Author Interview: Janelle Brown {& Giveaway!} / by Madeleine

Readers, today I have something so fun to share with you. Have you ever read a book with such a great twist -- a book that obviously took much planning and plotting, and wondered how the author did it? I wonder this all the time. I wonder, too, what it's like to be an author -- to have a job where your career is based upon your own imagination (as a blogger, my work is based off the imagination of others and as a teacher, there's no shortage of imagination in my students). Today, readers, we have a guest here on TST to give us an inside peek at what it's like to be an author. 

Janelle Brown is the author of All We Ever Wanted Was EverythingThis Is Where We Live, and most recently, one of this summer's most popular thrillers -- Watch Me Disappear. If you haven't already read Watch Me Disappear, you can read my review here

(Hint, I really enjoyed it. I sent Janelle this emoji --> 😱  in response to the twist. Sometimes, emojis are the best way to show your feelings for a book.)

AND readers, just yesterday, it was announced that Watch Me Disappear is going to be made into a movie. So I'll say it again -- you

definitely want to read this book.

Janelle was kind enough to agree to answer some of my questions and we've teamed up to giveaway one signed copy of Watch Me Disappear from Janelle's personal stash!

Read on for a peek into Janelle's author life and a chance to win the book!

Tell us about your path to becoming an author. Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were a child? 

I did! I’ve been a huge bookworm since the moment I could read; and as a little kid I used to write and illustrate my own books. (Talking animals were heavily featured.) At one point in first grade, my teacher made the offhand comment to me, “You should be an author when you grow up.” I took that suggestion and ran with it, and never looked back. Although I spent my twenties working in journalism (I had staff writer positions at Wired and Salon.com), I always knew that someday I wanted to really try to make a go of writing fiction. So I took the fairly radical move of quitting my great journalism job in 2002, and went freelance in order to have time to start working on a novel. I took a bunch of fiction-writing workshops; wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote ad nauseum, and by 2007 I’d finished my first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you have any special rituals or circumstances that you need to be in place before you can write?

You know, there are writers that are totally ritual- and schedule-based, and then there’s me. My only real ritual is a) coffee and b) reading over the previous days writing before I start on fresh pages. Plus, embarrassingly, c) a fair amount of procrastination on the Internet. I have two young children and so my writing day is fairly circumscribed by their school hours; but I try to go into my office every day to work. (I helped found a co-working space for writers in Los Angeles, and about 20 of us work out of it.) But other than that, I’m not a terribly disciplined writer. I always marvel when I read about those authors who disable the Internet and then diligently produce 2000 words every single day because I am so not that kind of author. In a nutshell, I’m either “feeling it” and am totally inspired and know what I want to write next -- in which case, I’ll often wake up at 4 a.m. raring to go and will write thousands of words by lunchtime -- or else I’m unclear on where the book needs to go next. When the latter is happening, I’ll sometimes go weeks at a time in which I barely get anything on the page (but get a *lot* of posts up on social media.)

Where do you source your story ideas? Where did the idea for Watch Me Disappear come from?

It’s really difficult for me to pinpoint where, exactly, each book idea comes from. Usually it’s a long gestation process, with a lot of disparate inspirations – things I’ve read, stories I’ve heard, people I’ve met that interest me as characters – slowly weaving together until I suddenly “see” a story forming in my mind. Quite often, too, I’ll start with what I think is an idea; and then as I start writing, the story will evolve until it becomes something quite different. I can say that one of the sources of inspirations for Watch Me Disappear was my husband, Greg, who has temporal lobe epilepsy and has experienced these curious audio-visual sensory seizures since he was a kid. That always fascinated me – that he could see and hear and experience things that I couldn’t, that his brain could completely alter his perception of reality. And then I watched the terrific movie “Take Shelter” – about a man experiencing apocalyptic hallucinations who can’t decide if he’s crazy or psychic – and it all wove together into the kernel of an idea about a teenage girl who is seeing surreal things that she doesn’t quite understand. In other words, the story all started with Olive’s visions/hallucinations, and it grew from there.

