Nita Prose, THE MYSTERY GUEST: A Maid Novel

Nita Prose, THE MYSTERY GUEST: A Maid Novel

Zibby speaks to #1 New York Times bestselling author Nita Prose about THE MYSTERY GUEST, a delightful whodunit and pointed social commentary that follows Molly, an unfailingly honest and oddly lovable professional maid, as she tries to solve a murder… Nita reveals it was never her intention to turn her immensely popular debut novel, THE MAID, into a series… but then something odd sparked her imagination (it involves a mummified rat and a silver spoon). Nita also discusses the challenges of invisible workers, her research into hotel life, her love of salsa dancing, her background as an editor, and potential future novels in the Maid series.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nita. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Mystery Guest: A Maid Novel.

Nita Prose: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Yay. So exciting. As we’re talking, this will come out after the book has come out, but we are a week away from pub day. How are you doing? What should people know about the week before pub day from even such a huge author as yourself? How does it feel?

Nita: The really weird thing that you’ll understand, Zibby, is that there’s this period of time when you’re done with the manuscript and you’re waiting for your pub day where nothing’s going on. It’s just crickets. You’re thinking, oh, my god, what have I done? I’ve wasted my time. This is going to be an absolute disaster. Then a couple of weeks before your pub date, it’s like somebody turns on this magical light switch. Your inbox is filling up. There’s all of these requests. People want to talk to you. Then you’re like, how do I do it all? It’s so exciting. It’s so wonderful. Of course, you want that feedback. For me, the second I’m done with the book, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the reader. I don’t feel it’s mine. I’m so excited to have that feedback and to hear people’s thoughts, good or bad. We’ll see. The switch has turned on, let’s just say.

Zibby: The switch is turned on. Here we go. Nita, tell us about The Mystery Guest and when you decided to continue on with some of the — was this the plan from the beginning with The Maid? No? Not at all. She’s shaking her head. Tell me the whole story, when this came to be and then how you figured out the plot. Just tell me the whole thing.

Nita: No, I never planned this to be a series. Not exactly. I knew there was more room in those characters to tell more about their lives. Truly, I had so much going on trying to write the debut that I didn’t think too much past that. Once it was published, a lot of my readers were saying exactly the same thing. I want more Molly. More Molly, more Molly, more Molly. I got that comment so often, as did my publishers, that eventually, we got those phone calls. Would you write more Molly? Would you? I had to think about it because with a character like that that some readers have come to love, I didn’t want to do injustice to her. I didn’t want to disappoint readers and give them less while trying to give them more. I said at the time to my agent and my publishers, I’ll try. If I can figure out a storyline that I think honors that character and that readers will enjoy, then I’ll do it. If I can’t do it, if I can’t figure it out, you will never see that manuscript come out of my desk, ever, ever, ever. I won’t do it. That took some puzzling. Eventually, I got it. It was really strange how it happened. I have a habit of doing this. I will have these moments that are these touchstone moments when everything comes together. I have no control over it whatsoever, which is really, really frustrating.

The moment for this book happened in the UK. I was on tour for The Maid. I went to a museum outside of Brighton in a little town called Lewes. It was a castle museum. In that museum, I came across the most unusual display. It was, in a glass box, two items. One was the mummified body of a rat and beside that rat, a single silver spoon. I thought, what the heck is this? I read the label. In fact, this was a commemoration of a servant girl who had once worked in the castle and was unceremoniously dismissed from her position after having been accused of stealing silver from her bosses. She denied it. She said she never did such a thing. She was frog-marched out the door. Then many, many years later when they were renovating the castle, the builders opened the walls, and lo and behold, what did they find? The mummified body of a rat and beside it, a single silver spoon. That became the commemorative display for this poor maid. For me, that was the spark, Zibby. It was like suddenly, my imagination ignited. I started to think again about what it means to be an invisible worker, whether it’s a maid or somebody else, and to toil away and to be so disregarded and to be always accused of something or accused, in a way, of not being good enough. That became the ignition for The Mystery Guest.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Do you have pictures of that? Did I miss them? Are they on social or something?

Nita: I do. I haven’t posted them on social yet, but I can happily send you some, for sure.

Zibby: Oh, good. I can’t wait to see. That’s so neat. Amazing how your brain can just start going, right?

