New paperback, new cover
13 Apr 2011

The paperback of This Is Where We Live will arrive in bookstores in just a few weeks. You may recall that the hardback cover was dark and ominous: Black, with dying tulips in a shattering vase.

Well, here's is the new paperback cover, and there's not a dot of black to be seen:

This is Where.trade

 

Familiar? Yes. Those who read "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" may find the cover eerily similar, in fact. (There is, for example, a dessert theme going on). Does it make you want to eat strawberry shortcake? Hopefully. But hopefully it will make you want to read even more. 

Personally, strawberry shortcake is one of my very favorite desserts. This cover is going to be a form of torture, because every time I look at it I'm going to want to pick up a fork. 

In any case, it's out in stores on May 17. (Though why wait? Buy it now at your favorite online retailer. Really, no need to wait. Seriously. I mean it.) And even though the cover is different, the content remains the same.

The ascendance of the local bookstore
29 Sep 2010

Bookworks1
 A few weeks back, I was invited to go on a tour of San Diego bookstores with the Southern California Independent Bookstores Association -- which is exactly as it sounds, an organization of all the indies in SoCal. About thirty of us piled on a bus and spent the day driving around the Southland, stopping in at a half-dozen bookstores en route. 

Having come from San Francisco, where there are seemingly more indies (including the great indie chain Books Inc) than B&N & Borders, I've been known to bemoan the state of independent bookstores in LA. In all of Los Angeles, there are roughly ten (or so) indies: Skylight, Vromans, Book Soup, Diesel, Stories, and a handful of specialty stores. And yet, even as Barnes & Noble is battling to stay in business, these bookstores are actually thriving. Sure, Duttons closed its doors a few years back, but Skylight, Diesel and Vroman's have all done well enough in the last few years to expand.

The tour of the Southland was equally uplifting. There were bookstores that had been around for years and were thriving (Warwicks in San Diego, Book Works in Del Mar), and also some brand new ones, including Pages in Manhattan Beach -- which, despite just opening this year, is already about to open a second branch in Redondo Beach. 

The optimist in me likes to think that, perhaps, with the superstore bookstores suffering, the tide is turning back towards independents. Superstores (for the most part) don't offer much that you can't also get at Amazon.com (without having to look for parking). They are functional and comprehensive and great for discounts but absolutely impersonal. An independent bookstore, on the other hand, often has personalized charm -- like the displays of obsolete technology at Book Works (pictured above) -- and a staff that not only reads (which, sadly, the staff at superstores don't always do) but that thrives on giving recommendations. One bookseller at Laguna Beach Books told me that she'd hand-sold 500 copies of an otherwise obscure novel that she loved. Her store is blanketed with little hand-written cards recommending books, and the customers flock there for her opinions

Then there are the community events. Book Works, which specializes in science books, has a science lecture series, weekly events for kids, and free live music on Friday nights, and a whole host of book clubs -- despite being smaller than the check-out aisle at your average B&N. These are places where you would actually want to hang out on a Friday night, rather than just grabbing your Eat Pray Love for 50% off and racing next door to Bed Bath & Beyond.

It's telling to me that B&N's newest endeavor is going to be selling personalized teddy bears. Because, you know, nothing says "Call Me Ishmael" like a stuffed plush toy. Still, even though B&N is struggling financially, I certainly don't hope B&N goes out of business - fewer bookstores is bad news for everyone, including the indies. But I do hope that those customers who used to shop at the Lincoln Center B&N, which is now closing, will now to go to the fantastic indie McNally Jackson instead.

And let's also hope that the rise of the ebook doesn't drive the independents out of business altogether. But that's another story for another day.

"So, what are you working on now?"
23 Aug 2010

... This is the question that gets asked, inevitably, every time I appear in public. It is the last question asked in the radio interview, the final topic raised by the audience at the reading. My editor nudges me gently whenever she gets the opportunity. Everyone wants to know. And I don't ever want to tell.

I recently read the Time cover profile of Jonathan Franzen. His latest novel, "Freedom" is coming out next week, almost a decade after "The Corrections." This is not because it took him ten years to write the novel. It's because, as he explains in the Time piece, he was stuck. For seven years, he fiddled with the beginning of a new novel, with very little for his efforts except for the voice of a character. He took time off, did some journalism, published a book of essays, started to write, stopped writing, started again. When he finally figured out what his novel was going to be about, it took him less than two years to actually write it.

