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Q&A with Nita Prose, author of ‘The Maid’

11 March 2022 - 11:20
'This is a novel about what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different,' says Nita Prose.
'This is a novel about what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different,' says Nita Prose.
Image: Supplied

When and how did the idea for the book come to you? 

The idea for The Maid came to me during a business trip to London in 2019. I was staying at a hotel and one day, after a breakfast meeting, I returned to my room and surprised the maid who had come to clean it. I remember her gasping and taking a step back into a shadowy corner. This maid was holding up my sweat pants that I had foolishly left in a tangled mess on the bed. It occurred to me in that moment what an intimate and invisible job it is to be a room maid. Simply by cleaning my room day after day, she knew so much about me. But what did I know about her? A few days later, I was on the plane home when it came to me: [protagonist] Molly’s voice — clear, clean, precise —“"polished to perfection”. I grabbed the napkin under my drink and wrote the prologue in a single burst. I didn’t know it then, but I’d just begun my debut novel.

On average, how many hours a day did you spend writing the book? What did your typical daily schedule look like? 

I’ve been an editor for more than 15 years, and one of the things the profession has taught me is time management. It took me five or so months to write the first draft of The Maid, but it took me my entire publishing career to gain the intimate knowledge of narrative to be able to write a draft so quickly. When I’m writing, I wake up at 5am, make coffee, and squirrel myself away in my office (which I call “The Cave”). I love writing at this hour, when it’s still dark out and my mind is in a liminal state between waking and dreaming. I find there’s something I can harness there that is untouched by the constraints and impositions of reality, a creative energy that is fresh and free.

What do you hope your reader will take away from this book? 

The Maid features Molly, a socially awkward hotel maid whose life is turned upside down when she finds an infamous guest dead in his bed in the posh Regency Grand Hotel. This is a novel about what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different. It’s a locked room mystery, but it’s also an uplifting read, too, one in which the mystery can only be solved through connection to the human heart. My goal in creating Molly — a character with a unique world view and boundless empathy for others, despite any difficulties she has with social cues — was to invite readers to step into Molly’s skin, to live as her without any preconceptions. I hope that to live as her is to love her.

If you could enjoy a meal with anyone interesting, dead or alive, who would it be? 

William Shakespeare.

Have you ever visited SA? If yes, which cities/towns did you visit? If no, would you visit and what would you love to experience when visiting?

I have never visited SA, but I would love to do so. I’d want to go to Cape Town, of course, and get a taste for the literary and artistic scene there. Beyond that, I’d love to go to some of the parks and see the wildlife in situ, species that for a Canadian seem almost beyond the imagination. Lastly, I’ve heard of Rovos Rail, an Edwardian train ride that most certainly appeals to the Agatha Christie fan in me. What a way to travel (though I’m assuming it won’t come with the same level of intrigue as a Christie novel).

What book are you reading? 

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting by Sophie Irwin, to be published later this year.

What hindrances, challenges or obstacles did you face while writing the book? 

As a long-time editor, my job has been to stay in the background and push my authors into the light. After I finished the first draft of The Maid, I was a little more than panicked about putting my work out into the world because all my colleagues would know about it.  I felt tremendous pressure and fear. In my mind, I kept running through scenarios where I’d receive horrible rejections from agents and publishers who, always polite, would call my work “lovely” and then “regrettably decline”.

Eventually, I put on my big girl boots and pressed “send”. The agent I had always dreamed of representing me was the same one who ushered into the world the amazing novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She understood my novel in terms of what the Brits call “uplit” — or “feel good” fiction — a novel driven by a life-affirming spirit of hope. That’s what I wanted with The Maid — to create a locked room mystery that could only be solved through connection to the human heart. I wanted hope to be what readers carry away with them once the last page is turned. I suppose it was hope, too, that made me get over my own fears in the first place.

What was your favourite funny or memorable moment experienced during the writing of your book? 

When I finished the first draft I submitted it to a handful of agents I hold in high esteem. One of those agents was Madeleine Milburn. I had played it out in my head only one way — she reads it, says it’s “lovely,” then lets me down easily, at which point I sulk, lick my wounds, and eventually get on with my life. But that’s not what happened. Madeleine liked the book. More important, she got it. She understood exactly what I’d been trying to do, and in one of the most beautiful letters I’ve ever received, she relieved every very worry I had about whether I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. She closed her letter with a PS: “We’ve been staying at a friend’s house for the duration of lockdown, and there’s a picture by the bed that has made me smile every morning. See attached. It felt like serendipity when I read your manuscript.” The attachment was a photo of an inspirational quote that read: Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. I knew that line so very well. I knew it because it was the final line of my novel. I also knew in that moment that I had the agent of my dreams.

Which character is your most beloved character in your book and why? 

Molly. I hope readers love her too.

How did you feel after writing the final page? What did you do? 

I felt a huge but private sense of personal satisfaction upon reaching the end of my first draft. Of course, that feeling didn’t last long. I knew reaching the end was a great accomplishment, but what that means is going back to the beginning to spruce and polish, which I did about a week after my initial completion.

What book have you read that has had the biggest influence on your personal life? 

Impossible to name just one.

If you could have any super power, what would it be and why? 

Invisibility. It is, of course, a blessing and a curse, as Molly would tell you. But I think it would be interesting to be the proverbial fly on the wall in certain circumstances.


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