When I said I’d be working on a special issue of the school paper,
Mom and Dad got excited. They always do, whenever I seem
interested in anything that sounds academic. They couldn’t have
cared less when I won the game ball twice this year—I think
it half embarrasses them that I’m good at sports—but they bubbled
over for ten minutes about how working on the newspaper would
broaden my horizons. They almost made me feel like not doing it.
B. K. Stevens, Fighting Chance (pg. 62)
Bonnie Stevens, writing as B. K. Stevens, has won a Derringer Award and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity Awards. I met her at the Malice Domestic Conference several years ago. As a newbie writer, I was grateful for her advice and generosity—I should have known she’d taught—but her teaching background made me all the more curious about Fighting Chance, her new Young Adult novel released yesterday by The Poison Pencil/Poison Pen Press.
Paula Gail Benson interviewed Bonnie about her adult mysteries. You can read that interview here on WWK.
Please welcome Bonnie back to WWK. E. B. Davis
Why did you choose to write a YA novel when you have acclaim in the adult mystery genre?
I wouldn’t say I’ve won much acclaim, in the adult mystery genre or in any other area, but I was tempted to try my hand at a YA novel for several reasons. One is that I love experimenting with different sorts of characters, points of view, voices, story lines, and so on. That’s one reason I enjoy writing short stories: I can try something out for thirty pages or so, see how it goes, and then either write a sequel or move on to something else.
I’d never written a YA mystery before, so I wanted to attempt one to see how I’d like it. (I liked it a lot.) And for a writer yearning to write a fast-paced, adventure-packed mystery, a teenaged protagonist offers definite advantages. If my protagonist is a forty-year-old widow with two young children, she’d better not sneak off alone late at night to check out a clue in an isolated spot. She ought to be more sensible than that, and more responsible. But a seventeen-year-old boy? Sure. He feels immortal, as young people often do, and he hasn’t learned to be sensible and responsible yet. For him, pulling that sort of stunt is in character. Later, he’ll realize it was foolish to take such a risk, and that will be part of the process of growing up. So a teenaged protagonist gives a mystery writer a lot of license, and that can be a lot of fun. I had more substantial reasons for writing a YA mystery, too—I’ll say more about that soon.
I was surprised that you chose a male main character through which to write this story. How did you decide upon Matt’s POV? Do you have a son?
No, I have two wonderful daughters, but I don’t have a son. I’ve had thousands of male students, Fighting Chance. In particular, I was thinking about the male students I had while teaching at a Cleveland high school for four years. It was easy to find outside reading books to recommend to my female students, but it was much harder to find ones that appealed to male students. Almost every time I mentioned a title to a boy, he’d respond with a question straight out of The Princess Bride: “Are there any sports?” That’s when I started playing around with the idea of writing a sports-oriented YA mystery designed to appeal to boys (though I honestly think girls would enjoy Fighting Chance, too). It was years before I wrote the novel—other elements had to come together first—but when I did start to write, I thought constantly about how to make it a book those male students back in Cleveland would enjoy.though, and I had them very much in mind when I decided to make Matt the protagonist of
The group of high school students met in a martial arts club formed by Coach Colson, a young teacher. Derrick, Berk, Joseph, and Matt are juniors, typical seventeen-year-olds. Graciana is a senior who is the editor of the school newspaper. Suzette is a pretty and popular sophomore. Matt’s attracted to both girls. Why did you decide to include a romantic element in the novel?
I wanted to make Fighting Chance a coming of age novel as well as a mystery, and learning to understand people’s characters is obviously a vital part of growing up. So I decided to give Matt a Jane Austen-like romantic dilemma—Darcy or Wickham? Mr. Knightley or Frank Churchill? Graciana or Suzette? Chances are, adult readers will be able to understand both girls’ characters fairly soon, but I’m guessing some young readers will, at least at first, make some of the same mistakes Matt does and be surprised when the truth finally becomes clear. If they do, maybe they’ll learn something about not judging by the surface and not making up their minds about people too quickly.
During a tournament in which Coach Colson is participating and the kids are watching, Coach’s larynx is crushed. Does this happen often?
No, it’s extremely, extremely rare. I do know of one case in which a man died after being kicked in the head at a tae kwon do tournament in California, and there have been several deaths in mixed martial arts tournaments. Generally speaking, though, martial arts tournaments are very safe. My husband is a fifth-degree black belt, and our daughters studied tae kwon do during high school, so I’ve gone to many tournaments and tests. I’ve never seen anyone get anything worse than a bruise or a twisted ankle. Among other things, at most tournaments (and even most tests), participants wear protective gear when they spar—helmets, gloves, chest pads, leg pads, foot pads. So if your children or grandchildren want to take martial arts, you don’t have to worry that what happens to Coach Colson will happen to them.
All of the judges but one think the killer kick was accidental. The police write off the death as an accident. Their reasoning is sound. Who would kill with an audience watching? But one judge, Aaron Roth, and Matt think the kick was deliberate. Why?
