Cult fiction

arts@sfbg.com


LIT I read a lot of thrillers. Mysteries, murder, international intrigue, weird pulp crime … I’ve been addicted since I was in high school and discovered John D. McDonald, Alistair McLean, and Trevanian. These days, I live by James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, and John Lescroart.


And I just found the best new thriller writer, and the best new character, to come along since Mr. Child invented Jack Reacher. The writer’s name is Taylor Stevens, her character is Vanessa Michael Munroe, and the first book of what I hope will be a continuing series is called The Informationist (Crown, 307 pages, $23).


Buy it. It’s amazing. And when Stevens is as big as Patterson, you can say you helped discover her.


V. M. Munroe is an awesome protagonist. She ran away from her missionary parents as a teen to sign on with one of Africa’s most notorious gunrunners, and now she deals in information — secrets somebody wants but almost nobody can find.


The book’s set in Central Africa, where Munroe has been hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Texas oil billionaire.


By the way: she’s skinny, slight, and a total fucking badass who rides a Ducati and effortlessly beats the shit out of the poor losers who try to accost her at a gas station. She speaks 22 languages. She’s the first trans thriller lead, too, a person who slips effortlessly from female to male. Of course, she’s got personal demons, and part of the back story is her battle to silence them. By the end of the second chapter, I had written this in my notes: “I love Vanessa already. Nobody else like her on the literary scene. Nobody.”


The plot is tight, the characters come alive, the sex is fun and intense sometimes but not overdone. The scene at the end involving a sniper, a knife fight, and a stunning decapitation (tell you more and I’ll ruin a gut-wrenching chapter) as good as anything I’ve read in years.


Unlike a lot of thriller authors, Stevens can write. Check it out:


The details of the case ran through her head, and with them came the memories. It was another life, another world, untamed and vast, where stretches of two-lane tarmac ran vein-like through sub-Saharan emptiness, and buses — old, rusting, belching black smoke — pumped the blood of humanity along the way.


And this from a woman who has a sixth-grade education.


Seriously. One of the most amazing things about Stevens is that she grew up in a cult in Central Africa, wasn’t allowed to go beyond basic education, and wasn’t allowed to read books.


I caught up with her in February; here are some excerpts from our talk.


SFBG Tell me a little about your background and how you came to write this book.


Taylor Stevens I was born into and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult. That’s the only world I knew. It was very secluded; all our interactions with what went on outside the community were accompanied by an adult cult member. We didn’t have access to TV; books were almost nonexistent; we didn’t listen to the radio. My entire world was framed within the context of the cult.


SFBG When did you get out?


TS I didn’t get out until I was in my late 20s. I was quite afraid to leave, not of what the cult would do to me, but of what God would do to me. My ex husband — then my husband — and I took a long time to plan how to get out because we didn’t want to end up like some other cult members who had left with no education, no money, no career, on the streets. We had a baby at the time. The group didn’t believe in education. The standard acceptance was sixth-grade education.


SFBG So where did you learn to write?


TS It’s a big mystery, huh? Like my main character, I guess, I absorb languages — at least I absorbed English. I had to teach myself.


The ultimate inspiration came from reading Robert Ludlum, one of the first authors I read, and it was quite by accident. After we made it to the United States, we were so broke, we were living — a family of four — on $13 an hour. I would buy books at garage sales because it was so cheap, then I would sell them again and use the money to buy more books. The first book I read was The Holcroft Covenant. It was so much beyond anything I’d seen before in reading, so I started reading Ludlum voraciously. I found The Bourne Identity and started reading it, and when I was reading The Bourne Ultimatum I was amazed by these places and people. I said to myself, “I wish I could write about all these exotic settings.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve lived in places far more exotic than this.”


I’ve always wanted to write, but the cult would never let me write. I got in horrible trouble growing up and trying to write.


SFBG So did you just sit down and start working on The Informationist?


TS That was the first thing I wrote. I had dabbled when I was 15, but I had all my stuff taken and burned. I figured that if I’m going to write, I’d


better learn something about writing. So I bought a couple of used books on writing fiction and I learned from those.


SFBG In this genre of thriller fiction, there aren’t a lot of female protagonists. Was that something you were thinking about?


TS No, because I had no idea. I didn’t know what was out there at all. Even to this day, I’m not very widely read. I’ve read maybe 250 books. I just wrote what made sense to me.


SFBG One of the interesting things about Vanessa is that she has something of a trans element to her. Sometimes she’s Vanessa and sometimes she’s Michael. How did you come up with that?


TS When I first started writing this book, it didn’t have any plot. I just wanted to use Africa as my setting. Jason Bourne was my ideal because I wanted a character who was tormented — not the ideal good guy or good girl, because life doesn’t work like that. Right while I was reading the Ludlum books, I saw the Tomb Raider movies, back to back, and what I loved about Lara Croft was that, while she was a bit of a caricature, she was very sexual, very feminine on every level. I didn’t want my character to lose her femininity in her badassery.


As far as playing the role of a male, in my experience in having lived in some of these countries, it’s completely implausible that you would have a woman be able to go in there and root around and get what she needed. It wouldn’t happen. So the only way she could do it is if she could pull herself off as a man.


SFBG I’m not going to give away too much of the plot, but the subplot of her coming from of a background where she was living at 14 with a gunrunner, there is a certain parallel with you.


TS Her life and my life are not at all similar. But to understand her pain and the frustrations she went through — there’s no way to create that without living with it. I did draw on the sense of emotions my friends and I grew up with. We didn’t have a happy childhood, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure that emotional torment, because it’s very real.


SFBG They’re going to make a movie out of this book, and I’m thinking if they stay true to the scene at the end with the decapitation, you’re going to have a hard time getting even an R rating. I read a lot of thrillers, and I’ve rarely seen such a graphically brutal thing. It’s brilliant, and it’s gut-wrenching. Where did that come from?


TS It just made sense. This person already straddles a fine line between brilliance and insanity. And for her to lose the only one person who loves her for what she was, in such an arbitrary manner, there was no other way she could respond.


SFBG I hope there’s a sequel.


TS It’s already written. And I use my background in a more direct way — and there’s a third book I’m working on now. And if I’m given an opportunity, I hope there will be much more of Michael Munroe.