New York-based novelist Brenda Janowitz didn’t start taking herself seriously as a writer until she turned 30 — and even then that step required quite the nudge from her girlfriends. Luckily for her readers, she finally left a career in which she wasn’t happy to pursue her passion for writing. Since her debut novel released in 2007, Janowitz has published four more novels. Her sixth novel, The Grace Kelly Dress, is set to publish on March 3, 2020. Her upcoming book tells the story of three generations of women and the one heirloom wedding dress that binds them all together.
We sat down with Janowitz to discuss her advice for writers, her upcoming novel, how the publishing industry has changed in the past decade, and why women should treat themselves the way they treat their friends.
Name: Brenda Janowitz, Writer & Books Correspondent for PopSugar
Location: Long Island, New York
Education: B.S. in Human Service Studies with a Concentration in Race and Discrimination from Cornell University. J.D. from Hofstra Law School.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
Out of college, I went directly to law school. In between college and law school, I had some internships, but I really went straight from Cornell to Hofstra Law. Right out of Hofstra Law, I started working at my first law firm, Kaye Scholer. That was a large law firm, and I was there for about two and a half years.
Do you still practice law in any capacity? If not, at what point was writing able to become your full-time career?
I don’t practice law anymore, much to my mother’s dismay, because she loved telling everyone I was a lawyer. After Kaye Scholer, I did a federal clerkship for a year and a half. After that, I had a series of shorter-term jobs; I was a career counselor at two different law schools. It was really when I turned 30 that I decided to take writing more seriously. I had wanted to be a writer my entire life, but it’s hard to say, “Oh, I’m just going to be a writer.” I figured a person who loves to read and loves to write should become a lawyer, so I did that, but I was deeply unhappy as a lawyer. At that point, I was trying to write on the side, but of course, you’re exhausted if you’re a lawyer, so there’s not that much time.
For my 30th birthday, my best friend said, “OK, enough talking about writing; you’re actually going to do it.” She got a bunch of my friends together and they sent me to a writing class. That was when I first started taking my writing seriously. I started working on my first novel from a little short story I did in that writing class called Scot on the Rocks. After I got that published, it was the beginning of everything. I started saying to myself, “Wow, I could actually make this happen.” Right after my book came out, I met my husband and got married. Life changed and I started having children, and now here we are a little over 10 years later and The Grace Kelly Dress will be my sixth novel. I write full-time, do freelance full-time, and I’m a mom full-time, so how I got to 300 percent, I’m not sure.
I write full-time, do freelance full-time, and I’m a mom full-time, so how I got to 300 percent, I’m not sure.
You published your first novel in 2007, so you’ve been publishing novels for more than 10 years. How has the writing industry changed? Are expectations for authors different now with the rise of social media?
The industry has changed so much. When I was teaching writing (that was one of my side gigs along the way), I told people that when I got my contract, it felt like chick-lit was very big and anyone could get a book deal. It was like I slipped in and got that first book deal when they were giving them out like candy. The market is so much more saturated now, and it’s so much more difficult. There are so many more writers, and everything has changed.
Social media certainly has changed the landscape, because now authors are expected to really promote themselves more and be a partner in getting their book out there. When I published my first novel, you didn’t really do much; you just wrote the book. Now it’s really important for me to get my name out there and keep people engaged. In 2007, there was really no way for readers to reach out to you besides through your website and email communication. Now anyone can reach you any which way. I get emails, I get messages on Facebook and Instagram, I get comments on the things I write. We’re much more connected now, and with Skype and FaceTime we can visit book clubs anywhere, which I sometimes do.
You mentioned you used to teach writing. What is the biggest mistake (or mistakes) you think most aspiring novelists make when trying to get their first book published?
Everyone in the world wants to write a book, but not everyone will sit down and do it. I do feel everyone has at least one book in them. The mistake people typically make is they think you just write the book, you send it off, it gets published, and you become a smashing success. They aren’t aware of the massive amount of editing that takes place. For me, writing is all about editing and working with other writers to workshop your writing and make it the best novel it can be. Publishing has also changed in that editors don’t have as much time to edit as they used to, so the novels are expected to be a little more perfect than they used to be. Editors aren’t taking works in progress; it has to be a complete novel. It will be edited, of course, but it pretty much has to be a completely formed novel. All that being said, self-editing is so incredibly important.
