A Conversation with Stephanie Land
by Amanda Wilgus
Stephanie Land, the first local author to read for the 2nd Wind Reading Series back in September, is a powerhouse graduate of the University of Montana. I was fortunate to become familiar with Stephanie’s work in 2014, shortly after I’d moved to Los Angeles, when Stephanie’s article, “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich,” went viral on Vox. I recognized Stephanie’s observations from domestic work, and her articles about economic justice helped me feel seen from across the country. I believe she will bring innumerable people out from invisibility by being their beacon through her forthcoming memoir, MAID.
Stephanie’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Salon, Cosmopolitan and other publications. Her essays include “Classism in ‘Clean’ Eating,” “Minimalism, a Movement for the Elite,” “The Class Politics of Decluttering,” “Free Range Parenting is a Privilege for the Rich and White,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom,” “It’s Easier to Have a ‘Spirited’ Child if You’re White” and “Cultural Appropriation in Kid Costumes,” as well as articles about chronic fatigue syndrome.
Stephanie was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me, conducted over email. We in the Missoula community are eagerly anticipating MAID’s arrival from Hachette Books in January 2019.
Amanda Wilgus: I’ve read you’ve wanted to be a writer since you were 10. What inspired you then? What inspires you now?
Stephanie Land: I had a teacher that year named Mr. Birdsall who had a constant focus on getting us to write. We wrote in journals, wrote short stories, and wrote stories for classmates' birthdays. I asked for a diary for Christmas that year, and wrote almost daily into my late 20s, then the nerve damage in my arm became so bad from scoliosis I started an online journal that I published and eventually it became more of a blog. I started it because I had so much in me to write about creatively and felt I needed to share it. I discovered this online community of people who also wrote in their darkest hours, sharing their days to feel less alone. Besides it being my nature, that's why I still write. I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone. As Hannah Gadsby brilliantly said it recently, "Because what I would have done to have heard a story like mine."
AW: How has Missoula shaped you as a person and writer?
SL: Coming to Missoula was a bit of a returning home to how living in Alaska felt to me—a bunch of friendly folks appreciating and loving the place they live in. It's so darn friendly and huggy here! I forget that sometimes when I find myself too caught up in work or life and don't get out as much as I should. Living in a place with such a strong writing community made me unafraid to call myself a writer. I wanted to be a writer more than anything after seeing so many on stage.
AW: Could you tell us about your experience after your Vox article about cleaning houses went viral?
SL: I remember walking around feeling like the sky was going to fall on me. It was my first paid article, and the first time anyone had paid any real attention to something I wrote. I received so many hateful comments and emails through my website I thought for sure the whole world hated me. My skin felt raw. I thought for sure someone was going to jump out of the bushes and call me a cockroach or a vermin or spit on me. The Internet can become a scary place very quickly. Sometimes I'm thankful I went through that at the very beginning, because I'd encounter even worse comment sections over the years. But it's never fun, or good, or something I would wish on anyone. I think in some ways it still affects me heavily.
AW: What has been the most surprising aspect of acquiring a book deal?
SL: Everything about it has been surprising. I didn't think my publisher — the folks who have edited, ushered, and supported this book — would feel like family. They all line up in the front row of any event I speak at in New York with these huge smiles on their faces, just like I'd imagine a family would, and it's the greatest feeling.
AW: Could you see yourself writing investigative journalism outside of your personal experience or transplanting to another location? And/or do you have anything planned after the publication of MAID?
SL: I'm a freelance writer and a teacher, and I'm still doing those things. I'll always keep writing in some way or another. This is not only my dream job, it's the only one I have ever really seen myself doing.
AW: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
SL: Write! And read. Preferably at the same time. I have an entire shelf full of journals — there must be 30 or so — and I think that daily practice of sort of puking onto the page helped me turn writing into a natural reflex and helped me find my voice. Voice is so important and is what makes us unique. I don't think you find it unless you force yourself to talk a lot.
“I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone.”
AW: What’s a piece of advice that’s kept you going?
SL: Well, it's a quote by Ernest Hemingway that I was never able to find proof of him actually saying. Natalie Goldberg said he did, so I went as far to get it tattooed on my arm years ago after writing it on the front page of all of my journals: "Write hard and clear about what hurts."
AW: Best writing playlist?
SL: Hm. I had a pretty specific playlist for working on the book. It had a lot of This Will Destroy You, AltJ, and Death Cab for Cutie. It changed, depending on what songs I found myself skipping over. But most of the time I write in total silence. My kids are so loud. I relish the time I get when they're both somewhere else and I have a quiet house to think in.
AW: What public assistance initiatives should we be on the lookout for in the state of Montana and federally?
SL: The Farm Bill is incredibly important to people on SNAP (food stamps). It's also important to resist any legislation that requires people receiving assistance to work. Most people in safety net programs work if they're able-bodied, but these rhetorics only further stigmas that make people perceive them as lazy. Currently they're trying to pass work requirements for Medicaid in several states, which could be deadly for some folks. If the House's Farm Bill passes, something like 1.4 million people would be immediately cut from the SNAP program, and millions of others would fail to meet the paperwork requirements. It would mean a lot of families — and something like 1 in 4 children — going hungry.
AW: How do we talk about poverty? How do we help when we’re not in need?
SL: I think it's important to notice how people talk about the homeless or people who use food stamps. It's important to check your own judgments and look at them, because that carries over to what you say, or how you react to what other people are saying. Systemic poverty is regulated by the stigmas that surround them, and that comes from how people think and talk about those who are struggling to get by. The more universal we make their situations, and the less we separate ourselves from it ever happening to us, the more human those in need become, and hopefully the more our humanity reaches out to help.
Stephanie Land’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID, is forthcoming January 2019 through editor Krishan Trotman from Hachette Books. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
Amanda Wilgus is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for CutBank and works as a copy editor for the University Relations department.