Brenda Janowitz, THE LIZ TAYLOR RING

Brenda Janowitz, THE LIZ TAYLOR RING

Journalist, essayist, and author Brenda Janowitz joins Zibby to discuss her seventh book, The Liz Taylor Ring. Brenda tells Zibby about how this project —as well as 2020’s The Grace Kelly Dress and her upcoming novel— were all inspired by her lifelong love for old Hollywood starlets, why she finds it hard to live in and write about situations that are not black-and-white, and which piece of advice from author Elin Hilderbrand she has heeded throughout her career as a novelist. Although she is no longer the Books Correspondent for PopSugar, Brenda still offers which books she is loving right now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brenda. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about The Liz Taylor Ring, your latest book.

Brenda Janowitz: Thank you for having me. I’m so thrilled to be here.

Zibby: I know we are in the midst of all of the excitement of pub week and everything. I wanted to hear you talk this book, obviously. For a minute, for people who might not be authors or don’t know what it’s like to have a book come out in a given week, what does pub week look like? What does it look like for you?

Brenda: I would just start off by saying it’s completely overwhelmingly. You think you’re prepared for it, but you’re not. Of course, launching a book during COVID is completely different. Normally, I’d have all these live events. You get the energy. You get to see friends. You get to see other authors. This time, mostly everything’s virtual. Although, ironically, I’m about to hop on a plane to go to Litchfield Books. I do have one or two in-person things, but it’s a little different this time around just because it’s so heavily reliant on screens. My eyes are exhausted from doing all of the online stuff. Mostly, it’s just really exciting. You work on a book for so long. In the case of The Liz Taylor Ring, it was two years of work. Finally, your baby’s out there in the world. It’s all the things, overwhelming, wonderful, exciting, scary, a little of everything. It’s weird for this to be my seventh book and feel like I’m doing things for the first time just because the world has changed so dramatically. That’s the one little caveat for pub week this time.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. When we did our event at Barnes & Noble, it was the last event before the pandemic started, right?

Brenda: Yeah, basically. Honestly, I thought that my two book events were going to bookend COVID. March 3rd was The Grace Kelly Dress. This was coming out February 2022. I was like, oh, everything’s going to be fine by then. Over the summer, first, it was like, well, can you do live events? I was like, if it’s safe, I’ll go. Then I had one last week in Connecticut that canceled. It rescheduled for April. I’m hopeful that’ll happen. Litchfield Books stayed on the books, so that’s good. You just have to be really comfortable with moving things around quickly and going with the flow, which is not my forte. I’m learning and trying to go with the flow.

Zibby: I feel like anything in life now — I’m trying not to put too much time into planning any event because it could easily be canceled. I’m like, I will plan this in a sort of offhanded way. I will save any details for the last minute, which is not what I would normally do either.

Brenda: Exactly. It’s tricky, but I guess it’s good. It’s good to always be learning and trying new things and learning to zig and zag when you have to.

Zibby: The book, though — this is a great cover and everything. I love it. Wait, is it true, by the way, that Liz Taylor really has two rows of eyelashes, that you put in the book?

Brenda: Yes. Isn’t that insane? She’s so famous for her eyes. Her eye color is so incredibly stunning. I always noticed it looked like her lashes were always very heavily lined. That was part of the dramatic look. Yeah, she has this thing where she has two rows of lashes. She has this gorgeous alabaster skin with this black hair, and so these very dark lashes. That’s part of the look and why her eyes are so incredibly dramatic and incredible. I also read something on the internet just recently. Even though I’m done with the book, I still can’t get enough of Elizabeth Taylor. I’m still constantly researching. People are sending me articles. I’m still reading. Someone, in an article, recently said there’s something about how many inches her eyeball is from her eyebrow. Maybe it’s a little higher than most people, and that’s why her eyes are so big and beautiful, something like that. I’m sure if I dug deeper, there’s a medical term for what that is or whatever. I thought that was really interesting. The way her face is spaced out is just perfect and gorgeous and perfect for photographs and movies.

Zibby: So cool. Have you always been a huge Liz Taylor fan?