I’m reluctant to go into detail here, for fear of spoiling the first chapter for anyone who might decide to read the book. It’s no secret that the coach is killed during the sparring match—that much is revealed on the book’s back cover—but I hope readers will enjoy the challenge of watching the match with Matt, looking for signs that something’s wrong. If I reveal too much about Matt’s observations and inferences, that challenge will be gone. I will say the fact that fatal injuries at tournaments are so incredibly rare is a clue in itself: When something is hard to dismiss as an accident, foul play begins to seem more likely.
Aaron Roth owns a martial arts school. One of the disciplines he teaches is Krav Maga (close contact), an Israeli survival system to avoid and repel attacks by counter moves. I’d never heard of it before. How did you discover it? Is it gaining popularity in the U.S.?
I heard about Krav Maga long ago—among other things, it’s the self-defense art Jennifer Lopez uses in the 2002 movie Enough—but I didn’t know much about it until about five years ago, when my husband started studying it. We were living in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the time, and he went to a local martial arts school thinking he might continue his study of tae kwon do or mixed martial arts—over the years, he’s studied about half a dozen martial arts. Instead, he decided to take Krav Maga classes. He soon became very enthusiastic, told me about it, and showed me some techniques.
It’s an unusual martial art—the techniques are relatively simple but amazingly effective, the emphasis is on self-defense rather than on attacking, and it’s designed so anyone can master at least the basics, regardless of age or fitness. (It was developed to help civilians defend themselves against terrorist attacks.) I remembered my old idea for a sports-oriented YA novel and wondered if Krav could be the “sport” at the center of the novel. I’m frankly not terribly interested in most sports, but I found Krav fascinating. And I had an expert in my family to serve as my consultant. (We ran the Krav scenes past my husband’s instructor, too, and he approved them.) And yes, Krav is becoming more and more popular in the U.S. It’s still not as popular as karate, tae kwon do, or some other arts, but the mere fact that my husband found a Krav class in Lynchburg, Virginia is proof it’s spreading.
Joseph, an English as a Second Language (ESL) student, comes out with proper but funny sentences. Thinking up his dialogue must have been challenging. Did you work with ESL students when you taught?
I’ve never taught ESL classes—that’s not my field—but I’ve had many students for whom English isa second language. A number of them had speech patterns similar to Joseph’s. When I wrote Joseph’s dialogue, I was thinking primarily of a student who took first-year composition from me at Lynchburg College several years ago. He was from South America—Argentina, as I recall—and was delightfully bright, enthusiastic, and ambitious. He was determined to build his English vocabulary and once told me he studied his dictionary and thesaurus for at least an hour every night. I believe it. He was an eager participant in class discussions and loved to use big words. It was clear he had a more or less accurate idea of what the words meant, but he didn’t always use them idiomatically, so he often came out with statements such as Joseph’s comment on a combination the coach uses during the fatal sparring match: “Mr. Colson said we should try to score such way—roundhouse kick, right jab, left punch. Now he has performed one, to demonstrate us how to aspire.” I found his way of speaking charming, and I tried to capture that charm in Joseph’s dialogue.
School politics decide administrative and teaching staff priorities, which conflict with policies that would benefit students’ welfare. Dr. Lombardi, the principal and next school superintendent, seems to lack a moral compass. Has good PR for the school system supplanted good sense? Is this a real problem?
I think caring too much about PR is a problem in many areas, not just in public school systems. My husband and I have worked in higher education (usually at private colleges) for most of our lives, and we run into it all the time. I’d guess people working in business, politics, and just about all other fields run into it constantly, too. I don’t see Dr. Lombardi as an evil person, even though some of her decisions do real harm. On some level, she believes she’s doing the right thing—by hiding the truth and protecting the school’s reputation, she thinks she’s protecting not only her own career but also all the students who attend the school, all the people who work there.
That sort of rationalizing is all too easy, for all of us. How much of the suffering and injustice in the world is caused by people who consciously set out to do evil? How much more is caused by people who convince themselves they’re simply doing what has to be done for the sake of some larger goal? To me, the most interesting villains are usually the ones who don’t see themselves as villains. I’d put Dr. Lombardi in that category.
Do roles in work and at home impede communication?
I’m no expert, but yes, I think so. Matt’s parents are prime examples. They’re two of my favorite characters in the novel. They’re good, decent, loving parents—no question about it. But their ideas about their roles as parents make them think they should shield their children from life’s harshness. That keeps them from being open about the problems they face. No matter what’s going on, they always act cheerful and upbeat—for example, they don’t tell their children that the father’s job is in jeopardy. As a result, Matt and his sister feel they shouldn’t talk about their own problems, because they think their parents couldn’t handle it. To me, that’s a particularly interesting sort of conflict—good people trying hard to do the right thing but still making big mistakes.
Because of her kindness to a handicapped individual, Cassie, Matt’s little sister, is ridiculed. In helping Cassie overcome the bullies, he learns more about himself and his parents. Does this element in your book harken to the quote in your Acknowledgments from the Talmud, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, most of all from my students”?
