Over the course of her career, Valerie Brandy has demonstrated her immense artistic talent in a multitude of ways. A screenwriter, director, actress and author, she was nominated for a Best Principal Actress Award by Los Angeles Film Review for her debut film Lola’s Last Letter, which she wrote, directed and starred in. From there, her career has blossomed. In addition to starring in several feature films such as All in All (Tribeca Film Festival), she also appeared on the drama television series Lie to Me and landed a recurring role on FX’s Emmy-winning show Justified.
On top of her achievements as an actress, Brandy has also flourished as a writer. She joined the Writer’s Guild of America West at age twenty, becoming one of their youngest members at the time. From that moment on, she has continued to demonstrate her versatility, developing and writing in multifarious genres, including romantic comedies and animated features. She recently served as a staff writer for Walt Disney Studios’ live action feature division, where she continues to develop numerous projects.
Furthermore, in 2019, Brandy published her debut novel “Animals We Are,” the first installment in a thriller series which would introduce readers to a brilliant cast of characters. The second book, “Animals We Are: Book Two, The Wolf & The Bee,” is poised to be released before the end of the year. I had the pleasure of chatting with Brandy about her next book as well as the future of the series.
How would you say Zoe and Mike have changed between Book One and Book Two?
In the first book, a big character flaw for Zoe was that she couldn’t trust Mike, despite the fact he’d given her no reason to doubt him. In Book Two, Zoe is in a much better place where she would never doubt Mike, which was not the case in Book One. The positive side of the experience she’s been through after Book One is that she now knows she can count on Mike 100% and doesn’t doubt his love—but there still an element of PTSD that has increased her mistrust of other people outside of her relationship. There’s a still a part of that deeper trust issue she hasn’t overcome yet, and Logan’s going to try and exploit that.
Do you think Zoe’s distrust of those outside their circle is even more accentuated now, and would you say that her distrust has rubbed off on Mike?
Yeah, absolutely. Because she’s seen the worst case scenario. Regarding Mike, he’s changed in the sense that he’s always been a do-it-yourself guy. He likes to rely on himself, which is a trait that comes from building furniture. It’s this feeling of: I can create, I can make things, I can take on the world, you know? He had a hard childhood with his extended family and had to look out for himself from a young age. So he’s always felt very competent. I believe what he went through in the first book kind of shook his confidence. In the second book, we see him trying to help them find a way off the island by building a boat for them to leave. And it really shakes his confidence that there are things in his life you can’t control.
You mentioned the PTSD that both Zoe and Mike experience as a result of the events of the first book. Since PTSD can be a sensitive subject for both writers and readers, what was your strategy for tackling it and portraying it in this book so that it would be both relatable and realistic?
What’s interesting about portrayals of PTSD in storytelling is that it’s shown as this constant state of being. In reality, for a lot of people, the experience can be moment to moment. You might have one day where you’re totally fine and another day where you’re not. I really wanted to portray that Zoe and Mike can still take on life and overcome what they’re struggling with—that they can still go on their honeymoon, for example. They can still have a wedding. Even if they may have moments that are more difficult due to what they’ve experienced. I know for anyone who’s dealt with trauma, myself included, there are some days you can handle hard things. And there are some days you can’t. For example, if someone has a fear of roller coasters, and has a bad experience where they get stuck upside down, it would be really stressful to be faced with a roller coaster yet again. On a good day, that person might be able to ride the coaster without a problem. Other days, that person might not be able to handle getting on the coaster. It depends on so many factors. That’s why I wanted to show that having PTSD means having good days in addition to the bad ones.
One of the things that I really loved about your book was the juxtaposition of Zoe’s perspective with Cassandra’s. What would you say is the characteristic that differentiates Zoe from Cassandra?
