Culture

Exclusive Interview: The Informationist Author Taylor Stevens

Until fairly recently, women in thrillers often came in three flavors: the stern, humorless suit (think: Dame Judi Dench's M in the "Bond" series or Joan Allen's CIA honcho in the "Bourne" films), the super-human super agent (Jennifer Garner in "Alias"), and the crime-solving spinster ("Prime Suspect," "Miss Marple"). Then out of the shadows sprang Vanessa Michael Munroe, a completely new brand of high-octane heroine who is as fierce as she is feral, as haunted as she is hyper-effective at tracking down her prey, as smart as she is sexual.

Munroe, the title character of The Informationist, Taylor Stevens' bestselling debut novel, inhabits a siege-like state of perpetual danger as she pinballs through the Third World in search of the daughter of a Texas oil tycoon who went missing in Equatorial Africa. Munroe has spent much of her life earning a good living as a cross between a forensic researcher, bounty hunter, and a one-woman special-forces team with a particular knack for piecing together enough disparate information to retrieve her target from within hostile territory.

However, Munroe's killer instincts in confrontations with warlords and various genocidal maniacs are only part of what makes her such an indelible character. The heart of the novel lies in the intricacy with which Stevens depicts the depth of Munroe's psychic wounds and how carrying around all that emotional baggage has turned her into a fierce creature.

Comparisons to a certain dragon-tattooed abuse survivor with a facility for digging up obscure information have been plentiful since Stevens' book began to climb bestseller lists last year. But the similarities end there. Munroe is deeply in touch with her feminine side -- unapologetically sexy and seductive while still capable of delivering a vicious beat down when necessary.

The Informationist's purest pleasure is its insight into the inner life of a woman warrior who has transformed her own story from tragedy to one of triumph. The same could be said of Stevens herself, who survived and prevailed over more than her share of childhood challenges -- she grew up within the Children of God religious sect. Now putting the finishing touches on the final book in the Michael Munroe Trilogy -- the second book, The Innocent, is due to hit bookstores in December -- Stevens sat down with Signature for a wide-ranging interview about her sources of inspiration and her own inspirational story.

Signature: How clearly had you sketched out the character of Vanessa Michael Munroe in your head when you started writing The Informationist?

Taylor Stevens: I had no idea what I was doing when I started writing this book. I just decided I was going to do it and I kind of learned as I went. As I wrote the book I discovered more and more of her. My original reason for wanting to write was that I wanted to write about Equatorial Guinea. So I had to find a story that would make sense taking place in the country I wanted to write about. And because of the minimal amount of books I had read up until that point - the majority of which had been thrillers - that was sort of the genre I chose.

SIG: Why were you compelled to write about Equatorial Guinea?

TS: I had lived there for two years and it was a very interesting experience. It took me a while to get over having lived there because it was traumatic in so many different ways. It was a world so few people experience and I wanted to communicate that.

SIG: What brought you there in the first place?

TS: I was still within the organization I was born and raised in [The Children of God] and I really wanted to do some good in the world. So my husband and a few of my friends and I decided to start an NGO that was beyond the auspices of the cult. We chose Equatorial Guinea because we wanted someplace that was off the beaten path but small enough that anything we did would matter. We built school desks for two or three thousand children.

SIG: After growing up in such unusual circumstances, it's kind of surprising you didn't make that the background for your novel.

TS: If I wanted to focus on the experience of living in the cult, I would have written a memoir. And in my second novel, which comes out in December, I do use my childhood as background for the story in the same way I use Africa as a background for The Informationist. Africa was really vivid in my mind at the time. Unlike the cult, Africa is a place I chose to be. I left when I was ready. I had no choice of being born into the cult. It was something that controlled my life for over two decades. It's a completely different thing.

SIG: You mentioned that you hadn't been exposed to many books until you left the cult. What made you start reading?

TS: I used to entertain the other commune children making up stories. But when I was fourteen or fifteen I started writing them down and turning them into books. I did it because I was so bored because I didn't have reading material; books weren't allowed from the outside. But when the cult leaders found out what I had been doing, they confiscated my books and burned them. And I was in trouble for probably eight or nine books, and not allowed to talk to any of my peers. I was monitored and watched all the time because, according to them, making up fiction was a sin of the devil. The belief in the cult was that only the cult leader's writing had value.

SIG: How did you develop a love for words and stories after having grown up in that environment?