I hadn’t put things together in quite that way, but I think you’re right. Helping Cassie teaches Matt a lot about himself and his parents, as you say. It also shows him how unfounded and dangerous gossip can be, and that helps him straighten out other important relationships. And I definitely think teachers learn many important lessons from their students—they challenge us, test us, keep us thinking and growing.
My wonderful husband has made it possible for me to take a three-year break from teaching so I could focus on writing, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve gotten two novels published, and I don’t know if I ever could have done that without being freed from the need to grade stacks of essays every night and every weekend. But more and more, I find myself yearning to go back to the classroom. If I get another chance to do that—and maybe I won’t, maybe that time in my life is simply past—I don’t know what I’ll decide to do.
Different companies have published your novels. Is there a reason for that? Did you or your agent submit your novels to publishers?
I don’t have an agent. (Getting one is a goal for 2016.) Finding a home for Interpretation of Murder took a while—I submitted it to many agents, had several close calls but no actual offers, and finally decided to submit it directly to the few publishers that are on the Mystery Writers of America “approved” list but consider unagented manuscripts. While all that was going on (and, as I said, it took a while), I wrote Fighting Chance, and I heard (I don’t remember where) that Poisoned Pen Press had started a new YA imprint, The Poisoned Pencil, that would consider unagented manuscripts. I didn’t have much hope, but I figured I might as well try. So I submitted Fighting Chance.
I remember going to Malice Domestic that spring, wandering through the book room, and seeing a basket filled with blue Poisoned Pencils. I started to reach for one and thought, “No—I’m sure to get a rejection any day now, and then this Poisoned Pencil will become a Poignant Pencil.” So I didn’t take one. A couple of weeks later, Black Opal Books accepted Interpretation of Murder. A week or so after that, The Poisoned Pencil accepted Fighting Chance. Rats. I wish I’d taken one of those cool blue pencils.
Over fifty of your stories have been published, many in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. When did you start writing? Why did you change from writing short stories to writing novels? What was the biggest difference between the art forms you had to overcome?
I started writing before I actually knew how to write—my first stories were dictated to my English professor father, of blessed memory, who faithfully typed up my kindergarten masterpieces such as Grandson of Frankenstein (created after I saw the old black-and-white movie Son of Frankenstein on television, felt sorry for the monster, and wanted to give him a happier ending). Much, much later in life, I came up with an idea for a mystery novel, wrote it, and submitted it to several publishers. They showed no interest whatsoever—and at this point, looking back, I don’t blame them.
I then turned to short stories, got nowhere for three years, and finally sold my first story to Hitchcock’s in 1988. For many, many years, I kept writing stories that sold and novels that didn’t. Then my husband moved from teaching to administration, became a dean earning enough to support our family on his own, and urged me take some time to focus on writing. That’s how I finally broke into publishing novels as well as stories. At least for the time being—I’m thrilled to have two novels published, but who knows if I’ll ever publish another? Either way, I’m definitely going to keep writing stories. I’ve got stories coming out in Hitchcock’s, in the just-released Jewish Noir anthology, in the soon-to-be-released Bouchercon anthology, and in the Malice Domestic anthology to be published next spring. And I’ve been talking to a small publisher about a short-story collection. I don’t think writers have to make a choice between short stories and novels, and I don’t think the challenges of writing one are necessarily more daunting than the challenges of writing the other. I’ll always think of myself as, first and foremost, a Hitchcock’s writer. I can’t say how grateful I am to that magazine for giving me a start, and for continuing to give my stories a home for over two decades now.
Did you think about your platform before getting published? Why did you choose to write under the name B. K. Stevens?
I don’t know how many writers thought about platform back in 1988—I certainly didn’t. I decided to write as “B.K. Stevens” because I thought “Bonnie” was a pretty ridiculous name for a mystery writer. If my first name had been “Agatha” or “Dorothy” or “Josephine,” I wouldn’t have felt compelled to resort to initials.
Do you have any advice for pre-published authors, Bonnie?
I’m afraid the only advice I can offer isn’t terribly original. Read as much as you can, write as much as you can, and don’t be held back by other people’s rules. “Write every day” may be excellent advice, but if I’d tried to follow it while teaching English, raising my children, and volunteering as a religious school principal, I would have given up on writing long ago. So maybe my only definite advice is not to give up, not if you really love to write. Only a few writers succeed right away—and oh, how the rest of us envy and despise those few. For most of us, achieving any degree of success takes a long time, requires a lot of hard work, and involves frequent disappointment and heartbreak. If you don’t really love to write, it probably isn’t worth it. The chances of achieving fame and fortune as a writer are so remote that it doesn’t make sense to write for those reasons. But if you love writing so much that it would hurt to stop, keep going. Perseverance doesn’t always guarantee success, but success is almost never possible without it. So let’s all keep at it, support each other, and find fresh courage in any success any one of us scores.