interview by Elane Johnson
If Stephanie Land is not on your radar, you might want to get a new one. Right after you pick up a copy of her blistering-hot memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (Hachette), which chronicles the author’s soul-killing, back-breaking years of cleaning other people’s sprawling houses while she, alone, raised her young daughter in a series of bleak, claustrophobic spaces where flourishing mold and frigid air defined the ambiance. You’ll have no trouble finding the book with the bright yellow rubber gloves on the cover—it’s as ubiquitous as its author, who is currently touring the country (including a pinch-me appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross today) to promote not just her book, but the exigent and necessary message of her story: People in poverty deserve empathy not contempt.
A couple of years ago, I read a Vox essay, “I Spent Two Years Cleaning Houses. What I Saw Made Me Never Want to Be Rich,” by Stephanie Land. The comment section had become a trollfest, a fetid onslaught of spittled hatred, partly because of the click-bait headline; but, primarily because there are an awful lot of people who believe that anyone who receives government assistance deserves vitriol. (An “awful lot.” Yes.)
The controversy, though, propelled Land’s essay to “viral” status and then into the hands of an esteemed Folio Literary agent, who secured a dream-come-true book deal for Maid. Swoon. I asked Stephanie a dozen questions about her path from struggling beneath the poverty line to (soon-to-be bestselling) author, about her message and mission, about those hideous Internet trolls, about how her life has changed, and about how readers—our community—can affect change, too, so that we lift people out of the mire instead of stomping them further down.
EJ: Kathryn Livingston asked you in an interview for PW how your life has changed since the book deal, and you mentioned, “I’ve even noticed that I stand up straighter,” which is meaningful on many levels. You’re living proof of how a person’s very existence affects her physically, mentally, emotionally, and professionally—really in uncountable ways. Then, you also noted that you believe “poverty to success” stories are rare: “I think there’s a huge gap between no longer qualifying for benefits and being able to afford a life without benefits.”
That gap is a scary area. How can we—society, individuals, specific groups?—help to bridge that gap so that people attempting to climb out of poverty can stand a bit straighter on the way to success? (Such as the marvelous Dress for Success, which provides appropriate business wear, career development, and support to women in need who are trying to obtain work.)
Stephanie Land: The answer to that, to me, is simple: shrink the gap by not voting for legislation that shrinks safety net programs to nothing anyone can survive on. Dress for Success, free haircuts, and all that pampering is a good start in standing a little straighter, but for me it goes much deeper than outward appearances. I stood up straighter because I was literally a half inch taller. I could afford to exercise, improving my core muscles, and straightening the spine that had curved so much from scoliosis I’d shrunk an inch. I stood up straighter because I could afford therapy, because I was never hungry, and had a warm bed and house to sleep in. I stood up straighter because I had the clothes, the regular haircuts, and knew how to speak and act in professional situations. Which was all an incredibly new thing for me at 40 years old, and I felt like an imposter half the time, but the more people told me they thought I was a good writer, the more I believed them.
EJ: What would’ve helped you to feel more confident when you were struggling?
Stephanie Land: Getting paid a wage that allowed me to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Benefits like health insurance. Not having to sink as low as begging for resources that people acted as if their tax dollars from all of their hard work paid for.
EJ: What change(s) do you hope to see through the awareness that Maid will inevitably facilitate?
Stephanie Land: That poor people work, plain and simple. Much of the “welfare reform” since Clinton killed welfare programs and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has been focused on a tagline that is “welfare to work.” Something like 45% of people on food stamps are households with at least one person working, and 70% of families who use food pantries have children in the home. This is not laziness. These are working people trying to feed themselves and their children.
EJ: When your Vox essay went viral, and Jeff Kleinman contacted you to ask if you had a book in the works, did you actually have a book going, or did you just recognize the opportunity and launch into overdrive to deliver?
Stephanie Land: Yeah, I mean, I had a book in the works, but it was nothing like the one I ultimately published. I’d just graduated from an undergraduate writing program, where I’d never written anything longer than 15 pages, so I wanted to publish a book of chronological essays. Don’t we all? Ha. But when Jeff asked for a few chapters I very quickly scrambled to write them. So yes. I lied. (Sorry Jeff.)
