The Huffington Post - March 11, 2011
On Writing 'The Informationist' and Coming from a Cult Background
by Taylor Stevens
I'm often asked which came first, plot or character. The answer should hint toward how clueless I was when I first set out to write: I had no plot, or characters--not even an idea of the story--only the place.
I'd spent four years living in Africa--over two of them in Equatorial Guinea--and when I made the decision to "write a book," all I knew was that it was going to be fiction, and I would set a good portion of it on Bioko Island, off the west coast of Africa. At the time, I didn't quite understand the concept of genre, but I figured my book should be something like what Robert Ludlum wrote. Turns out, Robert Ludlum wrote thrillers, and now, so do I.
It might be easy to think that I'm self-deprecating and attempting to be funny, and while I would happily settle for funny, the truth is, I really was that clueless.
My life, up until that point, had been anything but traditional. Born and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult that believed education beyond 6th grade was a waste of time, I'd lived on four continents and knew how to cook for a hundred people at a go, but only had a splotchy grade-school education that left me unfamiliar with a few fundamental concepts. Like the parts of speech, for example, and proper punctuation, and math beyond decimals: on the whole, not very helpful for entering the real world as a mother of two babies, and trying to forge a career.
One of the few upsides to coming from nowhere and knowing little, is being acutely mindful of your own ignorance. That was me: determined to write, fully aware that I knew absolutely zero about publishing or for that matter, about writing fiction. But I did know how to use a search engine. The Internet was my lifeline to knowledge, and a used writing guide my trusty Bible.
I wrote more--and re-wrote a lot. I was halfway through the first draft of THE INFORMATIONISTby the time I finally began to grasp what my writing guide had taught; half-way through, I'd found my voice, but more triumphant it seemed at the time, I finally understood what the heck they meant when they kept going on and on about that thing called "voice."
And then, two years into the writing process, one day to the next, THE INFORMATIONIST was finished. If I'd plotted the story ahead of time, maybe I would have seen the end looming, but I was winging it.
Having worked so long on learning to write, on learning the industry, and on writing the book, finishing was rather frightening. I expect it might be a bit of what life feels like after spending four years in college and being thrust out of the womb of academia with the need for a real job--although, I really wouldn't know much about that.
I scoured blogs from agents, editors and professional writers in order to understand the publishing industry, and quickly realized that, like everything else, I would be forced to go the hard road. I wasn't in a position to attend writers' conferences to meet agents in person to pitch a book. Neither was I well read enough to track down the agents or editors of authors whose books I liked. I didn't know anyone who knew anyone even remotely connected to publishing: I had no referrals, and no foot in the door. My only option, really, was to cold query agents by email, which, if you believe the naysayers, is impossible.
People ask what compels me to write, and this always makes me smile, because although the reasons are many--some of them even sappy, ultimately it boils down to this: I have no plan B.
Taylor Stevens is the author of THE INFORMATIONIST (Crown, on-sale March 8, 2011).
New York Times - March 12, 2011
An Unorthodox Life Yields a Novelist of Promise
By CHRISTOPHER KELLY
Unlike a lot of other headline-grabbing debut novelists, Taylor Stevens did not graduate from a prestigious creative-writing program. In fact, she attended school only sporadically until sixth grade, when she stopped going entirely.
Ms. Stevens does not pepper her conversations with literary references or philosophical musings about her “craft.” She estimated that she had read only about 30 novels in her life. She cited Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne Identity” as the primary influence on her new novel, “The Informationist.”
What this Dallas-based divorced mother does have, however, is the sort of bizarre, twist-filled back story that makes everyone who hears it pay attention. She was born into and raised as a member of the cult Children of God (now called the Family International), founded by David Berg. Growing up, she bounced from city to city, often living in cramped and impoverished conditions, rarely spending more than a few months at a stretch at one of the cult’s dozens of communes around the world.
She said she repeatedly saw physical beatings as well as a practice called “flirty fishing,” in which female members would be prostituted to earn money for the cult. (She prefers not to talk about whether she experienced such abuse herself.)
After Mr. Berg’s death, in 1994, the cult changed its rules, allowing members newfound independence. Ms. Stevens and her husband at the time moved to Africa, where they set up a small commune in Equatorial Guinea. They remained there until the late 1990s, when they left the cult. In 2001, they moved to Texas, figuring it would be an inexpensive place to try to build a new life.
All of this sounds like ripe material for a lurid, confessional memoir, yet Ms. Stevens — who took to writing because it was something she could do while at home with her two young children — ended up going in an entirely different direction.
“The Informationist,” which was published this week by Crown, is a globe-trotting thriller centered on Vanessa Munroe, a multilingual expert in information gathering who is hired by a Houston businessman to track down his missing daughter in Africa. Ms. Stevens drew on her experience in Equatorial Guinea, where much of the novel takes place. But otherwise it contains no references to her experiences in Children of God.
“People are always like, ‘Don’t you want to write about your story?’ ” Ms. Stevens, 38, said recently over breakfast at a cafe in Grapevine. “I tell them no. Because as exotic as it seems to you, it pales in comparison to what some of my friends had to go through when they left the cult.”
Despite the author’s lack of formal education, “The Informationist” is an accessible, crisply told tale. Ms. Stevens has a knack for both evocative details, especially in her depictions of village life in Equatorial Guinea, and strangely compelling character traits (the androgynous Munroe sometimes appears in public dressed as a man).
A second book featuring the same character, titled “The Innocent,” has been finished and is set for publication next year. Crown felt confident enough in the first two books in the series that it recently signed Ms. Stevens for a third.
“You can never predict what talent comes from,” said John A. Glusman, Ms. Stevens’s editor at Crown. “You can find people with pedigree educations and advanced degrees, and they can’t write their way out of a paper bag.”
“The Informationist” has already secured gushy blurbs from brand-name thriller writers like Tess Gerritsen and Vince Flynn and the inevitable comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which also features an offbeat, spunky heroine and — in the first novel in the series — a plot involving a missing heiress.
Yet in a publishing industry struggling with declining sales and easily distracted audiences, Ms. Stevens’s dark personal history is proving to be her most useful marketing tool. Vogue published a nearly 3,000-word profile of the author in its March issue — something virtually unheard of for a debut novelist.
“It is very difficult to publicize fiction,” said Anne Hawkins, Ms. Stevens’s literary agent. “If the author went and got their M.F.A. and has been writing and editing, is anyone really interested in reading about that?”
For her part, Ms. Stevens is struggling to strike a balance. She is eager to speak out about her past, especially after many years of cult superiors’ deriding her individual achievements. But she also remains nervously guarded. While being interviewed, she made frequent requests to go off the record. She is especially adamant that none of her family members be contacted or written about in the process of promoting “The Informationist.”
(Asked about concerns that any part of Ms. Stevens’s difficult-to-verify story might be fabricated, Mr. Glusman said, “I don’t think any publisher goes through the kind of background check that an intelligence agency will, but when I talked to Taylor and heard her speak, it left absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was a very painful chapter of her past.”)
Ms. Stevens said: “If writing doesn’t work out for me, I’m still back at the bottom of the heap as far as education goes. So right now, I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, to be good enough and to keep people coming back.”
Christopher Kelly is a film critic for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
This article was found at:
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