Stephanie Land, CLASS: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education

Stephanie Land, CLASS: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education

Stephanie Land discusses her memoir CLASS: A MEMOIR OF MOTHERHOOD, HUNGER, AND HIGHER EDUCATION, which continues her journey from MAID, focusing on her senior year of college and her daughter’s start in kindergarten. She shares her evolution as a writer under the guidance of her MFA teacher Debra, emphasizing the power of storytelling and exploring themes of resilience amidst poverty. Stephanie also touches on personal challenges, including her husband’s late autism diagnosis, her experiences with miscarriage, and the importance of friendship. Reflecting on her career and public perception post-MAID, she advises aspiring authors to view writing as a business and hints at the possibility of completing a trilogy, while expressing gratitude for the positive reception of her latest book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education.

Stephanie Land: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Can you just give a quick synopsis for readers who have not read this book yet? I don’t know how they’ve missed it so far. I’m kidding. They’ve probably already read it. Just give a quick synopsis of what came after Maid and why Class. Why now? I know you write a lot about the writing of Maid, which was so cool to read about. Tell everybody about this book.

Stephanie: Maid drops off right as we got to Missoula, much like it ended in the series. This book begins about a year and a half later. I’m beginning my senior year of college. My daughter is starting kindergarten. It is a very tight timeline in the sense that it follows that academic year because a lot happened that year.

Zibby: You had a big year. One piece of it — there were so many pieces I really loved about this book. One part was your discovering your own love of writing as we’re reading your writing about it. There was one part with your teacher in the MFA and how when you first got to campus, as you said, “I associated my writer self with my presence on campus. Writing, the real writing that mattered, was meant to be done without cartoons blaring in the background and someone asking for pancakes.” I want to put that up on my bulletin board somewhere. Then you really get into what makes things powerful to read about. Can I read this passage about Debra and what she’s saying here?

Stephanie: Sure.

Zibby: “I filled my notebooks with gems Debra doled out to us in class. One day, she said, ‘The stories you choose to tell are the stories that make up who you are.’ This hit me with such poignancy that I almost didn’t want to hand in the story I’d written about being miserable on the flight to Paris to visit my mom for six weeks.” That is so apt. What makes stories real? Then later when you get there and you tell her about the book that’s going to be Maid, she’s like, “Stephanie, this is going to be a book. This is going to be a movie. Don’t you see how this needs to be a book?” You said, “‘A book about cleaning houses?’ I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t seeing how serious Debra was. ‘This is,’ she said, and started to read it again.” It’s so cool. Tell me about that whole experience, your relationship with Debra, learning to write this way, and finding your voice, really.

Stephanie: Debra, I took a few classes with her. I really admired her just for the way that she talked, her ability to tell a story. She did it all the time. It was fantastic to be in the presence of someone who was able to speak with such authority while going through this story arc. I also learned to really appreciate her just knowing about things. It’s almost kind of witchy. She told me recently that in her mind she predicted that I was about to meet my husband, but she didn’t tell me because she knew that I wouldn’t believe her. She’s just a really incredible, sensitive person. It’s really unique to have someone like that in class with you, especially as an instructor. I kind of followed her around and signed up for her classes even though she was teaching a genre that I don’t really write in. I think the college experience itself was just trying to find these little pockets of empathy and familiarity and acceptance.

Zibby: Wow, it’s amazing. You have another section that I literally underlined fifty times and couldn’t even decide which part to start reading because all of it is just so poignant and amazing. I just love the way you write. Tell me what you think about all of this. You said, “Only grateful people who followed the rules ran any chance of being heard. My anger had no use or value. It didn’t get me anywhere, so I had no choice but compliance. Immediate acceptance of any shitty situation was what most people seemed to mean by resilience, and they needed poor people like me to be that way. Otherwise, my suffering would be too visible to ignore, and they would have to deal with their feelings about that, whether helplessness or responsibility. If people were made too aware of our suffering, like knowing what Amelia ate for dinner every night or that we shared a bedroom, and if we were deemed innocent or undeserving of that suffering, then those people might feel the need to help out in some way. It was easier for a lot of people to imagine how strong and high functioning I was as opposed to how desperate and on the edge of disaster we really were.” Then you say, “Resilience is a flag we poor people could wave to gain that trust. If we proved ourselves time and time again, people nodded in approval.” Then you said, “I’ve spent so much of my life pretending not to be angry, and I’m not doing that anymore.” Beautiful. This is powerful writing here. It’s really amazing. Tell me how you think about these things, how you feel about these things. Now that it’s out in the world, do you feel a rallying cry around your message? This is movement-making type speeches here.

