Sheltering: Janelle Brown on Confinement, Suspense, and Snowstorms
The Author of Pretty Things Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman speaks with Janelle Brown, author of Pretty Things, the new thriller. Brown’s new book includes her protagonist being stuck in a Lake Tahoe house as a snowstorm rages around them, and she notes the parallels between her character’s confinement and all of ours. Brown and Kreizman also talk about fashion in quarantine and managing writing time while being stuck with family. Brown’s favorite local bookstore is Skylight; please purchase Pretty Things through their website, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m so happy to be talking to Janelle Brown today about her wonderful new thriller. Janelle, hi! Welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us how you’re doing.
Janelle Brown: Hi! I’m Janelle. I’m the author of Pretty Things and three other novels. I’m doing okay. It’s a very strange time to have a book come out in the middle of a pandemic. It’s an odd, kind of discordant thing to be talking about when you’re like, “OK, buy my book! Oh, I’m so sorry your grandmother just died. But buy my book!” It’s a real emotional rollercoaster to be doing this right now, more than normal.
Maris: Yeah, I’m sure. It’s a scary time anyway.
Janelle: Yeah, exactly. We’ve been lucky here in Los Angeles. Our governor shut the state down so early. We’ve actually been in lockdown here at my house for six weeks now. Because of that, only one or two people I know have gotten sick, and no one’s gotten really badly sick. So, I feel really, really fortunate right now. But it also means you feel kind of disconnected from all the terrible things that are happening, other than friends losing jobs and things like that.
Maris: That’s been very, very real. I’m in Brooklyn, so I’m more in the heart of it. And yet I still feel disconnected because I’m inside my tiny apartment all day. It’s a tough situation. Tell me how you’ve been spending your time. Your kids are homeschooled now?
Janelle: Yes, I have a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old. They’re both being homeschooled. Their schools have been fantastic; they’ve got Zooms all day, so they’re checking in with their teachers. But you still need to handhold them a lot. I still need to be helpful at times. They’re always someone screaming, “Moooom! I’m hungry! Moooom! I don’t understand this question!” I’m with them all day, and whatever I’m doing I can only fit into five-minute increments, which means I’m doing a lot of social media because that can be slotted.
Maris: Right, you can always look at your phone.
Janelle: Exactly. For the writing I’ve been doing, I’ve actually been getting up at five in the morning and trying to write for a couple of hours before everyone gets up. That seems to be the only focused time that I have. By the end of the day, I’m just a zombie. I can’t write at night.
Maris: I’m sure. Waking up at five a.m…
Janelle: Well, the good news is I have insomnia anyway because of all this.
Maris: And we’re so thankful, all of us insomniacs, for a book that we can escape into when our eyes are still open at four a.m. Tell us about Pretty Things.
Janelle: I have my copy right here. The hardbacks finally came like three days before the book came out. It’s a suspense novel about two women, one is a con artist and the other is an heiress and an Instagram influencer. The two of them are thrown together through circumstance—not through circumstance actually, because the con artist targets the heiress, moves into her guest house in Lake Tahoe, in this grand old family estate. The con artist goes with her boyfriend, and all kinds of twisty things starts to happen, and it turns out there’s dark family secrets and entanglements that go back years and years, and all kinds of shifting allegiances, and so on and so forth.
Maris: Love it! love a good grifter with shifting allegiances.
Janelle: I know, right?
Maris: And it just so happens that you wrote about this heiress who was taking a break from her regular world and moving to this big house and isolating, we might say?
Janelle: Yes, self-quarantining, one could say? They’re basically quarantining in the mansion in a snowstorm in Lake Tahoe. The irony is I’m like, oh yeah, I wrote about where we’re at right now, ish.
Maris: Ish. And Instagram to me has been really interesting lately, because I feel like Vanessa has to spend a lot of time staging photos to make it look like she’s got a real exciting life going on still. I’ve been doing a little of that. I mean, everybody knows.
