Talking to Janelle Brown about her novel "Pretty Things"

Chris Schluep on April 28, 2020

Talking to Janelle Brown, best-selling author of Pretty Things

They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and in the case of Nina, one of the protagonists in Janelle Brown's new psychological thriller Pretty Things, she's resting right up against it. Nina is a con artist just like her mother. But there are two protagonists in this clever novel—the other being Vanessa, an Instagram "influencer"—and both are equally fascinating.

When we chose Pretty Things as a best book of the month for April, we had this to say: "Dual narrators—Vanessa and Nina—have the same effect on the many twists and reveals as a funhouse mirror, warping the reader’s ability to know who to root for, because both women are likable. But both come from families that make the Borgias look like the Brady Bunch, so you know it’s going to be last man standing as class warfare, social media, money, and old history square off in this complex and riveting thriller."

When Nina and her Irish boyfriend Lachlan head to an antique-filled mansion in Lake Tahoe to put the con on Vanessa, the twists that ensue will surprise and entertain and keep you turning the pages. I even found myself shaking my head in wonder at a few of the reveals.

We recently caught up with Janelle Brown. Here's our conversation with the writer whom Harlan Coben describes as "your new must-read author."

Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review: Obviously, we don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the book is so well realized, with really great twists and turns. Did you know the full course of the story before you started writing it?

Janelle Brown: I did not!! I started out with a very rough idea of what I wanted to do: I knew there would be a con artist (Nina) who targets a woman that she follows on Instagram (Vanessa), that Nina and her boyfriend would move into Vanessa’s Lake Tahoe guest house, and things would start to go sideways from there. I knew that the two women would be entangled in ways that readers didn’t know at first. That was the broad strokes. I also knew that I wanted to switch perspectives between the two women several times, and that each time the perspective shifted, so would our understanding of what, exactly, was happening.

But everything else—all the details—came as I began to get the story on paper. This is pretty normal for me—all my books have a lot of twists, and I often find them as I go. I believe that character comes before story—the actions my characters would plausibly take often change as they become more fully realized—so I like to leave room to figure things out in the course of writing.

Of course, this often means that I have epiphanies about plot twists part-way through, and have to go back and majorly revise the book so that the story makes sense! But a good “ah-ha” moment is worth it.

Nina and Vanessa (as well as Lachlan and Benny and Nina’s mother) are such complete characters. What was your aim in telling the story from both Nina's and Vanessa's points of view?

I thought it was really important to get into both their heads. And not just because it seemed like a great opportunity to reveal new plot twists, but because I wanted them both to come fully to life. It would have been easy to write Vanessa as a one-dimensional character—I mean, she’s a privileged heiress living the “influencer” lifestyle—and I wanted her to be more than that. Thematically, it was important for both 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.

One is a grifter and one is an influencer on social media. Is it fair to say that, in a sense, they are both conning people?

Bingo. I think a lot of social media “influencing” is a kind of grift. I followed a lot of fashion and lifestyle influencers in the course of working on this book and the vibe I took away from it was that a lot of them are hucksters selling image as a way to push product: Not just the (sometimes pretty dubious) sponsored products that pay for placement in their Instagram photos, but themselves as a product/brand. Very little of what you see in their posts is real: It’s facetuned and filtered and fabricated.

Just as con artists come up with false images and personalities in order to run their scams, so too do many influencers. It’s just a milder variation of the same kind of lie.

What kind of research did you do for the book? Do you have any background in art history?

The last art history course I took was at UC Berkeley back in 1994, so, no, not really. I love art and interior design and read a lot about it, but I did have to take a bit of a crash course in antiques. (I spent a lot of time on museum websites, and perusing 1stDibs and Sothebys.) I also read a lot about the psychology of a con artist—there’s a great book called The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova that really helped—and spoke to experts who could explain some modern grifting techniques. I even interviewed a professor whose specialty was the international market in stolen art and antiquities. (Which is fascinating: I could have written a whole book just about that!)

As for Lake Tahoe—I spent a lot of time there when I was growing up (I even got married there), and this book was a good excuse to go back.

All of your novels examine the trust we put into intimate relationships and how two or more people can perceive the same relationship differently. Do you see Pretty Things as a natural progression from your previous books?

You could say that my first two novels—All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and This Is Where We Live—were not at all like my last two—Watch Me Disappear and Pretty Things. After all, the former are Jonathan Franzen-esque satirical domestic dramas, and the latter are literary suspense. But I think there are common threads between them. All are page-turners, for one. And I also think I’ve been refining certain themes over the last four books, and a big one is how we often see only what we want to see in relationships (whether it’s your messed-up children, your missing wife, or your new best friend who happens to be a con artist).

I’m always blown away by the number of people I meet who thought they knew everything about someone they loved, only to discover after years and years that they had no clue who that person really was. This fascinates me. People lie so much, in so many ways, especially to the people they are supposedly closest to. It makes for a great story.

How did the book land at Amazon Studios?

It was pretty exciting! Before the book was even copyedited, a copy of the manuscript started circulating around Hollywood. Funny story: I found out when I was at Disneyland—standing in line for Splash Mountain with my kids—because a screenwriter acquaintance texted me to let me know she’d just read it and she’d heard it was a “hot property.” I had absolutely no clue the manuscript had even leaked out.

Within weeks, there was a bidding war brewing, with nine different offers. Amazon and Blossom Film—Nicole Kidman’s production company—partnered to approach me about making a TV series out of it. They immediately shot to the top of my list, and pretty soon we had an agreement.

Champagne was consumed. Quite a bit of it.

Are you involved in the series development in any way?

Very. I’m going to be writing the pilot. And I’m an executive producer.

Are you working on a new novel?

I’m always working on a new novel. But I hate talking about works in progress until I’ve got a draft finished, in part because talking about it feels like committing to what I’ve written so far. And like I said in a previous answer, my books usually evolve as I write them. So I like to give myself room to change things that need to change, and being cryptic (like I am now) helps me feel like I have that freedom. No one will ever know what ended up in the trash!

Finally, I think a lot of aspiring writers would like to have your career. Do you have any advice to give?

Ah, I feel like I’m so bad at this kind of advice. I look back at my career—it’s been 25 years since I first started writing, back then as a journalist with Wired—and it’s hard to see anything clearly except perseverance. There have been some real ups and downs over the years. But at a certain point it’s a numbers game: You write, and you keep writing and writing and writing, and once you have a few hundred thousand words under your belt odds are that you will start to get somewhat decent at it.

Also: Good editors and trusted readers are key. Find a community of writers who will keep you motivated and give you good feedback. And then just keep at it.

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