How the Olsen and NXIVM Twins Inspired the ‘I’ll Be You’ Novel

Decades after the family sitcom Full house aired its final episode and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen starred in a series 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 identical twin sisters are also literary muses.

“I was thinking about the Olsen twins,” admits author Janelle Brown when discussing the seeds of inspiration behind her latest literary thriller, i will be you. Slated for release on April 26, the mystery centers on a pair of former B-list child actors dealing with very grown-up issues. Its protagonists failed to become fashion icons. Instead, Sam is a drug addict who lives in a small apartment in Hollywood and works as a barista, while Elli is a seemingly picture-perfect suburban mom who runs a flower arranging business and got involved with a wedding band. empowerment questionable.

The novel, the author’s fifth, is his most twisty and tight-knit work to date. Since publishing her first novel in 2008, Brown, a former tech journalist, has honed her craft and upped the ante, moving from sedate book-club-loved literary novels to suspenseful California noir works. Told from the point of view of the two sisters, i will be you is a cleverly crafted, psychologically nuanced yin and yang, with crackling observations on celebrity, California cults, wellness culture, the fertility industry and the backlash of addiction. The book opens when Elli, who has gone away for a supposed spa weekend, goes away, leaving her young daughter in the care of her parents. Overwhelmed, the grandparents call Sam for babysitting help. The only person who understands the danger Elli is in is her estranged sister, who also happens to be the only person who can transform into Elli and conduct an impersonation investigation to find her. Written in a voice that sounds more like a juicy magazine article than the prose of an airport thriller, and told by a pair of codependent protagonists whose versions of events stack up in wonderfully unexpected ways, the book reminiscent of a tentpole of the genre, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 hit Missing girl.

Read more: The 21 most anticipated books of 2022

Brown says his protagonists weren’t just inspired by the Olsen twins. She was also intrigued by the behind the scenes she sees in her young daughter’s musical theater lessons. “We’ve met a lot of sets of 9-year-old twins recruited to do Marvel movies because everyone wants a twin,” the 48-year-old Los Angeles resident explains. (Labour laws prohibit the number of hours a minor can work per day and increase the value of twins, who can work back-to-back shifts.) “I was also thinking about all the different ways Hollywood can chew and spit children.

The fictional sisters who live i will be you each winds up in and out of AA meetings or drains their savings to fund GenFem, a cult that restricts calories, collects compromising information about its members, and inflicts “indemnities” when followers misbehave. Another source of inspiration was Brown’s longtime fascination with the NXIVM cult. Since news first broke in 2017 about the cult engaging in sex trafficking, extortion and other crimes, Brown has been collecting information on the subject. She was drawn to details about NXIVM leader Keith Raniere’s partner, 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 was sentenced to life. “To me, Nancy was the scariest character in all of NXIVM, 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 imagining a character like her.” This thought experiment helped her invent Dr. Cindy, a supposed healer who pulls Elli into her orbit and breaks her down into a woman her sister no longer recognizes.

“I had wanted to write about a cult for a while, but I didn’t want it to sound like a cliché,” says Brown, who read everything she could find on 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 him that the story came to life. “I’m like: twins, Hollywood, mystery cult. Here is my strange reading.


It was shortly after becoming a mother that Brown had her own rebirth. The author had previously published two novels, both types of literary books about family dysfunction that tend to be categorized as “women’s fiction.” His debut in 2008, All we ever wanted was everythinghad done well enough, finding its way over the New York Time long list of bestsellers. His follow-up, This is where we livea vivisection of an imploding marriage, “sort of sank like a stone,” she says.

Just like his spirits. “I had two very small children and I asked myself: ‘Who am I as a writer?’ Time passes and you feel yourself disappearing. Years passed as Brown continued to start new books only to drop them. Finally, she hit on something that made her buzz with confidence. She was back in her rhythm. It wasn’t until she shared the first bundle of pages with her editor that she realized exactly what was going on. Brown wasn’t just writing another story about a complicated California family. “My editor said, ‘Oh, wow. Are you writing a mystery?

Janelle Brown is about to publish her fifth novel, “I’ll Be You”, inspired in part by the Olsen twins.

Courtesy of Michael Smiy

It was news for the author, who had spent his adult life idolizing the grounded, semi-satirical work of elated contemporary writers like Zadie Smith, Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Franzen (“I was in all the Jonathans “). But her lifelong penchant for stories about personal dynamics and atmospheric descriptions proved to live up to the suspense that drives the genre fiction she would eventually write. Seven years after the collapse of his second effort, in 2017, Brown released watch me disappear, a haunting story about a missing mother and the family members she leaves behind. With shimmering prose on every page and juicy mystery at its heart, the book debuted at No. 13 on the New York Time list of bestsellers.

Since then, Brown has published stories that defy categorization and are a favorite of a growing audience who are realizing that there is more nuance to her books than their tutti-fruity commercial covers suggest. Her profile has also benefited from the pandemic audio boom, which has driven the highest number of sales of her novel of 2020, pretty thingsa beautifully atmospheric and wild pas de deux between a con man and an Instagram heiress influencer on Lake Tahoe.

“Reading Janelle is a paradoxical experience,” says Laura Dave, best-selling author of The last thing he said to me, which will soon be an Apple TV+ show with Jennifer Garner. “You want to hurry to find out what happened, but you also want to slow down to dwell on the language.”

Brown’s refusal to go down a single path is a treat for readers who don’t consider themselves typical suspense fans — his books are few in number and rich in heady pleasures. “Even when my books are hits, it’s usually a slow burn,” she says. “I’m a bestselling author, but I’m also a bestselling author who’s kinda slipped off the radar.”

His days of relative anonymity may be coming to an end. Amazon has picked up the TV rights to pretty things, which came out in the terrifying early days of the pandemic. Nicole Kidman is ready to play and Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) will direct the show, the pilot script for which Brown recently finished writing. As she prepares to post i will be youBrown is simultaneously juggling meetings with a slew of film and TV producers — all of whom she says are excited about overturning the prevailing two-kid-for-a-role formula and casting just one adult actor to play. the two twins.

“Her work ethic is mind-blowing – I can’t remember if she’s a Virgo, but she has this real Virgo energy,” says bittersweet author Stephanie Danler, one of the authors who works in the Suite 8 coworking space for writers in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood with Brown. “I saw her clinging to the idea of ​​her latest book, then I saw the research books pile up, then I saw her stoop and write without complaining, which was amazing to see in the middle of a pandemic, while the rest of us were losing our minds.

In addition to the other members of her coworking space, Brown shares her work with a more formal group of writers who formed during the pandemic and meet on Zoom. Comprised of other mid-career authors who work in all genres, its members include Danielle Trussoni (literary horror) and Angie Kim (literary mystery). Former member Chris Bohjealian (literary thriller), the author of The stewardess, now a hit HBO Max series with Kaley Cuoco, says Brown’s own pages are “surprising and insightful” — and that she’s an inspiration as a reader none the less. “She is also a fine observer of the spirit of the times: she understands where culture and a moment fit into a story. And she is very funny.

The twin worlds of the Hollywood system and a cult provided the perfect backdrops for Brown’s enduring fascination: “I write about people who make really bad decisions,” she says. “In each of my stories, you watch them do it, and then you watch them try to get out of the hole they dug themselves.”

More Must-Try Stories from TIME


contact us at letters@time.com.

Irene B. Bowles