Janelle: Exactly. The character of Vanessa—writing an Instagram influencer was really interesting. First of all, it’s very easy to write a character like that and make them the total cliché, where you just want to hate them. That was the first-draft version that I did, is she was like this deep. [pinches fingers] Trying to bring her more into humanity and create her as a person who we empathize with, and we see behind the façade that she’s putting up and outside this frame she’s putting everything inside, was the challenge, but then it also ended up being really fun. I can certainly relate to her now more than ever, especially right now, when I’m trying to be out there promoting this book and being like, “Hey! Cheery! I’m the author! Buy my book!” And no one’s seeing beyond the frame to where I’m literally in screaming matches with my 7-year-old son, making him eat his dinner. That’s the reality of social media life versus real life, and that’s certainly what the book gets into, in a different way.
Maris: In a different way, but yes. Tell me about Lake Tahoe. Have you spent a lot of time there? It’s so evocative in the book.
Janelle: My family had a cabin in Lake Tahoe when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time up there. I actually got married up there fifteen years ago. I love it there, and I’ve always wanted to set a book there. In fact, several books ago, I wrote the beginning of a novel that ended up in the trash can, but it was all set in Lake Tahoe. So, I’ve been trying to work it into one of my books for a while, and when I started imagining this book—I started with the idea, what is a modern grifter going to be like? A young female grifter. What is she going to do? She’s going to use social media to target people. Who is she going to target? She’s going to target rich kids. From there, I wanted her to move in and be in this claustrophobic environment with this woman she’s targeting, and I was like, “Tahoe! Of course! She has a mansion in Tahoe!” It was a great excuse to go back up to Tahoe and spend some time up there. There’s an old estate up there called the Ehrman Mansion, which was kind of the inspiration for Stonehaven. The mansion in my novel is much grander than the Ehrman estate, but it’s up on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. It’s all these buildings on these acres and acres of forest, and it’s cut off from the rest of the community up there, so that was my jumping off point for the book and the world.
Maris: And then of course, when you get Tahoe in the off-season, it’s even more isolated.
Janelle: Yeah, when you get snowed in up there—there’s communities all over Lake Tahoe, and some of them are little towns with houses closes to each other, but there are areas in Lake Tahoe with roads that have to close entirely at some point during the winter, and the closer you get to those areas, the more off the grid you end up becoming. In a snowstorm, it’s nice to imagine getting claustrophobic and dark.
Maris: Weird kind of escapism now, but it still is! It still is. Tell me about what your book tour was supposed to be and what it’s like now, and how you’re navigating that.
Janelle: Well, I was supposed to be in New York today.
Janelle: I was supposed to do a Books Are Magic event last night in real life; I ended up doing it virtually event instead. Julia Phillips and I did an in-conversation last night. She’s wonderful, and that ended up being really fun. But yeah, I was supposed to be doing an event at Random House today; I was supposed to be out in Connecticut tomorrow, I think. Then I was going to be flying to San Francisco and doing some stuff there, and then coming back to LA and having a big book party. I was supposed to go to the LA Festival of Books last weekend.
Maris: Me too!
Janelle: I know! So heartbreaking! I hope that October is realistic. Or November, I can’t remember. The first book festival that happens after this is going to be the most epic party, right? Everyone’s going to be like, yes! So that’s what it was going to be. I had basically two months of travel ahead of me. Now I have two months of walking up and down the stairs of my house in front of me. I’m doing a lot of Zoom events; I’m doing podcasts. The upside is I’m getting to do stuff with places I wasn’t planning to get to. My Books Are Magic event last night, I had people coming in from London, from Michigan, from all over the country, which they wouldn’t have been able to do if it was just in New York, so that’s the upside.
Maris: That is. And what’s your local bookstore in LA?
Janelle: Skylight Books. I live in Silver Lake, and Los Feliz is the next neighborhood over. I’ve launched all of my books at Skylight Books; they’re such a great bookstore. I’ve been pointing all my LA people to get their books at Skylight and my New York people to get their books at Books Are Magic—trying to spread the love between the independent bookstores as much as possible.
