Author Zoje Stage’s ‘Mothered’ is pandemic nightmare
BooksZoje Stage

Author Zoje Stage’s ‘Mothered’ is pandemic nightmare

Energy vampires, terse exchanges and prolonged isolation pull readers into horrifying and familiar tale

Zoje Stage. Photo courtesy of Zoje Stage
Zoje Stage. Photo courtesy of Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage, a USA Today bestselling author, is a master of drafting suspenseful scenes. But there’s no suspense about her newest novel’s place on the shelf. As of March 3, “Mothered” is the No. 1 horror suspense book on Amazon.

Stage’s nightmare-inducing tale is beating Stephen King’s “Holly” and Alex North’s “The Angel Maker” on the site’s compilation of “hot new releases.”

Published March 1, “Mothered” concerns a mother and daughter who begin living together during the early months of the pandemic. Terse exchanges, a loss of space and prolonged solitude remind readers of the familiar existential and physical trials of recent years.

Stage, a Jewish author and Squirrel Hill resident, said she didn’t set out to write a pandemic story. She began contemplating a plot well before COVID-19 entered into common parlance.

After visiting her mother’s apartment, Stage considered what it would be like living with a parent again. Stage shared the thought with her agent and said if it actually happened one of them “wouldn’t make it out alive.”

To Stage’s surprise, her agent replied that the author’s comment was a great premise.

Stage pondered the idea and quickly realized that she couldn’t mine her own experience.

“If I was going to explore that kind of dynamic of a mother/daughter who truly could not cohabitate, I needed them to be characters who are completely different from me and my mom,” she said. “I absolutely did not want to be in the headspace of me thinking about my mom and how that would be living together.”

Zoje Stage, right, and her mother Ruth Stage at the 2017 Renaissance Festival. Photo by Zoje Stage

Stage fleshed out her characters and landed on the concept of “energy vampires.” People, she said, who “when you're with them, just consume all the bits of your energy and your thoughts and your emotions, and you're just depleted when you leave them.”

The author began writing in April 2020, but as the pandemic stretched on “it completely crept into my story,” she said. “Once I embraced it, I realized this is the perfect reason as to why this mother and daughter would stay living together past the point of no return.”

“Mothered” is Stage’s fifth published novel. But this time around, her process differed: While she used to write daily, the pandemic and her mother’s declining health prevented that.

“It was really hard to focus. It was hard to read,” she said. “It was just really hard to get stuff done.”

Stage spent months without writing. The absence was instructive, however.

“It really did kind of teach me a different way to write and to not be afraid that I'm going to lose the story,” she said. “I actually found the story. I was able to think about the story more in depth.”

Though “Mothered” represents a lengthier artistic process than her previous works, there are familiar inclusions within its pages: references to Giant Eagle, Greenfield and Oakland.

“The reason so many of my stories have a Pittsburgh connection is I'm so rooted here,” she said. “Even when I didn't live here, so many of the dreams and nightmares that I would have were still rooted in Pittsburgh.”

The city, its surroundings and its residents are just “so much a part of what I know and what I understand.”

Image courtesy of Amazon

Stage grew up in Squirrel Hill, two blocks from her current home. She said she loves the area but as a child struggled to find her place within the community.

“It's a much more diverse neighborhood now,” she said, “but my perspective always was I was growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, and I never felt like I was Jewish enough.”

Stage was born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.

“Neither of my parents were terribly religious,” she said, “so we weren't really raised with any particular theology or any particular family traditions.”

Despite “very much wanting to be Jewish,” Stage said she felt like “an outsider.”

She cited an incident from when she was 12. A friend regularly attended Hebrew classes, and Stage decided to join her. She soon discovered how enjoyable the experience was.

Eventually, the teacher asked Stage why her parents didn’t register her for her schooling.

“I didn't have access to that,” she said. “In my own family, that just was not a thing that we were going to do.”

Stage said she’s spent plenty of years thinking about Judaism, organized religion and where she rests in the fold.

“I’m fine with where I am now,” she said. “I mean, I have some strange ideas about things, but I do find some of the beliefs in Judaism are very comforting to me. I feel like there are some very open-ended possibilities, in a spiritual sense, for what is available in Judaism. And I find that very comforting. I can be Jewish in my own way — and there is room for that in Judaism — and it's part of why I'm attracted to it.”

Stage is scheduled to speak about “Mothered” on March 16 at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall through Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. Registrants can enjoy the free event in person or online.

Stage said she’s looking forward to sharing more about her newest work. And without spoiling any details of strained relationships within the book, she noted that the characters embody familiar qualities.

“My passion is exploring human behavior, human beings, the dichotomous ideas that exist in human beings and how good and evil is something that is present everywhere,” she said. “I really like to put those things in my characters, and in my stories, in ways that I think are unexpected.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

read more: