A playlist, and a filmography
17 Jun 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times Paper Cuts blog published my playlist of songs that inspired the character of Jeremy in "This Is Where We Live." (Click to read the whole thing, but a few highlights: "You Stood Me Up" by Benji Hughes, and "Your Love Is Mine" by Holly Golightly).

In order to be fair to Claudia, I thought I'd include her list of favorite films here. 

1) The Graduate - Transcendent. Hard to believe that Hollywood once green-lit movies this smart and edgy. Plus, the rare ending that's totally subject to interpretation. (Has the couple just done something amazing, or doomed themselves to lives of misery? You decide.) This one's for you, Mrs. Robinson.

2) Jules et Jim - French New Wave at its finest. A strange and stiff yet touching film about two friends who both love a dangerous and wild and ultimately suicidal woman. (In fact, she's a bit of an Aoki character.)

3) Sin Nombre - Hard to believe that a film about a Mexican gang member escaping over the border into America by riding atop of freight trains could be so beautiful. But it is, and it's also a love story, and it's also a nail-biter to boot. This is the kind of serious yet entertaining movie that Claudia longs to make.

4) Lost In Translation - Dreamy, ruminative, and directed by Sofia Coppola. A movie that feels like a long, wistful sigh.

5) Laurel Canyon - Frances McDormand is fantastic as a cool music industry mom who seduces her son's fiancee. Bohemianism and perpetual youth gone amok. Perhaps a warning tale for Claudia?

6) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - One of the best movies ever made about the beauty and devastation of love. Plus, a soundtrack that really gets under your skin.

7) Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice -- Yes, this is a movie about wife-swapping, but it's also a very funny movie about marital discord and the human need for connection.

8) Some Kind of Wonderful - Not the most famous John Hughes film, but the one that Claudia watched twenty times as a teenager, dreaming of the day she'd be as cool as Drummer Girl. At one point, she fantasized about getting a little star tattoo on her shoulder, too. Fortunately, she thought better of it.

9) Rosemary's Baby - A horror film, but a sneaky and smart one --  a gothic psychological thriller that's ultimately about the evil in urban life.

10) You Can Count On Me - Another Sundance movie, this one about a wayward brother who comes home to stay with his older sister and her son. Beautifully acted and very poignant (funny, too), it explores the roads we don't take, plus the struggle between being responsible and chasing our dreams.

"I put my characters through hell"
14 Jun 2010

Latimes
 ... this is what I told Steffie Nelson, a lovely writer for the Los Angeles Times, who proceeded to write a very nice profile of me regardless of my authorial cruelty. I also told her that I like "putting characters in moments of moral ambiguity and seeing what they do." My poor characters should probably get together and form a support group.

The photographer spent about a half hour snapping pictures of me in my garden, in which I was smiling about 98% of the time. The photo they chose, naturally, was one of me looking extremely serious. Pensive. Ruminative. Perhaps -- you might even surmise -- feeling a tad bit guilty about my crimes against my characters. 

Don't be fooled. Deep down inside, I was laughing.

Back in the New York Times
9 Jun 2010

A long, long time ago - as in, three years ago - I used to write frequently for the New York Times. I took a little hiatus, partly because the grind of journalism was, well, grinding me down to nothing; and partly because I wanted to focus my creative energy on my second novel; and partly because I got pregnant and had a baby and, well, nothing makes journalism more challenging than a screaming infant who interrupts your interviews just when you're getting to the good part.

But eventually I finished the novel, and the baby got old enough to make it easier to work, and I began to have wistful memories of chasing deadlines and hacking my way through phone interviews. All of which is to say -- I'm back! On Sunday, I had a feature in the New York Times Style section, a profile of the blogger and (former) Senate candidate Mickey Kaus, who is a very colorful character. (Go ahead and read it online for free.) It turns out I kind of missed journalism. Sort of. A little. It's more fun than changing a dirty diaper, I'll tell you that; and almost as fulfilling.

Trade reviews: The agony and the ectasy
7 Jun 2010

Booklist
 The trade reviews for "This Is Where We Live" are all in now. For those of you who have no clue what a "trade review" is, these are the four book reviews that come out in advance of a book's publication, published in trade magazines that are read by booksellers, librarians, and other vendors who then use these reviews to make ordering decisions. Written, for the most part, by anonymous critics, the reviews are also circulated widely and generally help set the tenor of what's to come.

Let's review, shall we?

Library Journal: "Brown's follow up to her biting debut is another addictive read. This telling look at how the current economic crisis affects one family shows that Brown is no one-hit wonder." They gave it a starred review.

Kirkus: "Brown's tart second novel couldn't be more timely... a cringingly funny satire of love and money among the artsy class."

