Wednesdays with Writers: Janelle Brown on salty snacks and trashy magazines, writing everyday while her kids are at school; identity, the dark side of motherhood, how the ending of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR was changed three times, & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Tantalizing and twisty, this literary suspense is a clever meditation on what it means to be a family, to really know someone. 

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Billie (Sybilla) Flanagan, a beautiful, charismatic Berkeley mom goes on a solo hike in the Desolation Wilderness never to return. It’s been a year and…where is she? Picking up the pieces are her husband and 16 year-old daughter, Olive who are seeking a death certificate as she is now presumed dead (all that’s found of her is a lone hiking boot).

Olive and Jonathan do the best they can, but they are shattered, confused, broken. Jonathan is a writer attempting a loving memoir about his wife and death, Olive attends a prestigious all-girls prep school. But then Olive starts having visions/hallucinations/waking dreams of her mother. Jonathan’s concerned about her emotional stability and schleps her to doctors trying to find the source of the problem. But secrets from Billie’s past surface, leading both Jonathan and Olive the person they once shared a life with. 

Together–and somewhat reluctantly–Jonathan and Olive embark on a quest to discover the true Billie Flanagan, while at the same time, learning important truths about themselves.

I’m super jazzed to have Janelle Brown with us today to chat about her book and writing and everything in between.

Leslie Lindsay: Janelle, it’s great to have you. I find missing people stories so
fear-to-a-great-extent-is-born-of-a-story-we-tell-ourselvesfascinating. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR is such much more than ‘just another missing person.’ Can you tell us what you see as the overarching themes in this story?

Janelle Brown: This book is about the stories that we tell ourselves – about who we are, and about the people we love – and how those stories are so often subjective. We see what we want to see, and blind ourselves to things that are inconvenient to think about. It’s also a bit about the dark side of motherhood, as well as about the journey of losing and/or finding yourself. 

L.L.: How might the story have been different if it were Jonathan who went missing? Why do we have such a fascination with missing mothers and wives?

Janelle Brown:  I think our fascination with missing moms/wives has a lot to do with our notions of the mother – child bond: That it is so unbreakable, that a mother being separated from her child is so much worse than a father. (I personally don’t think this is necessarily true, but culturally that’s the common thinking.) There’s all kinds of gender norms about women being more vulnerable (both physically and emotionally) that supposedly makes it more alarming when a woman goes missing; which is part of why I wanted Billie to NOT be a vulnerable woman, but very much the author of her own fate.

It’s hard for me to imagine the story with Jonathan being missing because it would have been so different. He’s an utterly different kind of character than Billie so really it would have been an entirely new story.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? How was this book conceived and narrated? Do you plot, outline, or let the muse guide you? Do you ever write yourself into corners and think, ‘what have I done?!’

Janelle Brown:  I let the story carry me where it wants to go. I’ll start out with an idea and a rough plot outline, and my characters. But as the characters come to life they start informing & changing the story. So I often end up in places that I didn’t necessarily intend to go, and end up reshaping the book to fit the new direction.

This book was reshaped and rewritten about four times, including some very radical changes. (The whole ending changed, three times!)

“Poignant and captivating…Brown deftly peels away the layers of a loving marriage to reveal a haunting mystery and a devastating truth: that no matter how much you love someone; you can never truly know them.”

–Award-winning author Laura McHugh

L.L.: I enjoyed Olive so much—especially her visions/seizures. And also your reference to Lois Duncan novels! In fact, I just dug my old Lois Duncan books out of their 30 year hiding place and presented them to my daughter.  She loves them! What kind of research—if any—did you do to make Olive’s visions so tangible?

Janelle Brown:  Well, a lifetime of fascination with stories of the paranormal helped. (I was a huge Lois Duncan fan as a kid, and it’s evolved from there.) I also did some reading – including books by Oliver Sacks about grief & hallucinations, a lot of reading on paranormal sites, etc. I wanted Olive’s visions to feel very loisduncan.pngdistinctive and grounded in the reality of her relationship with her mother; and also be experiences that could be explained in many different ways depending on what you want to see.

L.L.: I wanted to talk about the title a bit. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR can be applied to just about any character in the book: Billie, for obvious reasons but also Jonathan and Olive. I think the important thing here is that the characters somehow grow and change. Can you talk about that, please? And did the title stay from your working title to the final?

Janelle Brown: The title came after I’d already written half of the book (after a LOT of brainstorming), and it’s something that actually grew on me thematically as I was writing the second half of the book (and then rewriting it again). You’re right, the book is about not just the physical disappearance of Billie but also about both people disappearing emotionally – from their relationships with other people, and into themselves – as well as evolving into other people entirely and losing who they once thought they were.

L.L.: What is a fact few people know about you? Do you have any writing rituals or routines? Guilty pleasures? An obsession?  

Janelle Brown:  Writing routines: I go to an office that I share with a bunch of other writers in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, where I live).  We have a great little community. I try to sit down and write every day, while my kids are in school; which isn’t always easy but I at least have my rear end in a chair and am staring at a screen.

Obsessions? Books. I read a ton. Probably too much, if that’s possible.

Guilty pleasures? Salty snacks. Trashy magazines.

L.L.: Janelle, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about but should have?

Janelle Brown: Not at all, it’s been a pleasure! (Not a guilty one, either.)

For more information about the book, to connect with Janelle through social media, or to purchase a copy of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, please see: 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Janelle Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Watch Me Disappear, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This Is Where We Live. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Wired, Self, The Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. Previously, she worked as a senior writer at Salon, and began her career as a staff writer at Wired during the dotcom boom years, working on seminal Web sites like HotWired and Wired News. A native of San Francisco and graduate of UC Berkeley, she has since defected to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Greg, their two children, and a geriatric lab mix named Guster.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media hangouts:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Random House/Speigel & Grau and used with permission. Author image credit: Michael Smiy. Image of Lois Duncan novels retrieved from the New York Public Library website, Cheryl Strayed quote from on 10.16.17]

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