Her books have rung the bells of the New York Times Best Seller list ever since her debut novel, The Informationist, first burst onto the literary scene to critical acclaim (the book is currently being adapted into film by director James Cameron).
Since then, author Taylor Stevens has assembled a global following of fans with her Vanessa Michael Munroe series; the main character of which has been described as a heroine with shades of Jason Bourne, Sherlock Holmes and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.
Born and raised into the apocalyptic, sex-and-Jesus hippie cult, the Children of God (the same cult that the family of River Phoenix once belonged to and which now goes by the name, Family International), Stevens was separated from her family at a young age and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Sent to CoG-operated communes throughout the globe, she lived a bleak adolescence that consisted of begging on city streets and caring for the commune’s younger children. It wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Stevens managed to break free from the cult.
The highly anticipated latest installment in her Vanessa Michael Munroe series, The Catch, is scheduled for release on July 15.
In an interview with the author, she discusses the long and meandering journey from cult kid to bestselling author.
RS: In some writers’ conferences I’ve attended, I’ve heard certain presenters emphasize the importance of MFA’s or other academic credentials for writers. I’ve always thought that this misses the point of creativity as I don’t believe that talent can be learned. To tell a story—and do so effectively—doesn’t take a pedigree in my opinion. The success of your novels is proof of that.
TS: I think you articulated a very key concept in this ongoing debate by using the term tell a story instead of write a book. My writing (which is above average for the thriller genre) falls far short of literary aspirations, but very few readers read my books for the writing—they are in it for the story. I do agree that talent can’t be learned, but I think it’s possible for writing and storytelling to be nurtured much in the same way the talent of sports figures and classical musicians are nurtured. No amount of teaching and practice is going to turn a student without talent into the next Yo-Yo Ma, but even Yo-Yo Ma wouldn’t have become Yo-Yo Ma without a way to nurture and grow his natural ability.
On this topic, there was recently an interesting article in The Guardian where creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi called MFA courses a “waste of time.” Certainly, not everyone agrees with him but, having never taken a creative writing course of any kind and still having my formal education stuck in 6th grade, I could relate when he said: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can…. A lot of them don’t really understand it’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”
RS: Your characters have strong moral compasses that are completely independent from what is legal—or safe. How do you determine what is right for them?
TS: In all honesty, it’s not something that I consciously determine, it just sort of happens. The character development, motives and choices—even many of the twists and turns within a story—are brought to life from the writing process itself so I think, really, it’s the story that determines what’s right for them.
RS: Although they don’t have strong—or often, any—family relationships, your characters have incredibly loyal relationships with each other. Could this be a specter from your own past?
TS: I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but it’s possible—maybe in some subconscious way. These books, action-adventure as they are, often take us through dark and murky territory. People who come from tight families aren’t often the ones with the emotional baggage and personal demons that would propel them to travel down those rabbit holes, so I tend to think that the characters and their histories are also a product of the story, much like whatever moral compass that guides them.
RS: You’ve written before about the time pressures for your projects. Has being a proven bestseller made the writing process any less fun?
TS: If there was one thing I could have never appreciated before being published, it was the simplicity of being able to create in a state akin to innocent ignorance. Before publication, you’re just telling a story and trying to find the right words to do that on paper. Even if you’re aware (I wasn’t) of how reviews can be vicious, or how your words can be interpreted a thousand different ways, or how meaning will be ascribed in ways you never meant, and readers will superimpose the author onto the characters, or how your work will be compared to authors you’ve never read as if you’d meticulously copied them, and then, if you’re fortunate, compare you against yourself with subsequent books, nothing can ever really prepare you for what it’s like when it happens. I have a friend who has been a journalist for decades and when her first novel was about to publish, I told her what was coming so that she could brace for it and let it roll off her shoulders (which is what you have to learn to do). She later told me that she’d thought, “Oh, that’s fine for Taylor, so innocent of how the world works, but I’ve been doing this for years, I’ve already got thick skin.” We laugh about it now, but even she wasn’t ready for what was about to hit. Basically, what all of this means is that while the first book tends to be written in a state of oblivion, subsequent books come with more jumpiness—more care with details, maybe some “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” more guardedness and so forth. I think for most authors—particularly genre writers like myself—if anything is going to make writing less fun, it will be all of the above, rather than time pressures.
