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A writer's journey: from local schools to the best-seller lists

Janelle Brown grew up in Atherton and has recently written her third novel

Janelle Brown and Shannon Griscomb, her junior year Menlo-Atherton High School English teacher, reminisced after Ms. Brown's reading at Kepler's Books. (Photo by Barbara Wood /The Almanac)

It's late on a muggy August Monday afternoon and Janelle Brown is at her parents' home in Woodside for a visit, but it will be a quick one.

The author of three novels has just flown in from Los Angeles, and has a 4 p.m. appointment with a reporter and photographer to get through before prepping to be onstage at 7 p.m. at Kepler's, the Menlo Park bookstore where she says she hung out when cutting classes at Menlo-Atherton High School.

That morning the Atherton native had announced on her website that her latest novel, "Watch Me Disappear," had been optioned for a movie by the Gotham Group, a Hollywood production company that has produced hit movies from novels including the "Maze Runner" series, "Kodachrome" and "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

The next day, Ms. Brown would be back home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake where she lives with her husband, 5-year-old son, and almost-8-year-old daughter and back to work on the new novel she's promised her publisher.

A few weeks earlier, "Watch Me Disappear" had hit the New York Times' best-seller list for hardcover books, a coveted position her first book had also reached.

Between Laurel and best-seller

Ms. Brown is living the life she says she decided to live when she was in first grade at Laurel School in Atherton. "I used to draw little books," Ms. Brown says, adding that she spent as much time as possible in the school library. One day, her teacher said to her: "You should be an author when you grow up," Ms. Brown recalls. "Forty years later here I am!"

There were a few steps between arriving at that determination and the best-seller list, including a high school summer as an intern at her hometown newspaper, the Almanac. "That was my first journalism job," Ms. Brown says. "I knew I wanted to write professionally."

In pursuit of that goal, after Ms. Brown graduated from M-A in 1991 she was off to the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in English, wrote for the Daily Californian, and worked as an editorial assistant at several San Francisco-based magazines during summers.

After graduating in 1995, she went to work for Wired magazine, then just a start-up, helping to launch Hotwired which Wikipedia says was the first commercial web magazine and a news site before going on to work at Salon.

The dot-com boom was in full swing, and Ms. Brown was in the center of it, living and working in San Francisco, and soon she found herself yearning to write a novel that chronicled some of the era's insanity.

Fiction called

Fiction was calling to her. "I was really tired of having to tell the truth," she says of journalism. When writing nonfiction articles, she says, she had often thought: "This would be so much better of a story" if only some of the facts could be changed.

Plus, she says, she enjoyed the writing much more than the reporting. "I would dread picking up the phone and calling a stranger," she says.

Ms. Brown took a writing workshop from Tom Parker in Palo Alto and began putting the book she had in her head down on paper.

"When I first started off as a novelist, I had very modest expectations," she says. "I just wanted to publish a book, I just wanted to say I had done it. It's hard to publish a book and get it out in the world."

Around that time Ms. Brown met her husband-to-be, Greg Harrison, when she wrote an article about him for Salon. Mr. Harrison's career as an independent filmmaker was just taking off, and within a few years he decided he had to move to Los Angeles to pursue his own dreams.

After trying to make a long-distance relationship work, Ms. Brown quit her job and joined Mr. Harrison, and spent more time writing her novel while freelancing.

"All We Ever Wanted was Everything" is a smart and funny book chronicling many of the excesses of Silicon Valley in the dot-com era by focusing on a woman whose pharmaceutical executive husband runs off with her best friend just as his company goes public, and her two daughters. One daughter is nearing 30, and has just had her dreams of starting her own magazine crushed by an investor, and the other is a middle-schooler struggling with issues such as weight and belonging and boys that come with puberty. When the book was purchased by Spiegel and Grau, the company also contracted with Ms. Brown for a second book.

"All We Ever Wanted" hit the best-seller lists soon after it was published in 2008.

While it is unusual for a first-time author to experience such immediate success, Ms. Brown says working for a decade as a journalist gave her skills she brought to fiction-writing, including the importance of narrative, "the economy of story" and how to keep readers reading.

"I had some really good editors" as a journalist, she says, "and they taught me a lot about writing."

Two books, two babies

Her second book, "This is Where We Live," came out in 2010. It is set in Los Angeles after the real estate crash and concerns a young couple -- a filmmaker and a musician -- teetering on the verge of success, and the verge of divorce, after their adjustable-rate mortgage threatens to bankrupt them.

Ms. Brown was pregnant with her first child while writing the book. "I turned it in the day before she was born," she says. "My water broke 24 hours later."

The seven-year lag between her second and third novel can be explained quite simply, Ms. Brown says: "Two kids."

She started, and abandoned, three different books before settling on the book that was just released.

"Watch Me Disappear," set in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, is the story of a father and a high school-age daughter who are left behind when their wife and mother disappears while on a hike in the Sierra Nevada. Amazon.com lists the book as both a "thriller/suspense" and "literature/fiction."

Ms. Brown told her Kepler's audience that she had meant the book to be a "meditation on grief and a story about a family," but after writing 150 pages she realized she had been setting out clues to the story's resolution. "Oh my gosh, I'm writing a mystery," she says she realized.

She started over, doing even more rewriting when her editor asked her to rework the ending not once, but twice. "I wanted to tear my hair out and take up, I don't know what, barista work," she told the Kepler's crowd.

While her three books have very different settings and plots and even fall into different genres, all center on families and relationships. "I like to take people who are relatable and throw them into really, really difficult situations and see how they dig their way out," Ms. Brown says. "I am really interested in people's bad decisions," she says, finding good decisions "boring."

Writing is her job

Writing is Ms. Brown's job. After dropping her children off at their Los Angeles Unified School District public schools in the morning she goes to her desk at Suite 8, an office shared by 25 writers who rent (or share) desks. Ms. Brown says the set-up gives the writers a chance to get out of their homes and away from their children, but to be surrounded by fellow writers. "It's amazing I love it. I'm kind of a social person anyway," she says, and notes she spent eight years working in newsrooms.

"LA's not known as a big writing town," she says, "but it's funny, there's actually a lot of writers." Silverlake, Ms. Brown says, is more like Berkeley than Atherton, with many residents who work in the creative industries. "It's a little bit bohemian," she says. "I love it there."

Ms. Brown says she considers herself lucky to have been able to support herself as a novelist without taking another job, although she does still write freelance pieces, mostly essays.

She loves "just having readers" out there reading what she writes.

She also appreciates the fact that as a writer, she has reason to read lots of novels. "I read a ton. I read one or two books a week," she says. "I will pick up books for two reasons: one, because I've heard they're really good; and two, they might be relevant to what I'm working on."

Reconnecting

While the first-grade teacher who initially inspired Ms. Brown didn't make it to the Kepler's reading, 74-year-old Shannon Griscomb, who taught her in her junior year at Menlo-Atherton was there.

"It's so satisfying to connect with kids you hoped would bloom and blossom," but whose fates you usually don't know, Ms. Griscomb said, before getting her former student to sign her novel for her.

"It's wonderful to connect with them later and know what they did," she said.

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