Nita: Isn’t it? Just because of this little nugget. You have no control over it, which is the most frustrating thing. You just have to wait for it to come. It may come. It may never come. Such is the life of a writer.

Zibby: Then once you got the nugget, what happened with the writing process itself? Did you just bang it out? It was flowing? Did you then stop to say, okay, if this is this way, how should I do the rest of this? What was the process for the rest of it?

Nita: For me, it’s all about the questions. Once you have that nugget, it’s like, this delivery is a moment and then a hundred thousand questions around it that I have to resolve through narrative. For me, that’s really the fertile ground of knowing and not knowing. I knew a couple of things. I knew that the past and the present in this story — Molly’s childhood would be the key to solving the mystery in the present tense. Molly journeys back in time. She goes back to this luxurious, if somewhat foreboding mansion where a famous writer happens to live. He’s reclusive. He’s a bit odd. She, as a ten-year-old, has to engage with this man. She comes to understand the dynamics not only of her and her Gran, but of very important things that shaped their identity at a very early age while Gran was working as a maid in this house. That really comes to play in our understanding of the present-tense mystery when a writer — guess who? — drops dead, very dead, on the tearoom floor at the Regency Grand. Of course, Molly has a history with this man.

Zibby: The way you tied it all together, I was like, genius. This is genius. Chef’s kiss. It was great.

Nita: Thank you.

Zibby: How did you start writing to begin with? Where did this come from in your own life? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? I know you’ve been an amazing editor and all of that. Just talk about your whole history.

Nita: As you know, I do have a history as an editor. I’m still an editor to this day because I must be a masochist. I absolutely love that process. To me, it’s like yin and yang. Writing and editing are really the same thing. It’s engaging with narrative and trying to solve story problems. I love it. I’m not really good at anything else. I can tell stories. I can help other people tell stories. That’s it. That’s all I can do. Everything I’ve ever done has to do with one of those two things, so it really does feel like yin and yang to me. In terms of writing, I’ve written for a long time, just in a different way. Some of my work with my writers, not always, involves ghostwriting or a very close collaboration with celebrities or politicians or people who may not have writing experience but have a memoir in them. My job is to become them, in a way, to channel their voice, to really get a thorough understanding of who they are as people and what story they want to tell or have to tell that will move an audience. Through that ventriloquism, I think I honed my craft as a writer. I think also, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of the other novelists and other writers who I’ve worked with who’ve allowed me to help them with their stories, not as any ghost, but as an editor. That has sharpened my understanding of the mechanics of story and how readers connect to characters, to worlds, and to plots. I am so grateful to have that best master’s program in the world, which is really those one-on-one relationships with writers.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Can you share some projects that you’re really proud of or any stories about the books you’ve written? Sorry, the books you’ve edited. Sorry.

Nita: The books I’ve edited, oh, my gosh, I’m proud of so many of my writers. It’s actually hard to choose. One who I’m very proud of recently is Liz Nugent, who wrote Strange Sally Diamond and has a host of other brilliant novels. Unraveling Oliver. Lying in Wait. She is the darkest of dark writers. She has this ability to understand women’s deepest nightmares, envision them on the page, and somehow expel them from us as though they were poltergeists. I think that takes a bravery and an intuition that is unusual. My work with her has been so wonderful. She’s one of these delicate, delicate writers who hands in a draft that is near perfection. My job, it’s this little shift here, shift there, asking the right questions to just complete it, let her open her mind to complete the vision that she intends. That is hugely gratifying. Then I would say on the nonfiction front, there was an author I worked with quite a few years ago now who was the lead singer of a band in Canada that was really important, Great Big Sea. His name is Alan Doyle. He’s a Newfoundlander. Bless Newfoundlanders. They are the best kind, as they say there. Meaning, the best kind of people. He came in saying he didn’t know how to write. Brilliant songwriter. We would talk and talk about the chapters and what we would want to see there. He would deliver to me, a haiku. It’d be sixty words. I’m like, this is not a chapter. Of course, a songwriter is going to deliver songs. Then through this process of getting him to expand and understand the needs of what a chapter is within a memoir, he came to be able to write the book himself in such beautiful prose and doing such justice to the Newfoundland zeitgeist, which is its own peculiar and beautiful creature. That is a book I’m so proud of because I didn’t write it. I came in with a certain set of parameters that I expected I was going to fulfill, and I didn’t have to because he was such a good storyteller that he could learn the mechanics of an entirely different genre.