RS: What’s your favorite setting –Europe, Africa, or USA? Do you draw from your own past experiences in these places?
TS: Hmmm. I think we have to define “favorite” because, when it comes to the books themselves, the rougher the location, the better it is for the overall conflict and tension in the story. But the problem is, the rougher the location the more difficult it is to research and that makes a favorite location also very much not a favorite. I haven’t lived in every country I’ve written about, but if at all possible, I do visit the locations as part of the research process, and those kinds of “favorites” definitely aren’t the ones I’d consider favorite settings for my own personal enjoyment, ha-ha.
RS: How often do you write? Is there a daily schedule you keep, or a quota of words per day that you try to reach?
TS: I try hard to treat writing as I would if I had a day job—well, maybe a very non-corporate, flexible-schedule sort of day job. I do hold “office hours” on weekdays and set daily goals. They vary, depending on what part of the process a book happens to be in. Words per day work best for me when laying down rough drafts, but when editing and/or going through subsequent drafts, pages per day are a better marker of progress. Regardless, before starting work on any given day, I find it imperative to block out the top priority—whether it’s a troublesome scene, a certain number of words, etc. and, for the most part, the workday doesn’t end until that is done. Some days are 18-hour days, some are only six. I used to write pretty much every day, including weekends, until I realized this wasn’t doing anyone any favors, not even the work. Trying to juggle writing (usually there are several books in process at once) with being a fulltime mom and everything that goes into running a household can be a bit of a trick sometimes. Being able to chart my own schedule is probably the absolute biggest benefit I get out of what I do.
RS: Your past has been described as “unorthodox”. Do you feel that having been born into and raised in a cult has given you any creative advantages as a writer?
TS: Like many of my peers, I spent my adolescence as unpaid child labor in cult communes. Separated from my parents at age 12 (which was also when my education stopped), the days were filled with washing laundry or cooking for hundreds at a time, taking care of the younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of the cult. Being raised differently has certainly allowed me to see the world from a different perspective and that lends, perhaps, to characters and locations that veer away from what’s common in mainstream USA. This could possibly infer a creative advantage, but “advantage” is very relative. While I’m by no means the most successful of those I grew up with, many of my childhood compatriots are dead from suicide, drug overdose, reckless self-harming behavior, and such. I consider myself fortunate that I was driven to achieve instead of to self-destruct. It could have gone either way.
RS: Okay, name your favorite movie.
TS: This is where I wish I could come up with some fantastic answer that makes me look far less boring and more anything awesome than I really am. Truth be told, I rarely watch movies, and don’t watch TV at all. When I do watch movies, it’s to escape, so I tend toward mindless action (stuff you know just can’t be real) or comedy, or even family movies, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen something that I loved so much that it became a favorite.
RS: How do you prepare yourself in the weeks and days leading up to the release of a new book?
TS: The months leading up to a book launch tend to be rather disruptive, with a steady stream of requests for Q&A material, blog posts, interviews, and promotional events. Everything needs to be done/answered/handled right now! and as often as not this occurs simultaneously with other writing and production deadlines. I don’t know what happens to other authors under these circumstances, but for me, my ability to retain information (both short and long term memory) goes completely on the fritz. I’m not sure there is a way to prepare for that. The best technique I’ve discovered is to write everything down, prioritize, and just get through it one day at a time. I’m also very fortunate that thus far I’ve had a good publicity team behind my back and they stay on top of managing all the travel, events, interviews, etc. and offer me a lot of reminders when I need them.
RS: Your book, “The Catch”, is scheduled for release and is the latest installment in your New York Times bestselling Vanessa Michael Munroe series. Anything we should prepare ourselves for?
TS: Well, if you enjoy action-adventure stories that take you into far-away places, and think you’d enjoy a non-testosterone version of a character in the vein of Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, and James Bond, then hopefully you’ll prepare for an escapist read and join me with THE CATCH on July 15th.
Despite her rising fame, Taylor Stevens remains devoted and accessible to her fans. Those wishing to learn more about and interact with Stevens can contact her personally at: www.taylorstevensbooks.com.
Readers and fans can also be added to her mailing list by visiting: www.taylorstevensbooks.com.
*Author photograph by Alyssa Skyes and used with author’s permission