Decades after the family sitcom Full House aired its final episode and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen starred in a spate of direct-to-video movies, the former child stars now run the Row, an extravagantly priced minimalist clothing line with celebrity fans like Zoë Kravitz and Jennifer Lawrence. A lesser-known fact: the twin sisters are also literary muses.
“I was thinking about the Olsen twins,” author Janelle Brown admits when discussing the seeds of inspiration behind her latest literary thriller, I’ll Be You. Set to release April 26, the mystery centers on a pair of former B-list child actors facing very adult problems. Her protagonists didn’t manage to become anything like fashion icons. Instead, Sam is an addict who lives in a tiny Hollywood apartment and works as a barista, while Elli is a seemingly perfect suburban mom who runs a flower arranging company and has become involved with a dodgy female empowerment group.
The novel, the author’s fifth, is her twistiest and tightest work yet. Since the publication of her debut novel in 2008, Brown, a former tech journalist, has been refining her craft and upping the ante, working her way from quiet literary novels beloved by book clubs to suspenseful works of California noir. Told from both sisters’ points of view, I’ll Be You is a cleverly crafted and psychologically nuanced yin and yang, complete with crackling observations about celebrity, California cults, wellness culture, the fertility industry, and the undertow of addiction. The book opens when Elli, who has headed off to a supposed spa weekend, goes AWOL, leaving her young daughter in the care of her parents. Overwhelmed, the grandparents call Sam for childcare relief. The only person who understands the danger that Elli is in is her estranged sister, who also happens to be the only person who can transform into Elli and lead an impersonation-cum-investigation to find her. Written in a voice that reads more like a juicy magazine feature than airport-thriller prose, and narrated by a pair of codependent protagonists whose versions of events stack up in wonderfully unexpected ways, the book calls to mind a tentpole of the genre, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 hit Gone Girl.
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Brown says that her protagonists weren’t only inspired by the Olsen twins. She was equally intrigued by the behind-the-scenes workings she sees at her young daughter’s musical theater classes. “We’ve encountered lots of sets of twins who are 9 years old and getting recruited to do Marvel films, because everyone wants a twin,” says the 48-year-old Los Angeles resident. (Labor laws prohibit the number of hours a minor can work a day and drive up the value of twin sets, who can work back-to-back shifts.) “I was also thinking about all the different ways that Hollywood can chew up and spit out children.”
The fictional sisters who inhabit I’ll Be You each find themselves in and out of A.A. meetings or draining their savings to fund GenFem, a cult that restricts calories, collects compromising information about its members, and metes out “Severances” when followers misbehave. Brown’s longstanding fascination with the NXIVM cult was another source of inspiration. Since news first broke in 2017 about the cult that engaged in sex trafficking, extortion, and other crimes, Brown has been collecting material on the subject. She was drawn to details about the partner of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, former psychiatric nurse Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. For his part, Raniere received a life sentence. “For me, Nancy was the creepiest character in the whole NXIVM world, with her background in therapy and psychiatry, and the things she was doing to these girls—including her own daughter,” Brown said. “So I started kind of imagining a character like her.” This thought experiment helped her invent Dr. Cindy, a supposed healer who lures Elli into her orbit and breaks her down into a woman whom her sister no longer recognizes.
“I’d been wanting to write about a cult for a while but I didn’t want it to feel like a cliche,” says Brown, who read everything she could find about the history and psychology of cults but feared writing a novel that felt like the result of too much research. It wasn’t until the idea of twins came to her that the story had life in it. “I’m like: twins, Hollywood, mysterious cult. There’s my strange read.”
It was shortly after becoming a mother that Brown had her own rebirth. The author had already published two novels, both the types of literary books about family dysfunction that tend to be classified as “women’s fiction.” Her 2008 debut, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, had done well enough, finding its way onto the New York Times extended bestseller list. Its follow-up, This Is Where We Live, a vivisection of an imploding marriage, “kind of sank like a stone,” she says.