Another thing I see is people don’t realize if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first. So many times I hear people saying, “I want to write a novel,” and I say, “OK, what are you interested in? What genre?” And they don’t know. And I say, “OK, what do you read?” They answer, “Oh, I don’t have time to read.” If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. So that’s another big thing: if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
Those are the rookie mistakes I see most often, but I think people really are looking for a shortcut. Maybe that’s true of more than just the writing world, but certainly in the writing world, they call it “butt in chair.” If you want to write a novel, you have to sit down, you have to put in the hours and get those pages written. As I said before, everyone has a novel in them, but not everyone is actually going to sit down and produce 300 pages. That’s a lot, and it can be daunting.
Everyone in the world wants to write a book, but not everyone will sit down and do it.
What are some of your favorite genres to read?
So many! I’ve been a huge reader since I was little, and now I have an 8-year-old who stays up all night long reading, and we can’t get the book out of her hand. I was like that as a child. Now, I write commercial women’s fiction, which is sometimes called upmarket women’s fiction, so that’s what I like to read the best. But the truth is, I’m always trying to expand to make myself a better writer, so I’m always reading many different genres. I love young adult, a little bit of sci-fi (but not too much), thrillers, domestic suspense — I run the gamut. This weekend I have a memoir/self-help book I’ll be reading.
I think it’s important to read widely. A lot of the work I do for PopSugar as the Books Correspondent is around the seasons, like the “The 30 Best Books of Fall.” It’s essential that the list be diverse in so many different ways: the types of books, authors, and different subject matter. The truth is, I’m reading 30 books a season, but I don’t expect that my readers will. I think the people who read my book lists are cherry-picking maybe three to five from each list. I read two, three, sometimes four books a week, but most people don’t. They’re not going to read all 30 books and I don’t expect them to, so it’s important that the list be diverse so they can find something for themselves.
I also think reading widely makes you a stronger writer and a more interesting person because you get to read a lot of different perspectives. There was a study that says if you read more, you’re more empathetic, and I do think that’s true. Certainly, reading broadly helps you get a wide range of experiences and learn about things you never would have learned about otherwise.
What is your advice for people who want to read more?
People always ask me how I read so much, and my biggest tip is don’t read stuff you don’t like. I only give a book 50 pages, and if I’m not in love — I only read books I’m in love with — I put it down. Sometimes books can be expensive, so go to your local library. My library offers something called OverDrive, and you can take digital books out for free on your device — it’s incredible. That’s my biggest advice about how to read a lot.
Also, it will keep you reading. People are always talking about being in reading slumps, and sometimes that happens when you’re reading the same thing over and over. Reading should be enjoyable. I mean, unless you’re in school. Maybe if you’re in law school, it’s not supposed to be enjoyable. But if you’re reading for pleasure, it should be fun. So put a book down after 50 pages. Most people say give it 100, but I say only 50.
Back to your own writing: many of your novels feature themes of family and relationships — and your first two novels featured a Manhattan lawyer as the main character. How much of your own life or relationships do you insert into your fictional storylines?
They say your first novel is all about you, and you can tell a lot about a person by their first novel. My first novel was about a lawyer living in Manhattan who went to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, and I was a lawyer in Manhattan who went to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding. So you could say those first two novels with the same character throughout is sort of me. But now, I’m up to novel six and my life has changed so dramatically since then.
They say your first novel is all about you, and you can tell a lot about a person by their first novel.
When I got my first publishing contract for Scot on the Rocks, I was single and living in Manhattan. Now I’m married, living in the ‘burbs with two children and not practicing law anymore. The things I want to write about are different, but the things I’m obsessed with are still the same. My second novel, Jack with a Twist, was about planning a wedding, and now with my sixth novel, The Grace Kelly Dress, I’m back to the world of weddings again. The themes are similar, but I feel they’ve evolved as my life has changed.
