Montana Author Reflects On Writing the Netflix Global Hit ‘Maid’
MISSOULA – “Maid,” written by University of Montana alumna Stephanie Land, has become a worldwide hit. Before Netflix created a series inspired by the novel, it was written at a kitchen table on a MacBook in a Missoula apartment by Land, a UM English major at the time. That essay, “Confessions of the Housekeeper,” would later be workshopped in a UM writing class and eventually become a New York Times best-selling memoir, with an acknowledgment page thanking UM faculty, among others, for their mentorship and support.
Land graduated in 2014 from UM with a bachelor’s degree in English. The rest of the story is currently being watched by millions.
Netflix estimates that more than 67 million people have watched “Maid.” In fact, the hit series is on track to become the most-watched limited scripted series the platform has ever produced. The series was inspired by Land’s memoir “Maid,” currently at No. 4 on the New York Times paperback best-sellers nonfiction list and endorsed by former U.S. President Barack Obama as the “story of America.” The work is being lauded across the country as cracking open a critical conversation about poverty, grit and America’s problematic support of those who work and support the rest of the country while operating in the shadows.
Starring Margaret Qualley (born in Missoula) and Andie MacDowell, the series reveals Land’s background as a single mother who finds work as a housekeeper to make a living while navigating poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.
The show refers to UM as the Montana College of Fine Arts and heavily features Missoula. Perhaps more than advertising Missoula as a literary promised land, Land’s capacity to identify and develop a writing voice at UM, and then make her own way into the business of writing (without much help), is a trait that is uniquely Montanan – and is an authentic success that the entire Grizzly community is celebrating.
As the show continues its global rocket ride, Land carved out time for her alma mater and shared thoughts about access to higher education, the ways institutions support students (and how they can do better), holding a seance on campus, why writing long papers helps in the long run, and what it means to take a risk and declare a major that you love.
UM News: You arrived at UM after a few harrowing years. Making it to Missoula and UM was a climactic event in “Maid.” What about arriving on campus felt so moving to you?
Land: I’d wanted to attend UM for six years by the time I got here in December of 2011. But I enrolled in the sociology program, because I thought my life couldn’t afford getting an art degree. I guess I also thought that would be an “acceptable” reason to move in the court system, since I had to ask for permission to move my daughter 500 miles away from their dad. After my first semester, though, I knew I wouldn’t be happy here unless I made the jump to being a writer, which is what I originally wanted to do. Before summer school started, I switched my degree in English and had my sights on earning an MFA in nonfiction.
UM News: At a time when America’s discussions about equity, upward mobility and economic disparity are on the frontlines, why do think “Maid” has sparked a broader conversation about essential labor in our country?
Land: What we have been calling “essential” since the pandemic began when it comes to our low-income workers, has become, what I think, is “entitled.” We expect people to clean up after us, but we don’t want to pay those who do a living wage or benefits. The conversation surrounding those who are accepting better jobs or staying on unemployment has been horrible, especially by our own governor. He ended unemployment boosts and offered a $1,200 bonus for going back to work. That pays for what, a month of daycare for two kids, if that?
We expect people to support us and our families while we don’t support them by voting people into office who will create real legislation reform to help them with what they need to not just survive, but thrive. That needs to change.
UM News: We’re living at a time when majoring in the liberal arts can raise concerned eyebrows. Yet here we are, with your story that has captivated the country and began as an essay. What advice might you give to UM students with a talent in their heart for writing?
Land: Well, I can pass along the advice UM Associate Professor David Gates gave me: “The world is totally fucked, so you might as well do what you want.” Aside from that, I would highly recommend learning about the business of writing. Becoming a freelancer has a huge learning curve, and most people don’t realize that much of your time will be spent doing administrative tasks, creating a brand and website, figuring out taxes and health insurance and is basically running your own business. There are a lot of online classes who teach this. One that I like is online through Catapult.
UM News: In 2019, former President Barack Obama listed “Maid” on his recommended list of books of the summer as a reminder of “the dignity of all work.” What does it mean to you to work as a writer now, with a deep understanding of those who work and live in the shadows?
Land: The greatest part of my job is my ability to advocate for low-wage workers and those who live in poverty. It is what I cling to when things start to get overwhelming. It’s been really incredible to watch my story create some change in the world, and I hope it continues to for a long time.
UM News: You persevered and fought hard for your success – two components of getting any college degree. While there are many pathways to becoming a professional writer, what’s the best advice you gleaned in a UM classroom that has influenced you?
