Photo Courtesy of Madeline Stevens
Author: Madeline Stevens
"Madeline Stevens is a writer from Boring, Oregon currently based in Los Angeles. Her first novel Devotion is newly available in the US and Canada from Ecco Press as of August 13, 2019. Devotion will also be published by Faber & Faber in the UK and translated into six languages. Madeline holds an MFA from Columbia University and her work has been published in a variety of literary magazines. She teaches creative writing to adults and children through Catapult and Writopia Lab."
1. Where did the idea for this story come from and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Working long hours as a nanny on the Upper East Side as well as other wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, it was difficult to not become more and more absorbed into that strange world. Likely because I was white and educated I was often treated with an unfair amount of trust and intimacy.
I was let in on gossip, given alcohol, invited to parties. Talking to other moms I would feel more like I was play-acting as a mother than working as a nanny. I thought this weird in-between role—half-family member, half servant—would make good material.
I also wanted to think about the darker side of female friendship, the envy and perversion I often experienced, sometimes inside my job but also outside of it.
I hope the book raises questions of trust and consent as well as privilege and victimization.
2. If the roles were reversed, could you see Lonnie making some of the similar advances that Ella does?
Lonnie and Ella are doubles of each other, and would probably act the same way if reversed. Ella just has such a chip on her shoulder about being from a different background that she doesn’t realize how similar they are. This is her major failing.
3. Ella tends to be an unlikeable character, how were you able to write her character in a way that readers are compelled to continue following her journey as the narrator?
I wasn’t concerned about likeability. Often our least likable traits are the most interesting. I also think, perversely, we only tend to talk about this with female characters.
Male characters are “complex” or “tortured” and female ones are “unlikeable.” This is probably why we’ve had such an explosion of female characters with questionable morals as of late—in response to this conversation.
I wanted the reader to feel the same way about Ella that Ella feels about Lonnie: you are certainly never meant to like her, but you are meant to be inexplicably attracted to her. One thing I was conscious of was treating both Ella and Lonnie with respect. I love “unlikeable” women, but I don’t like authors who seem to be making fun of their characters as they write them.
4. Jealousy and envy are two of the biggest themes in this story. But it also seems that Ella does have some form of obsession with Lonnie. Do you think Ella truly loved Lonnie or hated her?
Hate and love are so wrapped up in each other, and the difference between being in love and being obsessed with someone is so slight. I wanted to explore the blurriness of these boundaries.
5. Overall, what was your writing process like for this book?
The book took me about six years to get to a point where I felt okay enough about it to send it to agents, mostly because I was working so much to survive. I was a nanny for several families around New York City while I wrote, spending my nights and weekends plugging away slowly. I also finished some of the best bits during nap times — that one tiny blessed window where caregivers of small children have a chance to sit down.
6. Being that this is your debut novel, can you talk a little bit about your process for getting this book published?
I wrote one novel at Columbia, where I went to grad school but wasn’t able to find representation for it. When I was wondering what to do after a good number of rejections I emailed Emily Barton, a past professor, who told me I needed to sit with myself for five minutes or five months and ask myself if that book was how I wanted to make my debut.
I knew as soon as I read her email it wasn’t so I shelved the book. It took some time to move past that project, and when I started writing Devotion I was coming from a somewhat embittered and disappointed perspective, which ironically seemed to feed into my writing in an interesting way.
When I was finally ready to send Devotion to agents, I was prepared for a very long wait and a lot of rejection since that had been my previous experience. It was a complete shock to receive an acceptance within two days.
7. What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
Everyone’s writing process is different. I try to make very achievable weekly word count goals. They’re often quite low so I’m celebrating going over them instead of beating myself up about being unproductive. I try not to worry too much about how big of a mess my first drafts are.
Devotion went through eight drafts (plus copy edits and proofreads!), so there’s always time to “fix it in post.” I also like to do little magic things: keep crystals next to my computer, take a sip of my witchy “Brain Tonic” herbal supplement, burn a candle.
8. What’s the best book you have read in 2019 thus far?
Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully came out from Indie feminist press Dottir this spring, and I’m so enamored with it. Karen is in my writing group so I’ve been rooting for her book’s success for a long time and couldn’t be more proud of her.
I’m also in the middle of Helen Phillips’s The Need right now and am totally engrossed.
9. Do you plan on writing more books in the future?
I’m pretty far into the first draft of my next book already! It’s another literary suspense story, quite different from Devotion, but I won’t say anything else yet!
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