Brenda: Always, always. I’ve always been a fan of these 1950s and 1960s starlets from when I was younger. They used to play those black-and-white movies on Sundays. I always used to watch old movies on Sunday, sometimes with my mom, sometimes without. I just became obsessed with them. They were so different from what I was seeing at the time. There was something just so different about the zeitgeist of the time as compared to the time I was living in that I was fascinated with. I couldn’t get enough of these films. My favorites were really Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn. There were certain that I fell in love with. Then, of course, when I was growing up, Elizabeth Taylor was still alive, so she was sort of still in the news. She was basically a news item from the time she was nine or ten years old until the day she died. I was very aware of her. Then, of course, with her incredible AIDS activism, it just added this other layer of things that I was obsessed about. Here’s this beautiful woman with all of her diamonds. She could just be still sitting on a yacht, but no. She was going to dedicate her life to charity, which I thought was incredible.

Zibby: I feel like I don’t know enough about her. I don’t do as many deep dives into older starlets, except for maybe Princess Diana, but she’s not older. We didn’t do that in my house. I’ve always been fascinated by a woman who could have that many marriages. What did that mean? What did that say about her?

Brenda: Yes, I’m really interested in that. Also, since now I’ve done Grace Kelly and now I’m doing Elizabeth Taylor and next, I’m doing Audrey Hepburn, I’m also sort of obsessed with how the world perceived all of these three women. I think because back then — of course, they had paparazzi, but it wasn’t like now with the internet and just constant — and social media, of course, where they’re posting their own stuff. People knew less. Somehow, the public persona, they weren’t in complete control of it. Today, you look at the Kardashians, they’re more in control of their image because they’re contributing to social media and reality shows, whereas these starlets — Liz gets married. They don’t know the real story. They just sort of project what’s going on. It’s like, oh, she’s married again. She’s married again. They create this aura around her, whereas now, I think it’s more controlled. That’s really fascinating to me, which starlets became which stereotype, essentially, which archetype, like the goddess. Grace Kelly was always a princess before she was a princess. Liz Taylor, because of the many marriages, some people said, maybe, not-so-nice things about her. In the meantime, she married everyone she was in love with. There’s something kind of amazing about that.

Zibby: It’s true. If you had to publicly acknowledge every single relationship, life would seem very different. Anyway, the book itself, I love the family. I love, by the way, that you started off with a girl who basically turns her family business into a complete success and that she’s only nineteen at the time and says, it’s time to put this online. Next thing you know, they’ve built this entire brand. Then they can even have their family be the models and all of that. Start off with this entrepreneurial blast.

Brenda: Every part of the book — this is not biographical fiction. It’s a novel. It’s about this fictional family. I had been researching Elizabeth Taylor so much. Parts of her sort of made their way into the book in a lot of different ways. At the end of the book, I have a little appendix where I go chapter by chapter telling readers exactly what reference inspired that chapter. In terms of the entrepreneurial spirit, Elizabeth Taylor, once she was not doing as many movies, she, again, didn’t just relax on a yacht. She started what would become a multi — actually, I think it’s a billion-dollar perfume business with her White Diamonds and that whole thing from the eighties. She started this business. It became huge. That fascinated me because — oh, but wait, I should go back. I’m sorry. In terms of business acumen, of course, she was the first actress to ever make one million dollars. She negotiated it almost by accident because she didn’t necessarily want to do Cleopatra. When Eddie Fisher, who she was married to at the time, picked up the phone, he’s like, “What do you do want to do?” and she said, “Tell them I want a million dollars.” I think she thought she was kidding. They came back and they were like, “No problem.” She was like, “Okay.” She became the first actress to ever earn a million dollars for a film. She always had this savvy. She had been in the business since she was a kid. I certainly wanted to put that into the book, this idea of a woman being really business-savvy. Maybe you think she’s one thing, but she’s really a lot of different things. A big part of the book is also family story and family lore and how that changes. Addy perceives herself as the one having created this business. The business is all because of her. Her brother and her husband, who now run the business, maybe have a different idea about that. That’s one of the first times we see, family stories, what’s actually true? Who’s telling the truth? Which parts of it are true?

