Dollar signs may drive on the characters in the debut novel from Janelle Brown but she tells Malcolm Jack that her own work is a labour of love
It might be set in a curtain-twitching west coast suburban American town rife with neighbourly intrigue and extra marital affairs, but Janelle Brown’s debut novel is no Desperate Housewives. In All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, far darker things go on behind the Miller family’s closed doors than are fit for ratings-winning light entertainment. Crestfallen mother and domestic goddess Janice copes with her greedy absentee business-exec husband’s infidelity and betrayal by hoovering up crystal meth, as her eldest daughter Margaret hides from career failure and spiralling debts at the bottom of a bottle.
Meanwhile, Margaret’s younger sister, 14-year-old Lizzie, attempts to overcome loneliness and unpopularity by giving her body up freely to every boy in school. Stirring this pot of familial woes are the combined corrosive forces of over-blown ambition, social hypocrisy and, above all, money. Brown – a former staff writer for online magazines Wired and Salon – witnessed firsthand the powerful, life-altering effects of cash while working in Silicon Valley San Francisco during the late 90s dot-com boom.
‘I watched this massive, insane influx of wealth,’ she says, over the phone from her Los Angeles home, ‘and I was really fascinated by how it was changing people’s expectations of what success is. When the person living next to you is a 30-year-old who’s just made $6m, and has only been doing it for a year, you start thinking: “oh god, what have I done with my life?” This was the genesis of the book and then the story itself kind of evolved; I came up with the characters and they told the story for me. I grew up in Silicon Valley and saw that neighbourhood change radically from when I was born; now it’s so wealthy.’
Brown’s own career path couldn’t be much more at odds with the high rolling capitalistic ethic that has come to dominate thinking in her home town. A ‘single minded’ creative from school age, she got her first journalism job while still at college and later co-founded her own irreverent women’s pop culture magazine. She eventually quit both endeavours to go freelance and write her first novel, a five-year labour of love that, while far from regrettable, did see her despairing at times.
‘There were definitely moments in the last few years when I thought that I had just done the stupidest thing,’ she admits, laughing. ‘You’re working on this novel, and you’re never sure if it’s going to be done or if it’s going to be any good, and meanwhile you’re watching friends who had staff jobs move on to get even better staff jobs, and you’re making do with beans and rice. Looking back, I’m thrilled that I made that decision.’
The Miller women don’t stay down either: after demolishing her protagonists’ hopes altogether, Brown rebuilds them with care and empathy. Ambition, after all, ought to be a force for good. ‘There’s a book that’s just come out here in the States called Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs. I contributed one, which was: “my second grade teacher was right.” My second grade teacher told me that I should be an author.’
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is published by Hutchinson on Thu 1 May.