EJ: Speaking of viral, because so much writing is online now, I have questions:
In your Cutbank interview with Amanda Wingus, you said of your early blog writing, “I discovered this online community of people who also wrote in their darkest hours, sharing their days to feel less alone.” First, how did you discover the writing community?
Stephanie Land: I started what I thought of as an online journal on WordPress, and publicly published the posts. After a while, other people doing the same left comments, and I’d read what they’d written. A few reached out to me and sent Mia clothes and toys.
EJ: Second, how did you reach readers for your writing? Or did your readership grow only after your Vox essay?
Stephanie Land: In the beginning, it was simply posting the link of whatever I’d written on Facebook. Before the Vox piece went viral, I’d been writing for Mamalode magazine for several years. I had a few other bylines: The Huffington Post, Literary Mama, and Scary Mommy, too, and a few of those had garnered a lot of attention. I’m not sure how much my readership grew after the housecleaning essay went viral, but it nearly knocked down the door in my ability to pitch pieces to editors who held the access to more readers.
EJ: Also, because the online world allows people a sort of hidden identity to say and do and be things with little worry about consequences, you’ve experienced trolls. Would you say that you’re developing a thicker skin in your reactions or feelings when readers lob criticism or even outright vitriol your way?
Stephanie Land: It always hurts. Sometimes it’s really scary. I have a thicker skin but I’m also a little smarter about what I put out there as far as personal information or, say, where my kids spend much of their time. What sucks is the fundamental change in my view of humanity. I see a MAGA hat and I assume they’ve filled out the contact form on my website to personally call me a cunt. Or that my children should be taken from me. Or whatever else they’ve written to tell me about. I don’t believe people are good by default, and that’s hard.
EJ: You wrote much about your family and Mia’s father in Maid. How are they handling your success and the fact that your story is about to be everywhere?
Stephanie Land: I really don’t know. I haven’t spoken to much of my family in at least five years and I don’t think my name or the book comes up in conversation very much. I don’t know if Mia’s dad will ever read the book, and if he does it’s because someone tipped him off. He has always said he’ll never read anything I write. I’m not sure why. He was angry I went to college and became a writer, I think. But he told me that six years ago. I have no idea what he thinks about my success now.
After such a serious set of questions, I finally played nice and asked the easy stuff!
EJ: Are there any authors who have influenced your writing?
Stephanie Land: Oh yes. I studied almost everything Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck wrote about their philosophies on writing, and what it was like to actually put it to practice. I carried around books by David James Duncan like an old friend for much of my twenties. I also snatched up every debut memoir by a female author that I could.
EJ: What is your writing day like?
Stephanie Land: Well, I have two kids so there’s no real schedule. I try to block out days and prepare for them by making sure there’s food, even food I’ve made in advance, and that the house is relatively clean. I can afford for my youngest to go to daycare full-time, so that helps a lot, but I only have from 9 to 4 to get all of my unpaid and paid work done AND shower AND eat AND exercise if I’m in the mood or able. Time slips by pretty fast. If I have a piece that’s due, I’ll usually think about it for a while, then jot down an outline or paragraph summary, and once the opening line comes (usually in the shower) the rest of the piece flows out quickly.
EJ: What are you reading right now?
Stephanie Land: I mostly read essays that are published online. I love Longreads and The Rumpus and those types. I just read Deep Creek by Pam Houston and was amazed as I always am by her ability to write in a voice she could have spoken herself.
EJ: What’s next? Do you have any writing projects on the horizon?
Stephanie Land: Oh, I can’t wait to get back into freelancing and writing angry op-eds. But I’m looking forward to mentoring and teaching more, too.
Writing angry op-eds. That made me laugh. But then I realized that it’s a sorrowful truth that we so often have to get mad and raise our voices to make our world better. Fortunately for us all, stories like Ms. Land’s inspire us to check our disdain, to see the struggle from a more accurate perspective, and—most of all—never to give up. Thank you, Stephanie.
AUTHOR PHOTO: by Nicol Biesek