Welcome, B.K. Stevens – short fiction author extraordinaire!
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
An absolutely perfect day would include time for writing, time for reading, and a visit from our daughters, son-in-law, and grandchildren. At the end of the day, I’d have to have some time alone with my husband—as empty-nesters, we’ve gotten addicted to ending days that way.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
Several years ago, I ordered a fabric purse with a striking, unusual design from a catalogue. I loved the purse so much that I remarked to my husband that I’d be sad when it got too worn out to use, as fabric purses are bound to do. He decided to surprise me by ordering two more. Meanwhile, I’d decided to order another one, too. So now I have four identical purses. I’m still using the first one—I use it every day, and it’s still in good shape. At this rate, it looks as if I have a signature purse for life.
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
The mystery that inspired and influenced me the most is definitely Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. It was the first mystery I read as an adult, and it blew me away—the delightful characters, the humor, the thoughtful exploration of themes, the carefully constructed plot, the way Sayers plays absolutely fair with readers but still surprises them (or, at least, me) at the end by skillfully manipulating point of view. But Gaudy Night delighted me so much because my novel-reading tastes had been shaped by a number of nineteenth-century authors, especially Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain. Many of the elements I enjoy most in their novels meet in Gaudy Night.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes, I do. A silent house makes me nervous—I get startled every time a floor creaks or the cat takes a leap and lands with a thud. I tend to put on one CD and play it over and over. That way, I have Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, or another favorite to keep me company, but I don’t get distracted when a new song starts.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
To answer this question, I’ll have to reach into the past and say bridge mix—my mother used to buy a bag every time she hosted her bridge club. For the uninitiated, bridge mix combines various chocolate-covered nuts, fruits, nougats, and so forth. My latest book also is also a mix. It’s a collection called Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime (Wildside Press) and contains eleven of my more than fifty published short stories. Some women featured in the stories are detectives, some are criminals, some are victims who strike back—all of them, in one way or another, manage to get tangled up in crime.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I’ll focus on one of the stories in the collection, “Death in Rehab.” I got the idea for the story after reading and hearing a number of news stories about celebrities who behaved badly and then tried to repair their reputations by checking into rehab to battle addictions to drugs or alcohol or sex or—well, you name it. I also read about some luxurious rehab centers that cater to wealthy clients, offering them every conceivable comfort. I’m sure many of the celebrities were sincere and many rehab centers do valuable work, but I couldn’t help wondering if some stints in rehab have more to do with public relations than with getting help. So I decided to write a satirical mystery set at an upscale rehab center. I wanted to keep things light but didn’t want to make fun of serious addictions, so I filled my center with clients suffering from problems such as compulsive proofreading, serial plagiarism, and Jeopardy! addiction. (That client is obsessed with trivia and can speak only in the form of a question.)
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Crime fiction writer Jim Thompson said, “There is only one plot—things are not as they seem.” Change “plot” to “theme,” and I think you’ve got an excellent statement about a theme in just about every story, especially every mystery story. So I can hardly claim that theme as distinctly my own, but I do keep it very much in mind whenever I write. As human beings, we’re all much too likely to accept appearance as reality, to think we understand people and situations thoroughly when we’ve barely scratched the surface—if that. Mysteries are especially insistent about reminding us to keep digging, to keep questioning our impressions and opinions. It’s a lesson we can never learn too often. That’s one reason mysteries are important.
Tell us about your main character.
Since Her Infinite Variety is a short story collection, it has many main characters. I’ll choose Leah Abrams, the protagonist of “Death on a Budget” and “Death in Rehab” and also of several other stories that aren’t in the collection but have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Leah is a former college communications professor who now works as a temporary secretary—and, wouldn’t you know it, she has a way of stumbling across bodies in the places where she takes temp jobs. She’s married to a sculptor who specializes in custom-made lawn ornaments, and they have two young daughters. Leah can be naïve, and she tends to get carried away by enthusiasm for her theories about workplace communications. But she’s smart and observant, and she always figures things out in the end.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
To some extent, Leah was inspired by Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small: Like Rabbi Small, Leah uses insights from Jewish traditions and customs to solve mysteries, and she’s devoted to her family, just as Rabbi Small’s devoted to his. Leah’s also got some Trixie Belden in her. Trixie isn’t perfect (the main reason I preferred her to Nancy Drew)—like Leah, she sometimes jumps to conclusions, and she can be too quick to believe what people tell her. But both of these amateur sleuths learn from their mistakes, and both are determined to see justice done. Then there’s Miss Climpson, who assists Lord Peter Wimsey in several Dorothy Sayers novels. Miss Climpson looks quiet and ordinary, and she takes on humble tasks—people often overlook her. But it’s a mistake to underestimate Miss Climpson, just as it’s a mistake to underestimate Leah Abrams.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I’d invite Dorothy Sayers, of course, and also Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, and Harry Kemelman. And I’d invite Jane Austen. After all, P.D. James has said that Emma is one of the greatest detective novels, and that if Austen were alive today, she’d be writing mysteries. Works for me.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to Bouchercon, especially since my “The Last Blue Glass” is a finalist for an Anthony award in the new Best Novella category. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine has accepted a sixth Leah Abrams story, “Death under Construction,” which will appear in the November/December 2017 issue; AHMM has also accepted a stand-alone story called “One-Day Pass,” but that hasn’t been scheduled for publication yet. I’ve been compulsively revising and re-revising a novel featuring characters from one of my other series for AHMM (the Iphigenia Woodhouse/Harriet Russo series)—some time during the next week or so, I’m going to work up the courage to stop revising and actually send the thing out. I swear. I also have a few short stories in various stages of planning, writing, and revising. And I’m in the early stages of working on a nonfiction project, a collaboration with another writer.
B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Eleven of those stories (including Agatha, Macavity, and Derringer finalists) are collected in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime (Wildside Press). B.K.’s first novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books), is a whodunit offering readers insights into deaf culture. Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press), a martial arts mystery for teens, was an Agatha and Anthony finalist. Currently, her “The Last Blue Glass” is a finalist for the Best Novella Anthony award. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia with their smug cat.
To read “The Last Blue Glass”: http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/the-last-blue-glass/