Zibby: You have a line like that — wait, let me find it — about, it doesn’t matter what’s true or that that’s true — this is right in the beginning. You said, “Courtney, the lost soul, thought her father, who she still mourned with the same ferocity as the day he died even though he’d been gone for seven years, won it at a poker game. He was unbeatable when he was on a streak once upon a time. None of these stories are true. All of these stories are true. More than one thing can be true at once.” I love that.

Brenda: Thank you. That’s really, for me, where the book started and what the book is about. I think a lot about family stories. I should take a step back. I’m a very black-and-white person. I’m not good at living in the gray. I think especially now, life is all about the gray. When we think about these family stories — this one’s right; that one’s right — the truth is in the middle. The more I thought about it and the more I’ve investigated it, I thought, no, everything’s true. Maybe nothing’s true. Maybe that’s not even the point. I really wanted to infuse that in the book. Parts of the book have different family stories told by different family members at different times. You get to see, when they put their film on it, how the story turns out. At one point, Ritchie tells the story of creating the business too, and so we get a different glimpse. You see it from lots of different family members. That’s something I really wanted to explore. Right now, I’m working on an essay for Real Simple. I’m tracing an heirloom item through my husband’s family. I wrote the first draft thinking of what I first learned when they first told me about the story fourteen years ago when I met my husband.

Zibby: Wait, what was the story?

Brenda: It’s about an heirloom ring that belonged to my mother-in-law’s father. It was really important in the family. My point is, when I gave them the draft, my husband was like, “That’s not right.” My mother-in-law was like, “That’s not right.” They didn’t necessarily agree. When I was first told the story, this was the most valuable ring. Everyone wanted it. It was a very big deal. The grandfather was known by this ring. It was always known that my husband would get it because he was the only grandson. It was interesting. When I talked about, “This was the most valuable ring,” my husband’s like, “Well, I don’t know if it was the most valuable.” I’m like, “When I was told the story, this was like a ruby Liz Taylor would own.” Then when I gave them drafts of it, they both had little nitpicks. I thought that was so interesting. I have my memory of how the story was told to me. They have their memory of living it and telling it to me. It went through all these iterations. Then you’ll appreciate this because you work with essays all the time. Eventually, the word count got cut down. The story got distilled to its essence, so it didn’t really matter. I was telling a much more lean version of the story. I do think I got to the truth, but the whole thing was so fascinating. It sort of proved what I was trying to say in the book, that these stories do morph over time. As different people tell them, they become different somehow. Of course, in the book, Ritchie is a gambler. When it comes to gamblers and their stories, they’re always telling stories. Every time you hear the story, it’s slightly different. When someone else was like, “No, no, no, I was there,” they all sort of go together for this idea of story and the nature of story and how it can change.

Zibby: It’s true. I have this memoir coming out in July.

Brenda: Which I cannot wait for.

Zibby: I’m excited. At the beginning, I put a note. This is how I remember it. If you remember it differently, you’re probably right. I don’t know. This is how I remember it. Sorry. You just don’t know. I could be wrong. Who knows?

Brenda: Absolutely. I think that’s the beauty of memoir. It’s your story in your words. Also, I’m going to need an advance copy of that ASAP.

Zibby: You know, we still don’t have the galleys, which is insane. Conversation for —

Brenda: — Yeah, that’s an offline conversation.

Zibby: I kept tweaking and tweaking. They should be here soon.

Brenda: I can’t wait to read. It’s going to be so good.

Zibby: Compare writing this one to writing The Grace Kelly Ring. These are different time periods, different characters. This has a lot more male characters, a gay character, very different than the much more female-dominated one of the last time. Talk about how it felt different writing at least these two most recent books.

