Taylor Stevens used a stormy childhood to write a series of spine-tingling books, and she’ll explain how during Friday’s Mansfield Reads.
The 11th annual Friends of the Mansfield Library event feature Steven’s debut book, “The Informationist,” the first in her series about the adventures of Vanessa Michael Munroe, an undercover operative who uses her skills to help people in trouble.
“When I began to write what would eventually become ‘The Informationist,’ the first in what has since become a 5 1/4 book series, I was really just looking for a way to bring to life a little spec on the map off the west coast of Africa called Equatorial Guinea, where I’d lived for a little over two years,” Stevens said via email. “The character of Vanessa Michael Munroe was born from the circumstances I threw her into.”
Stevens, who now lives in the Metroplex, knows about unique experiences.
“She’s pretty much self-educated,” Friends president Carol Grantham said of Stevens. “She was born into a cult and they only allowed her to go to school through the sixth grade. She’s clearly very intelligent and very well educated. I think everybody will be hanging on every word. Most of us have no inkling of what her life was like. Her second book (The Innocent) is pretty much the story of her life, about a teen-ager being rescued from a cult.”
Writing is not something that the New York Times best-selling author studied before she began “The Informationist.”
“I’d never taken a writing course, had hardly read but maybe 30 novels at that point in time,” she said. “My adolescence was spent as unpaid child labor in the communes of the apocalyptic cult into which I was born and raised. Separated from my parents at age 12 (which was also when my education stopped completely), the days were filled with washing laundry or cooking for hundreds at a time, taking care of the younger children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of the leaders.”
Her upbringing did give her a source for her stories, though.
“Being raised differently has certainly allowed me to see the world from a different perspective and that does lend to characters and locations that veer away from what’s common in mainstream USA,” she said. “I suppose this could be seen as a help in writing, but ‘help’ in this sense is rather relative. Struggling to make up for the educational lacks hasn’t been easy and, while I’m by no means the most successful of those I grew up with, many of my childhood compatriots are dead from suicide, drug overdose, reckless self-harming behavior and such. I consider myself fortunate that I was driven to achieve instead of to self-destruct. It could have gone either way.”
“The Informationist” follows Munroe, a chameleon who goes where others cannot, as she tries to find the step-daughter of a Texas millionaire who has been missing in Africa for four years.
“She is able to be different people depending on what the situation is,” Grantham said. “She can be a beautiful sexy woman or she can be a man.”
In some places, being a man is the only way to get information, Stevens said.
“I’ve personally experienced many of the cultures through which Munroe navigates and most of them aren’t very progressive in their views on women,” she said. “There would be no way possible for her to do what she does if she only looked and acted like a woman, so her chameleon nature was a direct response to the unfortunate realities of the world as it really is.”
So how can Mansfield readers relate?
“I wrote the story to invite readers who would never have an opportunity to visit these off the map places in real life to experience them with me from the safe distance of their armchairs,” Stevens said. “With ‘The Informationist’ in particular, and also ‘The Catch,’ which comes out in July, we sort of ended up with travelogues cleverly disguised as action-adventure stories. Readers who would like to experience an immersion in an unfamiliar foreign culture will probably enjoy these stories even more than those who merely want the adrenaline rush of a thriller.”
Just having a thriller was a change Mansfield Reads, Grantham said.
“That’s one of the reasons we picked this book, we’ve never done a thriller before,” she said. “It’s suspenseful, it keeps you on the edge of your seat.”
Readers will get a chance to meet the author, ask questions and have their books signed at Friday’s event. Admission is free, but reservations are required and space is limited. The library only has space for about 125 and the event usually fills up.
“There are very few seats left, make reservations right away,” Grantham advises.
For reservations, go to www.friendsofmansfieldlibrary.org.