Written in raw, masterful, heart-rending prose, Maid is the story of one woman’s tenacity to survive and break free of the grips of the welfare system to give her child a better life. Stephanie Land’s work gives voice to the working poor. Her compassionate, unflinching writing is fueled by her own struggle as a low-income single mother who aspired to use her stories to expose the reality of pursuing the American Dream while being held below the poverty line. We had a chance to catch up with Stephanie Land and ask her some questions for our Behind the Book series.
What inspired you to put pen to paper and actually write down your experiences? Was there a certain catalyst that made you want to write this book?
I’ve been writing about my experiences since I was 10 years old, but it was almost entirely in a private way by journaling and not allowing anyone to read it. By the time I decided to take writing (and consequentially publishing) seriously, I’d been a daily writer for over 25 years. Maid came from an essay I’d published in Vox that went incredibly viral. I guess from all the interest it was clear that a book was bound to happen!
How was your passion for writing born and when did you decide to turn it into a profession?
When I was in college, I published this tiny blurb in a local magazine. Seeing my name in print was enough to make me jump in this huge leap of faith to pursue writing as a career— even though I still wasn’t quite sure what that meant or looked like. The other moment I look back on is when I was rejected from my college’s MFA program and knew I’d have to grow my platform on my own in order to support a memoir. So I turned to freelancing and getting as many bylines as possible.
You’ve written for many different publications. Do you have a set process for writing? Is there a difference for you between writing for newspapers versus writing Maid?
Most definitely. Op-eds and shorter opinion pieces have a more reactionary pull to them. As in, I usually see or read something that angers me and I react to it, write it, then hopefully publish it. Essay writing and writing the book were similar in mapping out an arc, but in writing the book, I was allowed to slow down a lot; to look around the room and take in everything around me with all the senses, and show the reader what that was like so they could be there with me, too.
This is your debut book what did you learn about the process of crafting a book?
I did the first draft in a first-and-dirty way— writing straight through without looking back until I was completely done. This was probably a good way for me to do this, because at that time, I was full of self-doubt and wracked with insecurity and I think I would have gotten stuck in the weeds too much. When it was done, all there was left to do was editing, revising and rewriting in order to go deeper, which took a better part of a year to do, but I still had the foundation to work off of.
In Maid, you describe many of the hard truths of poverty. Do you have any advice for other people going through similar situations?
Everyone’s situation is different, but what I wish I would have done was admit to my friends how much I was struggling. Though, I’m still not sure the past version of myself would have taken my advice. So what’s easier is being honest and forthcoming with exactly what you need with every advocate you’re in contact with. There are a lot of hidden grants and services that organizations don’t always advertise. One thing I started relying on— which I think still exists in the states— is dialing 4-1-1 for help. There’s almost always a local person on the end of the line who knows what organizations have for resources.
What do you believe are practical ways society can assist those living in poverty?
Not voting for legislation that requires a certain amount of verifiable hours spent working in order to receive benefits! It’s absolutely ridiculous that we continue to require people to work 20 hours a week to qualify for very small amounts of money for food, medical care, housing and child care. If people aren’t willing to get behind that, then we should count the hours spent in school toward work requirements. Parents— especially single parents— should get the benefits they need for their children without constantly having to beg for it. They should be given the benefit of the doubt.
What do you hope readers get from your book?
First, that people in poverty do work very hard. They possibly work harder than anyone else.
What can we expect from Stephanie Land next?
Ha! Well, it looks like I’m on track to be a public speaker, which shocks me. I’ll get back into freelancing, back into writing and I hope to get into advocacy more through organizations like Community Change or websites like Talk Poverty who focus on lifting up voices who have had lived experiences in the margins.
Stephanie Land’s work as a journalist has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice, and Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive is her debut book as well as our 2019 February/March Book Club pick. You can find her on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.