Stephanie: I kind of call that — that’s the soapbox section. I read an interview or something by Emi Nietfeld. She wrote the book Acceptance.

Zibby: She was on my podcast.

Stephanie: She compared the term resilience to just acceptance. That’s what it really is. I realized, wow, yeah, that’s what it is. I have been a public speaker for five years. I end up speaking for a lot of nonprofits. The term resilience was really popular toward the end of the Obama administration. It became kind of this catch-all phrase that was assigned to marginalized populations. I started to see it as resilience training because not only are we told to kind of sit down and shut up and just be grateful, people expected me to be superwoman. I don’t know how many times people told me, I never have to worry about you because I know that you’re fine. I know that you’re doing okay. I know that you’re strong. I didn’t have the heart to tell them, actually, you should be worrying about me. I would really appreciate that. I guess I didn’t want to destroy this façade that they had or this imagery that they had. I never wanted anyone to be concerned about my children because that is a very scary situation. If, especially, government systems start to become concerned about a child’s welfare, then that’s where things get really scary really fast. I avoided that possibility at all costs. That meant playing the part as far as being the person that people expected me to be.

Zibby: Then what would happen away from all the people?

Stephanie: I say it in the book. I had this manta that was, you must not allow yourself to fall apart. That was an actual thing. There were times that if I allowed myself to cry, then I would just be crying all the time because things felt so impossible. I didn’t even have a moment to process anything, let alone cry about it and just how exhausted I was. Every year when school started, I refer to it as a whole new level of exhaustion because that’s just what it was. I had to brace myself for not sleeping very much.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I have to say, I knew what happened because of Maid and everything else, but reading this, I was like, I don’t know if she’s going to be okay. I don’t see the way out of this. There are these things. How is she going to do deal with this and this? You painted quite a picture of okay on the outside, but how is this going to work out? Is it going to work out? It’s something that I feel like so many people share, this external, not bravado, but just — I see what you’re saying about government reasons, but people do it for far less important reasons, just the mask when really, there are some structural reasons here why this is a massive struggle.

Stephanie: I purposefully wanted to stress people out as they read this book.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Stephanie: That was one thing that I heard about the Netflix series. Oh, it’s really hard for me to watch because it just stressed me out so much. She’s doing all of this math. I don’t know if she’s going to make it. I’m like, great. That’s great. I think the more that any form of media or art, either visually or written, that it can evoke this feeling of what it really feels like to be on the edge of extreme housing insecurity and not being able to eat and losing everything — obviously, I’m a white person telling the story. To some people, it would be unexpected that I would be on edge like that because it’s not really a story that anybody is able to really tell, but you don’t expect it to be from a person who grew up middle class and is now in college. I felt it was really important to — I don’t know how many times I had to edit the start of a sentence or a chapter that was just like, “Come on. We got to go. Come on.” I think there’s three or four that are still in there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I read The New York Times piece — I think it was The New York Times piece — about the aftereffects and how people now assume you can do whatever, the effects of the book deal and the movie and everything on your day-to-day life and what people think versus what life is actually is like. Then of course, that’s all in the paper. It’s one thing to write a memoir where you control the narrative and you control what to put in versus what people are taking out of it or the stories being told. How are you feeling about that public/private thing?