Brenda: That’s such a great question. I’m going to take it back a step even further because I wrote them in different periods of time. I wrote The Grace Kelly Dress before COVID. I wrote The Liz Taylor Ring entirely during COVID. My mindset was different for both of them. A writer recently asked me why the book was, for lack of a better word, so crazy. I was like, well, I wrote it during COVID. In terms of Grace being so female, that’s a great question. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s so spot on. When I was working on The Grace Kelly Dress, what I was really trying to explore was — well, you know. When you’re working on a book, you work on for so long, so you really have to be writing about things you’re obsessed with. You write it for a year or two. You edit for a year or two. Then you’re promoting it for at least a year or two. You have to love what you’re talking about because it’s with you for such a long time. My agent said, “Think about something you’re obsessed with that other people are obsessed with.” I was like, okay. We were thinking about how I love weddings. There’s just something so hopeful and beautiful and wonderful about weddings to me. My agent found this Today Show story about a wedding dress that had been passed down through eleven generations. I was like, perfect. I love writing about families. I love writing about women. That came about really organically. It was definitely in my wheelhouse to write something really female, these three women in the same family.

When it came to The Liz Taylor Ring, I definitely had The Grace Kelly Dress in mind because I wanted to do something different. Elin Hilderbrand once said something so great. I’m going to butcher it. It was something like, I’m going to write the exact same book for you, but completely different. I love that because that’s the essence of what readers want. You want an Elin Hilderbrand novel, but you obviously want it to be totally different. I knew I wanted to do another heirloom item. I knew I wanted to connect it to a Hollywood starlet. I thought about the heirlooms that are important to me that I’m obsessed with. On most days, I wear my Grandma Dorothy’s ring. I thought about jewelry, this idea of jewelry. I started talking to friends about it. People had the most fascinating stories for me about jewelry, especially jewelry that was handed down, but even pieces that had been given that are important to them, like if you could remember the one Valentine’s Day your husband gave you something or the necklace your son made you in preschool. There’s just something about these things that we keep and hold onto. When I decided to do jewelry, there was no other Hollywood starlet to choose but Elizabeth Taylor since she is famous for her jewelry collection. From there, I knew I wanted it to be different than Grace. I didn’t want to do three generations passing the heirloom down.

Instead, I decided to do three siblings and have them fight over it. I thought it would be a fun twist on this idea of playing with the three but doing something different. Then the other timeline, instead of being three timelines of three women in the same family passing the item down, I had the parents’ love story as the other timeline, so similar but totally different. Then once with that, I started thinking about the siblings. Sometimes the characters just sort of come to you. They speak to you. Addy and Nathan came to me fully formed. I felt like I knew who these people were. I wanted to have these siblings who were so close, only eleven months apart. They were practically twins. Because of the tumultuous nature of the relationship of the parents, I wanted there to be a sibling who was much younger who grew up, essentially, in a different family than they had because the parents had changed so much. I thought that would be a really fun dynamic to play with. It did turn out being a little more male, especially with all the gambling. At one point, I did one wonder if women — when I was writing those scenes, I definitely thought about my reader and the female reader and how to keep it interesting for her and how to explain things but not overexplain so they could just go along with the ride and enjoy it but not be a lesson on how to play craps, for example. I guess it did turn out very different from The Grace Kelly Dress, but I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to, necessarily, write the same book each time. Hopefully, readers will agree.

Zibby: It’s fantastic. I felt like this one, you had — punchier is the wrong word. You have little blasts of information, shorter chapters, more alternating, quicker. If it was a treadmill, it would be going a little faster or something, like the alternating.

Brenda: I love that, yes. Actually, in an earlier draft, there were even more perspectives, believe it or not. I edited it down to the essence, which was the three siblings and the parents. At one point, the twins had a point of view. Diego had a point of view. At a certain point, my editor and agent were like, “There’s a lot of people.” I don’t regret doing it because I think it helps you to discover who the characters are. Especially if characters aren’t going to have their own viewpoint, they need to be really fully fleshed out. I don’t regret doing it that way, but there was a lot of cutting.

Zibby: There’s always a lot of cutting.

Brenda: I wonder if that was a product of writing it during COVID. I don’t know. At the time period I was writing it, which was mostly spring 2020 and summer 2020 — that’s when I was really working on the first draft. I was still watching Tiger King at that point. I definitely was craving content. I was craving things that took me out of my head. It is possible. I love short chapters in general. Most of my books have short chapters, but these were shorter. There were more of them. I think part of it was this desire to keep the reader engaged and be like, this can take you away from life for a while. Just come on the journey. I will keep it entertaining. I will keep surprising you.

