Like so many people in the publishing industry, Nita Prose has always had in mind that she might one day turn her hand to write a novel. She has always written, and as part of her role in the publication, she had been a ghostwriter, but never published a book for herself.
But dreams of becoming a writer are a dime a dozen, like ideas for books – they only count when they hold on, and they are easy to miss; they can strike in the most mysterious ways.
“It was only when the idea of the maid struck me that I thought: OK, this idea is just too good to pass up. I want to see if I can do this,” she says in a conversation from her home in Toronto.
Prose was at the London Book Fair for her daily job at Simon and Schuster Canada, where she’s vice president and editor – in – chief, as she hurried back to her hotel room after a meeting “and I was completely terrified of the maid … retiring in a shady corner with a pair of my training pants.
“She looked at me and I looked at her and I thought, what an intimate and invisible job it is to be a maid at a hotel … she knew (intimate details about me) and I knew nothing about her,” says Prose.
The conference continued, and a few days later, on the plane back to Toronto, Prose said, “I could hear Molly’s voice as if it were coming to me. It was crisp, it was polished, it was perfect in the way that Molly is … “This is the first time a character’s voice had arrived in my head fully formed.”
(Yes, the girl’s name is Molly – a hint of the gentle humor throughout the book.)
Prosa grabbed the napkin during her drink and began writing. “I’m your maid. I’m the one who cleans your hotel room who comes in like a phantom when you’re out gallivating for the day, no matter what you’ve left behind, cluttered, or what I can see. , When you are finished.”
Prose did not know it at the time, she said, but she had just begun her debut novel. What she wrote on that napkin was the prologue – just as it is published in the finished book, the one that will now hit the market on January 4th.
When she was home again, she said, she was done in about five months. She was “absolutely” inspired by Agatha Christie, “a master” of the mystery genre. There was also, she says, a “Knives Out,” sense of the story as she wrote, and a little bit of the board game Clue. Her goal, she says, “was to get the reader to guess … at the very basic murder mystery.”
The closed character of the set – a hotel room that turns into a murder scene when one of the hotel’s regular, very wealthy customers is found dead by Molly – gave itself the idea of a mystery. But Prosa would deliver a little more than that. The hierarchical nature of a hotel also hinted at another kind of storytelling: it is a microcosm of the sensibility upstairs / downstairs with highly valued guests on one side and the unseen service workers like Molly on the other, “the invisible people who work. away in ordinary sight. ”
The book was written before the pandemic began – The journey of the process was in the past – but there is a relevance to the narrative and our collective understanding of the service industry and how important it is to our social structure.
The other thing readers will notice right from the start is that there is something a little different about Molly. She does not always read social signals from other people. She may be shaken by the reaction required of her in certain social situations. She is also focused and detail oriented and makes her work to perfection.
“As we move through it,” says Prose, “we discover that it is also a story of grief and loss and of belonging or the lack of the same.”
Molly’s grandmother, with whom Molly lived until she recently died, wanted to guide her through social minefields and tell her how to react in one situation or another. They sat down at the end of the day with a cup of tea – tea pull throughout the book – and went over Molly’s day. Now she is alone, unsure of how to navigate the world, and her grief runs deep.
Prose used to work, in another life, with high school kids with “highly specialized needs.” She experienced that they were treated badly, labeled and judged, and when she took them outside the school environment on trips, “I saw how cruelly they were treated.”
Prose dives into the questions – about diversity, about justice – with a touch as gentle as the humor.
And then, as we read on and more are revealed, little by little about Molly, we get to know her. “I just hope readers come to see how their own assumptions about her are questioned throughout the book.
“I wanted the reader to discover over time, not in the beginning, that her differences could somehow be her greatest strength.”
The gentle tone, compelling narrative and whip-smart plotting have added a debut novel that seems to fall into the category of overnight success – the book was signed in 33 territories, and the film adaptation is already underway with Florence Pugh starring as Molly.
But, says Prose, “I’ve been an understudy for 20 very long years.” She has worked with writers as an editor, so those chops helped her while she wrote. These years of experience also gave her a sense of genre and a sense of structure. Working as a writer, she says, has also made her see her role as an editor in a whole new way. She uses “author blindness” as an example and explains it like this: When a writer starts writing, she steps into a maze. They cannot see the twists; they make choices along the way about how the book should go – “they do not know if they are going this way, they are going to waste six months writing and only come to a dead end.”
The editor, on the other hand, ‘is on top of a ladder, looking down and looking ahead. And together you can really form a very important bond that takes you from the beginning of the book to a final finished manuscript. And wow, have I ever learned a strong lesson about being on earth and what it means and how blind you are as a writer, ”she says.
While Process’s daily job is at Simon & Schuster Canada, she’s being published by Ballantine in the US, Viking in Canada and HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth – following a fierce bidding war between six publishers. She has three editors – one for each area. It’s a collaborative event that is not unusual when books are published in multiple areas and each of her editors, she says, is looking for specific things.
Charlotte Brabbin, her British editor, for example, suggested to Prose that she should give more description to the hotel. “That’s what I mean by author blindness,” she says. There is always a fine line between giving too much description and not allowing the reader to participate “and still have the luxury of using their own imagination and giving them enough to complete the painting of the picture.”
Even before the book was signed, when she finished it and sent it out to agents, she had one in mind: Madeleine Milburn, who, she said, understood the idea of ”uplit,” which is what Prose says she wanted to write. She describes it as “a novel driven by a life-affirming spirit of hope,” or what we might call “feel-good fiction.”
While “The Maid” is a mystery, there was something else Prose says she would drive home.
“It is a mystery that can only be solved through a connection to the human heart. And I wish that hope was what readers take with them when the last page is turned. “