When I sold my first novel, in early 2007, my agent asked me if I had a second book in the works, just in case a publisher was interested in a two-book deal. "Not exactly," I said, "but I've always wanted to do something about real estate and relationships." Within a matter of days, this fragment of an idea—not even a complete sentence—would become my new marching orders: "Janelle Brown will deliver a novel about real estate and relationships by October 1, 2009," my contract instructed me. No pressure.
Fortunately, I had lots to say on the subject. The year 2007 was the apex of the real estate boom in Los Angeles, and I was watching my friends and acquaintances buy and sell houses in a frenzy, mortgaging their lives away for a tiny Spanish casita or a sprawling mid-century ranch or a modernist duplex. A real estate junkie myself—by the time I was 30 years old I'd already bought a home, sold it and bought another one—I was fascinated with the passion that people invest in the homes that they buy (or just lust after): The lure of home ownership somehow trumps all other rational thought, becoming in the process a sinkhole for dreams and expectations, self-identity and a whole lot of delusion.
The real estate insanity in Los Angeles was breathtaking: I watched as my own home increased in value almost 30% in three years. As the cost of a modest two-bedroom, 1200 square foot home in central Los Angeles approached a million dollars, I observed how much people were investing—both financially and emotionally—into even the most rudimentary home. And that, in turn, put incredible pressure on the couples who were buying them: With so much on the table, even a solid-seeming marriage could quickly show the strain.
I began my book thinking that I would write about a couple attempting—and failing—to buy a house in this environment. But by the time I'd written 50 pages, the real estate crash was visible on the horizon; 100 pages in, and the stock market went into freefall. Instead of obsessing over the homes they wanted to buy, the people I knew were starting to worry about how to save their homes (not to mention their jobs). It became clear to me that the more interesting story to write would be about a couple trying to hang on to their home—and everything that it represents to them, all that hope and identity and delusion. (After all, there's a lot more plot to be wrung from dreams realized and lost than from dreams that are never realized at all). So I threw away almost everything I'd done up to that point, and started again.
I live in Los Feliz, a Los Angeles neighborhood packed with both successful and aspiring writers, directors, musicians and other creatives. For the newly refocused novel, I drew heavily on the stories I was hearing every day. This Is Where We Live ended up being the story of Claudia and Jeremy, an artsy married couple who purchase their first home at the apex of the boom, only to be threatened by foreclosure when their adjustable rate mortgage unexpectedly adjusts.
The recession hits them hard. Claudia, an aspiring director, watches her first film fail; Jeremy toils at a no-growth job at a t-shirt company in order to finance his stalling music career. Their threatened home—a bungalow in Mount Washington whose modest size belies the inflated price they paid for it—suddenly comes to represent everything they desire and fear. For Jeremy, who has been revisited by his wild (and wildly successful) artist ex-girlfriend, the house is an anchor, tethering him to a responsible adulthood he no longer finds particularly appealing. And for Claudia, the home embodies everything that she has struggled to achieve—namely, love and success and stability—and that now seems about to disappear at any minute. As the couple works to save their home, they realize that the foundation of their marriage is in no better shape than their bank account.
It's a challenge to write about the moment that the world is currently living – you don't yet have the context that an author writing 10 or 20 or 50 years down the line might have. But what you do have is the immediacy of experience, the ability to really document things as they happen. Verisimilitude. I like to think of This Is Where We Live as a record of a particular moment in time.
And, hopefully, a rollicking good read to boot.
Photo credit: C. Silver