Janelle Brown joined us in our Behind the Pages Goodreads group for a spoiler free Q & A about Pretty Things and her writing process. I am excited to share some of the Q & A with you here today.
Brenda: What does your writing day look like for you? Do you have a choice of beverage or something you have with you while you read?
Janelle: Hi all! Nice to be here. To answer this first question: My typical (non-pandemic) day usually starts by dropping the kids at school and then racing to my office, which I share with a bunch of other writers. It’s basically a co-working space for writers. (Here’s a story about our office: https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-j…).
I work there until 3:30-4pm and then race back to get the kids. During the day, I try to write about 1000 words, and generally what I drink when I’m writing (and reading!) is a either Nespresso coffee with lots of cream and sugar, or a Pamplemousse LaCroix!
Brenda: How did you come up with the idea for Pretty Things?
Janelle: It’s always hard for me to pinpoint where my ideas come from, because they often formulate around a lot of disparate things that come together. But I was inspired for Pretty Things by a few things:
1) Kim Kardashian being robbed by jewel thieves who had been tracking her Instagram posts. This was so interesting to me!
2) The desire to write about a modern female con artist. I felt like there haven’t been a lot of books that did this and I was very curious what one would do in the social media age.
3) Lake Tahoe! I have always wanted to set a book there, it’s a place I love and it’s so atmospheric.
4) Spending time on Instagram and thinking about Influencer culture, and its impact on how we see ourselves.
All these kind of synthesized into what became Pretty Things!
Brenda: What came first for you the plot or the idea of Vanessa and Nina?
Janelle: I started with a very rough idea of the plot – I knew I wanted it to be the story of a grifter who targets someone she’s been following online, with twisting and turning of who is doing what to whom. Then I started thinking about the character of Nina, and who she was, and the plot started to become more clear as she evolved as a person. Vanessa came last, just because she was the hardest character to write.
Brenda: How did you go about capturing your character’s voice? Was there one that you enjoyed creating more than the other or you struggled with?
Janelle: It’s always a lot of hit or miss. I start by trying to write in someone’s voice and keep trying different directions until it starts to feel right to me. It’s really intuition.
With this book, Nina came very easily and quickly. Vanessa was the hard one. I wanted her to initially come off as a privileged heiress but become more and more humanized as the book went along. I wanted her to be a little unbalanced and for us to be unsure whether this was the mental illness that runs in her family, or her own insecurity talking
Brenda: In the voice of your characters Vanessa and Nina can you tell us a bit about them in a couple of sentences?
Janelle: Ha, that’s a challenge! What if I used some sentences from the book that I think sum up the characters?
So I’m a grifter. You might say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—I come from a long line of bagmen and petty thieves, opportunists and outright criminals—but the truth is that I was not raised for this. I had a Future. That, at least, is what my mother used to say to me late at night when she found me reading Anna Karenina under the covers by flashlight: “You have a Future, baby, the first one in this family.”
And for a while there, I even believed her. Got caught up in the great American myth, the Puritan ethic of nose-to-the-grindstone-and-thou-shalt-prevail. That was back when I thought the playing field was even, before I learned that it was not flat at all; and that, in fact, for most people not born into privilege, the playing field is a steep incline and you are at the bottom with boulders tied to your ankles.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Look at the spoiled rich girl, all alone in the great big house, trolling for our sympathy when she doesn’t deserve any of it. You feel so smug, looking at me! And yet you also can’t seem to look away from me. You follow me on my social media accounts, you swipe up to study my links, you watch my YouTube fashion tutorials and like my travelogues and read every Page Six mention you can find. You can’t stop yourself from clicking on my name even though you tell everyone that you hate me. I fascinate you.
You need me to be the monster so that you can position yourself in opposition to me and feel superior. Your ego requires me.
And there’s another thing, though you would never admit this out loud: When you look at me, you also think, I want what she has. Her life should be mine. And if I were given the resources at her disposal, I would do it all so much better.
Maybe you’re not so wrong
Brenda: I thought you took some very unlikable characters and made me feel some empathy for them with their backstories. Was that something you planned and were aware of it or did that happen as you were writing?
Janelle: Yes! That’s absolutely my intention. I wanted them both to come fully to life. For the theme of the book, it was important to me for the characters to be flawed but empathetic: The book is a lot about image and judgement in the social media age, and the need to look beyond the frame to see the real person. I wanted readers to be surprised by what they felt for each character, and for their feelings to evolve as they read
Norma: Can we first talk about that cover? It is absolutely stunning and one of my absolute favourites. It definitely caught my eye and enticed me to request an eARC. Would you mind enlightening us how you felt when you first seen the cover of your book. I can only imagine how exciting you must have been. Did you have a hand in choosing the cover design?
Janelle: I have so little to do with the covers! It’s really the fantastic team at Random House who did them. They sent me a few options to choose from and I picked this one. And then we went back and forth a few times to fine-tune things — for example, we tweaked the quantity and variety of jewelry that appears on the cover, and changed the font a bit from the original design. But mostly credit goes to them!
Norma: Pretty Things is such a fitting title for this story. Did you have a title in mind before you began to write this story or did it come after?
Janelle: Nope, the title came dead last! I had an entirely different title for the book but my editor / publisher weren’t in love with it so we did a lot of brainstorming to come up with this one. The idea for Pretty Things as a title came from my agent, actually – she pulled the phrase from the book, because I use it a few times throughout. I loved the idea.
Brenda: What do you want readers to get from your books? Is there anything you would like us to know?
Janelle: I would love readers to find my books entertaining, but also provocative. I want to create a world and a story and characters that people get lost in, but that also keep them thinking about afterwards. My favorite books are ones that linger with me, and I realize later what the ideas in them were. I hope mine do that for my readers, too!
Brenda: Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
Janelle: Well, I’m writing the TV pilot for the series of Pretty Things that Amazon is adapting for Nicole Kidman’s production company! And beyond that, I have a new book in the works… but it’s far too early to talk about.
Form more of the Q & A can be found here