Walter Tevis, the novelist more famous at your theater than your bookstore

March 2, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

If you have watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, you may have wondered if it is based on a true story. The series identifies specific places and times where the action is taking place. Much of the series is set in the 1960s, and its look and feel are authentic.

But the story is fiction. It is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, a writer whom some feel should have a more prominent place in American letters.

Tevis, as a recent New York Times article points out, is more famous for the movies that have been made from his books than from the books themselves. Those movies include The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Tevis once pegged himself as “a good American writer of the second rank.” But Allan Scott, the screenwriter who first optioned “The Queen’s Gambit” in the 1980s, disagrees. Mr. Scott co-created and executive-produced the current Netflix show. Source: Walter Tevis Was a Novelist. You Might Know His Books (Much) Better as Movies. – The New York Times

While the story of The Queen’s Gambit is fiction, much of it is based on Tevis’ difficult childhood. He was born in San Francisco in 1928, and the family later moved to Kentucky. A childhood heart condition was treated with phenobarbital, which created a daze much like that experienced by Beth Harmon, the heroine in The Queen’s Gambit

He joined the Navy when he was 17 years old, near the end of World War II, and served in the Pacific as a carpenter’s mate aboard the USS Hamil. After the war, he attended the University of Kentucky where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He also attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. Eventually, he got a job teaching English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and lived there for 14 years and raised his family.

His first novel, The Hustler, was published in 1959. His second The Man Who Fell to Earth, came out in 1963. The Queens Gambit was published in 1983. During all this time, Tevis battled smoking, gambling, and alcohol addictions. He also suffered from an extended bout of writer’s block.

Tevis spent the last years of his life in New York City working full-time as a writer. He died of lung cancer in 1984. A spokesperson for his estate says that there are two more of his novels that will be published in the future.

There is also a website devoted to his life and works.

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