Booklist: "Brown proves adept at fully inhabiting both male and female characters in her sympathetic portrait of a troubled marriage. She also elevates her material with sharp commentary on the current economy while gamely tackling what it means to be a "grown up" and how our idea of who we think we should be gets in the way of who we really are. At once playful and heartbreaking, this novel never feels less than wholly true."

Great, right? I'm downright bursting with pleasure. 

That is, until I read the Publisher's Weekly (PW) review, which has this to say: "Married 30-something artists Claudia and Jeremy Munger are the unlucky anchors of Brown's shaky sophomore novel.... The gauntlets the Mungers face verge on Kafkaesque, yet the novel proceeds with painful earnestness." Oh. I suppose I can be comforted that the critic finishes with a back-handed compliment: "There are lovely small moments—Claudia's awkward run-in with a former student, for instance—that give hope that the undeniably talented author will find her footing again after this flawed effort." Thanks, I guess?

Part of reconciling yourself to life as an author is coming to terms with the fact that there will always be someone out there who hates your book. Hopefully, not a whole lot of someones. And hopefully not someone who has undue influence on other people. But it's nearly inevitable that at least one of the trades will hate you: Last time around, it was Kirkus that hated my book, and Publisher's Weekly who loved it. 

Most reviews -- even the bad ones -- you can (kind of) shrug off. But what makes a bad trade review so painful is its online ubiquity. The trade reviews (particularly Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus) get reprinted *everywhere*. The very first review you read on Amazon, for example, is the one from Publisher's Weekly, which gets prime placement at the top of the Editorial Reviews section. It doesn't matter if the New York Times Book Review puts you on the cover and anoints you the next great literary superstar -- PW still has the first (and often, final) word. This means that your average Amazon browser will be quickly convinced that TIWWL is "shaky" and "flawed" (per PW), unless they persevere and click further to read the good reviews and discover that someone else thought it was "addictive" and "cringingly funny" and "heartbreaking." 

Am I complaining? A little. But not really. Because what counts most, in the end, is the readers who do love your book -- those "someones" who not only enjoy it but pass their love along, recommending your book to like-minded folk with similar taste. The worst reviews in the world, after all, didn't stop "Sex In the City 2" a small fortune at the box office; surely Philip Roth and Barbara Kingsolver and Jennifer Weiner have survived a few bad trade reviews and gone on to the bestseller lists anyway. So hopefully one anonymous critic at PW won't scare off too many potential readers. I can only hope that there are more -- and at the moment I'm batting 75% -- who like it enough to counter the criticism. 

After all, as they say, chacun à son goût. I can live with that.

Look at me journalism
2 Jun 2010

The cover story in CJR this month is by Moe Tkacik (formerly of the Gawker empire), who describes her journey from earnest (if inexperienced) investigative journalist to jaded confessional blogger. This is her take on what's happened to journalism in the last decade: 

 When the Internet forced journalism to compete economically after years of monopoly, journalism panicked and adopted some of the worst examples of the nothing-based economy, in which success depends on the continued infantilization of both supply and demand. At the same time, journalism clung to its myths of objectivity and detachment, using them to dismiss the emerging blogger threat as something unserious and fundamentally parasitic, even as it produced a steady stream of obsessive but sneering trend stories on the blogosphere.

I find this an interesting assessment of the state of journalism today. What she doesn't really address, and what I find even more depressing, is that the Internet exposed the public's voracious consumption for gossip and opinion in all forms, essentially decimating "real" journalism. No wonder the blog has risen triumphant.

 The vast majority of the journalists I know who have lost their jobs as reporters and columnists at newspapers & magazines (online or other) -- jobs they lost because of the tanking economy and the dismal finances of the media -- have typically ended up at blogs making a fraction of what they used to make for work that is half as serious as what they used to do.  The film critic does TV recaps, the investigative reporter writes short news items about entertainment industry scandals, the feature writer writes opinion pieces for her own web site, the essayist twitters because no one will pay to publish his pieces anymore. 

No wonder it's become a "look at me" media economy -- when you're already sinking not only into unemployment and poverty, burnishing your "voice" and "brand" may seem like the best shot at avoiding invisibility and irrelevance altogether.

That said, there are plenty of interesting new endeavors that I find inspiring, places where the Net hasn't destroyed journalism but is enabling it - like the new Bay Area Citizen, which is taking over where the SF Chronicle has failed; or the  non-profit journalism endeavor ProPublica, which works with bigger institutions to fund serious investigative reporting.

Still, whenever I talked to my journalist friends, the reports I hear are grim. I feel fortunate to have started a second career as an author: I can still do journalism when I feel like it (or need to be), but I'm not dependent on it the way I was before. I can remain at least slightly detached from the struggles of an industry that I still love, but no longer rely on for financial or emotional fulfillment. 

