With The Catch, readers find themselves hanging on for dear life as Vanessa Michael Munroe—"the cleverest, fightingest and all-around baddest heroines in contemporary suspense fiction"—takes us to Djibouti for her newest no-holds-barred adventure. Munroe is the unforgettable brainchild of author Taylor Stevens, who has a fascinating backstory of her own: She was born in New York state and into the Children of God, raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Stevens was in her 20s when she broke free, and she now lives in Texas.
It's easy to wonder how much of the inspiration for Munroe came from Stevens' own life. As it turns out, that seems to be the question on everyone's mind. Stevens responds, once and for all:
Whenever I walk into an event—be it a book signing, Q&A or author’s talk—it’s pretty easy to spot the participants who’ve read my biography and at least one book, but haven’t yet interacted with me online or in person. It’s easy because they’re the ones wearing the guarded, concerned looks, subtly checking me out for signs of sanity, as if at worst I might be right on the edge of snapping and at best might need some soothing and comfort.
I suppose, really, this can’t be helped. Unusual characters populate my books, and I’ve led an unusual life. This has resulted in the most frequently asked question: "How much of Vanessa Michael Munroe is based on you?"
At the beginning, this conflation between character and author baffled me. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a hyperpolyglot (someone who speaks more than 12 languages), born and raised in equatorial Africa. She took up with gunrunners at the tender age of 14 and carries the mental and physical scars of a violent adolescence. To plagiarize myself, “the knife became her way to salvation and the missionary’s daughter, made to traverse the valley of the shadow of death, walked out the other side an apex predator.” She’s a chameleon, a hunter, an adrenaline junkie, self-contained, indifferent and shut off from the world—except when she’s not.
Oh that I was so brutally badass. Can you imagine the results I’d get at PTA and HOA meetings? Unfortunately, Munroe and I are nothing alike. Well, except for a hijacked childhood—we do both have wacky backgrounds. Mine had me born and raised in an apocalyptic religious cult, growing up as child labor in cult communes, spending far too much time out begging in the cold, and having my education stopped completely when I was 12.
But I’d made peace with all that long before turning to fiction. I started writing as a way to bring to life a small, paranoid, corrupt country off Africa’s west coast where’d lived for a little over two years. The thought of drawing on my childhood and adolescence for that first tale never even crossed my mind, and if it had, we would have had completely different characters—and probably not very good ones. I’m far too happy and enamored with life to belong in these intense, dark stories. I cry when I see sunsets and hear moving music, smile at everyone, am a total fraidy cat, and am overly empathetic to the point that my heart bleeds out onto my sleeve, which is super embarrassing. In perfect irony, I also hate suspense and violence—can neither watch it on screen nor read it in books—and yet that’s what I write.
Because I’m so opposite the characters that populate these stories, and because Munroe was drawn completely from imagination and snippets of other fictional characters (Jason Bourne and Lara Croft), I couldn’t understand at first how anyone could think she represented a real-life person, much less me. But then it got worse. People I’d never met used my fiction as a way to psychoanalyze the author, going on about my tormented psyche, insisting I was obsessed with violence against women, as if they knew me, as if assuming something about me magically made it true. Offended and insulted, I wondered if they also thought Carrie was based off Stephen King.
Once my skin thickened up a bit, once I realized how completely cool the character and author fusion was, I was able to embrace these assumptions for what they were: the ultimate compliment—proof of good storytelling—because the only way fantasy and reality can blend into such earnest beliefs is if the fiction feels real enough for the reader to assume that it had to have been drawn from real life, somehow.
These days I wear the conflation like a badge of honor, and when people ask me how much of Munroe is based on me, I look them dead in the eye and say, “all of it.”
Taylor Stevens is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of The Informationist, The Innocent and The Doll. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. The Informationist has been optioned for film by James Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Her latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Crown on July 15, 2014.
Author photo credit Alyssa Skyes.