be Shakespeare, gave up creative writing altogether, and decided to aim for an academic career. When I was in my thirties, my father died of a sudden stroke, and I felt so devastated that I decided to write a mystery novel as therapy—I couldn’t afford a shrink. The novel never got published, but I’ve been hooked ever since.
I’ve read that you decided to write short stories because they were more achievable with your work schedule. What advantages have writing short stories given you as a writer and in the mystery writing genre?
To be completely honest, I decided to write short stories primarily because no one wanted to publish my novels. (I’m so glad you didn’t ask me how many unpublished novels I’ve written. The answer would be humiliating.) But short stories did prove to be a good fit with teaching English, raising two children, volunteering as a religious school teacher and (eventually) principal, and occasionally paying attention to my husband. And I do think my years of writing stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine taught me a lot about constructing a satisfying mystery plot, developing characters readers care about, weaving in themes without getting too preachy, and handling the many other challenges mystery writers face. I think my experience writing short stories helped me make the plot of Interpretation of Murder tighter, helped me make its pace quicker. And it’s undoubtedly true that it’s easier to find time for novels now that I’m taking a break from teaching, and now that my children are grown. I still occasionally pay attention to my husband. After all, he’s the one making it possible for me to take a break from teaching.
Through your short stories, you’ve explored many venues and different types of characters. What drew you to writing about the deaf and sign language?
My younger daughter, Rachel, is hard of hearing, and my older daughter, Sarah, is an American Sign Language interpreter. Oddly enough, Sarah was fascinated by sign language years before the doctors finally figured out that Rachel’s speech problems were caused by severe hearing loss. (She went through years of speech therapy and several unnecessary surgeries before we got a correct diagnosis. She wears hearing aids now, and she’s doing fine.) When Rachel was still an infant, Sarah learned the ASL alphabet and taught it to my husband and me, and we sometimes used it to communicate in situations when speaking would have been inconvenient or inappropriate. While she was in high school, Sarah took ASL classes at a community college; before she graduated, she’d earned state certification as an interpreter. She continued to study ASL in college, even though it wasn’t her major. Later, she took additional classes, got her national certification, and now works as an interpreter. So I have to give my daughters the credit for getting me interested in deafness and sign language.
Your protagonist for Interpretation of Murder is Jane Ciardi, an American Sign Language interpreter. How did you research an interpreter’s experiences?
Naturally, my daughter Sarah was my primary source of information about interpreters’ experiences. She suggested the idea for my short story about Jane Ciardi, helped develop ideas for the novel, read multiple drafts of both the story and the novel, and made countless important suggestions and corrections. She also told me about wonderful books that gave me further insights. (I’ll mention just one here, Leah Hager Cohen’s Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. It’s a tremendously informative, moving book, a memoir not only about Cohen’s life but also about the lives of several students she worked with at the Lexington School for the Deaf. And it’s beautifully written.) Sharing my daughter Rachel’s experiences and frustrations also taught me a lot.
Jane first appeared in a Derringer award winning story published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and now available on Amazon as “Silent Witness.” That story has a haunting quality. At the time you wrote it, did you know or suspect that you would be writing more about Jane?
By the time I finished writing “Silent Witness,” I’d developed a deep respect for Jane and wanted to write about her again. But there was a problem. I didn’t want to write stories or novels in which the protagonist just happens to be an interpreter, in which one or more of the suspects just happens to be deaf. (It should really be “Deaf,” by the way—most members of the Deaf community now capitalize the word as a positive assertion of identity. But every agent or editor who commented on the manuscript criticized me for making a typographical error, so I finally caved in and reverted to using the lower-case letter. The novel got accepted.) I wanted deafness and interpretation to be integral to the plot and to the solution of the mystery. I wanted to follow in the tradition of Harry Kemelman’s mysteries, in which Rabbi Small’s knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions helps him figure out who’s guilty and who’s innocent. I think I achieve that objective in “Silent Witness”—the plot hinges on two different approaches to sign-language interpretation, on the ways in which Jane’s co-interpreter abuses the inevitable subjectivity of interpretation to try to influence a jury’s decision. And Jane’s knowledge and habits as an interpreter help her spot the real murderer in the courtroom. I hope I achieve that objective again in Interpretation of Murder—but I can’t say more about that without giving away too much.
