Janelle Brown, PRETTY THINGS

Janelle Brown, PRETTY THINGS

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Janelle Brown who is the New York Times best-selling author of Watch Me Disappear, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This is Where We Live. Her latest book, Pretty Things, comes out April 21st, 2020. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Wired, Self, Real Simple, and many other publications. She began her career as a staff writer at Wired during the internet boom. In the 1990s, she was the editor and cofounder of Maxi, an irreverent pop culture webzine. Webzine? Can’t remember how to say that. Originally from San Francisco, Janelle graduated from UC Berkeley. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Janelle. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Janelle Brown: I am so happy to be here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Pretty Things is about?

Janelle: Pretty Things is about two young women. One is a con artist. The other one is an Instagram influencer who happens to also be an heiress. It’s about a con artist who basically takes on this heiress and moves into her guest house with grand schemes in mind. Then everything goes very sideways from there.

Zibby: Your guide to how to rob someone based on their Instagram was the most terrifying thing I think I’ve ever read. I was literally like, oh, my gosh, people are out there just stalking people’s accounts. Look at how easy it would be just to take anything.

Janelle: What kind of inspired me to write this book — there were a lot of things that inspired me, actually. One of the things that I was fascinated by was, remember when Kim Kardashian was robbed in France by that group of thieves?

Zibby: Yes.

Janelle: They were tracking her online. That’s how they found it. I was fascinated by that. Basically, she led them straight to her by flashing her jewelry on Instagram and then leaving enough clues that they could figure out where she was staying. Then next thing you know, they’re breaking into her house and robbing her of millions of dollars of jewelry. That was one of the stories that motivated me to write this book. Then also, my mother, when I got on social media, was like, “You really shouldn’t put anything on there. People could stalk you.” I always laughed at her, but not really because there was certainly a truth to that. I was actually stalked once when I was in college. I’m kind of conscious of what people are doing when you’re not aware, like how people might be watching you when you aren’t realizing you’re being watched. Certainly, that’s what Instagram is all about, and especially when you have these people who are just out there kind of flaunting their lives. That’s what so much of Instagram is. What influencing is, is showing off your best life. If your best life means showing off all the things you have, how easy would it be for someone to just go, oh, there’s my mark?

Zibby: Totally. My last Instagram post was about mopping the floor, so I don’t feel like I’m that much at risk right at this exact moment. If somebody wants to steal my mop, that’s fine.

Janelle: We’re home all the time right now, so no one’s going to be breaking in when you’re not here.

Zibby: That’s true. I know. There was some ridiculous report in the newspaper, like, “Crime is way down.” I’m like, yeah. Who’s there to even watch the crimes happen even if they were happening? Anyway, can we back up to when you were stalked in college? Tell me more about that. That must have been terrifying.

Janelle: It was a little strange. It was my sophomore year of college. I’d just moved into a co-op building. I went to UC Berkeley. They had these famous residences which are co-ops, which are like communal housing. One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and this guy had climbed into bed with me.

Zibby: What?!

Janelle: He was fully dressed. He was on top of the covers. I screamed. The guy ran out of the room. It turned out it was my next-door neighbor in the building. He was schizophrenic and was having an episode. I’d never actually met him because I’d only been living there are a month and he had barely left his room. He had apparently become kind of obsessed with me. They hauled him away to a mental hospital the next day. Then he proceeded for the next year or so to sometimes call me twenty, thirty times a day. It was very strange. I never saw him again. There was just that one time, but for the next year — I changed my phone number. He found my new phone number. He would call me. He wouldn’t actually talk to me. He would just leave these strange messages, but it was him. That was my stalker story, but that was like twenty, ugh, a lot of years ago.

Zibby: Wow. Was capturing that fear part of what made you want to write thrillers, or unrelated? What do you think?

Janelle: Unrelated. It’s funny, I never set out to write thrillers. I actually wouldn’t even describe myself as a thriller writer, per se. I know that’s the catch phrase that marketing uses, but I think of myself more of a literary suspense. The pacing is not your typical thriller. I came to writing these kinds of books very sideways. My first two books that I wrote were not at all suspense novels. They were page-turners, but they were domestic dramas. They’re more Jonathan Franzen-y. Then I started writing my third novel, Watch Me Disappear, and I was imagining that as being another book in the same vein about a father and a daughter who are coping after the disappearance of their mother/wife. I was planning it to be about grief and the coming together of the father and the daughter. As I wrote it, this story emerged that turned out to be a mystery. Where was the mom? She’d gone on this hike. Had she died? Was she still alive? By the time I finished the book and turned it in, my editor called me and she’s like, “You wrote a suspense novel.” I’m like, “I did?” That really wasn’t what I was planning to do.