Land: Honestly, it was producing pages. In my last semester of college, I wrote over 100 pages as a single mom to a 6-year-old and who was pregnant with her second child, alone. I’m still amazed I made it through that year with good marks. It helped as a freelancer, though, because a lot of my job was pitching an essay or article and, if they accepted, the turnaround was pretty quick and I often had to keep up with the news cycle. So, all of those reports on Shakespeare that I procrastinated and wrote at the last minute were actually very useful!
UM News: Higher education across America and (even here at UM), is undergoing a reckoning of how to make an education more accessible to a wider demographic of students and diverse learners. Getting through a bachelor’s degree as a single mother on federal assistance is a much different experience than most “traditional” university students. What about your experiences at UM can help other universities widen the net and serve students in new ways?
Land: It definitely would have helped me to have evening and weekend classes to choose from. My last semester of college I wasn’t able to work because I had classes every day, where before I tried to stack all my classes on Tuesday and Thursday, so that I could work. But even then, I couldn’t work the required 20 hours a week to receive most benefits and was kicked off of food stamps.
More access to on-site child care would have been huge. And child care that was outside the Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. My kid did go to a daycare in the “X” buildings, but it only paid for the hours I was physically in class or at work, so if I had an hour or two between those things, I ended up paying for it. There were some days I needed three different babysitters to make it to all of my classes. I’m so eternally grateful to my professors who allowed my kid to come to class with me. I don’t think I could have succeeded in college without them.
UM News: “Maid” is a worldwide hit on Netflix, your book was a New York Times best-seller and you’ve spotlighted Missoula as a haven for writers. Yet, you were somewhat infamously rejected from UM’s MFA program. What have you gleaned about academic barriers and success?
Land: I fought to move to Missoula. My kid’s dad fights change. I could not simply move to another state. I could not afford to. I could barely afford to apply to UM’s MFA program, let alone five others. I heard many reasons for my rejection, from I’d already learned everything (in my two years as an undergrad) that I could from the teachers who taught graduate-level classes, to my not being a “supported” writer (meaning no trust fund or spouse), but I have always suspected that the rejection was from my being pregnant with my second daughter as a single mom. A professor had told me once that “babies don’t belong in MFA workshops.” Whatever the reason was, since I’d become friends with a lot of MFA students because they were closer to my age, it felt personal. It hurt. I didn’t really see it as an academic barrier until I started seriously considering a career as a professional writer and that teaching in academia would not be an option. Currently, I only see teaching in an academia setting as reason as to why an MFA is necessary, and often that’s not a guarantee.
UM News: What writers inspire you?
Land: All writers inspire me, honestly. The ones who do the most are those who are vulnerable in telling their truths. Who cry at readings. Those who are marginalized and not part of the white male trope who often dominate best-seller lists. Every writer inspires me.
UM News: Do you have any rituals as a writer or habits you’ve developed over years?
Land: When I was starting out as a freelancer, I did it with a sleeping baby in my lap, on the floor in the living room in our apartment at low-income housing. I moved to the kitchen table to write “Maid” on an 11” MacBook Air someone had gifted me when my youngest was in daycare. I rely on playlists. Now, well, I’m getting a she-shed, and that’s pretty exciting. Being home with three kids in a pandemic does not make for good writing space. I hope to be able to stare at a wall in silence for a few days … or weeks … and get to tapping out words in big quantities again.
UM News: Favorite UM memory?
Land: Definitely meeting at the Jeannette Rankin building late one night near Halloween with a bunch of grad students and Debra Magpie Earling to summon some spirits. I’m not totally sure if we did, but one of us got a photo of a weird white presence next to us. Debra’s storytelling class was a respite as a whole. I wish I could have taken it multiple times. Same with Robert Stubblefield’s Montana Writer’s Live.
UM offers a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and a Master of Fine Arts. Housed in the College of Humanities and Sciences (not the Montana College of Fine Arts), the program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country, shaped by mentorship from a committed and diverse group of faculty, visiting writers, alumni and peers.
On the acknowledgment page of “Maid,” Land includes these words about some of her instructors at UM: “To my teachers … Debra Magpie Earling, for saying my “Confessions of the Housekeeper” essay would be a book with such conviction that it became my own prophecy to fulfill. Thank you for bringing out the storyteller in me. Also to Barbara Ehrenreich, Marisol Bello, Lisa Drew, Collin Smith, Judy Blunt, David Gates, Sherwin Bitsui, Katie Kane, Walter Kirn, Robert Stubblefield, Erin Saldin, Chris Dombrowski, Elke Govertsen for patiently ushering and guiding my written words into coherence with utmost encouragement and empowerment. Thank you.”