News - July 2, 2008

First-time novelist tells tale of Silicon Valley wealth, angst

Atherton native had close-up view of dot-com culture, effects of quick wealth on area

by Renee Batti

Janelle Brown knew she would live the writing life from the time she was in second grade, she says.

That's when Patricia Harvey, her teacher at Laurel School, praised her for the hand-crafted book she created and brought to class — a tale about her basset hound, Pogo.

"Mrs. Harvey said (the book) was so good, I should be a writer when I grew up," Ms. Brown recalls. "I took it to heart ... and never looked back."

Ms. Brown, who grew up in Atherton, told that story on a recent afternoon while sipping coffee outside of Borrone Cafe. In a few hours, she was to be under the spotlight, reading from her first novel, "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," next door at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park.

The book, set in a fictional Silicon Valley town, has been a hit with the locals, floating near the top of the Kepler's bestseller list for several weeks running after its late-May release. And this week, it hit the No. 7 spot on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestsellers list in the fiction category.

The novel depicts a comfortably wealthy family's meltdown after the husband's pharmaceutical company goes public. The IPO would send the family into orbit on the wealth index — except that hubby runs off with his lover and tries to cut his wife, Janice, out of the new money.

The story focuses on Janice and her two daughters, who are cracking under the weight of their own troubles, as they try to come to terms with a world turned messy and bleak.

Ambition realized

A 1991 graduate of Menlo-Atherton High School, Ms. Brown fulfilled her childhood ambition to be a writer soon after earning her English degree from UC Berkeley, working first for Wired magazine, then for Salon.

Her focus as a reporter on technology and the Internet culture allowed her to see the best and the worst of the dot-com boom — a hard-driven, high-stakes time when overnight millionaires were shaping a local scene of excess and ostentatious living. But though she drew from her experiences growing up in the area and observing its rapid changes during an almost freakish period, she insists that her novel "is not a documentary; it's a story."

The overarching theme of the novel, she says, "is how people try to conceal their failures. And how the bar has been raised so high" on what it means to succeed.

"It's a lot about veneers versus reality, and what can be gained from becoming more forthcoming [about reality]. Veneers make things worse, and you end up with unhealthy coping mechanisms." In the book, those include drugs and reckless sex.

Ms. Brown, 34, says she had been interested in writing fiction for a while before she seriously tried her hand at it. "It was hard to have a day job writing ... and have the energy to go home and write fiction, too," she says.

But in 2001, she took a leave from her job at Salon and enrolled in a short story class. She studied for a time with Tom Parker of Menlo Park, whose novel "Anna, Ann, Annie" was published in 1993. During that time, she says, "I wrote a lot of short stories that were more like throat-clearing."

While taking a break to attend the Sundance film festival, she was asked by Salon to interview a San Francisco filmmaker whose work was showing at the festival. She agreed, subsequently meeting up with "Groove" director Greg Harrison — a meeting that proved to be a crossroads for the young writer. They fell in love.

When Mr. Harrison moved to Los Angeles, Ms. Brown followed in 2002, and the two, now married, continue to inhabit the town she says "is actually a great place to live ... a great place to be creative."

Ms. Brown now works as a freelance writer, and has had work published in the New York Times, Vogue and Self magazines, and other publications. She's also taken some novel-writing classes, she says.

Ms. Brown still has strong ties to the area, however. Her parents, Pam and Dick Brown, now live in Menlo Park, and her sister, Jodi Carter, is a second-grade teacher at Las Lomitas School in Atherton.


Posted by Book lover, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 1, 2008 at 10:01 pm

So has anyone read the book? Is it any good?

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