Maris: I love that. And I also love that you showed your social media followers the outfits you would have worn.
Janelle: Yes. I like fashion a lot. I find it fun. And I also, I’m a writer in Los Angeles, and basically my day is—usually—dropping the kids off at school, driving to my office, going back to the school, picking up the kids, driving them to their extracurricular activities, then coming home to make dinner. I don’t go to a lot of parties and events. I go to readings and the occasional party, but I don’t really ever have an excuse to dress up. I have all these adorable dresses that I’ve been buying over the years that I get to wear once a year, so having a book tour, I’m like, “Yes! I’m going to wear this, I’m going to wear this, I’m going to wear this.” I didn’t even get to everything. And now I’m like, well, I guess I’ll just try them on in my bedroom. For last night, I wore the dress that I had been planning to wear to my launch event at Books Are Magic, which is like a vintage Oscar de la Renta dress that I got off the RealReal, it has a trailing cape thing. I wore that last night, but you can only see it from here up.
Maris: It’s hard to get the full length.
Janelle: The effect was kind of lost. And I wore it barefoot, so.
Maris: Yes, of course. Janelle, is there a question you were hoping that you might get asked on your book tour that I could ask you now?
Janelle: You know, it’s funny. When people ask me that, I’m always like, what do I want to talk about? I guess the thing that I like talking about with my books is how they kind of cross genre. It’s interesting, because I’ve been marketed as a thriller or suspense writer, and my first two books weren’t suspense at all. They were more Jonathan Franzen-esque social satire, domestic drama kind of books. And then I wrote Watch Me Disappear, which was a mystery-ish book, and then this one is more of a thriller-ish book. So sometimes people ask me, what is it like to be a genre writer? And I’m like, I actually don’t think I’m a genre writer. Every book I’ve written has been a little different than the last, and I don’t really see myself in a particular genre.
There are a lot more authors that are doing that now. If you look at what was nominated for the Edgar Awards this year, Miracle Creek for example, nominated as a genre book. I blurbed that book. I think it’s a fantastic book. It’s a mystery, yes, but as I read it, I didn’t think of it as a mystery at all. it just happened to have a crime backbone. Or Megan Abbott’s books, or Laura Lippmans’ books—all these fantastic writers who are writing these books that yeah, you can market them as a thriller or mystery or crime novel, but they’re kind of exploding what genre has been and how it’s been perceived for a long time. I like to think of myself in that tradition of trying to break through the barriers of what different genres are and bringing different ideas together.
Maris: I love that.
Janelle: I don’t know if that was really a question, but.
Maris: No, it’s so good! And also, you spoke with Julia Phillips last night, and that’s a perfect example of a book that could have been called simply a mystery.
Janelle: Oh! Sorry, a bird just flew into—I’m in my office in this studio, and there’s big barn windows, I’ll show you my barn windows. But this bird just flew in and jumped on the edge of my laptop and just flew off. I was like, whoa.
Maris: Maybe that bird has a book to promote.
Janelle: Maybe it does! But yeah, Julia Phillips, exactly, perfect example. She’s wonderful, and she’s written a crime novel, per se, but she also was nominated for every award there is last year. And she won the National Book Award?
Janelle: Nominated for the National Book Award. I look at the blurbs on my novel that I got, and so many of the authors—Attica Locke and Angie Kim, Jean Kwok, Jessica Knoll, Julia Phillips—they’re all these female thriller authors who are—
Maris: Doing it all.
Janelle: Doing it all, right?
Maris: Like Attica Locke, she’s amazing. She’s writing these fantastic detective novels, and then she also wrote the screenplays for Celeste Ng’s show.
Maris: Little Fires Everywhere?
Janelle: Little Fires Everywhere!
Maris: She used to write for Empire.
Janelle: She wrote for Empire! I’m forgetting what else, there’s something else she did was amazing. I love watching all these women authors taking over the world and doing all kinds of things.
Maris: I love that. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Janelle: You’re welcome! Happy to break up your pandemic day.