TS: We did read a lot but it was cult propaganda. Now I read it and I can't understand how anyone could read it and believe it. But it was reading. We had to do a lot of self-analysis. Everything we read we had to comment on how it was making us a better person. So you got really good at making stuff up.

Many years later, after my husband and I left the cult, neither of us had any work history and we were barely making ends meet. We didn't have much education. We're both self-taught. So I used to go to garage sales on weekends and I would buy books. That's how I discovered fiction. So it was while reading Robert Ludlum's Bourne series, specifically Bourne Ultimatum, that I remember thinking, 'I really wish I could do this.' Then a light bulb went off in my head: I can do this! It wasn't like I was thinking, 'I'll go and get published and have a book on the New York Times' bestseller list.' I just thought, 'I'm going to write a book to say I did it. They took it away from me. They never let me do this. I might as well do this now.'

SIG: You dedicated the book to your "fellow childhood survivors." How much of this character was informed by the idea that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger?

TS: Having lived through Equatorial Guinea had made me into a very strong person internally even if my outward circumstances are sucky. So creating a strong central character made sense to me. Michael Munroe was not a fantasy character to me. I didn't decide to create a kick-ass fantasy character who was going to go out and beat everybody up. She was a real person. And maybe reading a little too much Jason Bourne put in my head that it was possible to do those incredible things. But the things that were in her head -- the rage, the anxiety, not being able to relate to the people around her, being an outsider looking in, the traumatic past -- it all made sense to me.

SIG: Did you deliberately set out to create a female protagonist who embodied all the strength and power often attributed to male characters?

TS: I didn't know what was out there because I hadn't read enough books to know. I wasn't raised with the same social norms everybody else was. It might be why we're so enthralled with writers from foreign countries. They don't have the same way of looking at culture or people. The cult I came from was my culture. It was my country. Even though I speak English, words had a different meaning to me. So I came and presented the world through eyes that appeared to be like everyone else's but they weren't.

SIG: You must be aware of how empowering and cathartic it is for women to read a book in which a female character is allowed to be just as strong, self-possessed, smart, and sexual as any man.

TS: I can see that in retrospect. But when I was doing it I had no idea. When I was halfway through my first draft, I remember saying, 'I think I've just written the ultimate female fantasy.' I think at heart most women want to be as powerful as men. We live in a society where men so clearly dominate. And at one point or another, every woman has either been stymied by a man who has taken credit for one of her ideas or has been in an abusive relationship. Men play such a large role in our lives. There's hardly a woman out there who hasn't at some point wished she could be as strong as a man. But women don't want to be men; they want to be women. They just don't like to be dominated against their will. I've written a character who is as strong as a man but is 100 percent a woman

SIG: What do you make of the similarities to Lisbeth Salander, the fierce, feral pixie-ish protagonist of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy? They're both wounded warrior women who are as vulnerable as they are vindictive.

TS: She who shall not be named.

SIG: Is that a sore subject?

TS: It's a completely double-edge sword. On the one hand there are a lot of people who wouldn't have picked up The Informationist if it hadn't been compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When you're a new author, people are not going to go spend their hard-earned money on an unknown. So that really helped. On the other hand, it's a no-win competition for me to be constantly compared to those books. My book was in my agent's hands before Stieg Larsson even published in the United States. So I either copied him too well or not well enough. I can't win in the eyes of people expecting a Stieg Larsson read. They're either like, 'This is a straight up rip-off' or 'how could you possibly compare these two?' There's no winning.

SIG: Don't you think the readers win by suddenly having more strong female role models?

TS: I agree. On a personal level, it's frustrating to always be in someone else's shadow. And I haven't even ever read the books. At this point now it's become a matter of pride and principle. I'm like, nope, I'm never going to read 'em ever.

SIG: The Informationist is very cinematic. Have you thought about who you might like to see play Michael Munroe in a big-screen adaptation of your work?

TS: I don't know what Munroe looks like. She's just there, like a shadow almost. But if I had to put a face or body type to her it would have been Trinity from The Matrix.

SIG: How far along are you in terms of plotting and writing the rest of the Michael Munroe trilogy?

TS: When I got that initial two-book contract, I was so nervous that I couldn't complete a second book that I hammered that sucker out in six months. So that's completely done. It's the third book that's been kicking my butt. I'm pretty much done with the first draft of the third draft. Now I'm just cleaning it up. They call it a trilogy because it's a three-book contract. But it's my hope that there will be more Michael Munroe books. I've got a few more books with her in me.