When Taylor Stevens released her first novel The Informationist, critics and fans alike praised its exotic settings and fast pace as well as its protagonist Vanessa Munroe: A tough, resourceful tracker of people and information. Initially, some reviewers drew comparisons between Monroe and Lisbeth Salander, the damaged anti-hero of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While the comparisons were favorable – and no doubt brought many Larrson fans to Stevens’ boook – readers who entered the dark world of The Informationist quickly discovered any similarities between the two were superficial; Munroe stood on her own. Others yet saw shades of the author in her character: Stevens parents were members of the infamous Children of God cult, and as a young girl she lived a rootless existence traveling throughout the world. In this short interview, Stevens speaks about her unusual childhood and just how much of herself went into the creation of Munroe.
Your education was eclectic, to say the least, yet you’re a gifted writer with a fine vocabulary. To what do you credit this gift?
I think in many ways, much like my heroine, Michael Munroe, who is a linguistic savant and absorbs language, I picked up a lot of the vocabulary by osmosis. As far back as I can remember I’ve had words pop into my head that I had no recollection of having read or learned, and yet often instinctively knew what they meant and how to use them. Even now, every once in awhile when I’m working on a piece, I’ll have an unfamiliar word come to me and I’ll look it up just to make sure my assumption of the meaning is correct. As for the writing itself: that was the result of a lot of effort—a lot of re-writing while I learned what worked for my particular creative bent and what didn’t. My earlier drafts are really incredibly embarrassing.
I imagine that you’ve had hordes of armchair psychologists see Vanessa Michael Munroe as a stand-in for you, but I’ve been told by a number of writers that this kind of thing can be a huge mistake. Can you talk a little bit about the similarities – and differences – between yourself and Munroe?
You mean besides our affection for fast motorcycles and sharp knives? I’m kidding of course. I heartily agree with the other writers. Munroe and I are so opposite one from the other that it’s easier to think in terms of differences than similarities. I suppose her analytical mind and her ability to understand people, although far more amplified, are somewhat similar to the way my own thought processes work, and like her, I had a hijacked childhood. But all that inner turmoil and damage, that rage and suppressed violence?—That is so not me. I am far too happy, smile way too much and am too much in love with life’s simple joys to brood. Oh, and I’m a total scaredy-cat.
Munroe developed her own profitable skill set and tough personality from the chaos of her childhood. I assume you learned some valuable skills of your own while in the Children of God. What are some of them that have helped you?
Heh, I’m counting on those profitable skills showing up just about any day now. In all seriousness, I imagine that regardless of the path taken, it can be difficult for anyone to draw a clear line from childhood to their present state. In my case, I feel that any success I’ve achieved is in spite of the chaos of my childhood, not because of it.
Munroe is a strong, capable woman who can take care of herself. Could she be a role-model for young women? What would you think if she became a pop culture icon, a female equivalent of Jason Bourne or James Bond? Do we need that kind of character in our culture?
Because of some of Munroe’s actions, I think it might be a bit much to call her a role model, but I see what you’re saying and I agree. I’ve learned over time that she is an unusual character in the thriller landscape, and I do think that because she is unusual in our pop culture speaks to the need to have women represented differently. We could always use more strong women who are women and not men in dresses, so to speak, women not defined by their sex appeal or even gender. I would love it if she becomes a pop culture figure like Jason Bourne, especially because she was, in a way, fashioned from the same mold as Bourne.
Many people became familiar with your back-story (growing up in the Children of Gold cult and traveling all over the world) when they read about The Informationist. Those must have been trying circumstances to say the least! How is it with so little formal education you were able to write such an incredible first novel? Did any part of your childhood- good or bad- find its way into the plot?
I have to assume that I was born with the gift of storytelling, and when finally allowed the opportunity to nurture that gift, it blossomed—I have no other explanation.
Because I’d lived an off-the-map type of life, perhaps this allowed me to create off-the-map type characters, and I really didn’t have to look far to find glimpses of the inner turmoil or world views that would drive them. But honestly, when I wrote The Informationist, my focus was entirely on writing about Africa—specifically Equatorial Guinea where so much of the story is set—and the thought of throwing events from my own childhood into the mix didn’t even cross my mind. That said, I think my readers will be happy to know that the second book in the Michael Munroe series, The Innocent (Dec. 27th), uses an incredible amount of my childhood environment to drive the plot.
Enjoy this short excerpt from The Informationist, and look for the new paperback edition in stores this week!