Your new novel, The Grace Kelly Dress, comes out in March 2020. What inspired you to write about the specific topic of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress?
Like a lot of people, I am and have always been obsessed with Grace Kelly. When I think about what I want to write about, I’m always trying to think about the things I’m obsessed with because you live with a book for so long. It takes about a year to write and then it takes about a year to promote, so even on the tightest of timelines, you’re dealing with the subject matter for two years.
My agent saw a Today story about a wedding dress that had passed down through seven generations, and I just thought that was so incredible. She knew it was perfect for me because it had everything I’m obsessed with: weddings, wedding dresses, and family. So I decided I would create a novel based on the story. There were a lot of different incarnations of how we chose to do it, but ultimately we landed with the story of three generations: a woman in today’s timeline, her mother, and then — in a little twist — we would see the dress being made in the grandmother’s generation.
When it came time to write, the dress I found myself describing was Grace Kelly’s wedding gown. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful wedding dress of all time. I was initially going to call the book Rose Point Lace based on the type of lace that was used, but we felt that title wasn’t punchy enough, so I suggested we call it The Grace Kelly Dress. My agent said, “Why? You haven’t mentioned Grace Kelly once.” And I said, “Well, don’t you see I’m describing Grace Kelly’s dress?” And she was like, “No, actually, I didn’t see that.” So I said OK, we’re going to be obvious about it, and I’m going to lay into this idea of the dress looking like Grace Kelly’s, and that’s how the idea evolved. It’s all the things I’m obsessed with, once again: Grace Kelly, Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, weddings, family, different generations and how they interact with each other, expectations.
The Grace Kelly Dress is set in 1958, 1982 and 2020. With all the historical details in this book, what was your research process like? Did you get to do any travel, maybe to Paris?
That sounds like a fantastic idea, but I do have two small children, so, unfortunately, I didn’t get to Paris. The Paris parts took place in 1958, but if we could create a way for me to go to Paris in 1958, I am so in. I would love it.
I’m lucky enough to have been to Paris. I traveled to Paris a number of times as a student. That’s our poor seamstress timeline; I was a poor student, so I was able to call upon my knowledge of Paris. Really, there was a lot of research into 1958. I’d never written a timeline that took place in anything other than a modern time, and I didn’t realize what a huge undertaking it was. Even the smallest detail about how people speak, how they dress, how they address each other. I remember when I first started writing, I had some dialogue, and I said to myself, “Is this historically accurate?” So I sent it to my good friend, Alyson Richman, who writes beautiful historical fiction such as The Lost Wife, and I asked, “Am I getting this right?” She gave me a few tips about how the young woman would speak to the dress designer, and that opened my eyes as to the type of research I needed to do for that time period.
In terms of the details about Grace Kelly’s gown, that was the most fun to research. I reached out to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is where the dress is housed. Unfortunately, in the time since I’ve been writing the book, her dress has not been on view, but I did speak to the associate curator of the costume department. We talked about her book, Grace Kelly: Icon of Style to Royal Bride by H. Kristina Haugland, and different details about how the dress was made and how someone would go about making a copy of the dress. She was wonderful. I also spoke to librarians at the New York Public Library and various other friends, and I was able to get so much excellent information.
When I went into the 1982 storyline, I figured, “Oh, I don’t have to research because I was alive in 1982.” But it turns out I had to research it like crazy, and for that level of research, I also needed the help of my amazing librarians. Nowadays, you can Google so many different details, but it was amazing how every sentence needed research. Sometimes I was thinking up a character and thinking about what they were wearing, and I would say to myself, “OK, but would someone wear this in 1982, and what does that say about the person?” So I’d have to go back and research it.
I give my friends who write historical fiction so much credit now. It was fun, but I was really overwhelmed by how much research is necessary to really make a book true. A lot of fantastic people helped me out along the way. Of course, I got to look at all these beautiful pictures of wedding gowns and Grace Kelly, and there’s nothing better than that.
