Taylor Stevens doesn’t get it when people find her special. Forget that the widely acclaimed author of The Informationist, The Innocent and now The Doll successfully survived an abusive childhood inside a scary religious cult, presently travels to exotic locales researching intricate plot points and enjoys ownership of a hard-as-nails heroine regularly likened to Lisbeth Salander. Nope, the way Taylor sees it, her fictitious multi-lingual, martial arts-chopping protagonist Vanessa Michael Munroe is the real resourceful one. Now, please excuse the author while she pauses to sort out the middle school kids and the barking dog.
“I wish I spoke as many languages as her–that would be awesome,” Stevens tells Kirkus. “She also has this sort of fearlessness about her. She’s not afraid of anything. And that is the exact opposite as me. I’m a big, huge scaredy cat. I think some fear is definitely good. She really doesn’t have anything to lose. I have something to lose. I’ve got a family and I’ve got kids. But it would be nice to have that kind of confidence.”
Confidence wouldn’t seem to be something that this self-made woman would appear to be lacking, but flesh-and-blood people–like the best-written heroes and heroines–are complex figures.
“I never saw this coming,” Stevens says. “I knew how hard it was to get published. And I didn’t ever see myself as being an exception to that rule. I did not ever think that I could pay my bills through writing. I thought it would be something…that I did on the side. I have this very pragmatic outlook. Why should it go different for me than from every other person out there?”
Despite a lot of nasty characters trying to do her in, Vanessa Michael Munroe has survived to appear in three novels. That’s the kind of invulnerability that is usually reserved for super-heroes. But don’t start talking capes and tights around Stevens. The best-selling author insists that she never set out to create an “alpha female heroine.”
“I didn’t even know that she was unique in the genre,” Stevens says. “I’ve never seen women as being weak and pathetic and needing a lot of help. I’ve had to take care of myself most of my life, and my friends who grew up the way that I did are very strong women as well. We had to be in order to survive that environment.”
Deprived of an education and bounced around far-flung communes as a child, Stevens came to writing with more than her share of “life experience.” So would she have been as successful if she had been raised in a safe environment?
“Having lived through all of the experiences that I have lived through, the one rule that I follow is, you don’t play ‘What if?” Stevens says. “I very much have a strong personality and was constantly in trouble for being too mouthy, too pushy, too independent. So that part of me was always there. Would I have been a writer? I might have not have gone as far as I have, or I might have gone 10 times further if given a little bit of opportunity. But you can’t play ‘What if? It just is.”
Sometimes, it can help to have an avid fan base that has become invested in the character you’ve created, and isn’t shy about lending advice on how to keep her consistent from book to book, while also allowing her room to grow.
“It’s not easy,” Stevens says. “I always wonder, ‘Did I do it right? Is this the direction I should have gone with this?’ I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t read reviews. But I still read them. I see what people have to say. Sometimes I feel like I learn as much about my character from what other people have to say about her, as I do from writing her. I don’t always necessarily understand everything about my character. And so sometimes I’ll read a review and someone will describe her a certain way and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah! That’s great. That’s really how she is.’ I’ll come to understand who she is from other people telling me. I guess it’s kind of a symbiotic thing.”
Still, this is the creator’s universe and Vanessa Michael Munroe is the writer’s child.
“Sometimes, I don’t agree with the way people describe her,” Stevens says. “People will say that she has absolutely no emotion and she’s just cold and calculating.” Stevens says the opposite is true. “She feels too deeply and so she tries to shut the world out.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.