When that book did really well — it became a New York Times best seller, and so of course they called me, they’re like, “Would you write another one? Can you write another suspense novel?” I was like, okay, sure. I love suspense novels. I love Tana French and Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman. There’s so many wonderful crime and suspense and mystery writers now, especially women, that are writing books that are your unconventional, not what we used to think of suspense novels as. They’re a little more breaking the mold, I guess is what I want to say. I took it as a challenge when I was writing this one to really approach it as, okay, now I am writing suspense intentionally. How do I write something that doesn’t feel like something that’s been written a hundred times before, a thousand times before? I wanted to write something I hadn’t read before. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I like in suspense novels, what makes me excited, what makes me feel like I’m intrigued but I’m involved in the characters and I want to know what’s happening, but I also really want to spend time on each page as opposed to just find out who did it. I think I got off the track of your question, which was did the stalker make you want to write a book?

Zibby: But you actually answered like fifteen other questions, so it ended up working out just fine. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to miscategorize. I feel like I lump so many types of books into the overarching term thriller, and I shouldn’t. I know there are differences between the genres, but I think it’s sometimes confusing, even for me, and I deal with books all the time. So I’m sorry for not —

Janelle: — You don’t need to apologize. No, it’s okay. My marketing people also call it a thriller. When you look at the bookstore categories, this is the crazy making. Why do we have genre categories anyway? Half of the time, you look at a book and it gets categorized under this very narrow category, like crime novel, mystery novel, thriller, romance, comedy. So many of the great books, the ones that I love and the books that I like to write, are ones that kind of break through multiple categories, ones that are not easily quantifiable as one thing or another. As much as I understand that that shorthand is important for marketing and for bookstores and for people who are like, “I like this genre. I want more books in this genre,” also as the author, I always want to cringe a little bit. There’s so much more complexity than that.

Zibby: I feel like it’s the same thing for the movies. There are some movies and you’re like — wasn’t there somebody who won an Academy Award and they were like, “Well, apparently I was in a comedy”? But really, it was a drama or something. I feel like everybody just wants to dump everything into different categories and be done with it. My pet peeve in particular is with the YA category because it’s not for young adults, it’s just about young adults. It’s totally misleading. Some of those books are so good.

Janelle: Then people come to books expecting something, and they get disappointed when it’s not that. When someone picks up a book and expects it to be a James Patterson thriller and it’s a contemplative story about a family, they get mad because it’s not what they thought they were going to be reading. Sometimes they get excited. Sometimes they’re happy to read something different. People come to books with expectations based on the categories that they’re put in. That’s always kind of hard to break out of.

Zibby: Totally. Even the covers, I feel like now it’s become very formulaic with, okay, here’s my thriller-type cover. It has to have these four characteristics so people know it’s a thriller, as if we’re all so dumb we can’t turn the thing over and read the back flap. I feel like if you’re reading a book and you’re — I should stop talking. This is probably inappropriate.

Janelle: No, it’s okay.

Zibby: I’m now venting all my issues here. I feel like for readers who are out there and shopping and wanting to buy books, they’re going to turn it over. Aren’t they? I don’t know.

Janelle: I hear you. I totally do. I feel really happy. I love my cover. I’ve been really lucky with my cover on this one and my last one as well. They kind of have a thriller-y look, but they don’t totally look like a thriller book. They have a lot going on. Anyway, I love my cover.

Zibby: I love your cover too, especially the red. I’m kidding. Actually, the other day I was lying on my couch. I had on the perfect matching outfit for your book. That’s why I posted about it. I had this pale green sweater and black pants on my tan couch. I was like, ooh, I match with this book cover. I’m going to have to .

Janelle: That was funny.

Zibby: Anyway, more about the book. When Vanessa talks about her friends — Vanessa, one of the characters, says, “When my father died, they sent texts, but didn’t pick up the phone. Maybe that was the moment that I realized that my friendships were like the thin crust on a frozen lake, a barrier blocking the way to anything deeper.” I felt like that was such a good commentary on how some friends do respond and how friendships have evolved, I feel like, for so many busy people. Tell me a little more about that passage.