Zibby: Wow, that is so amazing.

Nita: It was cool.

Zibby: Tell me what you’re excited about that isn’t what you’re working on now. When you’re just getting out of work, getting out of literature — I know this is what you’re good at, and that’s wonderful. Let’s say you’re just like, “Okay, I’m promoting my book. I’m dealing with all my authors. I just need a break,” what do you go do? What do you do?

Nita: This is going to make sense to you, I think. I go to something that has no words where I cannot use that skill at all. I dance.

Zibby: Ooh, I love that.

Nita: I dance because it is a language, and I love language. I cannot use my mouth. I cannot use words. I cannot form sentences. It’s a language of the body that is a different spiritual animal, but very related to communication. I’m a salsa dancer. I love Latin music particularly. I feel like when I’m dancing that I can fly. I feel like there’s no gravity that holds me down. I have a freedom and just a Zen sort of feeling in my head of openness and space and freedom. That’s what I do. It’s the counterbalance to all that scrutiny we do as writers on the page.

Zibby: Wow. You made me just want to get up and dance, by the way.

Nita: Let’s do it.

Zibby: Let’s do it.

Nita: Let’s put on some music. Really surprise people here.

Zibby: Yeah, really. What happened in your podcast with Nita Prose? You’re not going to believe this, but we ended up salsa dancing.

Nita: Readers, you just never know what’s going to happen.

Zibby: You never know. You just never know. Oh, my gosh. When you were a little kid, did you know this is what you were going to do with your life?

Nita: I knew in that weird way that you know and you don’t know. When you can’t really do anything else, life sort of leads you there. I tried math. That was a disaster. Never do that again. Come on, I can barely add and subtract. I think I did know. It was a matter of figuring out where that would land exactly. Journalism? Law? Writing? I always wrote. I loved to write. It’s just I couldn’t name — I never was one of those kids who could say, I’m going to be a writer one day. No, it wasn’t that. I would’ve said, I like writing, and I like words. That discovery came later. I’m not a youngin. I finished my debut novel at the tender age of forty-nine. Fifty, I think. Whatever. Something like that. I came to it later, but it has always been there.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I have this novel coming out. I’m like, well, it took me until I was forty-seven. I look at all these twenty-five-year-olds, and I’m like, oh, my gosh.

Nita: I know. I have a deep envy. They put us through such cruelty when they’re twenty-three years old and they write a brilliant novel. I’m like, how did you do that? I did not have the wherewithal or the wisdom to be able to put anything on a page that anyone would want to read. I’m always very impressed with young people who have that ability.

Zibby: Me too. I feel like I need to start my recruiting early. I do feel like you can tell by fourth grade, maybe, who wants to be a writer or who has that itch in them.

Nita: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that’s true.

Zibby: If you see me scouting out fourth graders, you’ll know why. Would you like to write a book for me in fifteen, twenty years? Okay, good. Here’s my card.

Nita: That’s awesome.

Zibby: When you’re so busy writing and editing, do you read for pleasure as well, things that are not on the list of things you have to read?

Nita: I do. These days, I must say, it’s really a lot of manuscripts. It’s really only on holidays that I can do that. Oh, I’m going to go to the airport store. I’m going to buy three novels. I don’t know what they’ll be. This is going to be so delicious because I don’t have to read them. I want to read them. That is a rare privilege for an editor/writer because so often, we have the deluge of manuscripts on the one hand and the deluge of early copies on the other. I must say, I do love being an early reader. How do you feel about that? I love getting a galley and being one of the first readers.

Zibby: A hundred percent. It’s so exciting. Really exciting. I know, I have all these stacks of books by month and then books I’ve read. Then I have this little stack over here. It’s books I just want to read. They’re not coming on my podcast. Maybe they’re not even alive. I just want to read these ones, but I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. I have it aspirationally there.

Nita: That feels good to leave that space open for the possibility of picking up something. That does not work.

Zibby: Did you do research into hotel life and all of that to get such a great sense of the vibe, the characters? Were there specific hotels you had in mind? Go from there.