Cassandra is actually my favorite. She’s appealing to me as a writer because she’s aware of the ways in which she’s flawed and kind of embraces them and allows them to exist. She doesn’t fight her flaws quite as much as Zoe. Zoe is a survivor. She’s strong. She’s tough. She’s that person who can dig down deep and find what she needs to get through a hard time. Cassandra, in contrast, is the person who says, “It’s just too hard. I’m going to embrace that I’m a little messed up right now, and just be exactly who I am in this moment.” And I like that honesty about her. I really appreciate it in her as a character and she’s the most fun to write for that reason.
That is the perfect lead into my next question which is: which perspective was easier for you to write, and which one was more enjoyable for you to write?
Cassandra is more enjoyable. I relate to both of them in different ways. Zoe is that side of us that digs down deep. She’s the side that refuses to quit. She’s what the Buddhists call the groundless ground beneath us: when we’re in a difficult time, and we don’t think we can go on, God and the universe provides us with this groundless ground, and we find it even when the floor has fallen through. Cassandra is our weaknesses, our vulnerability, our fears, our insecurities—she’s all of that wrapped up in a character. And even though she goes about her life in a different way than Zoe and allows herself to be a little bit messed up, she still comes out triumphant. So I love them both. But Cassandra kind of has my heart a little bit more, and I’m actually working on a prequel that’s told from her point of view.
Why do you think Cassandra feels a connection to Zoe?
It’s funny talking about this from the perspective of working on the prequels, because Cassandra sees herself as a bee in a hive. She’s always wanted her own home– a home that she’s the queen and center of– yet she finds herself buzzing around other people. And when you buzz around other people and are invested in their lives, it’s hard not to feel some kind of affection for them. In an odd way, as Mike was falling in love with Zoey, Cassandra grew to care for her too. And I think that’s just a part of human nature: that the more you know about someone, the harder it is to dislike them. That’s not to say that what Cassandra does is okay, because it’s not and she knows this. She has no boundaries and definitely hurts people with what she does. But I like that there’s a part of her that’s loving and that’s the part that eventually can win out.
Why do you think Zoe feels a connection to Cassandra?
Zoe has been a feminist throughout her life. She has seen how women can be affected by patriarchy and how women can get the short end of the stick when it comes to relationships. She’s had men in her life who have been bullies and who’ve been abusive, including her own father. So I think for Zoe, when she first heard about Cassandra, there was a part of her that wanted to look at Mike and say, “Yeah, but what if it’s you?” There’s a part of her that’s always going to have that thought at the back of her mind. I think that because she has been so affected by injustices in the world, she was primed to like Cassandra from the beginning and to give her the benefit of the doubt, which is unfortunate for Mike because he’s a really great guy who definitely did not deserve what Cassandra did to him. So I think there’s a sisterhood there which leads Zoe to give Cassandra the benefit of the doubt.
You can really feel that in book two because whenever Zoe is engaging with Cassandra, there’s a sense that Zoe is embracing her in a way. Zoe sees Cassandra in a way that I feel other people don’t and in a way that often makes Cassandra uncomfortable at times.
Have you considered doing chapters in the next book from Mike’s perspective?
I’m considering how much we’ll see of Mike in the next book, and whether he joins Zoe on her next adventure. I do think hearing from him would round out the series nicely. But Mike is a known entity, whereas Logan is a character we really haven’t had the opportunity to experience up-close. We don’t know Logan’s backstory. We’re not sure what goes through his mind. But I’m still at a place where I could go any direction with Book Three. At this point in developing story, I still have questions and not a lot of answers. It’s a good thing, because it means I’m in the fun phase of exploring.
When you write your books, do you already have the plot firmly established in your mind or does it develop over time?
I do a landmark method, which I think comes from being a screenwriter. I will plot out the important beats of the story in terms of a hero’s journey structure. I’ll say, “Okay, I know about 30% of the way through this plot point needs to happen,” and then use that information to create a narrative skeleton. Then, as I’m writing, I allow myself to discover and invent and get to those plot points. Stories have so many layers that my first pass is usually just to get that initial skeleton tied together. Then I’ll go back and incorporate little things and work backwards to interweave. I may have my A and B plot down in pass one, but I’ll go back and weave in the C plot in my second pass, which, honestly, is what elevates the work and makes it more exciting to read because you have different elements that all come together.
