MISSOULA — Stephanie Land is nothing if not brutally honest.
In 2019, Hachette Books published Land’s first book, “Maid,” an unflinching account of the emotionally and physically demanding years she spent raising her daughter Emilia as a single mom in Port Townsend, Washington, while cleaning houses and aspiring to study creative writing at the University of Montana. The book resonated with readers across the world: former President Barack Obama named it one of his summer reading picks that year, and in 2021 Netflix released a serial adaptation of the book; 67 million households tuned in that year alone.
Yesterday, Nov. 7, Atria/One Signal published Land’s second memoir, “Class.” It picks up where “Maid” left off, a decade ago: Land has begun to settle in Missoula, and is working toward her degree and her dream of becoming a writer. Yet she continues to face an onslaught of obstacles. She writes bluntly of the tedium, the grind of homework, and the challenges of putting food on the table for Emilia in a poorly uninsulated Missoula apartment.
And then, in her senior year, Land becomes pregnant with her second daughter, Coraline. She isn’t sure who the father is, and one former romantic partner, afraid that it’s him, becomes abusive toward her.
As she trudges toward her degree, anger courses through Land: at a byzantine bureaucratic system that keeps her down, at emotionally stunted partners, at some of her professors, whom she depicts as self-absorbed and hurtful.
There’s nonetheless a good deal of levity in “Class,” too. After her isolated years in Port Townsend, Land describes leisurely hikes with friends, dates, and parties downtown. Land’s fondness for Missoula — and what occasionally feels like its bygone bohemian past — shines throughout “Class.”
In our conversation, Land brings her candid approach to bear on a wide range of topics: the complications of writing about people in a small town, why she decided to write so frankly about her sex life, her battles with anxiety on book tour, her dream creative writing program and more.
MTFP: You make a few references to seeing live music in “Class.” Did you see any memorable concerts this summer?
Stephanie Land: There were so many shows this summer. The most amazing show I’ve ever seen was boygenius. I had the opportunity to hang out backstage with Jason Isbell [at Kettlehouse Amphitheater]. Jason has become a mentor with wading through the scary stuff that comes with the general public being allowed to say whatever the fuck about you on the internet. He reminds me to speak my truth and that an honest story is the most important one to tell.
I don’t really get into new stuff very often. I still have the same Iron & Wine playlist. [Bands] like the Postal Service I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the years. I used to listen to them when I was cleaning houses.
I wanted to put so much more music in [the book]. It sounds weird, but music was my friend. It was there for me, because I was so isolated and alone a lot of the time. I had an iPod nano. I still have it.
MTFP: You write about the Missoula bar/venue the Top Hat in “Class,” from a time before it was refurbished. Did the vibe feel different then?
Land: It was just so dirty and dank. In the entrance next to the bar was a pool table. We would go there for family-friendly Fridays and there was a sea of kids. It was just chaos. I would lose Emilia every single time and then I would find her and she’d be kneeling on a stool at the bar, talking the bartender into more cherries for her Shirley Temple. No shoes on, and her feet are just black. I loved that place.
MTFP: Despite the rising cost of living and housing in Missoula, I try to stay optimistic that it can remain a place that fosters community and be accessible. Do you feel similarly?
Land: It’s really hard for me to be optimistic about anything these days as far as accessibility and who is able to live and work [here]. When your housing exceeds the wages of the people who make all the other work possible in your town, then you’ve lost everything, I think. I watched it happen to Port Townsend over the years, and every time I go back there it’s worse.
I’ve watched a lot of really good people move to the other place down the road that starts with a “B” that we’re not talking about, ’cause we don’t want it to ruin it. [Note: Land is referring to Butte].
MTFP: Speaking of housing, did you tangle with the Montana legislative session this year?
Land: No, but a couple of weeks after the “Maid” series came out [in October 2021] and I was losing my mind, I desperately made this post on Facebook, because we needed to get the exterior shell of my writing shack built. I thought, if you build it, the book will come [laughs].
Zooey Zephyr responded and came over. So that’s how I met her. We were all sitting around eating pizza and I mentioned that someone had just texted me about a legislative position that was opening in my area, that I should run for it. I said, “that is not good for my personality,” and [she said], “I’m gonna run for that.” It’s been really amazing to watch her and what she’s doing. I’m a huge fan.
MTFP: Just to clarify, the plan for “Class” came together pretty shortly after the “Maid” series launched?
Land: Yes. I signed the contract in January of 2020. And it was a very different book. Nobody wanted to buy my second memoir. And so we decided on this really heavily reported book about the housing crisis and homeless people. I was going to spend a lot of time with homeless people in different parts of the country. And I kept telling my agent at the time — I have a different agent now, mostly because of this situation — that I’m not a journalist. I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. I don’t know the ethics involved, and I don’t want to take up people’s time like this. Their time is like the most valuable thing that they have.
