She has a bestseller and hit Netflix series. But Stephanie Land’s ‘Maid’ isn’t just about being a ‘palatable poor person’
Life has scaled up for Stephanie Land since the Netflix series inspired by her unsparing 2019 memoir, “Maid,” premiered in October, but it also has delivered unusual challenges.
In the series, Margaret Qualley plays the resilient lead who, after leaving an abusive relationship, barely scrapes by on governmental assistance and meager wages as a housecleaner. The show quickly sparked conversation about poverty and domestic abuse, as well as acclaim for Qualley’s white-knuckle performance. As the popularity grew, Land was no longer just a successful writer with haunting memories; she was recognized by strangers at the grocery store who looked forward to watching another episode of “the most horrible things that have happened to me in my life.”
Land couldn’t look away either. She watched the first two episodes curled under a blanket with 14-year-old Story (known as Maddy in the series), who turned to her at one point and said, “We got out, but so many haven’t.”
Uneasy fame hasn’t been the only change for Land. She’s now the proud owner of a home in Montana, including a wood-paneled “she shed” where she writes and gives interviews. She said of the pandemic purchase, “I’m married but only my name is on the title because I just needed that. I needed some kind of physical, legal document saying, ‘See, this is something that you have done.’”
In advance of her Jan. 25 L.A. Times Book Club conversation, Land discussed the reactions to the Netflix series, which was nominated for three Golden Globes and a SAG award for Qualley; the lasting trauma of poverty; and her next book project.
You’ve become something of a poverty success story. How does that feel?
When the book came out and started to get a lot of buzz, I did not want to be “the face of poverty.” But I think that I am that face, I am a “success story.” And I am a white woman with a degree in higher education. All of that made me a very likable, palatable poor person that people listened to. I had a lot of conversations with mentors who are people of color and they said, “Well, if they’re listening to you, then it could affect other people in really positive ways. They might start listening to other people who are more marginalized than you.” I just knew that I was going to have to put myself out there and advocate for others a lot, so I’ve tried to make that into my mission more than anything.
The Netflix series is its own distinct version of “Maid.” What did you think of changes to your story?
I’m glad they fictionalized it, though there are a lot of aspects that are emotionally the same. Alex [Qualley] is totally her own person. There were moments in the series where Alex did or said something that I wished I would have said or did. I totally should have turned to my mom and said, “You just helped me move out of a homeless shelter. And now you’re forcing me to buy lunch?” There were moments that were not what I experienced but it was powerful for me to see all the same.
The series focuses more on domestic abuse than you did in your book. How did you feel about that choice and the viewers’ reaction to the onscreen relationship?
I knew it was coming because [showrunner] Molly [Smith Metzler] talked to me about that. I thought it was brilliant. People will say, “Well, how did you let the abuse happen?” And they showed exactly how it can happen, the whole cycle of it. I hope that the show saves lives. I got a lot of Instagram comments saying “the show made me finally divorce my husband or end this relationship,” or “my daughter finally got out of her relationship and moved in with me.” Emotional abuse is so deadly, and it’s not recognized for what it is — abuse — nearly enough.
Many viewers have expressed judgment around Alex’s decisions, which were often made in desperation.
I came across this Reddit thread where someone wrote, “I don’t understand why she threw her child a birthday party, and she had toys? She didn’t need toys. Like why didn’t she buy flour instead of berries?” And so on. It’s like, “What are you saying? That poor people should not only not have nice things but they should live off of flour, rice and beans all the time, as if that’s acceptable?” It reminds me of how I would be judged whenever I used food stamps. If I bought something like ice cream, that was one of the only times that I could tell my kid “yes.” And that ice cream lasted a week, that was a huge treat. Anytime that I could say yes to something to my kid, it was amazing. Instead of saying no to almost everything that they asked for.
The book and the series describe how poverty takes its toll on many fronts: physical, mental and emotional. Your life is much different now but are you still confronting the trauma and physical repercussions from that time?
I still have a lot of the physical stuff, which is just a part of me now. I still have a lot of nerve damage in my hand. Every time I deep-clean my house, I feel how much my body doesn’t like that kind of work. I’m also still dealing a lot with how I don’t really feel like I have value unless I am actually working and working hard every moment I possibly can.
What is the best way any of us can help someone in poverty?
I bluntly tell people to get over themselves, and that poor people need money. Or if it’s stuff, give them whatever is on their list. If it’s socks and tampons, then give them socks and tampons and give them a lot. You can throw in something that you might think is useful, but it probably isn’t. Poor people know exactly what they need. And trust them to spend their money well. I saw someone on Twitter say, “Why would you give a homeless person money so they can go buy drugs?” Someone responded: “Do you know how much drugs cost??” There’s just this assumption that poor people are bad with money, that they can’t be trusted, that they’ll blow it on booze. But when I was poor, no one was better with a budget than me. I knew where every single cent was going.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a book called “Class,” about higher education and all the barriers low-income people face in that system. After the series came out, my editor said I could write whatever I wanted and for a while I rode that freedom high, but now it’s like, I really gotta write this book! Other than that, I’m taking care of three kids and three dogs, one of whom is the size of a pony. He has an affinity for remote controls.
These 10 books, including Stephanie Land’s “Maid,” will help you understand the inequalities built into America’s economy.
Book Club: Stephanie Land
What: Stephanie Land discusses “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” with Times reporter Paloma Esquivel at the L.A. Times Book Club.
When: 6 p.m. PST, Jan. 25.
Where: Watch now.
Newsletter: Join our community book club: latimes.com/bookclub
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.