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Chevy StevensFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

More than 40 members of the International Thriller Writers association are publishing their debut novels this year, the tip of an iceberg that rests on thousands more unpublished manuscripts and millions of dreams of literary fame and fortune. Hope springs eternal, then freezes forever. But that's not news.

What's news is that one of these earnest amateurs, without so much as a single printed word behind her, not only placed her debut novel with a leading New York publisher - who is bringing out a first edition of 150,000 hardcover copies early this summer and organizing a major publicity tour - she has also sold it to a dozen publishers abroad and secured a deal to write two sequels.

This time last year, Rene Unischewski was selling teddy bears to gift shops and florists on her native Vancouver Island. Today, her name is Chevy Stevens and she is jetting about on what her publishers call a "pre-publication tour" for her upcoming novel, Still Missing. Even before she has sold a single book - or story or article - Chevy Stevens, 36, is a publishing phenomenon.

How does that happen? A million dreamers want to know.

The short answer is to write a good book, and Still Missing is certainly that. The story of a woman realtor abducted from an open house and imprisoned by a madman in an isolated cabin, the novel more than fulfils the promise of the abundant blurbs that adorn advance copies.

More chills than thrills, Still Missing is "simply terrifying," thriller author Erica Spindler wrote in a typical one. "Grim and unsettling," Kathy Reichs volunteered. " Still Missing is a fast-paced read that is utterly absorbing."

"In my 20 years in publishing, I have bought only a few debut novels and hardly any debut thrillers," St. Martin's Press editor Jennifer Enderlin said. "But the minute I read the opening page of Still Missing, I knew I had to be part of this author's career."

The long answer emerges in a conversation that the new author conducts with the aplomb of a practised salesperson. No wan "Canadian beauty," as the publicity suggests, Stevens is savvy and businesslike in her debut media interview, responding to a half-dozen questioners: Teddy bears - and real estate, which she also once sold, inspiring the premise of the book - prepared her ideally for the discipline of good writing.

"As much as writing is an emotional experience, it is a business as well," she says, describing the methodical path she followed to instant fame. "Coming from a business background, I treat it as such."

Long before she took up the business, Stevens developed her literary taste reading in a shed on a horse farm at Shawnigan Lake, where she grew up. "I was supposed to be cleaning out the barn, but I was usually reading romance novels," she says. "That's how you grow up to be a thriller writer."

Her literary heritage begins and ends with The Red Pilot, her grandfather's memoir of escaping from Stalin's Red Army in a stolen airplane, one of the few extant copies of which she now owns.

Self-made in the gift and real-estate business, Stevens dived head first into literary life, selling her house in Nanaimo to finance two years of uninterrupted work and devising a new identity to suit her latest enterprise - Chevy from her father's nickname, Stevens from a brother's given name.

Diving in meant total immersion in the oceanic library of self-help books for would-be writers. But most of what she learned there, and at B.C. writers' forums she attended, was that she needed professional help to do the job properly.

"When I got as far as I could on my own, I hired a freelance editor," Stevens says.

Her choice was Renni Browne, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a book she found useful to her earliest efforts to shape an inspired idea into a fully formed novel. "I didn't go to university or get a degree but I hired somebody as a mentor - and that I considered my university education," Stevens says.

As with any education, the student suffered from a blizzard of feedback. Browne "kept finding people who told me what was wrong with it, basically," Stevens explains. She says she rewrote in response to every criticism, and when Browne steered her to literary agent Mel Berger, she "rewrote for him another couple times." And then again when the manuscript landed on Enderlin's desk.

"Unfortunately, there's still a lot of beginning writers who think you can just write your first draft and hand it in," Stevens says. "And …" here she pauses, searching for words to avoid offending friends she made while circulating, briefly, in the wannabe world of would-be authors, "no."

As little affected by literary pride as her beloved pet dog is, Stevens sought feedback from every source. "You absolutely cannot see everything that's wrong with your book," she says. She continues to work with Browne on her second novel, another thriller based in Vancouver Island, titled Never Knowing. "But I'm the captain. I still make the choices."

As horrific as the main action of Still Missing may be, centred on rape scenes rendered with unbearable clarity, the book's real power lies in its emotional authenticity. Annie, the abducted heroine, escapes halfway through the book. Then the action begins.

"I have always been more intrigued with the after-effects of crime, the survival," Stevens says. "How do people overcome? How do you reconnect to life and still carry on realizing you will actually never be the same person again?"

Writing explicit torture scenes was merely a "technical" job compared to the emotional challenge of reconciling a shattered Annie with her former best friend, according to Stevens. "Whenever she has to be emotionally vulnerable, you have to be there, too."

Just don't call it literature, at least in the author's presence - or use a phrase like "postmodern," or ask her whether she is trying to "push the envelope" of genre conventions. "No, no, no," she says, with fetching modesty but complete confidence. One of her secrets, she explains, is that she barely knew what a genre was when she began Still Missing.

"I just tried to make that story as truthful and exciting, and as passionate and intense, as possible," she says.

She learned so well that she was able to retire from the teddy bear business last summer, just after her agent sold publishing rights to Germany - and a year before her first novel actually comes out. It's rumoured to be a six-figure deal for Canadian and U.S. rights; more for foreign sales. "By Canadian standards, she has done very well," says one familiar with the deal.

It's a thriller, a chiller, a tortured romance and an already proven money-making proposition. "Let's just say it was a worthy investment," Stevens says, applying her own blurb to the small miracle of her new literary career. "My accountant likes it, so it's okay."

John Barber is The Globe and Mail's publishing reporter.

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