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Home mySSlife Books Q&A with rookie author Taylor Stevens: Writer’s backstory as compelling as the thriller she created

Q&A with rookie author Taylor Stevens: Writer’s backstory as compelling as the thriller she created

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Finding new authors with fresh voices seems to be a lost art, even though publishers do their best to convince us otherwise.

Crown Publishing, however, is an exception.

Their latest star, Taylor Stevens, is one of the brightest young writers around. Her debut novel, “The Informationist,” has found an audience of delighted readers and critics.

Think Jason Bourne in a dress.

In the book, Stevens introduces readers to Vanessa Michael Munroe, a free agent who travels seamlessly from country to country, gathering intelligence, performing undercover operations and solving potential problems for corporations who want to do business overseas.

Munroe, whose base of operations is in Dallas, is hired by Houston billioniare Richard Burbank to find his stepdaughter Emily, who went missing four years ago in Africa.

In addition to being a brilliant operative, Munroe is also haunted by a troubled childhood, paralleling Stevens’ own turbulent early life. She was born into the radical cult Children of God and spent the first 20-plus years of her life under their influence.

The difference here is that Munroe’s life is fictional. Stevens’ life story is all too real.

Her journey from cult member to published author is nothing short of remarkable.

“In an alternate universe, I spent my formative years living with parents and siblings, showing up for school and getting acquainted with HBO, Michael Jackson, neon clothes and big hair,” she says on her website. “In reality, childhood and adolescence were spent begging on city streets from Zurich to Tokyo, preparing food and washing laundry for hundreds of people, and otherwise trying to survive dreary life as a worker bee child in a communal apocalyptic cult. My innocence and scholastic education stopped completely when I was 12.

“Cut off from personal family, at times under the care of sadistic individuals and without access to books or television from the outside world, imagination became a survival mechanism. As a young teenager, I secretly entertained commune children with fantastic stories that took us through time and space, until these sins were discovered by cult leaders. Several laboriously hand-written books were confiscated and burned and I was ordered on pain of – well, a whole lot of pain – never to write again.

“The nomadic culture of the cult became an adolescent’s journey across four continents and nearly two dozen countries culminating in four years living in East and West-Central Africa – this the primary setting for ‘The Informationist.’

“Along this journey I have seen the best and worst of humanity and don't have to look far to find the depth of soul and tormented conflict that drives my characters; I pull heavily from personal experience and the experience of the ones I love when creating the worlds they walk in.

“I was in my twenties when I broke free, and leaving everything I knew brought with the fear, a fresh beginning. Refusing to go to my grave with regrets, ‘what ifs,’ or tears over the lost years, I set out to take back what was taken from me. Through trial and error and observing the masters I taught myself the craft, and gradually the gift of storytelling returned.

“Learning basics that many take for granted has been a journey to be sure, but on the flip side, if I ever need to make breakfast for 150 people, I've already got that covered.”

Stevens, now 38, lives in the Metroplex with her two young daughters. She took time from her writing schedule to talk to us.

Talk about the journey you had from writing to having “The Informationist” published.

Taylor Stevens: From the time I started writing it until it hit the bookshelves was about 6 years. After I finished the book, there was the agent search. By the time my agent and I started talking, it was the end of April 2008.

My agent is very editorial minded, which I appreciate. She’s not going to go out and get you a paycheck. She’s thinking long-term career here.

By the time I worked on some structual issues, we were getting close to summer, and no one in publishing works in the summer. She said, “This is great, this is awesome, you’ve got a great shot at something here. I really want to send this out to a handful of people.”

She had only sent it four editors, and it happened right at the same time that the economy tanked. Nobody took it.

My agent said, “I know this is really hard for you but I really believe you need to take this book off the market right now. You only have one shot to debut an ablum, this book has a chance to go big. Just trust me because right now you have a chance of getting rejected just because our economic factors are low. Editors don’t know what their job situation is going to be like, and even if you sell it, the editor who acquires it might not be working there three months from now. Contact me in January.”

So I did what she said and contacted her in January. She said to sit tight.

Finally, at the end of June, she said, “All right. Things have settled down enough that I can take this out on a limited submission.”

I didn’t know that “limited submission” meant two editors. She was going very, very high end.

The publishing house of Shaye Areheart bought the book.

My editor said, “Even if the other editor comes back with an offer, they’d have to give you an insane amount more to make up for the prestige factor.”

I was crying and laughing. The news came at what literally had to be the worst moment of my life, up until leaving the cult.