Zibby: Which was great. It worked, so there you go. What is your approach now with Audrey Hepburn? Who I love, by the way. All of these ladies, of course.

Brenda: Oh, my god, I love Audrey so much. What is my approach? Now I’m in yet a different state of mind, a little burnt out, for sure, just because of the way we’ve been living for so long. You know, you’re a working mom. You write about it so honestly and so beautifully. It’s been really hard. What’s my approach with Audrey? I’m trying to do something completely different yet again. It’s heavily inspired by the movie Sabrina, which I love. Also, on The Liz Taylor Ring, one of the notes my editor, who is also from Long Island, one of the notes she gave me was, “We need more Long Island glamor.” I just thought that was the greatest expression ever, and hilarious. I really ran off with it. I think she didn’t mean it to inspire me quite so much. She just meant, throw in a chapter here or there, but I can’t stop with the Long Island glamor.

Now for Audrey, we have the Long Island glamor kicked up a notch. Sabrina famously took place in Glen Cove on Long Island. It’s a Long Island story. It’s heavily influenced by Sabrina, so we’ve got a love triangle, but it’s really the story of a woman who goes back to her childhood home before it’s set to be demoed to make way for a new development. My approach is different. I want to try to do something different yet again. I’ll keep you in suspense as to how I’m doing the modern timeline and the past timeline, but just trying to mix it up yet again and do something different. These books, I want them to all be very different, very distinct, and stand on their own and not just be retreads of each other. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with that. Again, trying to talk about things I’m obsessed with, but bring in Audrey just a little. For example, she will wear a little black dress. I couldn’t resist. Just bring in parts of her life again and different things I love from her movies, that sort of thing.

Zibby: Love it. You’ve always been such a champion of other people’s books. I know you used to write the PopSugar column and all of that. Are there any books lately that you’ve been like, you guys have to read this, this is amazing? Do you ever miss analyzing upcoming books with an eye for curation the way you used to do it?

Brenda: Of course, yes, I totally do. I definitely miss getting books six to nine months to twelve months ahead of them being out in the world. I miss that. I also miss reading without knowing anything about the books. When I was doing the list for PopSugar, I would get the books so early. There was less buzz, so I literally was going in blind to every book. Now when I’m picking up books, I’m so much more aware of what’s going on. That part is tricky. I definitely miss that. I also miss, like you said, reading with an eye towards making a list. As you know because you do such amazing lists, there has to be a little of everything. Sometimes you have five books that are somewhat similar, but a list can’t be all the same thing. I miss that part of it. I don’t miss deadlines. I don’t miss the massive amount of time it used to take. I’m reading slower now, which I also like. You just wrote an essay about this. I was reading so many books so fast. My method was a little different than yours. I was staying up until three AM every night just trying to get through things. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the Zibby Method then. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with it on my own.

Zibby: Kyle was like, “You should not be writing this.” I’m like, “I’m not ashamed of it. This is how I read now. There has to be some way to do eight to twelve books a week. Maybe if other people felt that way, people would be buying more books and reading more books and not feeling compelled to finish every single book or whatever.”

Brenda: Part of what I love about your brand, though, is that you’re just so honest. You’re so genuine. You’re so you. I always tell people that you’re just so incredibly down to earth. I think that’s why people gravitate towards you. You don’t BS. You really tell the truth. It’s so refreshing. Especially in this time of social media where nothing’s true, you’re actually telling the truth. Anyway, in terms of books that I’m loving, my friend Jillian Cantor just published a novel called Beautiful Little Fools. It’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the perspective of the women. Needless to say, when I heard the concept, I was super jealous. Then I read it. It was beautifully written. I was super jealous.

Zibby: Why didn’t I think of this?

Brenda: Exactly. I always say to Jillian, I’m like, “The mark of a good book is when your friend is super jealous.” compliment. It just became an instant best-seller. We will be doing a Zoom this weekend with champagne because she lives in Arizona. That was phenomenal. I don’t have that sitting here, so I can’t flash it. I recently read Sister Stardust.

