Retired educator Les Stevens takes up fiction writing
Story and photos by Julie Gerke
Reading for pleasure came late to Les Stevens, but the retired school administrator and teacher always loved to write.
In grade school, his teacher would provide a weekly list of spelling words and assign her students to write a story using all those words.
“I’d try to write it funny and … sometimes I’d get it read it out loud,” Stevens said.
Now, the Jacksonville man not only has written books but also had a chance to talk about his work during a book signing and author’s talk at the Jacksonville Public Library this past August.
Stevens, 71, retired in 2015 as superintendent of the North Greene school district and earlier worked at Hartsburg-Emden and Illinois School for the Visually Impaired. Before that, he “spent 19 years in classrooms and gyms,” teaching high school English and coaching basketball and other sports.
He won the 2000 author of the year contest sponsored by the Jacksonville Public Library for an essay titled “Dad,” and started writing fictional short stories based on his childhood and lessons he was supposed to learn.
Two years later, he wrote “One More Mess,” a book set in Jacksonville and published by a vanity press, with copies printed on demand. He sold a few copies locally but the early experience answered the question of if Stevens could do this. He said, “I had to prove it to myself I could do it.”
His current book, “Attack in NYC at 9:11 a.m.,” is an 87-page novella available through Amazon. The theme, roughly, is don’t judge a book by its cover: “Attack” follows a Hispanic detective investigating a bombing near Ground Zero. The prime suspect – for everyone except the detective – is an Afghan man who was leaving the shop when the bomb exploded. By day, the man is a custodian at One World Trade; at night, he goes to school.
Stevens also is editing his next book, “Shy Witness,” about a former prosecutor who must deal with recanted eyewitness testimony that led a murder suspect to prison.
“All my stories start with the ‘what ifs,’” Stevens said. With “Witness,” those questions include the lawyer’s obligations to the man in prison.
Although his stories are fiction, he researches details to ensure believability. In “Attack,” for instance, he studied where Afghans live in the New York area, and how someone from Queens would travel to Manhattan, including specific train stops. “You really get some interesting knowledge you didn’t think you knew before,” he said. “It’s kinda fun. One of the parts I really enjoy.”
“Shy Witness,” set in Kennett, Missouri, and nearby Piggott, Arkansas, reaped detail from a road trip to those towns, where he learned of connections involving singer Sheryl Crow and author Ernest Hemingway. He’s also a fan of authors John Grisham, David Balducci, Mark Twain and John Gilstrap.
“I don’t enjoy trying to sell books,” Stevens said. “I just wrote my first blog on the website (LesWritesFiction.com) yesterday, learning how to manipulate things on the website. … I’m not trying to get rich, but don’t want to go broke.”
During a recent visit to the public library, he quickly offered to sign copies of “Attack” for Ann Marie Stahel and Tina Vernor, both of South Jacksonville, who were looking for new books to read, and Jen Prewitt of Jacksonville, who dropped in to find out about Stevens’ author’s talk.
“Thank you!” said an excited Vernor, as he handed her a book. “That’s so cool!”
As he gains an audience through his books and the blog, Stevens wants to hear what readers like and don’t like. “I’m writing for my audience; I want to entertain them. … I want to hear from them and I want to improve.”
In addition to his writing, Stevens likes to play golf and volunteers at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital. He and his wife Becky, who retired from ISVI in 2019, share six children, 17 grandchildren and three dogs.