Junot Diaz had a similar story - it took him a decade to write "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," mostly because he spent so many years completely stuck. He threw out almost everything he wrote.

This is why I hate the question "What are you working on now?" Books take time to conceive; they evolve in radical new directions; they start as one thing and end as another. There are long periods of "stuckness" when they are trashed altogether and begun anew. They do not (at least for me) emerge, fully formed, onto the page. I first imagined "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" as the story of three woman who had chronic fatigue syndrome; I ended up with a family saga about a financial windfall. "This Is Where We Live" began as the story of a couple buying a house; it ended up as the story of a couple whose home goes into foreclosure. 

Even if I told you, right now, what I'm working on, it may not be what I'm working on in three months, or six months, or six years. I might start off writing about trains, and end up writing about fairies. And I would hate to have readers (not to mention my editor) waiting expectantly for that train book, only to be surprised when my fairy tale ends up on the shelf. I like the open-ended potential of knowing that I can write whatever I want, change it as frequently as I see fit, knowing I'm not beholden to anyone's opinions or expectations. And no one need ever know many dead-end roads I went down before I ended up at the final destination. 

Bits and pieces, odds and ends
5 Aug 2010

It's August, and even my fingers seem to be typing at half-speed; my brain function is at a crawl. What I really want is to be sitting in the sun, eating gelato, or swimming, or lounging on the beach; so please forgive the pokey pace of my posting. 

Something more "real" is to come soon, but in the meantime, I thought I'd offer a few links:

USA Today did a story today about "Recession Lit," and included "This Is Where We Live" as an example of a book that's mining our current economic situation. Who knew I was on the bleeding edge of a hot new literary trend? But really, it's not so surprising: Authors (often) write about what's happening around them. What's happening now is a recession. If A = B, and B = C, then A = C. QED. Not a shocker; but hey, I never met a journalist who doesn't love a good trend story. Myself included. 

Also, I was discovered today by both Strollerderby, a site for moms; and Campus Circle, a publication for college students, thereby hitting two completely different demographics at once. I'm now waiting for AARP to call. Strollerderby said that "Janelle Brown proves that there is indeed an LA lit scene and that she is one of its rising stars." That's me, singlehandedly raising the literary profile of Los Angeles. James Ellroy can thank me later.

When content has no value anymore....
26 Jul 2010

... What will happen to the creative class? Music is being given away for free, filmmakers have to fund their own movies, authors are watching the value of a book drop from $25.99 to $9.99 or less, journalists are getting paid $15 for an article. Eventually, no one is going to be able to make a living making art -- or anything vaguely like it -- at all.

Read more of my thoughts on this in the editorial that I wrote for Huffington Post, decrying the trend of devaluing "content." 

Five great California novels
19 Jul 2010

Last week, I wrote a post for the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy Blog about my five favorite California novels. (Click here to check it out). It was nearly impossible to limit myself to just five, so I thought I'd offer up a few more that didn't make the short list, but should definitely make it to your bookshelf:

- Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. A sprawling epic based on the life of the stage magician Charles Carter, set early 20th century San Francisco 

- Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy. A quirky multigenerational soap opera, which takes place during WWII in southern generational.

- Jamesland, by Michelle Hunevan. A great contemporary LA novel, inspired by the theology of William James.

- Less than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis. Still his best book, so dark and damning.

- Oh The Glory of it All, by Sean Wilsey. A memoir by the son of a narcissistic San Francisco socialite. Very Mommy Dearest.