My life had starting getting better and better,  then the rug was yanked out from under me. Everything I worked for, everything I dreamed for was gone.

I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills. It was the most devastating time of my life.

Then I get this call and they say we’ve sold the book and – what’s more, the publisher actually wants two more books.

I was ecstatic and nervous that they would change their mind.

At that point, all of a sudden it was like my world got flipped right side up again and I was in control of my own destiny for really the first time in forever.

I wasn’t dependent on anyone or anything. It was the most amazing, spectacular feeling in the whole world. So that was what it was like, and that’s why it took so long.

N-T: Shaye Arehart went out of business and Crown Publishing took control of your book. What was it like?
Stevens: I’ve heard and read a lot of horror stories. Not one of them happened to me. A very senior editor named John Glessman [at Crown] had read my work and was crazy about it. So what could have turned out to be the worst thing that could have ever happened to an author turned out to be one of the best. 

N-T: How did you decide on a character like your heroine, Vanessa Michael Munroe?

Stevens: When I started “The Informationist” it was a way to write about Africa. You can’t have a book without characters, of course, but I really wanted to write about Africa. I wanted to bring this country to life, but I didn’t really know how to write.

I had been reading the Jason Bourne books, and that was where the spark to want to write came from. I also liked the Laura Croft movies.

And so I really wanted characters like Jason Bourne. I wanted characters that made me feel the way Jason Bourne made me feel – that sense of “Is he going to completely implode at any given point because he’s so messed up inside?” and “Oh my gosh, he’s so skilled. Look at him!”

I didn’t want a facsimile of Bourne. You can’t take a man and put him in a woman’s body and have a character. But I want Bourne’s torment.

I wanted that torn, emotional, very high-tension internal concept, and I wanted that sensuality and that confidence that Bourne and Laura Croft had.    As the story developed and we started going further into the location, other aspects of Vanessa started to coming to light. I don’t get credit for conceptualizing a great character and putting it all together. It kind of just happens.

Authors bring their personal history to the writing process. We sit down to write and it can only make sense if we base our writing on life as we know it.

Readers do the same thing – they bring themselves into the story as they’re reading it.

I believe reading is essentially bringing the mind and heart of an author to the mind and heart of the reader.

But because we all have these varied life experiences, everybody brings something different to the story.

Does my life effect what I write? Absolutely it does. I don’t have a problem talking about where I came from. I’m actually quite proud of where I am now based on where I came from.

The second Vanessa Munroe book is due out on December 22.

I’m on my third book right now, and when this one’s finished, assuming my publisher still loves me, I’ll submit a proposal for number four.

While the relationship with her parents is healing, Stevens is insistent that her children know their paternal grandparents, her former in-laws.

N-T: Why is this bond so important to you?
Stevens: Because I was robbed of having a connection to my family growing up, I’m just adamant that no matter where I stand with my in-laws they will always have a place in my children’s lives. Circumstances often times define who we are. I can only do my best as to what I know. I make no claims to being perfect. There’s so much more I probably could have done, but I’m giving them the best of what I have.

N-T: One of the things that makes Vanessa so successful is her ability to pick up foreign languages. Do you speak different languages?

Stevens: Actually I heard spoken a number of languages growing up but I don’t have an ear for languages. But apparently I have an ear for English.

I don’t have a formal education. I don’t have somebody who sat down and said if you structure your sentences like this….

Vanessa is more savant like, but they’re not very common.

I have seen in negative reviews some people say, ‘Oh this is so unrealistic, I can’t believe anybody’s following this crap.”

It didn’t come from nowhere. Everybody brings their own experiences to the mix, including me.

N-T: In addition to her gift for language, Vanessa is also very adept at androgny. She’s able to slip seamlessly from being female to posing as a man. Where did that come from?

Stevens: I’ve lived in a lot of countries. I think it’s easy here in the U.S. to forget how open we are to gender equality. We obviously still have our issues, some work to do. But we’re quite progressive compared to the rest of the world.

There are places that, no way whatsoever, is Vanessa going to get the information she needs if she’s a woman.

The way to make it realistic, to do what I’m saying she’s doing, is to be either or. In what she does she immerses herself.

Vanessa is very highly attuned to nuances, aware of what’s going around her. Slipping into one role then the next is not based on gender as much as it is on perception. She has the ability to become what she perceives she needs to be to acquire what she wants. You can look at it as a gender thing, but when I was writing it, it wasn’t so much a gender thing as a becoming thing.

Terry Mathews may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
To learn more about Taylor Stevens, visit www.taylorstevensbooks.com.




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