Nita: The first part, did I do research? Yes. I guess I’ve done research for quite some time. The first research that — again, I didn’t think about it until I was asked that question along the way with The Maid. Many years ago, I did a book as an editor with a butler. He was a butler to many, many famous people, Oprah, Jackie O, just an incredible roster of people. He taught me all about that world that is Downton Abbey-esque on the one hand but kind of modernized in another. It’s one of the few places, a hotel, where we can still have that hierarchy and feel “comfortable” with it. We’re not so comfortable anymore in contemporary society with those very obvious stratified hierarchies. That somehow lodged in my brain. I certainly came to use a lot of what I learned about hotels from him. What was the second part of the question? I can’t remember now. There was something I was going to say about that.

Zibby: I think I said research about hotels. Were there certain hotels in particular?

Nita: Oh, yeah, certain hotels. Your second question about that, were there certain hotels in particular? My favorite thing is when readers decide what the hotel is. Very often, I’ll have readers come up to me and say, I know what hotel that is. That’s the Baglioni in London. I say, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Then someone will say, that’s the Waldorf Astoria in the US. I’m like, sure. Yes, it is. I absolutely love it. It is one of the weirdest compliments to me because my goal is to have the reader participate, to just draw on the faintest lines of what a luxury hotel might be like, a boutique hotel, and for them to complete that with their imaginations. I love it when they do that. As for what hotels really inspired me, there were a few. There was one in Toronto, one in the UK, and one in the US that sort of merged in my mind. Maybe the most important one is the King Edward Hotel in Toronto because for years — I work at Simon & Schuster now, but for years, I worked at Penguin Random House. Down the street was the King Edward Hotel.

Every day that I went to work, I crossed by that hotel with its red-carpeted steps and its portly doorman who stands in his podium with his cap and his greatcoat and his crests. I walked by him every day five days a week. He would tip his cap at me. I would nod at him. I never met him. We never spoke. We never had a conversation. Somehow, I felt like he was watching over me. I saw him do things. I saw him deal with drunk rockstars and be abused by very wealthy people and all kinds of horrors this man endured with so much grace and dignity that he gave to that hotel. Somehow, this man who was a complete stranger felt almost like a grandfather to me, this man I didn’t know. In that weird way that things find their way into books that are truths and untruths at the very same time, Mr. Preston was born into both The Maid and The Mystery Guest via that ephemeral daily contact with a total stranger.

Zibby: Wow. Does he still work at the hotel?

Nita: I haven’t seen him in years. I switched publishing houses, and I didn’t walk by there anymore. I have not seen that man in a long time. I think he’s been replaced by youngins now.

Zibby: Maybe you should march over some copies and try to track him down. FYI, you’re the inspiration for this massive best-selling book, man who never spoke to me. Just so you know. This is your claim to fame, and you don’t even know it.

Nita: Then he demands royalties and turns out to be, maybe, not the greatest guy.

Zibby: Next thing you know, he’s living in the penthouse suite at the hotel, and all is well.

Nita: And turning into Mr. Black.

Zibby: Exactly, oh, my gosh. Will there be more Maid novels?

Nita: An excellent question. I think I can answer that the same way I did after The Maid. Only if I can give readers more instead of less. I know readers want more. I have to figure that out. I have to find a new landscape and territory that will satisfy. For me, that’s always about a mix of genres. There’s mystery on the front. What’s on the back? I love to Frankenstein two genres together. I’m thinking about that. I am indeed thinking about that and if there might be a dramatic third closure book, but we shall see. Only if I can figure it out, Zibby.

Zibby: I have utter faith in you that you will figure it out. I’m looking forward to seeing what all the other colors in the set will be. I feel like you should just keep going. Why limit it to three? Just keep it going. Agatha Christie it. Come on. Life is short. Keep going. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Nita: I do. I find it’s advice people don’t want, but I’ll give it anyway.

Zibby: Go for it.

Nita: It’s, read. My biggest advice is, read. Read voraciously and omnivorously. Read not only for your own pleasure and entertainment, but read to dissect how writing works. Read the scenes that moved you and that made you forget who you were and where you were when you read them. Try to understand how the writers did that because there is so much magic in that ability. You can learn from it. You really can.

Zibby: Read voraciously and omnivorously. Come on, if that’s not a writer thing to say, I don’t know what is. Nita, thank you so much. Congratulations on The Mystery Guest. Good luck with the publication. I will be rooting for you.

Nita: Thank you so much, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

THE MYSTERY GUEST: A Maid Novel by Nita Prose

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