Janelle Brown On the Grift of Con Artists and Online Influencers
In our Q&A New York Times bestselling author Janelle Brown reveals her inspiration for her latest book comes from a Kim Kardashian incident in which Instagram played a key role.
Have you always been interested in mystery and thrillers? Why did you decide to write your book based around crime?
The very first authors I loved as a teenager were Steven King and Lois Duncan; so yes! Mysteries and thrillers have always been a big part of my reading, and these days my go-to authors include Tana French, Attica Locke, Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. I came to suspense writing very sideways, though - it was less about intending to write a book about a crime than falling in love with a specific idea - in this case, about a grifter who uses social media to find her marks - and wanting to base a book around that. I never really thought of myself as a crime writer until someone called me one! But of course, so many intriguing plots do involve a crime; and I am drawn to those kinds of stories; so it’s not surprising I’d write one!
Is your novel inspired by any real criminal cases? How did you first conceive of the novel?
A crime involving Kim Kardashian inspired Pretty Things! You may remember that in the fall of 2016, she was robbed in her Paris hotel room by a group of armed gunmen disguised as police officers, who tied her up and stole several millions of dollars worth of jewelry. What really interested me about the story was how the robbers had known where to find Kardashian in the first place: They had been tracking her on Instagram, and used her social media posts to piece together clues about where she was staying.
Plus, I’ve always been fascinated by grifters — I loved the story of Dirty John, for example — so I used the Kim Kardashian case as a jumping off to imagine a young female con artist, using social media to study her marks. My character, Nina, isn’t a jewel thief; she’s more of a confidence woman who uses the Instagram posts of her marks as both a catalog of their lifestyle and possession, but also their emotional weaknesses that can be exploited. But she uses the same kind of modern techniques.
What is your writing process like? Do you gather all your research / plot lines first and write an outline before putting pen to paper, or do you dive right in?
I usually do a little of both. I start with a very loose plot outline, and then I dive in. As I get writing, the characters come to life and the story starts to take shape and as they do, I discover the research that I’ll need to do. Then there’s a lot of revision as the direction of the novel becomes clear, too. And usually by the time I get about halfway through, I start putting together a more detailed outline of the book so I can start to see how it’s all hanging together, plot wise; and where it’s going to end.
Who is your favorite character in your book? Why?
Oh, that’s a tough question! I have to fall in love with all of my characters in order to write them; otherwise, I can’t empathize with them and they feel one dimensional on the page. But Nina was a blast to write - she’s a con artist, after all, and it was so much fun to try to get into her devious mind; and I also loved writing Benny, her schizophrenic teenage love interest, who is the emotional heart of the book.
What do you hope readers take away from your writing / story?
Thematically, there are a few ideas that I want readers to think about as they read the book. First, I’m always interested in how we often see only what we want to see in the people we love; we intentionally blind ourselves to flaws, even crimes, that don’t fit into the world view we’ve already imagined for ourselves! The book is also a lot about image and judgement in the social media age, and the need to look beyond the frame to see the real person on the other side. Finally, I wanted to get into the parallels between what con artists do and what social media “influencers” are doing online — both are a kind of grift.
Is there a recent case/person that you are particularly interested in? Why?
"I’m fascinated by the Daybell / Vallow case, that is still unfolding. Two children went missing, and when their mother (Vallow) and new stepfather (Daybell) were questioned they went on the run. It turned out that Vallow and Daybell were involved in a kind of doomsday cult of which Daybell was the “guru"; and not only that, a number of other mysterious deaths were linked to them. Vallow’s brother had killed her previous husband; and Daybell's first wife had died just days before Daybell and Vallow got married. Authorities recently found human remains on Daybell’s property and arrested him, so it seems (tragically) that the children are dead. The case interests me because of all the layers that have yet to be untangled, and the web of murder that seems to have stemmed from this weird toxic relationship; and I’m also fascinated by doomsday cults. And of course - those poor children.