Screenwriter, director and actress Valerie Brandy has already found herself wearing a multitude of hats in her career. At just 20 years old, she wrote her first feature-length screenplay and has since worked for a number of film studios and television networks. In 2015, she released her directorial feature film debut, Lola’s Last Letter, a project that she both wrote and starred in. Her next film, The Orchard, was released by Sony after a successful festival run. It scored several accolades, including a five star review, a special feature in Huffington Post and a Best Principal Actress nomination from Los Angeles Film Review. Currently, she is serving as a full-time staff writer at Walt Disney Studios, where she continues to develop new projects.
With all of this on her plate, Valerie is about to take on an exciting new role: novelist. Her first book, Animals We Are, an empowering, suspenseful thriller set in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park, will be released on December 18th. I had the pleasure of chatting with Valerie about the inspiration behind her upcoming book, the process of writing it and what she hopes readers take away from the story. Check it out below!
What inspired you to write this story?
Well, I love the thriller genre, and I wanted to write something for women in that space. Women are a huge portion of the thriller readership and yet so much of the material treats us as victims or not capable. I wanted to write something that’s empowering but still maintains all of the things that we love about the genre. That was the first reason that this story came to be. The second is that we live in a time where all of these wrongs are being exposed, and when you’re inundated with these revelations that are really scary and change the way that you see the world, it makes it really hard to trust another person. I wanted to explore dating and having relationships in a world where all of these things are being exposed. And even if these experiences don’t happen with every man that you date, they do make you pause. You think twice about meeting a stranger off of an app. You’re slower to trust. I wanted to tell women that it is ok feel that way and take time to really get to know a person.
Did you already have the plot firmly established in your mind or is it something that evolved over time as you wrote it?
No, it evolved. I’m a big outliner. Coming from screenplays, I start with the fundamentals of story because screenwriters are very utilitarian. It’s a specific niche of writing that forces you to focus on the building blocks of story, which are: protagonist, need, obstacles. So, I always start there. Who is my protagonist? What does she or he need? And what is standing in their way? And from there, I develop plot and work with three-act structure and the hero’s journey. But it always just starts with those three questions: Who are they? What do they want? What is standing in their way?
As a screenwriter, did writing this book provide a different writing experience for you?
Absolutely! Screenplays are very utilitarian and you get used to working within this very limited space because while you might get one hundred and ten pages, the format of the medium requires you to use much fewer words. There’s a lot of white space on the page. Writing this book allowed me to describe things in paragraphs that you would normally only get two lines to describe, which was both challenging and exciting. And I will say that the entire time, I felt like I was doing something wrong (laughs). And I expected the screenplay police to pull up to my door and say, “You can’t describe nature in three paragraphs!” But one thing about screenwriting is that, because you only get two lines, you get used to making those two lines count. You’re trained to write these punchy, potent descriptions, which in an odd way did help me with the book because I was able to take that same concept and expand it and still write things that are impactful but don’t waste space.
Is there a particular book that’s descriptive writing made an impression on you and that you used as an inspiration for you book?
I would say that, as far as the internal journey goes—not so much the external but more the internal monologue—I was sort of influenced by Catcher in the Rye. There’s something about this character that is a little Holden Caulfield-esque to me. She’s a little cynical but also coming of age in a way. I think it’s hard to take people on a journey through a character’s mind and not bore them. I think that’s a rare book where not a lot actually happens—I mean, there’s plot but it’s not a plot-heavy book—but it still tells an essential story and is still beloved by a lot of people, myself included.
If you had to describe your book in four words, what would they be and why?
Hmmm, let’s see…I would use “sharp,” “adventurous,” “thoughtful” and “empowering.”
Why did you choose wolves as your animal inspiration for this book?
For Zoe in particular, it just felt like her personality to me. She’s aloof but at the same time, there’s a loyalty in her character. She’s a pack animal and she’s searching for where she belongs. That was a big inspiration for this book. We all just want to belong and feel like we’re at home with someone. We all want family, and the animals that are most representative of that for me are wolves because they can be very vicious predators and yet they create these family structures. When I was researching, I learned that the idea of an alpha male of a wolf pack is actually not real. And we’ve based so many things on this supposedly scientific fact that isn’t even real! Alpha males only happen in captivity but in the wild, when wolves are in their natural state, they are in family units. They are in packs, working together to raise their young to maturity. So much of that connected with Zoe for me that I felt that was her spirit animal.
So much of this story is set in Yosemite. Did you spend a lot of time there or did you have to do a lot of research into it?
I grew up in California, so I spent some time in Yosemite as a kid on multiple occasions, so I’m familiar with the feeling and the experience. And I will say, for anyone who has never been, you have to go. It’s so pristine and untouched and an incredible experience. When I was young, I had actually done a horse tour through Yosemite, and you could sign up to go on different trails where the higher you go, the more pristine and untouched it becomes. It was so beautiful. But as far as the specific landmarks go, I had to do research. I did quite a bit of it. I even mapped out Zoe’s trail on Google maps to see how long it would take her to hike to each destination. So there was a lot of research involved.