How did you decide that Jane needed the larger canvas of a novel?
If someone asked me what Interpretation of Murder is about, I’d have to say “ethics.” Jane cares passionately about her professional code of ethics as an interpreter, and the issues that code raises point to more general ethical questions we all face every day. “Silent Witness” touches on some of those questions, but I wanted to explore them further. In Interpretation of Murder, Jane encounters several people with very different codes of ethics, and she has to weigh those ideas about ethics against her own. A novel provides more scope for developing such themes. It also, of course, allows me to develop Jane’s character more fully and to craft a more complex mystery plot.
Do you plan on writing more short stories or novels about Jane?
I hope to write both stories and novels about Jane in the future, but I have to come up with the right idea, and I haven’t found it yet. Right now, my daughter Sarah and I are talking about a story or novel based on her experiences as an interpreter for a video-relay service that helps deaf people communicate by phone. There are some fascinating possibilities—Sarah ran into some difficult situations when she had that job, and she had to make some tough decisions—but I don’t know whether we’ll be able to use her experiences as the basis of a satisfying mystery plot, and I don’t know if it would work better as a story or as a novel.
Your publisher Black Opal Books has the motto, “Because Some Stories Just Have to Be Told.” How did you find the experience of shifting from working with a short story editor to a book editor?
I’ve had wonderful luck with my editors at both Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Black Opal Books. (I’ve also had less-than-wonderful luck with some other editors, both in the mystery field and in academic publishing, but I’d better not say more about that.) In fact, Interpretation of Murder is dedicated to the memory of my first editor at AHMM, Cathleen Jordan. I would have given up on mystery writing long ago if it hadn’t been for her interest and guidance. And working with Linda Landrigan, who’s now the editor at AHMM, is an absolute delight—I respect her judgment, and I appreciate the respect she always shows for writers. The editors at Black Opal Books also treat writers with respect. I didn’t agree with them about everything—do writers and editors ever agree about everything?—but I was grateful that they didn’t try to impose their style on mine or ask for unreasonable changes.
What influences have your family had on your writing and your writing career?
I don’t know if any writer has ever owed more to her family. My father was an English professor—that’s why I became an English professor—and he also wrote wonderful novels, plays, and humorous verse. He didn’t have much luck at getting published, but his unfailing enthusiasm inspired me, and he did everything he could to encourage my inept early efforts. When I was in the second grade, my mother gave me a diary and told me to write something every day. It’s an important habit, and it made a difference. Reading is an even more important habit for writers, and both my parents constantly shoved books at me. Sadly, they passed away before I started writing Interpretation of Murder, but my husband and our daughters have given me all the support and help any writer could want. Jane Ciardi’s martial arts skills are an important element in Interpretation of Murder, and my husband, a fifth-degree black belt, choreographed all the martial arts scenes, patiently re-enacting them again and again while I scrambled to jot down descriptions. My daughter Sarah, as I’ve already said, gave me invaluable insights into sign-language interpreting and deaf culture. And my daughter Rachel, who was living in Cleveland and working part-time at an upscale fitness center while I wrote the first draft of the novel, suggested settings for various scenes and supplied the information and insights needed to create the fictional Elise Reed Fitness Center. All three of them read drafts, made suggestions, and helped me make countless improvements. I couldn’t have a more supportive, helpful family, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
E.B. Davis always likes to ask our guests if they have a preferred location. Would you rather be at the beach or in the mountains?
I’d rather be in Cleveland! That’s where Interpretation of Murder is set. I’ve lived in nine different states and twelve different cities, and Cleveland is my all-time favorite. I love its vitality and diversity, I love its museums and theaters, and of course I love its corned beef. I’ve lived in Virginia for almost seven years now, and I enjoy the mild winters, but it’s hard to find a decent delicatessen. If I were picking a vacation spot, I’d choose the beach rather than the mountains. I love looking at large bodies of water. (Not swimming in them or surfing on them—I’m not that athletic. Just looking at them.) Then I’d want to go back to Cleveland.