Zoje Stage’s fourth psychological thriller, Mothered (Thomas & Mercer, Mar. 2023), is terrifying and claustrophobic, but it is not, as Stage clearly expresses in an author’s note, meant to document the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. The story of a mother and daughter with a complicated relationship, confined in a house, takes place with an unspecified pandemic as background, and the isolation creates a volatile situation that results in shocking violence.
When Grace buys a house, then loses her job, it seems logical for her newly widowed mother, Jackie, to move in. They share a difficult past, with memories of Grace’s twin sister, Hope, who had cerebral palsy and died when they were children, the catalyst for Grace’s nightmares and her descent into madness. What is real and what is not?
Mothered opens with a psychotherapist reading a file with information about his new patient, and the crime scene the police found when they were called to the house: “Blood had dripped from the walls,” Stage writes. “Overkill wasn’t uncommon in crimes of passion, where love and hate bred a frenzy of mixed emotions, deep and personal, but ninety-one stab wounds?”
The explanation for the murder reeks of insanity:“ ‘I had to do it. She was contagious.’ ...A miasma of decay had wafted out like a poisonous cloud, making the uniformed officers gag. How had she lived with the stench? And why?”
Stage tells me that she never made a conscious decision to write in a particular genre but has “always been attracted to dark stories where something odd is going on. I like to read page-turners and always felt I should write the kind of books I like to read.”
In late 2019, she was talking with her agent, Stephen Barbara at InkWell Management, and told him about being in her mother’s apartment and thinking that “if we lived together one of us would not get out alive.”
Stage recalls Barbara’s reaction: “What a great concept—do it! You’re so good at mothers and daughters,” he said, referring to Stage’s bestselling 2018 debut Baby Teeth, about a couple with a mute child who, though seemingly a darling girl, is intent on destroying her mother. Stage’s two other novels also delight in the fear factor: there’s 2020’s Wonderland, about a family that leaves New York City only to discover something ominous lurking in the woods behind their new Adirondack farmhouse, and 2021’s Getaway, in which a hike into the Grand Canyon turns into a version of hell.
Stage says her real thought about Barbara’s suggestion was that if she did write it, “the characters of mother and daughter would have to be far removed from the reality of my mother and me with no relation to real life. I didn’t want to be in that head space.”
She started writing in April 2020. “In that moment, we did not know what we were in for,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking of the pandemic, but it crept into the book. I was thinking of the claustrophobia of living with someone and being haunted by your past, your past physically manifest in your life.”
Stage adds that she “loved writing the chapters where things go off the rails, and the nightmares.” The book took a year and a half, whereas “typically I’d have a draft in three to four months,” she says. “I learned important things with this book: taking time, knowing my voice, what’s important.”
The idea of twins evolved from the idea of sisters. Stage has a sister very close in age, and says that “people thought we looked alike but we are so different internally.” She wanted the sister’s death to be “a lingering trauma for Grace and her mom.”
Barbara says he was in L.A. having lunch at the Cavatina restaurant in the Sunset Marquis hotel in 2019 when he got a call about Stage looking for an agent. “I knew her work and was excited hearing that she was looking,” he recalls. “Zoje has such a talent for dark twisted family stories. We spoke over the phone, and I signed her in August 2019.”
The manuscript of Mothered was ready in fall 2021 and Barbara sent it out widely. “I felt like Mothered was something special,” he says. “It was visceral with real energy and creepy and disturbing.” There was a lot of interest and good feedback, he notes—and also hesitancy about the fact that it’s a pandemic novel.
But Liz Pearsons, senior acquisitions editor at Thomas & Mercer, was enthusiastic from the very beginning. “Liz completely got it,” Stage says. “She completely understood.”
When Pearsons got the submission from Barbara, she “dove in,” she says. Pearsons brought Mothered to the acquisitions team and a few weeks later had the contract for world English rights.
“It’s unusual for a deal to happen so fast or to have the bandwidth to spend time with one book, but it happened with Mothered,” Pearsons says. “The book is propulsive, timely and a fun read. Are the dream/nightmare sequences real or not? I like mysteries and thrillers, the darker the better. Books that have a scary element but are fast paced and character driven.”
Barbara says, “What we liked about Liz was that she saw Zoje as a career, not one book. She saw the future and Zoje’s potential. Initially she wanted a two-book deal.”
Originally a filmmaker—she has “written, directed, and produced numerous zero-budget films,” according to her bio—Stage says that at first she was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel but realized it means wearing all the hats of a filmmaker, and now, “I’m hooked for life.”
I leave you with one image that has stayed with me: Grace is playing paper dolls with Hope, who says her doll needs a handbag—something small and soft. “Cut off your earlobe,” she tells Grace. “It will be perfect.”
This article has been updated for clarity.