As did her spirits. “I had two very little kids and I was asking myself: ‘Who am I as a writer?’ Time passes and you feel yourself disappearing.” The years ticked by as Brown kept starting new books only to abandon them. Finally, she struck on something that made her buzz with confidence. She was back in her groove. It wasn’t until she shared the first bundle of pages with her editor, though, that she realized exactly what was happening. Brown wasn’t just writing another tale about a complicated California family. “My editor said, ‘Oh, wow. You’re writing a mystery?’”
This was news to the author, who’d spent her adult life idolizing the grounded, semi-satirical work of exalted contemporary writers like Zadie Smith, Tom Perrotta, and Jonathan Franzen (“I was into all the Jonathans”). But her lifelong penchant for stories about personal dynamics and atmospheric descriptions turned out to be a match for the suspense that pulses through the genre fiction she would end up writing. Seven years after her sophomore effort slumped, in 2017, Brown published Watch Me Disappear, a haunting tale about a mother who goes missing and the family members she leaves behind. With shimmering prose on every page and a juicy mystery at its core, the book debuted at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Ever since, Brown has been putting out stories that defy categorization and are a favorite among a growing audience that’s waking up to the fact that there is more nuance to her books than their tutti-fruity commercial covers might suggest. Her profile has also benefited from the pandemic audio boom, which was responsible for the greatest number of sales of her 2020 novel, Pretty Things, a gorgeously atmospheric and wild pas de deux between a grifter and an heiress Instagram influencer set on Lake Tahoe.
“Reading Janelle is a paradoxical experience,” says Laura Dave, the bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me, soon to be an Apple TV+ show starring Jennifer Garner. “You want to hurry up to find out what happened, but you also want to slow down to linger on the language.”
Brown’s refusal to commit to a single lane makes for a treat for readers who don’t think of themselves as typical suspense fans—her books are low on body count and high on heady pleasures. “Even when my books are hits, it’s generally a slow burn,” she says. “I’m a best-selling author, but I’m also a best-selling author who has flown under the radar a little bit.”
Her days of relative anonymity may be coming to an end. Amazon picked up television rights to Pretty Things, which came out in the early, terrifying days of the pandemic. Nicole Kidman is set to star and Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) will direct the show, the pilot script for which Brown recently completed writing. As she prepares to publish I’ll Be You, Brown is simultaneously juggling meetings with a slew of film and television producers—who she says are all excited about the idea of subverting the prevailing two-kids-for-one-part formula and casting a single adult actor to play both twins.
“Her work ethic is stunning—I can’t remember if she’s a Virgo, but she has this real Virgo energy,” says Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler, one of the authors who work out of the Suite 8 co-working space for writers in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A. with Brown. “I watched her latch onto the idea for her latest book, and then I saw the research books pile up, and then I saw her hunker down and write without complaint, all of which was astonishing to behold in the middle of a pandemic, while the rest of us were losing our minds.”
In addition to the other members of her co-working space, Brown shares her work with a more official writers’ group that formed during the pandemic and meets on Zoom. Consisting of other mid-career authors who are working across genres, its members include Danielle Trussoni (literary horror) and Angie Kim (literary mystery). Former member Chris Bohjealian (literary suspense), the author of The Flight Attendant, now a hit HBO Max series starring Kaley Cuoco, says Brown’s own pages are “surprising and insightful”—and that she is no less an inspiration as a reader. “She is also an astute observer of the zeitgeist: she understands where culture and a moment in time fit into a story. And she’s very funny.”
The dual worlds of the Hollywood system and a cult provided perfect backdrops for Brown’s enduring fascination: “I write about people who are making very bad decisions,” she says. “In every one of my stories, you watch them do it—and then you watch them try to crawl out of the hole that they’ve dug for themselves.”
Correction, April 21
The original version of this story misstated the relationship between Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. They are fraternal twins, not identical twins.
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