After 15 years in a Vancouver-area prison for the murder of her sister, Toni Murphy has returned to her native Campbell River to figure out where to go next in her disrupted life. She went into custody at 18 and is now bitter.
But she’s barely on the outside before she starts asking questions about the crime she says she didn’t commit. She tries to find out what happened the night of the murder.
All of this is the premise of That Night, the harrowing, latest book from Nanaimo-area novelist Chevy Stevens, a onetime real estate agent turned New York Times bestselling author. Ms. Stevens has been praised by the elite of U.S mystery and thriller fiction, including Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, for her four published novels. The first was Still Missing, published in 2010. All have been set on Vancouver Island. Some of her work has been optioned for films and her agent is pitching That Night around.
Ms. Stevens, who grew up in Shawnigan Lake, B.C., spoke to The Globe and Mail from Michigan, where she is on an authors’ tour.
The story goes that as an aspiring novelist you sold your house so you could raise funds to give you two years to focus on writing your first published novel. Is this step, or some other sign of commitment, something you would recommend to other aspiring novelists?
No. I think everyone has to do something that’s right for themselves. By the way, it took me four years to finish that book. But I had a lot of savings. I was in my early 30s. I didn’t have a child. I wasn’t married at the time. It was a gamble I was willing to take but I wouldn’t recommend to anybody else. I think you certainly do need to be committed. If you want to become a writer, you do need to be willing to make sacrifices. I did actually have to go back to work at one point because I ran out of savings. I got up early. I worked on my breaks. I worked into the evening. You do what you need to do. I think you absolutely do have to have dedication. I don’t think it’s something you can just play around with once in a while and hope to have any great success with unless you do want to just do it for pleasure.
What did your career in sales and as a realtor teach you that helped you succeed as a novelist?
I think self-discipline is a big one. Sales and any commission-based business? You don’t get paid if you don’t show up. You have to put in the time. You’re responsible for yourself. Mainly not giving up. When you’re in sales you have to make a lot of cold calls. It’s not like I wake up every morning and just can’t wait to write. It is my job. It’s much easier to not write. I’d rather read. This is my income. This is what supports my family. Having a child is a pretty big incentive to keep working.
I understand your real name is Rene Unischewski. How did you choose the pen name Chevy Stevens? And why did you decide you needed a pen name?
My father’s nickname was Chevy from Unischewski. One of my friends found that out and started calling me Chevy as a joke. When I was first beginning to write, I joined some online forums so I could learn and didn’t want to use my real name. I decided to use a pen name. I used my dad’s name and then I used my brother’s name. My brother is Steven. It’s better for branding. Unischewski is a very difficult name. People can never spell it. It would be harder to even sign books with that name. Chevy Stevens was just easier. My father passed away when I was 22 so it was a nice way of honouring him.
What was the inspiration for That Night?
The first initial spark came from a TV show about a true case of a man in Montana falsely convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s sister who spent many, many, many years in jail before he was finally released. In that case, it was suspected that a group of teenaged girls could have been involved, but it was never proved. Something about that really struck me so that when my editor and I began speaking about my next book, I mentioned this case to her. I thought it was fascinating and she did as well. I always have villains who are male so I wanted to have a female villain. I didn’t base anything on the Montana case. It was just an inspiration.
What are your plans for your next novel?
It’s called Those Girls, which is a phrase that came from That Night, actually. It is something that Toni says in that book. The phrase sort of stuck out that it would be a great title. This one is about three sisters who escape a terrible home life situation and go on the run and end up in an even worse nightmare. It’s actually set in the Interior. This one is not on the Island any more but I did make up all the towns where the major events happen.
Vancouver Island has been a key setting for your novels so far. Were you ever tempted to write in a U.S. setting to broaden the appeal of your books or does that matter?
No. Now there are some bigger Canadian authors – Linwood Barclay and also, Louise Penny. Lots of those books are set in Canada and it’s a non-issue. Some newer writers worry about books set in Canada having a big appeal, but it has never been an issue for me. I haven’t wanted to write in the States because I don’t know the States. In this day and age, you can write anywhere in the world. You can really live anywhere and have the same career.