Writing seems to be a hard thing to “turn off.” You usually make your own hours and might be working from home, and you could always be writing or editing your own work. How do you create that balance, and when you do manage to create free time, what are some other things you like to do?
How do you create that balance, indeed? I don’t know that I’ve discovered that balance. As you said, you really can be writing all the time. With my laptop, I can write anywhere; this summer, I’ve been writing at the beach quite a lot. It’s tough to reach that balance. I don’t know that I achieve it every day, but on the whole, I try to strive for balance.
There are days I write like crazy: I wake up at 5am and write before the kids are up, and the second they go to school I keep writing. I have my laptop while they’re doing homework and then I’m writing until midnight. Then some days are more thoughtful days, when I’m doing research or speaking with people, so I’m not necessarily writing the actual text, but it’s still a writing day. It can be tricky to figure out how to turn it off and manage your time. I always carry a notebook with me in case I have any ideas. I use the voice memo app on my phone a lot if I come up with a random piece of dialogue or something too brilliant to forget. I make it work as best I can.
Beyond that, the thing I love to do most besides writing is reading, and now I’ve found a way to make that my job also, through PopSugar.
As women, we’re really hard on ourselves; we don’t cut ourselves breaks. Recently I’ve been talking to friends about the idea that maybe we should talk to ourselves the way we speak to our friends.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
You don’t have to be so hard on yourself. I think that’s a lesson I’m still learning now, but certainly as a 22-year-old, I was even tougher on myself. As women, we’re really hard on ourselves; we don’t cut ourselves breaks. Recently I’ve been talking to friends about the idea that maybe we should talk to ourselves the way we speak to our friends. Because when our friends are going through something, we’re so good at being supportive and explaining how not everyone has it together every day, so even if you have a bad day the next day will be better. Maybe if we spoke to ourselves with that same voice, we could be a little gentler on ourselves. For ourselves, it’s always, “You could try harder; you could do better.” With friends, we’re patting them on the back and telling them everything’s OK and they’re great. So I would tell myself that.
What’s next for Brenda Janowitz?
I’m almost done with my PopSugar fall list, so I’ll be finishing that up. In terms of the bigger picture, I’ll be thinking about my next novel while I’m getting ready to promote The Grace Kelly Dress. That’s exciting because it’s done, and there’s nothing better than a piece that is done. I’m thinking about ways to promote it, essays I could write, pitching other things, and working on the next novel and thinking about what would be a good follow-up. As a writer, you want to take your readers with you; the thought is, what would follow The Grace Kelly Dress? That’s what I’m trying to create next.
Brenda Janowitz is The Everygirl…
What book are you most looking forward to coming out in 2020 (besides your own)? Laura Zigman, who wrote Animal Husbandry, has a book coming out the exact day as my own (Separation Anxiety; March 3, 2020), so we’re going to be publishing sisters. I’m really excited about that book; she’s always hilarious and wise, and it’s an excellent example of outstanding women’s fiction.
Instagram or Twitter? Instagram! No question.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why? I was at a media lunch yesterday for Hello Sunshine, so I’m going to say Reese Witherspoon. I am wholly obsessed with Big Little Lies, and I just love what she’s doing. She has a book club and multiple film adaptations, and she’s raising women up and creating things that women want to read and watch. She’s nailing it right now.
What is your favorite part about where you live? I loved living in New York City; I was in New York City for 10 years. But I love the suburbs because you slow down. I love the slower pace. I love having a car, and when you go to the supermarket, you don’t have to carry five million bags; you just put them in your car. I live on Long Island, so I love being close to the beach. And I’m going to have to say great public schools.
I wish I knew how to… keep it all together. A lot of times, we’re comparing our insides to other people’s outsides (that’s one of my favorite quotes), and it’s so harmful to us. I’m constantly looking at other women and thinking, “Wow, I need some of what she’s got,” and then I meet people who are saying that to me. From the outside, people see the glossy exteriors. Especially with Instagram and social media, we’re so good at curating this very specific version of our lives. But the truth is, I think we’re all works in progress and trying to get better.
Because now you need all the Brenda Janowitz in your life