How Readings are like a Freshman English Class
7 Jul 2010

Frontrow

I'm back from a 10 days book tour, and as I gave reading after reading, it struck me that there are certain similarities between a bookstore reading and a high school classroom. To wit:

1) No one wants to sit in the front row. My readings might be standing-room only, with people in back having to jostle for position, and yet the first row would invariable be dead empty (except for the guy in Portland who was sitting in the front row clipping his fingernails, but that's another story). Even when I point out those empty seats, no one is willing to come forward to claim them -- no matter if they're pregnant, missing a leg, or 98 years old. I suspect that no one wants to be in the front row because they want to give themselves a chance at slipping out unseen if the reading turns out to be deadly dull, but really, unless you have a 200 person audience, an author is pretty much going to notice *anyone* who leaves in the middle of the reading. That empty front row always makes me feel a bit like a pariah, as if the audience is frightened of getting too close to me -- as if I, like a teacher who throws erasers at inattentive students or pitches screaming fits when no one does their homework, might start flinging bookmarks at the people in the front row or calling them out for typing on their iPhones while I'm reading aloud from the climax of the book. Really guys, I'm not that scary. I'm just glad you're filling a seat - I won't spit on you or yell at you or make you do extra homework. Promise!

2) No one wants to ask the first question. Generally, a reading is followed by a Q&A, giving audiences the chance to ask an author all the burning questions that they secretly want to ask. And yet, invariably, when I ask the audience, "Does anyone have any questions?" no one does. At least, not at first. Instead, I'm left up there trying to fill the empty air with some kind of vaguely coherent babble until some brave soul finally gets up the nerve to stick their hand in the air. Invariably, the question is "What was the inspiration for this story?" A predictable question, but still! I won't object. After all, it gets things started. And after that first question, a half dozen hands will immediately pop up in the air, so it's clearly not that people didn't *have* questions, it's just that they weren't willing to ask them yet. In this way a reading reminds me of a freshman English class, when the teacher asks what everyone thought of the homework, and no one is willing to answer first lest they give the wrong answer and look stupid. But I promise you, at a reading, there is no wrong question -- the author will be grateful for just about anything that shows some vague engagement with her/his writing. Even "what was the inspiration for this story?"

3) Signing books is kind of like a high-stakes pop quiz. When your aunt's old bridge partner or your former college dormmate or your sister's bridesmaid puts a book in front of you and asks you to sign it, you have to remember her name, and then, if you don't but probably should, figure out how to tease the name out of her without making it apparent that you don't remember. (The old "who should I sign this to?" trick works sometimes; but often the answer is a useless "me.") If, after a minute of small talk while you frantically run through your memory bank, you *do* have that critical epiphany, you still have to decide whether it's spelled Christine or Kristine or Chrystine or Christiane or Cristen. Trust me, you don't want to scratch out your mistake, not when they've just paid $26 for a precious paperback - after all, you want leave them with warm fuzzy feelings about you so that they'll buy your next book too. 

In a worst case scenario, I'll skip the name entirely and just write "Thanks for supporting the book." That won't earn me a failing grade, but is still probably no better than a C-. Which is a pass, but barely. 

Just finished: The Imperfectionists & 3 others
2 Jul 2010

Ten days on the road for my book tour - with no baby that required attending to, and many idle hours in airplanes, airports, and hotel rooms - meant that I had lots of time to read books. It was heaven, though I still didn't manage to work my way through the stack of books I had optimistically packed.

Still, I managed to finish off four books in ten days:

- Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson. An older book that a friend recommended, and rightfully so. A magnificent portrait of a family and their dark secrets, with the first person story of a little girl taking prominent position and the family history unspoolling in alternate chapters. What was amazing to me was how little of great importance really happens with this family, and yet how fascinating Atkinson makes it all seem. She draws incredibly memorable characters.

- Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See. I'm a sucker for a historical drama set in WW II Asia, and sure enough, I enjoyed all the parts of this book that took place during the war. Unfortunately, the book fell apart for me once it hit the United States, and became too much like a Chinatown soap opera. Plus, possibly the most annoying cliffhanger ending I've ever come across in a novel.

- Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosay. This was a panicked buy in the airport, when I realized that I had mistakenly just checked all my books in my luggage and had a 5 hour flight ahead of me but nothing to read. The only airport bookstore in my terminal was basically a glorified newsagent with only a few dozen offerings, one of which was this book. I grabbed it, recalling that my mother had loved this book. I, unfortunately, did not. Another WW II drama, and again, enjoyed the historical war parts, hated the contemporary parts, and really found the protagonist truly unbearable. By page 3, I had figured out exactly where this book was going, which made the rest fairly dull. I gritted my teeth on the plane and waded through it, regretting my packing error the whole trip.

