Nita Pronovost wrote the first lines of her debut novel on an airplane napkin.
Pronovost, vice president and editorial director at Simon & Schuster Canada, was flying back to Toronto from London, where she had attended the 2019 London Book Fair. While there, she had returned to her hotel room after a breakfast meeting and accidentally ran into – and startled – the maid cleaning her room.
In this brief interaction, the intimate and invisible role hotel room maids play crystallized in Pronovost’s mind. Even after she stopped actively thinking about her brush with the maid, that realization evolved into the voice of Molly Gray – protagonist and narrator of The Maid (Penguin Canada, January).
“I was on the plane home. I wasn’t thinking about that encounter, but that’s when it came to me: it was Molly’s voice from The Maid, and it was clean, it was clear, and it was precise,” she says. Since Pronovost didn’t have any paper, she penned the words onto the napkin under her drink. The words eventually became the prologue of her book.
Pronovost has always been drawn to words and stories. “I often joke that that’s really the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” she says. It was serendipitous, then – and also inevitable – for her to end up in the publishing industry, which she has been a part of for nearly two decades.
Pronovost got her start writing for several literary magazines. She was eventually hired at HarperCollins Canada as a production editor before graduating to the role of senior editor at Penguin Random House Canada’s Doubleday imprint. There, she worked with bestselling authors such as Paula Hawkins, Joy Fielding, and Linwood Barclay. For the past six years, Pronovost has overseen the domestic and international list at Simon & Schuster, where she has worked with internationally bestselling poet Rupi Kaur, Juno Award–winning musicians Tegan and Sara, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
Pronovost remembers feeling a sense of rightness when she began working at Harper-Collins, even while doing mundane tasks like using the photocopier. “I remember feeling like I’d arrived, like this was everything I’d hoped for,” she recalls. “And it turned out to be true: it was exactly what I had always been looking for in the profession.”
Though Pronovost had previously helped ghostwrite celebrity memoirs, she hadn’t planned on writing a book of her own. But the story idea proved too intriguing not to explore.
“Quietly, on my own, I began to think about what it would be like to live as Molly, to be invisible in plain sight,” says Pronovost. “I started to create the world of a hotel.”
Pronovost really means it when she says “quietly”; she told no one – not her family, not her friends, not her industry colleagues – that she was writing a book. She confesses that she was “abjectly terrified” at the prospect of finishing the book, submitting it to agents – many of whom are her colleagues – and being brushed off by them.
“I kept having this recurring waking nightmare of showing my work and them saying, ‘Lovely work, it’s really sweet, but no,’ which in agent speak is ‘It’s awful,’” Pronovost says.
Despite her fear, Pronovost eventually finished and submitted her manuscript under the pen name Nita Prose. She did this to separate her identity as a writer from her identity as an editor, rather than a desire for secrecy. “It really wasn’t a very well-kept secret who I was,” Pronovost chuckles. Her long last name, she adds, was also a factor.
However, not only were Pronovost’s fears unfounded but the manuscript met with great success: Penguin Canada acquired the novel’s Canadian English rights, while Ballantine and HarperFiction UK acquired the U.S. and U.K./Commonwealth rights, respectively. Meanwhile, the book’s film rights were snagged by Universal Studios ahead of its release this month, and its adaptation is slated to star Academy Award nominee Florence Pugh.
The Maid is a murder mystery that follows Molly Gray, a socially awkward maid at the luxurious Grand Regency Hotel, as she seeks to clear her name after she finds a wealthy hotel guest murdered in his bed and becomes the police’s primary suspect – due to her odd social interactions with both the police and some of her questionable colleagues.
Pronovost is excited to share Molly with readers. “When a reader tells me that they wanted to defend Molly, then I think I’ve done my job well,” she says.
“What makes it different from other mysteries is that the mystery can only be solved through a real connection to the human heart,” Pronovost explains. “I love a good mystery, but for me, the challenge and the excitement of this book was trying to meld the world of the whodunit with a world of great tenderness.”
The biggest source of tenderness in The Maid is the relationship between the orphaned Molly and her Gran. Even though Molly’s grandmother dies of cancer before the action of the novel takes place, she remains the most significant person in her life.
“I think all of those scenes about how they function together, how they help each other, and how they need each other to get through life in their worlds – those are the ones that, for me, have the most meaning,” says Pronovost. This meaning is further amplified by the parallels between Molly and Gran’s relationship and Pronovost’s relationships with the matriarchs in her own life.
“Both [my mother and my aunt] were obsessive cleaners. … It was as though cleaning their houses … was a way of cleaning their minds. So I tried to give some of those qualities to Molly,” she explains. Pronovost admits she finds doing laundry a bit tedious but loves making her bed.
“It’s something I enjoy when all the sheets, the bedspread, and pillows are right, and no doubt I have put that sensibility, now that I think about it, into Molly and the way she makes a bed,” Pronovost says with a laugh.