Stephanie: In the case of The New York Times profile, Ron and I had talked for — I think he spent a total of ten hours with me. I had absolutely no idea what he was going to choose to focus on because he had a lot to choose from. I was really pleased with what he did and how he wrote about me and that he chose to focus on just how hard it was to purchase a house with the type of income that I have coming in. I learned through him that people thought or assumed that I had made millions of dollars from this Netflix series. That was news to me. Then once I started to think about it, I’m like, oh, that kind of makes sense. That’s why people are asking me for loans and donations and assuming that I have all this money to donate to churches. It was nice to have this readjustment or just knowing what people thought about how successful I actually was when in truth, I’m still working my ass off all the time. I don’t think I’m ever going to not do that, but it’s still because of need at this point.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Stephanie: Right now, I’m just trying to stay sane through book tour. That’s my main job right now. My first event is tonight. Then I don’t think we’re going to be done until the end of November. There’s some outliers in December. Between book tour and public speaking, I’m pretty busy. It’s definitely not a job I ever expected to have. I didn’t know that being a writer translated to talking to people.

Zibby: How do you feel about having to talk to people?

Stephanie: It’s not a natural thing for me to do. I usually avoid that situation. I have learned some ways to cope through it. I recently discovered beta blockers. Those are amazing. I have mental illness. I have anxiety and PTSD. Those kind of rule my life in ways that I’m still learning about. It was really important to me to be active in advocating for myself, especially on book tour.

Zibby: I thought in some social media post you were talking about later-diagnosed autism or something. Did I make that up?

Stephanie: That’s my husband.

Zibby: He did not know?

Stephanie: No. I’m trying to sum this up. He was in the military for ten years. I think it’s common for a late-age identification of autism for people in their forties and above. After we got married, we decided that we wanted to try and have a child together. After the first miscarriage — I had four in a year. It became really obvious that he just didn’t know how to validate or really empathize. I knew he wasn’t an asshole, a jerk or anything. I was just like, “I think you might be autistic.” I finally convinced him to go and get an evaluation or something done, and so he was identified with autism. That was the beginning of 2021. It’s still new. It’s still something that, I would say, heavily affects our relationship just because I am kind of the antithesis of an autistic brain because I speak and live in emotions.

Zibby: Wow. How lucky is he that you were not just like, oh, I guess he is just an asshole? Most people would just be like, great, look what I got myself into.

Stephanie: No, no. He’s a really good guy. He’s very kind. He’s very nice. He’s taking care of everything in my house right now.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You didn’t mention the four miscarriages that you just referred to. I am so sorry for the emotional toll that that undoubtedly took and having to go through that experience. While you do share so much with us in the book, you write about that in the afterword, I think in the acknowledgments or something. Why is that? Just because it came later? Time-wise, why tell it there? Did you think about writing more about it? Are you going to write more about it?

Stephanie: Oh, the acknowledgments? That’s because I was acknowledging my friend Carrie, who is currently sharing this hotel room with me.

Zibby: Hi, Carrie.

Stephanie: She’s taking a shower, actually. I didn’t have friends for a long time. I felt like since I couldn’t give back to a friendship, then I couldn’t be the one who was always taking. This has been the topic of therapy for many years. I closed down. Success was also extremely isolating. I lost a lot of really good friends just out of pure jealousy and cattiness. After Maid came out and everything was going nuts, I weathered that alone. It was so hard. It took me a long time to really learn how to have friends. Carrie slid into my DMs at the beginning of 2020. She was about to sell her book. I had just sold my second one. We just became really close friends really quickly. I don’t think I would have lived through 2020 without her. I don’t say that lightly. Grief is a wallop, man. I still haven’t fully grasped what it really did to me as a person. She was there. Then that grew to, my writing group formed. We first called it The Not-Writing Club and then rebranded ourselves as Sulky Bitches. Some of them came up for my book event tonight. We had dinner together last night. It’s been an incredible part of my life, mid-forties, to finally have really close friends. I don’t think I’ve ever really had that in my life. I brought up the miscarriages just because she was there for it all.

