Excerpted from The Doll by Taylor Stevens. Copyright © 2013 by Taylor Stevens. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with New York Times bestselling thriller writer Taylor Stevens,
author of THE DOLL
(Crown Publishers; on sale June 4, 2013)
Q: Your debut thriller, The Informationist, was sold to 20 territories, received rave reviews from national media including the New York Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press, and became an instant New York Times bestseller. And we’ve heard film rights were just bought by James Cameron! In your wildest dreams did you foresee this kind of success for your very first publication?
A: My dreams were pretty tame, and I never saw this coming. I’m still waiting for that call that confirms what I’ve suspected—it’s all been a mistake, a fluke, and oops, sorry. Originally, getting published wasn’t even on the map of reasons for writing—the goal was just to write a book, to say that I’d done it, that I’d finished what I’d started. Gradually, as the story progressed and I learned more about publishing, I dared to hope that maybe I could get into print. But this? I had no idea.
Q: The Informationist introduced readers to a mysterious, motorcycle loving, tough-as-nails protagonist named Vanessa “Michael” Munroe. She’s often been described as part Jason Bourne, part Jack Reacher, with a little bit of Lisbeth Salander and Sydney Bristow mixed in. How did you first come up with this bad-ass character?
A: Without much in the way of formal education, and having never attended any creative writing classes, for me, everything about writing fiction unfolded backwards. I had no idea what I was doing—had no plot, no characters—only the location in which the first book would be set, so there was never a brilliant aha moment when Munroe came vividly to life fully created. Imagining what her reactions might be to various scenarios, I was often drawn to the emotional conflict and skill of Jason Bourne and the sensual confidence of Lara Croft, but Munroe’s history, the past that made her who she is and the full development of her passion, was a slow process brought to life over time in counterpoint to the demanding environments she was thrown into.
Q: You set your first thriller all over the world with a significant amount of time spent in Africa, and your second novel, The Innocent, was set in Buenos Aires and Morocco. Your new novel, The Doll is set in Central Europe—Croatia and Slovenia— and Italy. You seem to favor exotic locales! Tell us about that.
A: It’s one of those things where, once the pattern was established and readers responded so favorably to the international settings in the first story, I had to continue in that vein through the rest of the series. Basically I created my own handcuffs—ha. From a crafting perspective, setting stories internationally is difficult: the research is time intensive and there are exponentially more ways to goof up the details. I try to avoid writing parts of the world that might be considered “obvious” thriller targets—places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. And because the plot has to bend to the location, not the other way around, it means before I even start with an idea of what happens, I have to already figure out where it’s going to happen.
Q: The Doll takes Munroe inside the underground world of sex slaves and human trafficking where she must outsmart and outmaneuver a shadowy figure known only as “the Doll Maker.” What inspired this plot and this very creepy villain?
A: My “ideal reader” (the person with whom I discuss everything to do with my writing) asked me, “What would happen if instead of Munroe being the rescuer, she was the victim?” That prompted so many other what-if scenarios: Who would be crazy enough to go after Munroe? Why would they do it? How would they control her? What would be awful enough to motivate her to care? Human trafficking is an issue I’ve been aware of for quite some time, and it seemed to me that many people in developed nations still have a tendency to view it as something that happens only in other countries. I felt it could use more attention and the subject matter worked for the story. That said, it is such a dark, depressing, and almost hopeless topic that I didn’t feel I could properly do it justice in the form of entertainment, so rather than use true-to-life scenarios, I built an extreme outlier situation and used that as the entertainment while contrasting against the starkness of what is reality.
Q: In The Doll Munroe is forced to deliver merchandise in the form of a high-value young woman in order to keep her closest friend, Logan, alive. If she succeeds, she’ll guarantee the young girl’s demise. If she fails, it means Logan’s death. In order to save the ones she loves, she’s pitted not only against the trafficking organization, but against the worst aspects of herself. Was it difficult writing this more personal side of Munroe?
A: Mostly what I found extraordinarily difficult was developing and writing two stories, with two distinct plot lines, two completely different casts of characters, in two separate time zones, both of which needed to zipper seamlessly together. Each story also needed to have its own story arc, its own tension, its own octane, while still giving the characters enough life to become “real,” all while keeping it within a limited word count and playing it out in parts of the world with which I was unfamiliar. Writing the book nearly killed me!
Q: What’s next for Munroe?
A: She’s headed back to Africa, this time to the north and east where she gets tangled up with a hijacked ship. Readers will have an opportunity to watch how she operates when she ends up in unfamiliar territory where she’s on her own and where she has no prior contacts or connections. And this time—perhaps my inner child is rebelling against the beating it took when writing The Doll—there is only one plot line and one point of view. In The Catch, it’s pure Vanessa Michael Munroe, all the way.
“I read The Doll in one frenzied, caffeine-fueled sitting, then re-read it slowly and luxuriantly, just for the sheer pleasure of it. Out of everything I’ve read ever, if I had to pick a fictional character to have dinner with, Michael Munroe would certainly make my Top 5. . . Stevens excels at depicting pulse-pounding danger, and her prose and plotting are spectacular, especially given her cult background. She was denied all but a sixth-grade education, but her writing places her heads above most authors working in the thriller genre. Only Dan Brown and Lee Child come close; not even the lauded Larsson could turn a phrase or twist a plotline like Stevens can. Really, my only complaint is that I’d like her to please write faster.” —Dallas Morning News
"Munroe is a sensational character and Stevens is a sensational writer, and together they put The Doll high on my books-of-the-year list." —Lee Child, New York Times bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series
“If you are a fan of Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander, or Nina Zero, you need to check out Vanessa Michael Munroe!” —BookPage
“If you can stand the heat, Stevens’ third thriller is a sizzler.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, The Doll and the two previous Vanessa Michale Munroe novels are pretty hard to beat.” —Huntington News
"Munroe, skilled at strategy, tactics, and languages, is a powerful and dangerous figure whose violent aspect is reminiscent of James Bond." —Criminal Elements
“Prolific linguist and exquisitely honed killer Munroe is no less effective here for still suffering from past trauma…Stevens’s third series outing is another brisk, adrenaline-fueled adventure with a trail of bodies and a damaged protagonist who may live to kill another day.” —Library Journal
“Stevens’ third Munroe book is another international action-adventure with a Bourne-like avenging angel at the reins.” —Booklist
“Lean and mean thriller featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, an "informationist" with a scary dark streak… This book is strongly influenced by the existential bare-bones approach of Lee Child's Reacher books, and its brilliant but damaged heroine, the estranged daughter of missionaries, owes much to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But Stevens stamps the novel with her own bleak, punishing, bullet-flying outlook… Out of that gloomy intensity comes edgy suspense. In Stevens' powerfully contained follow-up to The Innocent, there is no release for the tormented heroine, only license to live another day.” —Kirkus
“Good and bad deeds alike have a high price, as dramatically shown in Stevens’s harrowing third Vanessa Michael Munroe novel…Munroe remains as compelling as ever: violent yet protective of innocence, imprisoned by not only her past but also the choices she has made in response to it, and painfully conscious of her closeness to sanity’s edge.” —Publishers Weekly
“This New York Times Bestselling author is back…with a truly spellbinding story.” —Suspense Magazine