As a youngster growing up on a Shawnigan Lake horse ranch, Nanaimo’s Rene Unischewski read trashy Harlequins and dreamed of becoming a writer.
She’s achieved that dream — with a vengeance.
A former realtor and one-time teddy-bear saleswoman, the fortyish Unischewski — writing under the pseudonym Chevy Stevens — is today a bestselling author of psychological thrillers.
Her debut novel, Still Missing (2010), was published in more than 30 countries. Unischewski says combined sales of Still Missing and the follow-up, Never Knowing, add up to more than one million copies internationally. The movie rights to Never Knowing were even optioned by director Renny Harlin of Die Hard fame.
In the potentially lucrative world of thrillers, Unischewski has emerged as a hot new talent.
Always Watching is the latest instalment of her three-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, one of North America’s largest publishing houses (she’s already signed another three-book deal). Published in June, the novel is matching the brisk sales of its predecessors.
Local references abound. Always Watching is the story of a psychiatrist, Dr. Nadine Lavoie, who lives in Fairfield and works at a Victoria hospital. She’s treating a suicidal woman who escaped from a cult near Shawnigan Lake.
Unischewski, who attended Elsie Miles elementary school in Shawnigan and commuted to high school in Duncan, was a kid who loved sneaking to the barn to read. First there was Rudyard Kipling. She graduated to her mom’s romance novels and The Clan of the Cave Bear. Later came sci-fi writer Piers Anthony and horror giant Stephen King.
Always Watching tells of a cult-commune built by the Koksilah River. As kids in the 1970s, Unischewski and her brother were fascinated by hippies who lived by this same river, located on the outskirts of Shawnigan Lake. “There’d be this young family living by the river in a bus. They ate organic pizza. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It sticks in your mind, right?” said Unischewski.
She’s a late-blooming author. For eight years, Unischewski travelled around Vancouver Island selling giftware, including teddy bears. After that, she became a real estate agent. But she found she didn’t enjoy selling houses.
So Unischewski made the leap. She sold her house, living on the proceeds. A friend loaned her a cabin on remote Mudge Island, near Nanaimo. There, with her dog Annie as her companion, she began to write.
“I was more falling in love with the idea of writing than actually writing,” said Unischewski, who was 32 at the time. “I didn’t really understand the craft yet, or anything else.”
At first she penned memoir-type material. Then Unischewski turned to a story about a realtor (named Annie after her dog) who’s abducted by a villain pretending to be a home-buyer. That became the bestselling Still Missing. The novel is a gritty read with frank descriptions of rape and torture.
In person, Unischewski is friendly and unpretentious. She offers no literary airs, declaring: “I’m commercial fiction.” She said early romantic notions of being an author were soon replaced by reality. “It’s quite different. You assume it’s easy and it’s just this wonderful, magical place. I still love the actual work in what I do. But it is work.
“People will ask, ‘Do you just write when you feel like it?’ No!” Unischewski said, laughing.
A self described “obsessive-perfectionist,” she writes in a home office. The challenge, she says, is maintaining a prolonged focus (to block out time-wasting distractions of the Internet, she uses a computer application called Freedom).
She’s already completed her fourth novel, to be published next year. That Night is about a woman, falsely convicted of her sister’s murder, who’s released from prison after 15 years. A scrupulous researcher, Unischewski prepared for That Night by reading “every prison memoir” and watching all episodes of Lockdown, a documentary television series about U.S. prisons.
Her writing process suggests both ambition and tenacity. Unischewski created That Night while pregnant with her baby girl, Piper, now eight months old. Worried she’d have little time to write after the birth, the writer “gung-hoed” it.
“I worked pretty much every weekday and weekend, every night and day, morning to night. I’d get up at 6:30, walk the dog and just write,” Unischewski said. “I thought, ‘Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it?’ ”
Even before becoming an author, Unischewski had recurring dreams about sentences landing on a page. She’s big into the notion that, if you visualize something, it will come to pass. Unischewski has a “vision board,” to which she attaches phrases and images pertaining to her goals and dreams. “There was [a picture of] a man on it who looks just like my husband, long before I met my husband,” she said.
One might think a top-selling author with an international reach might be rich. Certainly, the movie deal with Renny Harlin sounds good. However Unischewski, typically matter-of-fact, reveals that the film option lapsed, with the rights reverting back to her.
But surely she’s wealthy even without a movie deal?
“I’m happy. We’re where I would want to be,” Unischewski said with a smile. “Everyone’s opinion of rich is a different thing. I’m not J. Lo.”