But we sold it anyway, because I was just told it was what I needed to do.
And then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t be a public speaker anymore, obviously. And so the advance money got me through that year. But I couldn’t write anything. I had four miscarriages in 2020. The kids were home all the time. It was not a good environment for writing, especially stuff that you don’t know anything about.
And so when the Netflix series came out, I had a Zoom date with my editor [Julia Cheiffetz] and my new agent, Mollie Glick. Julia said, “Write whatever you want. It can be a memoir, I don’t care.” No one had said that to me before, ever. It was so great to have that freedom. I knew immediately what I wanted to write about.
It was based off of this essay that I published through the “New York Review of Books” in 2017 called “Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom.” It was just about college and fighting to be a writer and go to school to be a writer despite being incredibly poor and how frivolous and selfish that felt for me to do.
It took me a long time to really grapple with what I was going to include and what not, if I could write around the fact that I didn’t know who [Coraline’s] father was. Because a woman writing about her sex life, especially a poor single mom, you just don’t do that. That’s just not something women are allowed to do freely and write about.
[Around that time] I read Melissa Febos’ book, “Body Work.” A third of the book is writing about sex. I got to that part and I was just like, I don’t even have to read this. I’m not gonna write about that. And then I was like, but what if I did?
I [told my editor], I think I’m going to approach all of this from a place of empowerment. I felt pretty good about myself and I was having fun. It was Hot Single Mom summer [laughs]. One of the things she told me is that a woman enjoying her body is the most dangerous thing in the world.
I started writing the book at the end of July, the beginning of August ’22. I handed in the first draft by mid-October.
MTFP: I know some of the names have been changed, but I was curious how you navigated writing about some really awful things people have said and done to you in a place as small as Missoula?
Land: I knew it was very likely that I would run into people who are in the book at, like, the Good Food Store.
[Regarding] the people I did not write warmly about, the only thing that you can do is tell your story and tell it in a way that is not gossiping. As long as you are telling the truth, then they can’t really argue with that. People might get mad, but I am also legally vetted.
I really did try to write very compassionately about the people in town who propelled me forward and really allowed me to take up space in the physical classroom with my added bonus student, a 6-year-old. And I wanted to really capture some moments of Missoula and how beautiful it was back then.
MTFP: If you could design an undergrad creative writing program, what would be some foundational parts of it?
Land: College does not teach the business of writing. I had no idea. So much of being a writer is administrative work. You are your own business, you’re your own brand. You are your accountant and your tax person and your health insurance. Hounding people to pay you, it’s just maddening.
Money is almost not even talked about, it’s like a dirty word.
As far as classes, it would be so easy to do them online. It would be easy to do a more intensive format where it’s an all-day class for four or five Saturdays, more evenings and weekends.
As soon as people start considering the fact that maybe a fourth of their class has a full-time job and they are not a 21-year-old whose parents are paying for their dorm, you can really get creative and think about the needs of your students.
I wouldn’t have graduated college if my professors wouldn’t have allowed me to bring my kid to class. There just would’ve been no way. Just considering the possibility that there might be someone in your class who is in their thirties and has a family at home could open up a lot of conversations about how to make things more accessible.
MTFP: How do you prepare for a book tour?
Land: You don’t. Going into the “Maid” book tour my agent at the time instructed me to say yes to everything. Whatever they ask you to do, just do it. And so that meant waking up in a new city, going to a morning local TV show and going back to the hotel and doing three or four interviews. And then doing a book event that night where I would read a little bit of the book and then open it up for questions. They were questioning my decision-making and who I am as a person. Nobody wanted to know about my writing process. And then wash, rinse and repeat, get on a plane, go to a different place.
Whenever I tried to talk to people about what was going on, they didn’t want to hear about it [and would say], “Do you know how long I’ve tried to get my book published? I don’t even have an agent. You’re so lucky. Just be happy. Just enjoy it.” Success has been the most isolating thing that’s ever happened to me. I lost good friends because they were jealous of the success and didn’t think I deserved it or that I had worked hard enough for it, or that I hadn’t struggled enough. I don’t know. Writers are catty.
I joke that my path to success was paved by panic attacks.
I ended up in the ER a lot because I was kind of in a permanent dissociative place and just kind of checked out.
So this time it’s like, let’s mitigate this [laughs]. I came into it with some knowledge about myself and what I need. I need someone to physically walk me through a crowd from one place to another. I have two assistants to handle stuff like that, to basically advocate for me. This time, I feel like I’m actually able to talk about the fact that I have an anxiety disorder and a lot of the things that I deal with internally that I’m very medicated for.
This whole process has just been scary. I’m writing about stuff that people are really not going to like. I’m also really angry in the book. And people don’t like women who are angry, or people who are angry, especially marginalized people.
But I had the clout, and the platform, I guess, to be angry. And I knew that a lot of people can’t tell the story that I did.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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