No one would guess that inside a ranch house in a sun-bleached, middle-class neighborhood near Dallas, tortured feminist heroine Michael Munroe wakes and sleeps. Munroe is the ultimate badass: a sexy, damaged, globe-trotting heroine with a high-IQ analytical mind, an ear for 22 languages, and a god-awful childhood behind her. She metes out brutal, graceful justice and sometimes likes it just a little too much.
It’s equally hard to register that her architect, Taylor Stevens, the smiling woman in jeans and a t-shirt who opens the door, recently optioned film rights to The Informationist, the debut novel in the Michael Munroe series, to James Cameron’s production company. Yes, we’re talking the James Cameron, legendary for putting iconic tough girls on the big screen. Aliens’ Ripley. The Terminator’s Sarah Connor. After Cameron wraps up his Avatar series, the cross-dressing Michael Munroe, rescuer of sex trafficking victims and kidnapped daughters, might just take a seat in history beside them.
Stevens is pretty happy now that she has turned down a few other film offers after The Informationist hit The New York Times’ best-seller list in 2011, when things were still a little uncertain financially. She can breathe much easier now. The Informationist became the first in what is now a five-book contract with Crown Publishing. (Stevens’ third thriller, The Doll, is out this month.)
She’s happy, but cautious: “In this industry, it’s feast or famine, and I’m on the very, very, very, very bottom rung of feast.”
Stevens’ unlikely career was born, in part, out of pure defiance. She wrote her first book not because she thought it would ever be published, but as a “nice little ‘up yours’ ” to the people who literally tried to exorcise her imagination as a child. Because Stevens is also on another list, along with actress Rose McGowan and the late River Phoenix, famous for a reason she’d rather not be.
Forty years ago, she was born into the controversial, fundamentalist Children of God cult, whose thousands of members stretched to the far corners of the earth. Children were often abused. At 8, Stevens was lying to strangers and begging on the streets. At 12, she was separated from her biological family, cleaning and cooking, solely responsible for a group of 5-year-olds. She made up stories in her head to combat the sheer tedium of her life and the constant fear of reprisal, including public humiliation.
Because cult members were restricted to reading propaganda, Stevens’ experience with fiction was mostly limited to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories she read during her stint in public school. She remembers making up wild tales for other kids in the back of a van during the drive to the spot where they’d beg. “I was the de facto entertainment.”
By the time Stevens turned 15, cult leaders caught on. They discovered notebooks filled with her writing and burned them. They isolated her, forced her to read cult propaganda for hours, and performed a public exorcism. “You didn’t know how to react,” Stevens says. “Do they want a sign that the devils have left me? Should I make a noise? But if I make a noise, would that make it worse because it’s the wrong kind of noise?” For the next six months, she was followed everywhere by an adult minder—“I guess to make sure I wasn’t going to conjure demons out of a soup pot.”
It took 29 years for her to walk away with a husband, a 2-year-old, and a newborn; a few physical possessions; and a sense that nothing could be as bad as what she was living. Why didn’t she leave earlier? It’s a question she hates, and one of the reasons her second Munroe book, The Innocent, snakes its way into a cult and delivers the cold slap of her childhood. “Some of it happened to me, some of it didn’t. But all of it happened to someone.” Choice is removed, she says. “And the way I try to explain this to people, who still to this day don’t get it, I go, ‘Tom Cruise, Suri Cruise. Do you see it? Do you not see it?’ ”
When Crown bought The Informationist in 2009, Stevens was in her mid-30s, newly divorced, and working a $12-an-hour job armed with only a sixth-grade education and a few online courses. She buried herself in self-help, real estate, and business books to figure out how to compete in a world she knew nothing about. When she burned out on that, she turned to fiction. A Robert Ludlum book she picked up for 50 cents changed everything. The day she received the news from her agent, “I didn’t know where this would lead. I just knew that it was a toehold.” Even now, she lives a frugal lifestyle. “I don’t worry about losing success, but I worry about poverty … because I grew up not having enough. I really try to think beyond the moment.”
Stevens spends most hours of the day writing on a leather couch with a propped-up laptop, a dog on her legs, and a wall of her daughters’ portraits behind her. She is the dead opposite of a helicopter mom. “My expectations for my girls are pretty high,” she says. “If I was solely responsible for 5- and 6-year-olds at the age of 12, I see no reason why my daughter at that same age can’t make her own mac and cheese or clean a bathroom.”
Stevens, who traveled the world with the cult, has a gift for sweeping readers into exotic locales—Equatorial Guinea, Argentina, Europe. She also has a knack for the breathless fight scene, although she declares herself “a wuss. I use a knife to cut vegetables.” She writes about the intensity of what Munroe is feeling, instead of what fist went where. “I think men have a tendency to write more like that,” she says. Stevens is well aware that her books are breaking into a thriller genre long dominated by men—powerhouses like James Patterson. Except none of her female characters plays the role of victim, even the victims.
“I can’t relate to women who are weak and powerless, and I grew up in an environment where I had no power,” she says. “I think that even women who appear to be weak often are making very difficult choices for their kids or for stability.” In the cult, “silence was how you protected someone. Not telling what you knew.”
Children of God, now The Family International, has evaporated into what Stevens calls “a club.” Her biological family left long ago. She says that her mother, who joined the cult at 18, deeply regrets that fateful step. But Stevens is left with an ambivalent feeling about God. He might exist, he might not. She doesn’t care. “That argues against the tenets that God is there and acting in everybody’s life, but not so much in my experience.”
There will be no cult tell-all, she says.
“I’m not interested in being a victim. That is not my legacy.”
In spite of all the time she and Michael Munroe have spent alone together on the couch, Stevens doesn’t have a clue which actress should play her in the movie.
Even on the page, “I’ve never seen her face.”