Zibby: Oh, yes, I have that. Where is that? I have that. I’m excited. Jane Green. I love Jane Green.

Brenda: She is the best. This comes out — even with my glasses on, I can’t see. Yes, April 5th. It’s so fantastic and dreamy. It’s completely different than anything she’s ever done before. It is a coming-of-age story, which is very Jane Green. It’s this woman living in London in the sixties. She’s trying to find herself. She somehow gets swept up in the world of Talitha Getty. She somehow ends up in Morocco in this grand palace with all these rock legends. The whole thing is dreamy and trippy and heady and amazing. I just couldn’t get over it. I’m really excited for this book to come out into the world. You know when you’re reading a book and you’re so thoroughly transported? That’s what this book was like. You’re home, but you’re in Morocco at the same time.

Zibby: Yes, I love that.

Brenda: Those are the few books I’m obsessing about right now.

Zibby: Perfect. I’m glad you had an answer to that. I feel like when people ask me that, I never have a good answer. I’m always like, okay, what did I read this week? I don’t know.

Brenda: When I used to work at PopSugar, I’d be like, go look at my lists. I don’t know.

Zibby: I’m like, I don’t know. I can’t remember.

Brenda: You could just be like, look at my lists.

Zibby: Advice for aspiring authors?

Brenda: Wow, I have so much advice. I’m trying to think. I don’t remember what I told you the last time, but I do have a new piece of advice.

Zibby: Let’s hear the new piece.

Brenda: I think Elizabeth Taylor has inspired me to think of old loves and old obsessions. Back when I first wanted to write my first book, back in the day, I was dating this guy, who’s not my husband. At the time, I was working on a novel and a short story and a screenplay and a teleplay and a one-act play. I had like seven hundred things that I was working on. He turned to me one day and he said, “Well, why don’t you just finish one?” At the time, I was like, how dare you? I’m an artist. You don’t know anything. The more I thought about it, I wondered if maybe I was procrastinating and I was sort of afraid to do the one thing I really wanted to do. I was filling my time with all these things that were sort of writer-adjacent but weren’t going to take me to my goal, which was to publish a novel. Once the dust settled and I really let the advice sink in, that’s when I finished my first novel. I love this idea of finishing one thing, I should say, if you have a goal. I’ve been talking to Eve Rodsky about Unicorn Space.

Zibby: I love Eve Rodsky.

Brenda: I don’t think you necessarily have to finish it. If you’re happy working on your scrapbook and then working on your novel and then being in an acting class, that’s fine too, but if you have this one goal, you should focus on that. For me, I did want to publish a book. I think that maybe I was afraid to finish the book because once you write a book, it no longer belongs to you. Other people read it. Other people have opinions. They’re putting their stuff on it. I think maybe I was scared to do that. Once I followed that advice, I finished my book. Then I found an agent. Then I published it. I think that was good advice for me. That said, I think it’s still okay if you have a lot of other things going on. If you want to write a book, finish your book. Also, don’t be working on four books at once. Maybe work on four at once, but one is the alpha book. Writers, we’re always working on a million things at once. I bet, as we’re sitting here, you have five ideas for an essay going on in your head for a novel and another memoir. As writers, we always have a million things we want to work on. There’s always the one project that you’re like, okay, this is what I’m finishing next. I do have a lot of things in my mind, like the essays, like a book I do want to write, but now’s not the time. I’m focused on Audrey because that’s the next thing. Finish the one thing, I would say.

Zibby: Amazing. Love it. Brenda, I always love our chats. I could chat with you all day. Thank you for everything. Thanks for the Sugarwish surprise. That was super sweet of you. I’m very excited. Liz Taylor Ring, so immersive, exciting, keeps you going, fast-paced — what’s the word? — introspective. I should just delete myself. Really great. Fun read. Go get it. There. How was that?

Brenda: Thank you so much, Zibby. You are just the best. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you.

Brenda Janowitz, THE LIZ TAYLOR RING

THE LIZ TAYLOR RING by Brenda Janowitz

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