- The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. A novel about the people who work at a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. Marvelously written as a collection of vignettes -- each one with a twist that stabs you in the heart, and most of which involve love and infidelity -- it's also an ode to the lost glory days of the newspaper. Touching and sad (especially for someone who, like me, has worked in the news industry) and also incredibly entertaining.

The books I didn't get time to read, but am eagerly about to dive into: American Rust by Philipp Meyer, A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and The Believers by Zoe Heller. So many books, so little time.

Odds and ends
21 Jun 2010

 -- Slate's Double X anointed "This Is Where We Live" as their book of the week, dubbing it "enthralling." I'm flattered, ladies. Thank you!

-- The San Francisco Chronicle ran my review of Bret Easton Ellis' "Imperial Bedrooms." In a nutshell: "Ellis is either so deeply enmeshed in his own creepy little insular world that he can't write his way out of it, or else he is such a genius that he's created an entire parallel universe that folds and unfolds on itself like some kind of Escher print."

-- I've added a reading in Laguna Beach, at the wonderful Laguna Beach Bookstore. July 28, 7 pm. If you live anywhere in the vicinity, come say hello!

An Epigraph, Unused
21 Jun 2010

When I wrote "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," I thought it would be a nice character detail if Janice Miller drove around town cheerfully humming a song from her youth. I ended up structuring the novel's first chapter -- which takes place on the day that Janice becomes unfathomably rich, and is simultaneously dumped by her husband -- around the song "Happy Together," by the Turtles. ("Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night" etc. Trust me, you know it). I wove the song into the entire chapter, starting with the second paragraph of the novel, using it in different places to trigger memories from Janice's past, her optimism for the future, etc. 

This was all well and good until my editor asked me if I'd secured the rights to the song. 

Oops.

My editor gently enlightened me to the fact that I needed permission to use these lyric snippets -- that, in fact, there are entire law firms that deal almost exclusively with this kind of thing. So I hunted down The Turtles' law firm, and got in touch. It turned out that the rights-holder (ie: the songwriter who composed the tune for the Turtles) was fine with me using the song ... as long as I paid him a chunk of money. A chunk of money so sizable, in fact, that I began immediately to rethink using the lyrics at all. Unfortunately, the surgery on the novel would have been so extreme that I decide to suck it up and just pay. Which is why you see the "Happy Together" lyrics all over the first chapter, and I stopped drinking lattes.

So I learned my lesson, right? It's true, I did. With my second novel, "This Is Where We Live," whenever I felt the urge to quote a song lyric in the text, I stopped myself and asked whether it was vital to what I was trying to achieve with the book. Uniformly, the answer was no. I managed to write a whole book (and one about a musician, to boot) without extensively quoting any song, and I don't think it suffered as a result.

But I did have an epigraph. Since "This Is Where We Live" was inspired in part by a Robert Frost poem called "Directive," I thought I would use four lines from the poem as my epigraph. "Great," my editor responded. "So, do you have the rights?"

Oops.

It turns out, the whole permissions question also applies to poems, essays, other novels -- pretty much any text from which you quote more than two lines. You'd think that after 15 years as a professional writer, I would have known this. Somehow, I didn't. And this time around, I had a baby with a college education I needed to save for, so the idea of spending the money was far less appealing. An epigraph would have been nice, but it certainly wouldn't be missed if it wasn't there. As a result, anyone who buys "This Is Where We Live" will notice that there is no epigraph. My daughter will get a month at Harvard (no pressure, kid), instead.

As a side note - Whenever I now read a book that quotes extensively from songs, or poems, or other books, I always wonder whether that person shelled out a small fortune for rights, or whether they personally knew those musicians/writers/poets and somehow received permission gratis. ("Lit" by Mary Karr, for example, is chock-full of poetry, but I imagine she got most of it for free from her fellow poets.) Perhaps this is the new literary bragging rights: Free words from famous people.

In any case, I'm fairly certain that it's fine to publish the epigraph here. If not, I'm sure I'll hear from Robert Frost's lawyers. Until then, here it is, for your edification, my epigraph:

Weep for what little things could make them glad
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough
.
-- "Directive," Robert Frost.