White-collar service, with blue-collar pay

Author who inspired hit Netflix series ‘Maid’ still struggles with feeling ‘home’

Laura Jean Schneider
ljschneider@ptleader.com
Posted 10/14/21

 

 

Writer Stephanie Land, who set the opening of her 2019 memoir in Port Townsend, is having her moment in the sun.

And it’s about damn time.

“Maid: Hard Work, Low …

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White-collar service, with blue-collar pay

Author who inspired hit Netflix series ‘Maid’ still struggles with feeling ‘home’

Posted

 

 

Writer Stephanie Land, who set the opening of her 2019 memoir in Port Townsend, is having her moment in the sun.

And it’s about damn time.

“Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” leapt to number three on The New York Times Bestseller’s List.

And Oct. 1, Netflix launched the limited series “Maid,” where it continues to vie for the number-one show in the nation on the streaming platform.

With her sudden rise to notoriety, it’s easy to imagine that Land has transcended the challenges of being a single mom and maid.

But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Right after the pandemic hit, she and her husband and their blended family of four children were booted from their rental in Missoula, Montana so the owners could sell the house.

Earlier in the week, Land admitted she was “super, super lucky” to find a different house to purchase for her own family shortly after. Agents had received 40 to
50 sight-unseen offers for the place.

The other day, Land said, she panicked when the smoke detectors went off, thinking the worst.

One of the kids had somehow started a potato on fire in the microwave.

That anxiety may never disappear for Land.

“Housing security is one thing I don’t think I’ll have 100 percent,” she admitted.

“I’ve learned stuff can go wrong fast.”

She also feels the pressure of being financially responsible for the household.

“I’m the sole breadwinner,” she said. “I feel, like, a precariousness.”

BASED IN PORT TOWNSEND

But long before the fame was Land’s literally gritty story of survival.

Before the 2008 recession, she’d returned to her home-state of Washington from Alaska, where she spent most of her childhood.

“I still consider myself an Alaskan at heart,” she said during a phone interview early this week.

With an affinity for Carhartts and tattoos, a good live band, and a craft beer, she found Port Townsend a welcome place to settle for a while.

She worked at several local businesses, landscaped, cleaned, met a guy who lived in a trailer, and fell in love.

However, things went downhill when Land discovered she was pregnant.

“In choosing to the keep the baby, I was choosing to stay in Port Townsend,” she wrote in her memoir.

So she ripped up the application to a creative writing program in Missoula, Montana, where she’d been awarded a scholarship.

She’d do the mom thing, through and through.

But her partner, Jamie, started getting abusive.

The recession of 2008 hit. For the first time in her life, Land couldn’t find a job.

Without childcare or any real family support, Land and her young daughter wound up at a domestic violence shelter in Port Townsend without any money or resources. 

Things were awfully bleak.

In the pages of her memoir, she writes: “We lived, we survived, in careful imbalance.”

FINDING AN AUDIENCE

Land moved to Stanwood in 2009,  juggling government assistance with working as a maid and caring for her daughter, all the while taking college classes online to earn a degree.

She’d determined once more that school was important.

“I needed a college education to become a contributing member of society,” she said.

Inspired to become a lawyer by the legal aid she received when down-and-out, she started toward a paralegal degree. But the draw back to Missoula to complete an English degree would eventually win out.

“I tried to write the book in character,” she explained. “I not only wrote the first draft completely from memory, I wanted to write it from where I was at the time.”

“I wish I would have talked about my privilege,” Land said, a bit ruefully. Even though her memoir is essentially the diary of a woman working a job no one else wants, depending on government assistance, and living under scrutiny by her ex, she said most people in housekeeping are people of color.

There is a definite distinction between the diversity in the memoir, and the Netflix series.

And that, Land said, was intentional.

“I made a very deliberate choice of producers,” she said. After interviewing nine or so teams, she hit gold.

“I love what John Wells and Margot Robbie had to say,” she said.

“I don’t even think in fiction,” she said, referring to the idea to turn the story into a teleplay. 

“I absolutely love it.”

‘GHOST OF A FORMER SELF’

Wells, who directed “Shameless,” and “The West Wing,” and Robbie, whose production company LuckyChap Entertainment just celebrated a 2021 Oscar win for “Promising Young Women,” proposed filming in Victoria and suggested including a more nuanced cultural landscape.

“What the real world looks like,” Land added.

Molly Smith Metzler, known for her work with “Orange is the New Black,” created all 10 episodes for “Maid.”

The lead, “Alex,” is played by Margaret Qualley, the real-life daughter of Andie MacDowell, who plays Alex’s mother, “Paula.”

In Land’s book, her mother is nearly absent from her life and lives in another country. But MacDowell plays a convincing Port Townsend caricature, and the chemistry between mother and daughter is fascinating to watch.

Whether absorbing the pages of her memoir, or watching the fictionalized account unfurl, a discomfiting theme rises to the surface: loneliness.

Even as Land works her body into a physical wreck, there is no one to comfort her broken body, to wheedle her out of the bed in the morning, and prepare her for the dictated rhythm of survival.

“After a while, my fingers began to crack along the sides,” she writes.

“I reeked of ammonia, bleach, and that powdered shit we sprinkled on the carpet before vacuuming.”

“I was so incredibly lonely, and I was so isolated,” Land said, before stepping away from the phone to drink a glass of water. She was recovering from being sick, and intermittent bursts of coughing punctuated the conversation.

“I found a lot of comfort just from a house, especially the bathtub,” she added.

A heart-rending scene from the series depicts the “emotional support” Land referenced, in a white porcelain tub.

“I deep clean my bathroom,” she said, when she’s stressed out.

“It’s something I [can] do while my brain works out something,” she added, a smile in her voice.

QUESTIONING THE SYSTEM

While she’s writing for a living these days, Land is a lifetime advocate for housekeepers. She pointed out that many maids lost their housecleaning clients after the pandemic hit, and even when things relaxed, many weren’t hired back.

If, say, a maid was working under the table for cash, they wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment because there would be no record of their income. (While Land did this sometimes to supplement her on-the-books jobs, when she started her own housecleaning business, she kept her books and reported her income. “It’s a lot of extra work,” she said.)

Additionally, she pointed out that electronic benefits transfer, or EBT cards – the modern version of food stamps – are allocated funding based on income, so an entire family could suffer from untaxed wages.

“Seventy percent of people on food stamps are working fathers and mothers,” she said.

Land urges people who hire housekeepers to pay them in a way that allows them to track and prove their income.

To tip them generously, and to feed them. It wasn’t so long ago that she was in their ranks.

Land has sold a second book to an imprint of Random House. Called “Class,” it’s an unflinching look at how the education system is stacked against low income people.

“The book has changed as the climate has changed,” she said.

While fame has found Land, she’s humble about her accomplishments.

“I kind of fell into writing,” she said.

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