Chevy Stevens has received a bigger reception for her first novel than many authors will ever see: fast-paced thriller Still Missing has a first print run of 150,000 copies, and at the time of this interview, rights have been sold in 16 countries. If you start the novel, it’s easy to identify the root of the buzz: the story itself, which zips by in a can’t-put-it-down blur.
Protagonist Annie O’Sullivan is a successful real estate agent and a confident, independent woman—and in short order she’s abducted at an open house by a charming potential buyer. For more than a year, The Freak holds her captive in a cabin, dictating everything from Annie’s clothing, to her food, to her bathroom schedule. Because the narrative is told in a series of flashbacks, the reader knows all along that Annie gets out alive. She tells her story throughout appointments with her psychiatrist, although the action comes back to the present when an investigator starts to work on the case.
Readers will root for Annie’s fierce resolve—and be blown away by a shocking twist at the end. If that’s not enough to hook you, read on for more from Stevens herself, who answered questions on her early success, writing brutally violent scenes and a Realtor’s worst nightmare.
Still Missing is an incredibly intense novel with viscerally painful scenes of violence and rape. Was it difficult for you to write the graphic passages? Did you do any research to get inside the mind of a woman who has been abducted and abused?
It was very difficult to go into the more intense scenes, whether they were physical or emotional, and afterward I would feel drained for hours. When I wrote terrifying scenes my heart was racing, and when I worked on parts where Annie was sad, vulnerable or simply unable to connect with someone, I hurt along with her.
I didn’t do any research on abduction cases and tried to avoid reading about anything that was remotely related as I wanted the story to come from inside me. I did some online research about PTSD and the five stages of grief, but the majority came from my own imagination and personal life experiences.
The reader knows from the beginning of Still Missing that Annie will get away from her captor—the story is told in a series of post-abduction sessions with her psychiatrist. Why did you choose this structure?
I didn’t actually choose the structure so much as it just came out that way. When I first heard my character’s voice in my head, she was telling her story to a therapist, so when I started writing I just began with a session. It was always in first person and I never considered writing any other way.
You have said that the idea for Still Missing came to you when you worked as a real estate agent: you would imagine horrible scenarios—like being abducted during an open house. Did your dark imagination ever interfere with your work?
I wouldn’t say it interfered with my work, but it made me more careful. When I hosted open houses I avoided showing basements and if I wasn’t sure of someone, I stood in the doorway. I always had my cell phone in hand, ready to dial, and I avoided meeting clients at homes if I hadn’t met them at my office first. In most situations I just tried to listen to my instincts and I did pass on a couple of clients who made me uncomfortable.
Have any real estate agents read Still Missing . . . then accused you of inducing nightmares?
I haven’t heard from any real estate agents as of yet, but I think it’s a fear a lot of female Realtors already have. Most of them are very careful—as all women should be when they are alone and in a vulnerable situation. Annie’s nightmare starts with an open house, but tragically many women are hurt in parking lots, walking home or simply going for a morning jog.
The tagline for Still Missing is “The truth doesn't always set you free.” Is this true for Annie? Would she have been better off if she hadn’t solved the mystery of her abduction?
Good question. It was a painful truth and she’s going to be dealing with it for a long time, but I think when there’s a tragedy a lot of people need to know why it happened before they can move on. That’s why some mothers of murder victims want to talk to the killer after he’s been caught. As horrific as the answers may be, it gives them something to move forward from.
The Freak makes Annie read him Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, a book that prominently features a psychiatrist character (not to mention brutal rape). Were you inspired by that novel—or any others—when you were writing Still Missing?
I loved The Prince of Tides for its honesty, but it didn’t inspire any aspect of Still Missing. In this case, I needed a book that I felt The Freak—and Annie—might connect with and remembered The Prince of Tides as being a powerful book that dealt with family dysfunction. I’ve always been attracted to stories about twisted family dynamics and survivors of crime—of people overcoming any form of abuse.
Still Missing has a 150,000-copy first printing and rights have been sold in several countries. How does it feel for your first novel to be such an international success?
Yes, Still Missing has now sold to 16 countries in addition to North America, which has been very exciting. It means a lot to me that Annie’s story is connecting with people around the world. I feel it’s a testimony to the human spirit’s desire to overcome the injustices that so many people face in their lives. On a personal note, I love the idea of many cultures experiencing a bit of the West Coast of Canada. [Still Missing takes place on Vancouver Island.] And I’ve found it fascinating to see all the different covers.
You have said that you didn’t consider genre conventions when you wrote Still Missing. In BookPage, however, the novel is reviewed as part of a “Women in Mystery” feature—paying homage to the women writers who have been in the “vanguard of suspense fiction.” Do you consider yourself to be a successor to writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, or is your style something totally different?
It’s an honor to see those names anywhere near mine! I have huge respect for all the women writers who have paved the way for the rest of us, but I try not to emulate anyone or compare my style to theirs. I was just telling the story in my voice as it came to me and hoping it connected with others.
Still Missing includes a twist at the 11th hour. Were you aware of this story turn from the beginning, or did it come to you later in the writing process?
The twist wasn’t in my mind when I first sat down to write, but it did happen organically in my first draft. Subsequent rewrites were to make sure that the foundation was there all along.
You have already signed a deal to write two sequels to Still Missing. Will the plot of your next book, Never Knowing, be a direct continuation of Still Missing? Will it star Annie O’Sullivan? Can you give any details?
Never Knowing isn’t a direct sequel, but it does have the same therapist, Nadine, who we met in Still Missing. Sara, the main character in Never Knowing, has a different dynamic with Nadine than Annie did, and also a unique energy of her own, so it’s interesting for me to see how that drives the story forward.
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Teresa.