Janelle: I’ve gone through different transitions in my life. Every time you go through a transition, you watch friendships fall away. You move, and you watch friendships fall away. You have children, and suddenly realize some of your friends that you thought you were so close to, you just don’t speak to anymore. You go through a hard time, and some people can’t handle it. They just kind of vanish. Social media’s wonderful in a lot of ways. My book harshes on social media a lot. I also think that I’ve created some amazing connections through social media. I’ve met some incredible people. There’s also this certain shallowness to a lot of the connection there. There is a difference between having a friend who you really tell everything to on a daily basis, you see each other, you spend time together, you touch each other’s hand when you’re talking, and someone who you never actually meet in person. I think that kids today — kids today. Young people are growing up in this world where more and more of the interaction that you have with your friends is done virtually. I do worry that some of that is not as deep as a connection that is spent in person together. I was imagining Vanessa as having these friendships that are all based on surfaces. The minute her life starts to go sideways, everyone kind of backs away. It’s easy to do because you just send a couple texts and ghost somebody in a way that it’s hard to do if you’re actually seeing them.

Zibby: It’s so true. Another part of the book in addition to just the bigger plot of it was the backstory of everybody. I felt like all your characters had such bad things happen to them, or such sad things. One after another, I’m like, oh no, this happened too? I can’t believe it. I felt like you did such a good job of tapping into that feeling of grief and loss and tragedy, really what you have to go through when you experience something like that. How are you so good at writing about that? Not to pry, but did you have some trauma? Did something happen? Or you just super empathetic?

Janelle: I don’t have any trauma. Look, my family has had their issues over the years. We’ve all had ups and down. I’ve never had anything relating to the trauma that I put my own characters through. I like to put my characters through the wringer. I think as a writer, in order to be a good writer, you need to be a little bit of a psychologist and to be interested in the human psyche and what makes people do the things that they do and how people carry the trauma inside themselves that they experience. I’m fascinated by character, by people, and how they persevere through the stuff that they’ve experienced. I’m an empath, I guess. I’m empathic or just noisy and curious about what makes people tick. No, I’ve never had a schizophrenic brother. I’ve never had a mother who’s a con artist. I’ve never had a mother who’s committed suicide, all these things that I have my poor characters go through in this story. No, not me.

Zibby: I think you’re right, though. You have to be interested in how the mind works when you’re delving deep into somebody else’s. That’s what it’s all about, really.

Janelle: Exactly.

Zibby: I read that you covered the internet economy during the dot-com boom back in the day, which I was a part of working at a company called Idealab during that time which was the hub of all these startups and everything.

Janelle: I remember Idealab.

Zibby: What lessons do you think you could take away from that time as it applies to that burgeoning Instagram and TikTok and Snapchat, and I don’t even know, House Party, whatever everybody’s doing? Do you think there’s any warning signs or anything you took away from that period of time to this period of time?

Janelle: It’s funny. I was working at Wired and salon.com in San Francisco during ’95 to 2002. What we imagined the world was going to be like, we had this kind of utopian view back then, which was revolution, but for good. The world’s going to come together. Speech needs to be free. Yes, some of those things have come to pass. There’s been some great things that have come out of the internet that we imagined. Access certainly has been amazing. I can get digital books, digital music, streaming video, but so much we didn’t imagine, the kind of obsessiveness that happens, like the way that social media has this addictive presence in our lives. I don’t know that I could say that I learned lessons then that apply now because I feel like we’re in such a different place now than we were twenty years ago. I guess maybe the lesson that I could apply is that everything changes so quickly. The way you think the world is going to be now is going to completely different in a decade or two decades. Be careful, I guess, what you wish for.

Zibby: I feel like maybe one of the things I learned from watching that whole boom and bust was that the people in charge don’t necessarily know what’s going on. I had so much faith in the people running things that they just understood. It turns out that they didn’t, necessarily. I don’t know how to apply that.

Janelle: That is a good lesson.

Zibby: What’s your writing process like? Where and when do you like to write?

Janelle: Usually, I go to my office every day. I started a collective writing space in Los Angeles near my house. A couple writers and I started it eight years ago. We have about twenty-five writers that share the office, a bunch of rooms in this — it’s a midcentury modern building that’s over here in Silver Lake. I usually go there and write every day. Sometimes I work at cafes a little bit. Usually what happens is I get my kids off to school and then run to my office and try and write until I have to go back and pick them up from school. Right now, I’m stuck at home, obviously, because of the coronavirus. My writing process now is I’m trying to get up at five in the morning to work before the kids have to be homeschooled. Hopefully this won’t last forever.