If you were stuck on that island, which character’s advice would you listen to and why?
That’s a great question! Probably Zoe because she’s been in a survival situation before and come out victorious. My second choice would be Mike because he can build things.
What was your favorite part about this assortment of characters coming together on this island?
I really enjoyed making each character their own unique individual. The best part about working with an ensemble cast is getting to differentiate each character. I tried to give each one a clear, specific identity that feels real. To create a character, I draw from people that I know, as well as other characters that I’ve enjoyed reading. It was fun to show everyone’s flaws. Flaws are what’s interesting to me. I like finding flaws, and I like creating characters that reflect broader social phenomenon, serving as a symbol of that thing. Jason, for example, embodies influencer culture. He represents what we see because of tik-tok and instagram, and accessibility to technology— the good that comes with that, and the bad.
How would you describe Mike’s relationship with Rick?
Everyone has friends they knew in elementary school that they grew apart from. As you grow, you don’t want to let go of each other because you have the shared history that will always be there and that’s so important to your identity. But at the same time, you might become a very different person from your friend who you knew in elementary school. Rick and Mike are that way. They’re brothers. They’ve known each other a long time. They’ve grown away from one another, but they’re still holding on tight to the relationship. I think, they’ll always be connected by this history, but they’re very different people today. Rick doesn’t let Mike know who he truly is, and—because of the secrets he keeps— ends up projecting a misplaced anger onto Mike. It causes conflict between them.
Would you say Logan have any redeeming qualities?
Redeeming is a hard word. I don’t know if Logan can be redeemed by his fellow humans. I think he may be redeemed by his Maker. I’m Catholic, so I have to believe that God has forgiveness for Logan. In the third book, we’re going to get the opportunity to understand why Logan is the way that he is, which can go a long way toward redemption, or at least… understanding. Maybe that’s as far as we get with Logan— understanding how he became the person he is today. We talked earlier about how it’s hard to dislike someone when you know as much as possible about them. We’re going to know much more about Logan in the third book. I don’t know if that’ll be enough to redeem him but I do think that it will lead people to see him in a new light.
How would you describe Logan’s objective in Book Two?
Logan wants to prove that there’s no such thing as selfless love. Logan is a mechanist. He believes that human beings are no different from machines. To him, we’re biological machines that are programmed to survive. He doesn’t believe in love that transcends biological chemical reactions. He’s very much a materialist and an existentialist. And his belief system translates into, “I do what’s right for me. Everyone else should do what’s right for them, even if it’s at the expense of other people.” That’s why Zoe is such a fascinating person for Logan– because she can survive just like him. She can be pretty tough and brutal, just like him. But what motivates her is different than what motivates him. His ultimate goal, I believe, is to bring her over to his way of thinking about the world.
What changed for you between writing Book One and Book Two? Did you approach each book differently?
Book One was my first opportunity to write in the first person because of coming from screenplays. Screenplays are third person. With Book One, I think I was much more cerebral; I was much more in Zoe’s head and concerned with her internal life. To be honest, I got some of that out of my system with Book One, and would argue that Book Two is a tighter, cleaner read because of it. The second book returned more to plot, although it is still concerned with the inner lives of both these women and both of these characters. But it’s more external in the way the writing is executed. So, I think that I approached each book with slightly different styles. They’re still clearly part of the same series, and it’s something nobody but me would notice. But it’s there.
What do you think readers will find most surprising about Book Two?
They’ll be most surprised by Cassandra: learning who she really is, what she wants out of life, and how she changes over the course of the book. I think they’ll be really surprised to find that she is not the monster they may have imagined.
What can you tell me right now about Book Three?
I can say is that we will learn a lot more about Logan and his origins. For a hint of what’s to come… I can say that the third book is subtitled “Predator, Prey.” The questions is, who’s the predator? And who’s the prey?
LINK to first book: https://amzn.to/3oDFxkg
LINK to second book: https://amzn.to/341VaKw
“Animals We Are” is available exclusively on Amazon!