Zibby: That’s really beautiful, a story of friendship. I do think there is something instantly recognizable in other writers. There’s some shorthand when writers meet and talk. I don’t know if it’s that we all have anxiety disorders or what, but I think that’s part of it. It’s that part of your brain that makes you think about things so deeply because if you weren’t thinking about it deeply, you certainly wouldn’t be writing about it. By definition, you are analyzing and observing and all of that. I think the writing community being so supportive of each other, for the most part, is really wonderful.

Stephanie: Writers are kind of an odd bunch. We just speak a different language. Especially in the group, it was just like, “My daughter just did this and this and this.” Then one of us pipes in, “That sounds like an essay.”

Zibby: Totally. Great title.

Stephanie: I recognized that I was a writer when I was ten. I just instinctively knew that it was a different form of person to process information that way and to want to record your life or to create stories. I kept journals. I was a daily writer for a long time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group of close friends that weren’t writers. They just are the only people that really understand the chaos.

Zibby: Where do you want life to go now? Do you have any giant dreams? I know that’s such a cliché question. You can do anything. You have proved yourself as a writer. You have all this attention on you right now. What do you want to do with it? Where are you going to go with it?

Stephanie: That’s the thing that my agent is wanting to know right now. I can’t stop comparing the book-writing process to pregnancy and having a baby because I feel like I am holding this newborn in the mesh diaper and just birthed this thing. They’re just like, so when are you going to have another one?

Zibby: Sorry.

Stephanie: No, it’s fine that you are asking that specifically. I think it’s kind of funny, but it’s also conversations that I’m having right now in a serious way. I’m very keen on this idea of having a trilogy. Maybe I need things to be tidy and in an order, and so the three sounds pretty cool. There’s a lot that happened after Class ended. The main thing that happened was I was able to get an apartment in low-income housing. It was a situation where my income didn’t affect my rent. It sounds crazy to say this number, but my rent was $430 a month for this tiny little apartment. It had a washer and dryer. It had a bathtub. That changed everything for me. That was how I was able to focus on writing. I wrote with a newborn in my lap, but that was how I started freelancing. Then freelancing turned into an essay that went viral, and the rest is why I’m talking to you right now.

Zibby: Isn’t it crazy how everybody’s life, all those decisions — this sounds so silly. The fact that any of us end up talking to each other, that any of us are where we are is so unlikely, that every connection — I don’t know. Never mind. Anyway, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Stephanie: Aspiring, the thing that I usually end up teaching and focusing on is the business of writing. I think a lot of people do not view themselves as a business and do not think of themselves as something that they need to brand and market and have a separate account for and do taxes for. It’s almost like a dirty word to talk about money when you’re talking about art in general. For me, that was why I was working. I couldn’t work for free. When it came time to invoicing and putting money in the bank and then paying taxes on it and stuff, I had no idea what I was doing. You’re going to be a writer or you’re not. That’s up to you. I would advise people, don’t shy away from thinking of yourself as a business and really owning that. It was empowering for me to get an LLC. I have a couple of employees. One of them is traveling with me on book tour. I hated the term branding in the beginning, but now it’s something that really makes sense. I think people don’t like to admit that they’re working on creating this brand and content based on that brand so that you are kind of a thing that is associated with a certain thing. That has been a huge part of building my life as a writer.

Zibby: It’s very, very important. Good to think about early. Hopeful.

Stephanie: Get all the same URLs. Get them now.

Zibby: Stephanie, congratulations on Class. So exciting. It was so good. It’s just impossible not to root for you in life. You take us through all of this. I hope you can feel and hear all of us out there who are just cheering you on even though you don’t know all of us. Now you know me, but you know what I mean.

Stephanie: Thank you. The response to this book has just been so amazing. I was scared. I was nervous. I am angry in this book. I am having lots of sex with lots of people. I was like, I don’t know what they’re going to think about this one. The response has been really amazing.

Zibby: Sex in books never turns people away. This is one of those things. I think people generally tend to like that. I’ll just throw that out there. Good luck with all your events.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Stephanie: Bye.

CLASS: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education by Stephanie Land

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