Zibby: That’s impressive. Do you have a deadline? Do you have to do it?

Janelle: I’m working on a couple things right now, so yeah, I need to be working. It also keeps me sane. If I wasn’t working at all — I feel like I need to be doing something or I’m just going to slide into depression.

Zibby: I’ve said that same line maybe like a hundred times in the last two weeks. I’m like, I have to do be doing something. I have to. I have to. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Janelle: This is the question that always is so hard for me because I feel like everybody’s writing process is so different. I hate making blanket statements about how you should write or the way you should write. I know that for myself, the process of becoming a writer was about reading, and not just reading, but reading and rereading and rereading, like picking up a book and reading it three or four times and thinking about how that book was assembled. It’s beyond the enjoyment of it. How do you describe it? What makes a clock tick? When you take the front off and you look at how the cogs work in the back, the more you read a book, the more you start to see how things fit together. I haven’t done this in a while, but I used to diagram books and do maps of books that I had read that I thought were interesting to me. I’d mark out what happens on what page and why and look at how it was constructed that way. Those are useful tools. Then the only other piece of advice is the one that everyone gives, I’m sure, which is sit down. You have to just write. Don’t be afraid to throw it away. Write and rewrite and rewrite. Everyone says that. It’s hardly an original piece of writing advice.

Zibby: It’s okay. Sometimes people need to hear something. Maybe the eighty-seventh time, then it really sinks in. You can hear it, but when you hear how it works for someone else, I think it’s much more powerful than just reading a statement. You can know it, but hearing you say that this is what helps what you, that helps. Who knows?

Janelle: That’s true.

Zibby: One last question just because I didn’t understand. So how did you move from the dot-com era and being a journalist to writing fiction? Did you always want to write books? How did that happen?

Janelle: I always wanted to be a novelist. Back when I was in first grade, literally first grade, I used to make little books and write little stories about my pet basset hound, Pogo. I would bind them into books using wallpaper as the covers and had pages in them. I remember my first-grade teacher told me that I should be an author when I grew up. I took her advice very seriously and stuck with that idea my whole childhood that that was what I was going to do when I grew up. I ended up working as a journalist after college just because I wanted to actually have a job and an income. Being a novelist isn’t necessarily something you can start off and make money at. I got sidelined by the dot-com boom. I ended up in journalism. For almost a decade, that’s what filled the world and filled my world. It was around 2002, 2003 that I left my job and decided that I needed to really give writing fiction a go. I would freelance and was freelancing for The New York Times and a bunch of other magazines and then working on my first novel on the side. It took me about four years to finish my first novel and sell it. Then I’ve basically been a full-time novelist ever since. That’s twelve years now. I don’t really do much journalism anymore, certainly not the way I used to. I write the occasional essay, but not reporting, not investigate journalism, certainly.

Zibby: As my husband would say, you’re living the dream. It’s what every writer wants, is to be able to say, I can just sit here and write novels for twelve years. It’s amazing.

Janelle: I count myself as very lucky, for sure. I feel like I’ve been very lucky. My books have done very well. I’ve been well-received. I am appreciative every day of that. Being a full-time novelist has its own challenges too, but different ones, different emotional challenges. I feel very happy. I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do.

Zibby: It was so nice to chat with you. I’m sorry for our technological issues at the beginning.

Janelle: That’s okay.

Zibby: This was great. Thank you for coming on this podcast. I’m sorry also that we can’t do it in person in LA. I was looking forward to that, but some other time maybe.

Janelle: Me too. I know. Once this all lifts, I’m going to be everywhere. I’m going to be like, do you want to come over? I’ll come over. Let me come over right now. Get me out of my house.

Zibby: I know, oh, my gosh. The traffic’s going to be crazy.

Janelle: Oh, my god, I know.

Zibby: Thanks, again. Take care.

Janelle: You’re welcome. Are we doing an Instagram live next week?

Zibby: Yes, I think we have it on Wednesday. Is that right?

Janelle: Yes, sounds good. Thank you so much. I love your podcast. I love what you’re doing for books, by the way. It’s a delight to finally connect with you.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for saying that. That’s nice. All right, have a great weekend.

Janelle: We’ll talk more next week.

Zibby: Perfect. Buh-bye.

Janelle: Bye.

Janelle Brown, PRETTY THINGS