You can find me in Costco
25 May 2010

Costco

Last week, my mother called me on her cell phone from San Francisco. "I'm in Costco," she said, in a stage whisper. "They're selling All We Ever Wanted! I just moved it from the bottom of the pile and now it's sitting on top of the James Patterson books!" (My mother, bless her heart, is an adept reshelver of books -- after she departs a bookstore, it is quite likely that the annoyed staffers will find my two-year-old novel sitting front and center on the "new releases" table.) 

Then, this morning, a friend emailed me a photo of the fruits of his latest trip to a Los Angeles Costco: Diapers, Bombay Sapphire, and All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, for the very reasonable price of $8.99.

I have mixed feelings about this. Costco only sells 250 titles at a time. The fact that AWEWWE is being sold now, nearly two years since its release date, is a great sign that the book still has a life in it. (Which isn't a given in this dismal market). It's also flattering that Costco deems it worthy of a slot on their coveted tables. And yet! The book is being sold for a good third off its usual cover price, which is bad for independent bookstores who can't compete with these prices, and also not particularly lucrative for publishers, and ultimately, not so lucrative for authors either. And yet! Costco sells a vast quantity of books, being one of the top 5 sellers in the US, and anything that helps sell vast (or even middling) numbers of my book, thereby introducing Janelle Brown to people who might not otherwise have heard of me, is good for me in the long run. (According to a New York Times story, "A forgotten older paperback, recommended and featured by the book buyer at Costco, can sell more copies in six weeks than it did in the last few years combined.")

I hear that authors have even started doing signings at Costco (Sarah Palin and Bill Clinton have both stopped in recently to sign, and even smaller authors have started adding stops to their book tours). The bookish elite may be horrified by the idea of hawking literature alongside free samples of frozen pizza and shrinkwrapped underwear, but perhaps it's also a positive sign that an interest in reading is infiltrating even the most mass of markets. After all, snobbishness helps no one in the worst book market in decades.

So if you see me there, wedged between stacks of Twilight and Eat Pray Love -- or even in person, next to the salsa sample table -- be nice to me. Move my book to the top of the table, stop by to say hello. Throw a book in your cart alongside that bulk toilet paper and give it to your aunt Flo for Christmas. After all, at 30% off the cover price, it's a steal, and will (hopefully) provide her with even more pleasure than that six pound bag of salted nut mix, but with none of the calories.  

Whither the Withering Theater Audience?
17 May 2010

Bengal_tiger_at_the_baghdad_zoo_homepage_01

Over the weekend, I went to a play called "Benghal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" -- which, clunky title notwithstanding, is a Pulitzer-nominated play by the same playwright who did The Laramie Project. It's an astonishing good play, which has been getting rave reviews from every critic in the country (the New York Times called it "boldly imagined, harrowing and surprisingly funny"). This production was playing at the Mark Taper in Performing Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles, which is perhaps the most prominent theater in the city. I went on a Friday night - prime theater going time. 

And yet the theater was maybe two-thirds full.

You would think that the fact that I live in a city where you can't spit without hitting an actor would mean that I live in a fantastic city for theater. And yet when I tell people that I go to the theater (Benghal Tiger was the third I've seen this year) people give me a perplexed look, as if I just told them I went buffalo hunting or dabbled in pogo jumping. I recently did a quick survey of my friends -- all highly literate types, most of whom are in some way involved in creative industries, the kind of people that should be going to plays -- and none of them had seen a play recently.

It's not that Los Angeles doesn't have some good theater -- there are some great productions that come here, with high-wattage actors (I recently saw Martin Sheen in "The Subject Was Roses" and Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in "Oleanna"). Sure, I've gone to my fair share of bad plays over the years -- generally, the LA equivalent of off-off-off Broadway productions at tiny theaters -- but more often than not the plays that I've seen have been cast with incredibly good actors and are at least interesting. We have the Pantages theater, which gets all the big musicals, and a fair number of top-quality theater troupes. But there's not a lot of high-profile productions going on at any time -- it's not like New York, where on any given night you can choose between a fistful of Tony-winning plays and productions starring Cate Blanchett and free Shakespeare in the Park and massive musical extravaganzas that have been running for three decades.

Since the problem is not a lack of talent -- LA, obviously, is crawling with underemployed actors and directors and playwrights -- I'm guessing the problem is the lack of demand. If even a Pulitzer nominated play can't fill a theater, who can? Is the audience just aging out of existence? On Friday night, the audience was dominated by the expected NPR-tote-bag-carrying-gray-hairs, although there were also a decent number of people under 40. But considering how young and hip and funny this play was - there was vulgarity and masturbation jokes and a gold-plated toilet seat and a tiger debating God's existence - I was pretty surprised that there wasn't a more contemporary crowd. In New York, the theater would have been packed to the gills with tastemakers.

