Stephanie Land has a lot of work to do, promoting her bestselling book “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” though it couldn’t be more different than the work her book details.
“Maid” follows the Missoula author through a period of her life that started when she put college plans on hold because of an unplanned pregnancy. To take care of her daughter, Land works as a maid, cleaning houses for $9 an hour, living on government assistance in an apartment with black mold.
All of the advance press, which started in 2018 and has included outlets like the Boston Globe, Vulture and Time Magazine, initially made Land suspicious.
“Why do you like this book?” she would wonder.
A week after its release, “Maid” landed at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list and has continued to garner accolades and attention from Soledad O’Brien, Terry Gross and the director Mark Duplass, who recently tweeted that he bought 50 copies to give away.
“I’m starting to get people are connected to this book in some way,” Land said. “There’s a lot of elements to this book that are really universal in nature.”
Land eventually gained sole custody of her daughter and moved to Missoula, where she focused on creative writing and graduated, all while still cleaning houses and landscaping. She has a second daughter and stabilizes her income somewhat through freelance writing.
The book has been compared to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” and Ehrenreich wrote the foreword for “Maid.”
“With luck, you have never been in Stephanie’s world,” Ehrenreich wrote. “You will see that it’s ruled by scarcity. There is never enough money and sometimes not enough food; peanut butter and ramen noodles loom large; McDonald’s is a rare treat. Nothing is reliable in this world —not cars, not men, not housing.”
Land details the hook of her memoir — cleaning houses — in arresting detail, sharing nicknames for houses (the “sad house” and the “porn house” are two very different places) and the rare positive relationship with an employer, like Henry, who gave her relationship advice along with a couple of fresh lobsters.
Very few of her former house owners have reached out about the book, Land said, but she wasn’t particularly bothered whether they felt shamed into contacting her.
Attendees of her reading at Shakespeare & Co. on Feb. 5 (she'll be reading again at Fact & Fiction on Feb. 21) asked about her being recognized, hoping for some closure for Land. She had to disappoint them.
“It would be nice to hear from people who were nice to me,” she admitted. “As far as anyone else, I don’t care. It was a job.”
Just a job, like living on a constant cycle of government aid was just life. In early drafts of her book, Land would skip over the weeks-long applications for food stamps or federally funded housing.
Her editor would push, asking what happened between living in the homeless shelter and finding an apartment.
“For me, that was like talking about what I had for breakfast,” she said. “It just wasn’t interesting at all.”
It took focus for her to remember those details, which Land said she had partially blocked out, due to the constant stress they induced.
“I couldn’t afford to plan ahead,” she continued. “I think I wanted to forget about all of that.
“Now, I am obviously living a much more privileged life. There’s a giant package of toilet paper from Costco sitting in my garage right now, which is weird.”
Compare that to Land’s detailing grocery shopping in “Maid,” which involved packets of Top Ramen that she would supplement with whatever fresh vegetables and deli meats were on sale.
That was at the beginning of the month, she wrote. By the end, “I bought the cheaper bread and no-frills crackers, the jam I knew was full of sugar, artificial ingredients and high-fructose corn syrup and not much else, which I had to feed my growing daughter anyway.
“Mia, thankfully, never seemed to notice, since I was always the one who ate less.”
Now Land would like to continue with freelancing (her main avenue of published writing before the book deal), though there will eventually be a follow-up to “Maid” as well, maybe focused on chronic fatigue syndrome.
But freelancing has some perks now — where before she’d desperately follow up with editors day after day to see if anyone wanted to pay for her story, now she has outlets coming to her.
“I have a choice now, whether to say yes or no.”
Land chose creative writing over other majors, according to a 2016 Missoulian article, because she thought she could “reach more people with writing than I could with advocacy.”
Now, she’s getting a chance to do both.
A ticketed event in Dallas sent proceeds from her reading to a nonprofit called CitySquare, which works to help those in poverty. Another event gave money to Vermont Works for Women, a job training service for women.
Land’s a part of a Community Change event in Washington, D.C., next month with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, who recently announced his presidential campaign.
“That has been a really neat part of this for sure,” she said. “I’m really happy that this book just gives me a bigger platform.”
The life of a bestselling author is still strange to Land though, who shared stories of meeting idols like Gross and shaking throughout the interview, to having to turn down an Irish radio station’s interview request because it had to be live on the air — at 3 a.m. Montana time.
The 12-hour days, however, aren’t new.
“Thankfully, I’m used to being exhausted,” she laughed.
And coming back to Montana and doing readings in Missoula and Bozeman has been a treat, she said. At this week's reading, Land told the standing-room-only audience she would forgo reading the usual excerpt, and instead read from a chapter describing her first visit to Missoula.
“I have a sense of family here, and it takes a lot for me to say that,” she said. “I think it worked out pretty well in the end.”