Like so many people in the publishing industry, Nita Prose has always had in the back of her mind that maybe, one day, she’d turn her hand to writing a novel. She’s always written, and as part of her role in publishing she’d been a ghost writer, never publishing, though, a book of her own.
But dreams of being a writer are a dime a dozen as are ideas for books — they only count once they stick, and they’re easy to miss; they can strike in the most mysterious ways.
“It wasn’t until the idea of the maid struck me that I thought, OK, this idea is just too good to pass up. I want to see if I can do this,” she says in a conversation from her Toronto home.
Prose was at the London Book Fair for her day job at Simon and Schuster Canada, where she is vice president and editorial director, when she rushed back to her hotel room after a meeting “and I completely startled the maid … who retreated into a shadowy corner holding a pair of my track pants.
“She looked at me and I looked at her and I thought, what an intimate and invisible job it is to be a hotel room maid … she knew (intimate details about me) and I knew nothing about her,” says Prose.
The conference went on and a few days later, on the plane back to Toronto, Prose said that “I could hear Molly’s voice like it came to me. It was crisp, it was polished, it was perfect in that way that Molly is … “This is the first time a character’s voice had arrived in my head fully formed.”
(Yes, the maid’s name is Molly — a hint of the gentle humour throughout the book.)
Prose grabbed the napkin from under her drink and started writing. “I am your maid. I’m the one who cleans your hotel room, who enters like a phantom when you’re out gallivanting for the day, no care at all about what you’ve left behind, the mess, or what I might see when you’re done.”
Prose didn’t know it at the time, she said, but she had just started her debut novel. What she wrote on that napkin was the prologue — much as it is published in the finished book, the one that’s now hitting the market on Jan. 4.
Once back home, she says, she finished it in about five months. She was “absolutely” inspired by Agatha Christie, “a master” of the mystery genre. There was also, she says, a “Knives Out,” feel about the story as she wrote, and a little bit of the board game Clue. Her goal, she says “was to get the reader guessing … on that very basic murder mystery.”
The closed nature of the set — a hotel room, which becomes a murder scene when one of the hotel’s regular, very wealthy customers is found dead by Molly — lent itself to the idea of a mystery. But Prose wanted to deliver a bit more than that. The hierarchical nature of a hotel also suggested another kind of storytelling: it’s a microcosm of that upstairs/downstairs sensibility with highly valued guests on the one hand and the unseen service industry workers like Molly, on the other, “the invisible people who are toiling away in plain sight.”
The book was written before the pandemic began — Prose’s trip was in the before time — but there’s a relevance to the narrative and our collective understanding of the service industry and just how important it is to our social fabric.
The other thing readers will notice right from the beginning is that there is something a bit different about Molly. She doesn’t always read social signals from other people. She can be flummoxed by the response required from her in certain social situations. She is also focused and detail-oriented and does her job to perfection.
“As we move through it,” Prose says, “we discover that it’s also a story about grief, and loss, and, belonging, or the lack thereof.”
Molly’s grandmother, with whom Molly lived until she recently died, would guide her through social minefields, letting her know how she should react in one situation or another. They would sit down at the end of the day with a cup of tea — tea features throughout the book — and go over Molly’s day. Now she’s alone, unsure how to navigate the world, and her grief runs deep.
Prose used to work, in another life, with high school kids with “very specialized needs.” She witnessed them being treated poorly, being labelled and judged and, when she took them outside of the school environment on trips, “I saw how cruelly they were treated.”
Prose delves into the issues — of difference, of justice — with a touch as gentle as the humour.
And so, as we read on and more is revealed, bit by bit about Molly, we get to know her. “I just hope that readers come to see how their own assumptions about her get called into question over the course of the book.
“I wanted the reader to discover over time, not at the beginning, that her differences might in some way be her biggest strength.”
That gentle tone, compelling narrative and whip smart plotting have added up to a debut novel that seems to fall into the category of overnight success — the book was signed in three territories, and the movie adaptation is already in the works with Florence Pugh cast as Molly.
But, Prose says, “I’ve been an understudy for 20 very long years.” She’s worked with authors as an editor, so those chops helped her as she was writing. Those years of experience also gave her a sense of genre and a sense of structure. Working as an author, she says, has also made her see her role as an editor in a whole new way. She uses “author blindness” as an example, explaining it like this: an author, when they begin writing, enters a maze. They cannot see the twists and turns; they make choices along the way about how the book is going to go — “they don’t know if they go this way, they’re going to waste six months writing and only come to a dead end.”
The editor, on the other hand, “is on top of a ladder, looking down and can see ahead. And together you can really form a very important bond that leads you from the beginning of the book to a final, completed manuscript. And, wow, did I ever learn a powerful lesson of being on the ground and what that means and how blind you are as a writer,” she says.
While Prose’s day job is with Simon & Schuster Canada, she’s being published by Ballantine in the U.S., Viking in Canada, and HarperCollins in the U.K. and Commonwealth — after a fierce bidding war between six publishers. She has three editors — one for each territory. It’s a collaborative arrangement that’s not unusual when books are published in multiple territories, and each of her editors, she says, is looking out for certain things.
Charlotte Brabbin, her UK editor, for example, suggested to Prose she needed to give more description to the hotel. “That’s what I mean by author blindness,” she says. There’s a fine line, always, between giving too much description and not allowing the reader to participate “and still have the luxury of using their own imagination and giving them enough in order to complete the painting of the picture.”
Even before the book was signed, when she’d finished it and was sending it out to agents, she had one in mind: Madeleine Milburn who, she said, understood the idea of “uplit,” which is what Prose says she wanted to write. She describes it as “a novel driven by a life affirming spirit of hope,” or what we might call “feel-good fiction.”
While “The Maid” is a mystery, there was something else Prose says she wanted to drive home.
“It’s a mystery that can only be solved through a connection to the human heart. And I wanted hope to be what readers carry away with them when the last page is turned.”