Watch Me Disappear has one of those endings that leaves readers with wide eyes and open mouths. I think I actually yelled out loud at the very end. Without spoiling it for future readers, can you tell us how you go about plotting a thriller? Is there a method to writing such a good twist?

Oddly, I didn’t even realize I was writing a suspense novel until I got about a third of the way into a first draft; I’d never written in this genre before and I had just imagined that I was writing a domestic drama like my last two books, but with a mysterious element (ie: Olive’s visions.). And then I had an epiphany one day that I was actually writing a mystery; at which point I had to go back and tear the entire book apart and really think about what that meant. I’ve always written very plot-driven books, but I knew that with a mystery, action had to tick at certain moments, the plot had to twist at certain times to keep a reader’s interest, and there had to be a sustained level of anticipation and surprise. That’s when I started seriously plotting the story – thinking about what needed to happen, and when, and why. I put together some pretty elaborate timelines and a lot of chapter-by-chapter character breakdowns (i.e. Jonathan and Olive’s emotional states had to evolve with each new revelation about Billie; which then of course would effect what actions they would take next.) As for the ending – it changed three times during the course of writing the book. I had two other ending ideas that just weren’t as effective; and each time I changed the ending I had to tear the entire book apart again in order to rebuild towards the new ending. But when I finally figured out what the proper final twist was, I knew I’d nailed it.

I wish I could explain some clear “method” for this but really it was just intuition -- plus trying to think about what the obvious twists might be, and eliminate those out of hand. I also have a terrific editor, with a good eye for mystery, whose insights I was able to use to help shape a satisfying ending.

Tell us a little bit about your reading life. How does reading for pleasure fit into your life when writing and reading are both part of your job?

I’m a voracious reader – generally a book or two a week. I keep a massive list of books on hold at the library, throwing on anything that I hear about that sounds interesting. I read mostly contemporary literary fiction, though occasionally I’ll hit up a nonfiction book, or do a deep dive into older (20th century, mostly) fiction. Books either go on the list because a reviewer I respect recommended a book, or enough people I know have been talking about it, or my book club is going to be discussing it, or one of my friends wrote it (which is always fun!).

In general, I almost always find reading a pleasure – it’s my favorite thing to do, so it never really feels like “work.” I did find myself reading a lot of suspense novels while working on this book, because I wanted to immerse myself in the genre and really study how other authors assembled a satisfying mystery. But I’ve always had a real love for well-written suspense novels (see: Megan Abbott, Sarah Waters, Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson) so this was no hardship. I find myself reading my favorite books twice – once for the sheer pleasure of reading the story, another time to think about the author’s craft. And I also often read during the day when I’m feeling “stuck” at work – sometimes, just reading a few pages of a great book is enough to start feeling inspired again.

We love to share recommendations here on Top Shelf Text. Can you recommend to us 3 books that you've loved?

Hmmm… So hard to know where to start! Arbitrarily, I’m going to pick out some non-suspense books I’ve loved over the last year: The Nix by Nathan HillHeat & Light by Jennifer HaighThe Guineveres by Sarah DometEuphoria by Lily KingUnderground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. And for suspense -- Ill Will by Dan ChoanYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and The Paying Guests  by Sarah Waters.

That’s eight, but once I get going I can’t narrow it down to just three!

***

Thank you so much Janelle, for chatting with TST readers!

Readers, I also asked (because I know you're probably wondering too), what Janelle is working on now. She said it's a little early to share any details, but we can expect another suspenseful story from her in the future. I'm sure you could guess this, but my response was an enthusiastic sign me up

***

Giveaway

One TST reader will win a hardcover, signed copy of Janelle's newest release, Watch Me Disappear. Open to U.S. AND Canada!

TO EARN ONE ENTRY:

Comment below with your recommendation for a novel with a great twist.

TO EARN ONE BONUS ENTRY:

Like the photo of Watch Me Disappear on Instagram.

Follow @topshelftext and @janellebrownie.

TO EARN A SECOND BONUS ENTRY:

Repost my Instagram photo on your stories or feed and tag me!

Giveaway closes on Saturday, August 12th at 9pm EST.

Winner will be announced on Sunday, August 13th!

GOOD LUCK!