Which character do you think that readers are going to relate to the most and why?
It depends on the reader. I’ve found that a surprisingly large amount of people do relate to Mike. I think that has a lot to do with wanting to show the best side of you in a relationship and hiding parts of yourself out of fear of rejection. So a lot of people relate to Mike. I have found that quite a few people relate to Zoe, but interestingly enough, Mike seems to be the more common denominator with people, which definitely surprised me.
Has anyone ever said that they relate to Cassandra?
Not as of yet but it’s interesting that you bring that up because she’s a huge part of the next book. I’m so excited to be able to tell some of the story from her perspective because she’s fascinating and I feel about Cassandra the way Zoe does in that she’s a friend and I want to go to brunch with her (laughs).
If this story had been told from Mike’s perspective as opposed to Zoe’s, how do you think it would have been different?
From Mike’s perspective, I think we would see more of how Zoe’s aloof nature affects him. Mike has a personality that is more laid-back. He doesn’t overthink things. He’s happy just to let life unfold and let it be what it is. So if this story had been told from Mike’s perspective, we would not only see how much her aloofness affects him but we would also see him wondering if he’s enough for her. I think Mike is a character who always wonders if others really love him or if he really belongs because he’s very insecure due to his family background. But we also would see Zoe in a different light because she tends to be very hard on herself and I think he sees her as this amazing, perfect creature and all he could ever ask for. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about how we’re all our own worst critics yet there are so many people in our lives who love us and see us as these amazing, beautiful people.
What was your favorite scene to write and why?
Probably the end. I love endings because they’re very satisfying as a writer. You spend so much time weaving these plots together and working on character development that hopefully when you get to the end, you’ve done your job. It’s just very satisfying to start your characters off one way and end them in a different place than where you started them.
Why do you think Zoe sympathizes so much with Cassandra?
I believe that they both have a desperate desire to be seen—and by seen, I really mean understood. I think sometimes that you can be with a person and still feel alone, and it’s not always the other person’s fault. Sometimes, it’s just something inside of you that you don’t feel comfortable sharing. So they both have this desire to be understood. And sometimes, you meet people who, for some reason, they just get you. And I think that’s what draws her to Cassandra.
Are we going to see them engage more in the next book?
Yes, absolutely. The next book I would say is 50% Cassandra and 50% Zoe. We’re going to learn a lot more about Cassandra and they are definitely going to interact.
More than anything else, what do you hope readers take away from this story?
I hope readers take away the knowledge that it’s ok to take care of yourself. Women especially are so often taught to be nice, and I think that’s wonderful and important, but we also have an animal part of ourselves that was given to us as a gift. It’s the part that reacts when someone isn’t treating you right or something doesn’t feel normal or safe. And I hope that readers listen to that part. There are alarm bells that go off. In this book, we see a lot of Zoe kind of fixing her system because her alarm bells became very over-reactive. I think this story centers on Zoe learning to trust herself yet at the same time learning to see the truth. I hope this story leaves readers feeling empowered and willing to trust the animal part of themselves when they feel that something is wrong. You had asked me about books that inspired me. There is a book called The Gift of Fear. Have you read that?
Ok. I think every woman should read it. It’s really fascinating. It’s by a man who has worked on a lot of cases where a violent crime was committed. He talks to the victims and what he learns is that nine times out of ten, they could sense that something was wrong. There was a woman who was raped by a serial rapist and murderer. She was carrying groceries up her stairs and he offered to help her take her groceries inside and then this crime happened. The man who wrote this book asked her, “At what point did you think something bad was going to happen?” And she said, “When he offered to help me with the groceries.” He then asked her, “Why did that set off an alarm bell in your head?” And she replied, “Because I told him ‘no, thank you’ and he insisted on helping me with them anyway. I felt like I told him no yet he continued to say yes.” And then, the second question was, “Why didn’t you, right then, scream, drop your bags if you knew something was wrong?” And she said, “Well, I thought that I was crazy. I didn’t trust myself.” So I think if we could all learn to trust our inner animal and differentiate between anxiety and actual fear, we would be really empowered.
Do you already have a title for the sequel to this book?
I do. It’s called Animals We Are: The Wolf and the Bee. I could hint on who the bee is and I kind of already have in this interview (laughs). But it’ll be focused on Zoe and one other person whose spirit animal is definitely the bee in that this person tends to build their lives around others and orbit around the nectar of another person’s life.
Are you planning for this to be a trilogy?
Yes, I have three books planned as of right now. I’m hoping to do the next one in 2020. It’s tricky with my writing schedule because I’m on assignments right now as a screenwriter. The books are kind of fitting in between. So I have to see how 2020 goes. But my hope is to release the next one in 2020 and then maybe do the third one in 2021.
Animals We Are is published by Little Leo Media, Inc. It will be available on Amazon in ebook, paperback and audiobook editions on December 18.