Nita Prose: In The Maid, I want readers to see how we’re the same, not how we're different

Nita Prose’s debut novel is one of 2022’s must-reads, with a Hollywood adaptation in the works, and Florence Pugh in the lead role. By Eimear Ryan
Nita Prose: In The Maid, I want readers to see how we’re the same, not how we're different

Nita Prose's debut novel The Maid is out now with HarperCollins

Nita Prose is not your typical debut novelist. As vice president and publishing director of Simon & Schuster in Toronto, she has worked with bestselling authors like Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, and Gretchin Rubin, and shepherded countless writers through the publication process. But navigating the publishing world with her own debut novel — The Maid, out now with HarperCollins — was a different kind of experience.

“It really brought home to me just how vulnerable you are as a writer,” she says, speaking from her bright Toronto home office. She apologises for the occasional barks from her ‘arrogant pug’ in the background (sadly, said pug does not make an appearance during our chat).

“I’ve often talked to my authors about something I call the labyrinth,” she says. “The author is standing in front of the maze of the story and she has to go in and figure out the path to the ending. Sometimes she’ll turn left, she’ll write for six months and she’ll end up at a dead end. And it’s just brutal. There’s a loneliness to that.” 

The editor, on the other hand, has more of an objective view. 

“I always knew that my authors had that level of vulnerability and blindness going into that narrative maze, but to experience it myself really gave me a new empathy for just the bravery it takes to write at all. It’s just such a creative leap of faith. And it is disorienting for sure.” 

While Prose’s description of the creative process will ring painfully true to many writers, it’s all worth it if you get a finished product like The Maid: a classic murder mystery that manages to be funny, touching and soothing all at once, rendered in a pristine, crystal-clear writing style. 

Our narrator is Molly Gray, a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, a job that she delights in and that provides her with meaning and refuge after the death of her beloved Gran, the woman who raised her. Molly’s neat, orderly world is upended, however, when she discovers one of the hotel’s repeat customers — Mr Black — ‘very dead in his bed’. Molly soon finds herself under suspicion. 

The book’s influences, according to Prose, include Agatha Christie, Cluedo, Knives Out, Hitchcock, Columbo, and the novels Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. What makes The Maid stand out in the cozy crime genre, however, is Molly’s singular voice, which leaps off the page. 

“It’s a voice that did literally strike me like a bolt out of the blue,” Prose explains. While at the London Book Fair in 2019, she accidentally startled a maid when she returned to her hotel room. 

“I remember her gasping and stepping back into a shadowy corner. And the embarrassing part was that she was holding my track pants, which I had left in a tangled mess on the bed. And I thought, it’s such an invisible and intimate job to be a hotel maid. She’d been cleaning my room day after day so she knew so much about me, but I knew nothing about her.” 

On the plane home a few days later, she thought of the incident again. “I heard Molly’s voice: it was clean, it was crisp, it was precise. 

I grabbed the napkin from under my drink and I started to write the prologue in a single burst. At that point I didn’t realize that I had just started my debut novel.

As a maid, Molly is consistently overlooked, unnoticed and underestimated — a position, I suggest, that is a useful one for a detective. Prose agrees. 

“Molly sort of inverts the trope of Sherlock Holmes, who is able to spot everything, understand every detail, map it out for the reader. Molly is not quite the same. She sees everything, but her interpretation is wrong. So then the reader has to become Sherlock Holmes.” 

Many early readers have celebrated the fact that Molly can be interpreted as a neurodivergent character, one who is keenly aware of the fact that she sometimes misreads social cues. Early in the book, Molly confides: ‘The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.’ Prose, however, is keen not to pigeonhole Molly. 

“Something that was really important to me in the creation of Molly was not to label her. This to me is a book about what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different. And I was really concerned that if I labelled her in the cover copy, readers would miss the most important part: not how we’re different, but how we’re the same. My goal is to have the reader step into the experience of being Molly and see through her eyes. And my hope is that through living as Molly and especially living invisibly in plain sight, you come to love her.” 

Florence Pugh will play Molly in the screen adaptation of The Maid
Florence Pugh will play Molly in the screen adaptation of The Maid

Another wonderful presence in the book is Molly’s Gran, who has died some months before the novel’s action begins. Gran hovers over the narrative like a ghost, often remembered by Molly through her cheerful pearls of wisdom and can-do attitude. In creating this tough, loveable matriarch, Prose drew on her own experience of loss. 

“For me, this really is a study of grief,” she says. “I lost my mother in 2015. I know that I was working through some of my emotions about that loss and there’s something else I was fundamentally trying to do, which is give the reader the gift of something I was so lucky to have. And that is a matriarch who would love you through anything unconditionally, who would navigate and guide you in the most unusual ways, and was a fierce protector.”

What's next for Prose? Firstly, she is excited about the forthcoming screen adaptation of The Maid, with Florence Pugh attached as Molly. In particular, she is looking forward to seeing the opulence of the Regency Grand depicted on screen. The novel’s hotel setting is almost a character in itself, with a façade of elegance, sophistication and glamour – and darker secrets behind closed doors. There is an upstairs-downstairs aspect, too, with the hotel’s workers living in much more humble conditions than the hotel guests. 

“There is an illusion that exists for guests,” Prose observes, “one that we all buy into. And yet there are all of these service workers who are propping up that illusion.” 

With a bestseller, I ask if she will take a step back from her publishing responsibilities to focus on her writing. Not necessarily — for Prose, writing and editing are ‘two halves of a whole’. Her priority is to keep doing the work she loves, which is to “tell stories or help people tell stories. It’s all I can do,” she laughs.

The Maid is out now, published by HarperCollins

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