Most often when we quote Joan Didion's observation, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," we mean that we impose narratives on the daily disarray of life in order to make some sense of it. But in Taylor Stevens' case, storytelling evolved out of a vacuum of need. Stevens was raised in a cult, deprived of any culture beyond the teachings of the Bible, so she developed a knack for storytelling, a kind of modern Scheherazade. "In my particular case – and that of my friends – we were so deprived of mental stimulation, any form of creative expression, that we found ways to get it on our own, even against the rules. I'm no expert, but from my own personal experience, it would seem that the imagination in the form of stories or art in general helps keep a very important part of our minds alive and flourishing."
This unconventional background won't shock readers of Stevens' cunningly plotted novels – to call her first, The Informationist, a page-turner is like calling the Sistine Chapel a nice bit of interior decorating. Protagonist Vanessa Michael Munroe is a sexy, gun-toting heroine who trades in hard-to-come-by information with street smarts great enough to carry her through any number of despotic African countries, but the task at the heart of follow-up The Innocent hits closer to home for Stevens. Instead of rescuing the daughter of a gas magnate from an arranged marriage, Munroe is hired to extract a kidnapped girl from a cult.
While the novel's specifics differ from Stevens' experience – the kidnapped girl, Hannah, is subject to some particularly brutal abuse – the author, who is now based in Texas, acknowledges that her past plays out more directly in the sequel than in its predecessor. "I was 29 and had two babies by the time I was able to make my break, so although the emotional and mental experience was a mixture of what some of the characters express, the physical circumstances were very different. The Innocent does very much mirror what it was like for me growing up in The Children of God, and is probably as close to writing an autobiography as I will ever get." This personal connection imbues The Innocent with such immediacy that it's sometimes difficult to remember that the book is a sequel. In addition to balaclava-clad stunts, she conveys the alienation of learning to live outside of a cult.
It's hard not to notice a renaissance of ass-kicking female characters lately, most notably those with characters more developed than Lara Croft's cup size. Vanessa Michael Munroe earns her spot in the roll call next to a certain dragon-tattooed individual by virtue of calculated calm and serious self-defense skills. But Stevens doesn't necessarily see the proliferation of lady ass-kickers as any kind of cultural phenomenon: "I haven't yet had the opportunity to read the Dragon Tattoo books or the Hunger Game series, so I can't comment on shared qualities, but I imagine reader response is probably something of a collective gasp for fresh air. In the relatively limited amount of fiction that I've read, strong women – who are truly women and not guys in girl clothes – are sorely underrepresented. I imagine that if, instead, our fiction was dominated by capable, able, successful and brilliant women, and finally, a handful of men with those same qualities showed up, readers would be equally responsive."
Beyond the standard-issue action highlights, Munroe is appealing because she's incredibly competent, which makes one wonder if Stevens herself is the kind of smooth operator who skates through the grocery store or the airport security line free of the muddle and fumble that befalls the rest of us. "Funny you should mention the airport security line, because I've got that sucker perfected. I do find competency and ability, in general, to be a beautiful thing – anyone who's had a customer service rep solve a complicated issue on the first try and wished they could get that person's name and direct number for future reference, knows exactly what I'm talking about."
Taylor Stevens reads from The Innocent at BookPeople Wednesday, Jan. 18, 7pm.
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