A Conversation with Taylor Stevens, Author of The Informationist
Q) Your debut thriller, The Informationist, features a kick-ass heroine named Vanessa "Michael" Munroe who is getting some nice comps to Stieg Larsson's feisty protagonist Lisbeth Salander. How did you envision Munroe? Did you know when you first started writing the book that she would be such a strong, fierce character?
A) From the beginning, when writing Munroe, I never viewed her in terms of strong or weak, good or evil, or even, in a sense, male or female. Initially, when thinking of her reactions to situations, I was drawn to the emotional conflict and skill of Jason Bourne, and the sensual confidence of Lara Croft, but these were gut feelings, nothing specific or tangible. So to me, Munroe has always been who she is as the natural result of her storied life, and I honestly didn't realize just how strong - and perhaps unusual - she is until feedback started coming in from early readers.
Q) What exactly is an "informationist," and how did you come up with the concept of the novel? Did you have an aha moment, or did the novel come together over time?
A) Everything about writing The Informationist unfolded backwards. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no plot, no characters, only the location in which the bulk of the story would be set, so the entire concept was definitely a slow evolution. On a personal level, I've experienced the struggle of trying to adapt and survive after being thrust into a foreign society pretty much overnight, so putting Munroe on a path where acquiring information was innate and eventually turned into a career, seemed natural.
Q) You've set your thriller all over the world with a significant amount in Africa. Why the exotic setting?
A) I knew I would set the story in Equatorial Guinea before I knew anything else about writing, because I'd spent two years living there. Even having lived in other African countries didn't prepare me for what I experienced in Equatorial Guinea. When I first set out to write, I saw more potential in bringing the location to life for readers than in the story itself or the characters that might populate the book. Of course, I view it differently now, but that's where it started.
Q) You had a rather unusual upbringing. How did your early education, or lack thereof, affect your writing process?
A) Growing up in a religious cult, my education stopped when I was twelve, and although I've been able to teach myself a lot, with some things I'm still frozen in time. Contending with the reality of my educational gaps when entering the real world and facing the number of years it would take to play catch-up certainly propelled me to be the best writer I could possibly be, because there wasn't a Plan B or alternate career to fall back on.
Q) You've lived in a number of countries (and on several continents). Which is your favorite and why? What's the most exotic thing you've eaten?
A) Travel for me is like having children: how can you possibly pick a favorite? Every location has its own brand of special. As far as exotic foods, I guess the weirdest (that I'm aware of - sometimes you just don't want to know) was forest snails - not the same thing as escargot! Big chunks of rubber balloon.
Q) In The Informationist Munroe has a knack for languages and an institutional understanding of different cultures - not to mention stellar knife skills. Do you share any of these talents with Munroe?
A) Definitely not the knife skills - perhaps it's in part because of my own helplessness in self-defense that I created the counterweight in Munroe - and abashedly, I only speak one language, so we'll have to rule out polyglot skills as well. But where we do share a trait is in my own absorption of English vocabulary. Having only a sixth grade education and no access to written material beyond cult-published propaganda literature until I was in my late twenties, it's still rather a mystery as to where my own bank of word knowledge comes from.
Q) The Informationist is the first in a series featuring Vanessa Munroe. Did you always see it this way, or did that develop after the first novel was fully drafted?
A) I think it was about halfway through The Informationist, when the characters had pretty much developed into who they are now, that I first realized that they were destined to live on in other stories.
Q) Take us through a typical day of writing. Do you write all at once or in spurts? Do you prefer to write in the morning or evening?
A) I am my most productive at night and into the wee morning hours. However, I'm responsible for two wonderful children, which means I'm up early in the morning in order to get them off to school, and since I don't function well without sleep, this also means I'm rarely able to access my most productive hours. Instead, I work around their schedule, and by work I mean mostly procrastinate until I realize that they'll be home from school any minute, at which time the noise level will return to filled-stadium loud, so I'd better actually put some words down. Sometimes the words are even worth keeping. That said, I do try to write every day, even weekends, and I set daily, weekly, and monthly goals, until I get a complete first draft. After that, crafting the story doesn't feel as much like work, and I tend to procrastinate less.
Q) Name one place you'd love to visit one day.
A) One? Just one? Okay. Bhutan.
Q) Where will Munroe's adventures take her next?
A) Certainly into South America, and into Europe again. I would like to take her to Russia, but for that, I would need to develop a solid plot, and I haven't gotten that far yet.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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