This Is Not Chick Lit: A Q&A With Writer Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown's debut novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, in addition to including a Bauhaus reference in its title, is essentially about the relationship between Janice Miller and her two daughters, Margaret, 28, and Lizzie, 14. AWEWWE depicts a shining Silicon Valley suburb replete with country club appearances and pool boys. In the grand tradition of the suburban novel, though, beneath the surface of all that material excess lurks despair, accidental pregnancy and general malaise. It's sort of like a modern day, West Coast version of the Ice Storm, but instead of key parties there's…meth. We talked with Janelle, a former staffer at Wired and Salon about her darkly funny book, Maxi, the feminist ‘zine she used to run in the 90s, and the uneasy intersection between art and commerce.

Because your novel has female protagonists and a baby blue cover, it seems that some people have categorized it as chick lit, which felt reductive to me.

It is reductive! It's also dismissive. "Chick lit" is a catch all for everything that's not "hard" literature written by a woman. It implies that the male experience is universal, while the female experience is something only other women would be interested in. Even Joyce Carol Oates' last book got the disembodied female head cover treatment! I understand where the term comes from – [books about] female protagonists looking for love in the big city – but my book has nothing to do with finding a man. Companies know that women are really the only ones who still buy books, which is good, but there has to be a better way to market them.

Speaking of labels, your book has been called feminist by several reviewers, and one of the three main characters, Margaret, runs a failing feminist ‘zine called Snatch. Did you set out to make a markedly feminist statement?

I didn't sit down to write a feminist manifesto. But no, "feminism" specifically didn't come to mind. I wanted to write a book about women's relationship to decision-making and self image, about female identity, and what being a woman means to three different age groups. I did found a feminist zine [the proto-Jezebelian Maxi ] in the 90s though.

I related to Margaret's struggles with Snatch, particularly her difficulty reconciling artistic freedom with the need to make money. There's a scene at the beginning where a very broke Margaret goes to a birthday dinner for one of her more successful friends. They end up going to a very expensive restaurant and Margaret gets shamed into paying much more than she could afford. I've definitely lived that uncomfortable scene more than once.

Me too. There's always this awkward shuffle around the bill. Money definitely creates this imbalance, especially because in creative worlds it seems like it flows so easily and quickly, particularly when you're not the one getting it. When I graduated from college in the 90s, there was this feeling that we'd all just be starving artists and listen to Nirvana and that was great. And Margaret wants to be pure in her artistic vision and anti-capitalist, but part of her gets completely sucked in against her will. It's hard not to when you see all these people earning so much money. It seems like it's right there and you can't get it. It warps one's sense of life and ambition and success.

Margaret's fraught relationship with her wealthy parents also seemed to shape her feelings about capitalism. She never want to be a stay at home mother and depend on a man, the way Janice did.

She's definitely set up her own life in opposition to her parents' choices. She's let that dictate her moral stances. What I really wanted to show with Margaret's relationship to her mother, Janice, was that every woman has been shaped by what their mothers do and who they are. Some people adopt Margaret's "fuck you" stance, and others follow their mothers' paths, but we're all still reacting to what we observed growing up.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

In Every Dream Home, A Heartache [Salon]

Janelle Brown [Official Site]

Earlier: Blogging Towards Bethlehem