I wonder whether the barrier to entry for the younger demographic is the cost (our tickets were $45), or the convenience (a lot of the theaters are in out-of-the-way areas, like downtown), or the lack of good promotion (the main way to find out about local theater is to read the LA Times, which, sadly, no one really does).  But I also suspect there's a lot of inertia involved: In a city so dominated by movies, everyone hits the cinema on Friday night instead. It's easy, comparatively cheap, and you can dish about ScarJo's catsuits in "Iron Man 2" with all your friends who saw it too. Whereas if you tell people you went to see a play and you'll bring the dinner conversation to a grinding halt. 

Maybe there's a thriving theater scene here that I don't know about, where plays sell out instantly and audiences are packed every night of the week. I hope there is, because otherwise the theater scene in Los Angeles is on shaky ground as the audiences ages right out of their seats and into the senior citizen homes.

Housekeeping updates
14 May 2010

A few items of note: 

-- I've added a new event, a reading at the brand new bookstore Pages in Manhattan Beach on June 17.

-- Early coverage of "This Is Where We Live" has appeared in Real Simple (a "withering satire" that will keep you "pinned to your beach chair") and Angeleno ("measured yet acerbic"). Thank you, shiny shiny glossy magazines, for the kind words. 

-- I have joined the 21st century and am now twittering. I've been wondering: If you tweet and no one is listening, does that make you a twit? Please don't condemn me to such a depressing fate: Follow me!

Just read: Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain
12 May 2010

Olaf

 .... After a long and curiously rewarding weekend devoted to reading three different Bret Easton Ellis books (a review in the SF Chronicle of his latest is to come), I picked up a little book called Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, by Kirsten Menger-Anderson. I mean little in the literal sense: It is tiny by design, a good two inches shorter in height (though not in girth) and an inch narrower than the copy of Lunar Park sitting on my desk. Something about cracking open a book that is of such different design than your average brick-like tome made me feel like I was stepping into a different world. With this book, I definitely was - it was Not Your Usual Novel. 

The book is a collection of linked short stories, each one about a descendent of the Steenwycks family of doctors, several of whom are battling a genetic propensity for madness, and all of whom are fascinated with the bizarre medical trends of their eras. The original Dr. Steenwycks, who arrives in New York in 1664, is dissecting brains; later descendents dabble with phrenology, spontaneous combustion, radium therapy, lobotomies, magnetism, mesmerism and plastic surgery. The amount of research that Kirsten Menger-Anderson did is pretty incredible: Not only is the book a fascinating (and occasionally grotesque) tour of the history of pseudoscience and fringe medicine, but the author also captures the evolution of New York City over 350 years. Reading it feels like you've opened a jewel box full of bizarre and magical antiques. 

I mean all this in a good way - it was a great read.

I used to work with Kirsten at Wired, which is why I initially picked this book up. (The stellar reviews it was getting didn't hurt). It's always a thrill to discover that someone you know is actually an extremely talented novelist to boot.  

Opportunities I missed
10 May 2010

Gmail
In the process of redesigning my Web site, my esteemed designer recently created a gmail email account for me. The email address he chose for me (which I won't publish here, so as to avoid spam bots) is long and unwieldy and involves two period and three words. I looked at it and remembered the day, so many years ago, when I received an invitation to beta-test gmail. I could, at that point, have been janelle@gmail.com. Instead, I thought to myself "why do I need a gmail account when I've got a perfectly good email account of my own?" and passed.

How silly I was.

In the eighteen years that I've been online (and I'm not exaggerating here - I had my first email address in 1992) I've missed a lot of these opportunities. Back in 1996, when the Web was in its infancy, co-workers of mine were snapping up domain names that they thought would eventually be valuable. For a $10 investment, I guy I knew sold a domain name (it was Chat.com or Shop.com or something like that) for over a million dollars. I took the same $10 and bought myself falafel and a beer. 

I didn't bother buying Google stock at $85 a share on the day that it went on the market, even though I had been using the search engine in beta testing and knew how amazing it was. How could its value possible go any higher than it is now?, I thought. Silly me. Those shares have since increased invalue many hundreds of times over. Similarly, I didn't buy Apple stock even when I knew they were about to launch a game-changing MP3 player. Oops.

Granted, I was a technology journalist and probably shouldn't have been buying tech stocks anyway (you know - conflict of interest and all those pesky journalism ethics issues). But it hurts sometimes to think of the things I missed out on, because of my own lack of foresight, overzealous penny-pinching, and plain old procrastination. With, say, Sex.com in my pocket and a hundred shares of Google, I could have made my life a lot easier than it was.

In comparison, missing out on a good gmail name seems like small potatoes. So I'll never be janelle@gmail.com - I'll live. 

At least I got to janellebrown.com first. Somewhere, out there, some other Janelle Brown is probably kicking herself.

What golden opportunities have *you* missed out on?