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Stephanie Land’s Journey from Poverty to Stability: Did Becoming a Maid Lead to a Better Life?

What do you do with the money you earn from a story you wrote about not having much for too many years?

As a single mother cleaning houses, Stephanie Land dusted and polished a catalog of possible answers to this question and chronicled them in her memoir “Maid.” Her new book, “Class,” which comes out on Nov. 7, picks up where “Maid” left off, recounting her struggle to use food stamps to feed herself and her daughter while going deep into student loan debt.

When “Maid” became a surprise best seller in 2019 and then a hit Netflix series in 2021, it looked to the world like she had become rich.

A local nonprofit requested a donation in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. Friends asked for loans, large ones. A fan seemed surprised — and not exactly approving — to see her sitting in first class.

The reactions were a lot to absorb, given that she wasn’t that far removed from living in a homeless shelter with a toddler. But what she wanted as much as anything was a house, in her name — one without black mold or roommates or unpredictable landlords.

It wasn’t easy to get one.

When you sell a book, you usually get your money in up to four separate payments over at least a couple of years. Agents take up to a 15 percent cut, and you have to set aside money for taxes.

When Ms. Land, 45, got her first book payment in 2016, she had nearly $50,000 in student loans. She also had about $16,000 in credit card debt, which she paid off immediately.

Her two children had been on state-subsidized health insurance, but her book earnings rendered them ineligible, so she needed to purchase new insurance, which at one point cost her family over $30,000 per year. She spent $7,000 on a very used Subaru.

“I had years of not being able to make ends meet to make up for,” she said. “And that includes mental health and our physical health.”

So down-payment money was scarce. Ms. Land got married in 2019 to a veteran who is eligible to receive disability payments through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but two late student-loan payments had left him ineligible for a V.A. home loan. They tried to move from Missoula, Mont., to Raleigh, N.C., in early 2020 and were seeking a mortgage of about $350,000.

But her book deal and its promise of future payments weren’t enough for her to qualify for one. “I couldn’t prove to them that I had a job,” she said.

She didn’t really believe she did, either. “The book advance felt like some kind of weird loan,” she said, given the standard contractual provision in the book industry that a publisher can reject a finished manuscript. “It was scary.”

A Netflix deal is also no guarantee of riches. With an adaptation like the one of Ms. Land’s book, you generally get a small amount up front once your agent sells the rights — this happened several months after the book came out and became a best seller — and much more only when the cameras turn on. But if the show doesn’t get made at all, no more money generally comes your way — and production hadn’t started yet when Ms. Land was trying to buy a home.

A long-term source of guaranteed income would also have been helpful to qualify for a mortgage. Like many nonfiction authors, Ms. Land turned to speaking. An author of her renown should be able to command $15,000 to $20,000 or so for a speaking engagement, before agent fees, taxes and any discounts or freebies for nonprofit clients.

But this too is precarious. Bookings can be sporadic, and her income dried up during the early months of the pandemic. Speakers may have a shelf life of only a handful of years before their book gets old and the topic seems stale.

The subject of poverty is, alas, always timely. The further Ms. Land gets from the lived experience of it, however, the more she worries that she seems like an impostor. “I’m still really struggling with job security,” she said. “My job depends on people finding me interesting, and I worry that people are thinking that I’m not authentic.”

There was no evidence of that earlier this month when Ms. Land spoke to an audience of University of Delaware freshmen who had read her book. The queries at the end were reverential. “You ask me questions like I’m a white guy or something,” she said, drawing peals of laughter from the crowd.

In September, she’d politely declined to write a $30,000 check to the nonprofit with the bold ask, though she had paid a week’s worth of camp tuition for a dozen low-income families in her community. Friends who approached her with financial needs ended up with $15,000 in loans over time, and she forgave them all. When she sits in first class, it’s almost always because clients pay for her ticket.

And that house? She finally got it, when a miracle worker mortgage broker finagled a deal for her in Missoula. The down payment was low enough that mortgage insurance was necessary. She’ll be on the road a lot in the coming years to pay for it all. (Ms. Land declined to comment on the terms of her second book contract.)

Inside the house, there isn’t much that resembles the lavish homes she cleaned and described in “Maid.” There is no hot tub or deep fryer or Lazy Susan with fancy salts and a variety of hot sauces.

Instead, there are 45 or so houseplants and a kitchen crammed with jam jars and Fiestaware plates in rainbow colors. Three dogs live there too, slobbering all over everything and shedding so much that twice-daily vacuuming is sometimes necessary. Ms. Land and her husband clean; she can’t bring herself to hire someone to be on their hands and knees while she is still walking around. When she stays in hotels, she leaves $20 per night near the phone with a note of gratitude.

Her children have their own rooms, which they’ve fixed up as they please.

“As a house cleaner, the thing that really got to me was the kids’ bedrooms,” she said. They had places for their clothes. They had new clothes that weren’t from Goodwill, and lots of them.

“I wanted that for my kids,” she said. “Everything else is just a bonus.”

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