Brenda Janowitz is back with another fast-paced historical novel inspired by one of America’s most glamorous starlets. This time, Janowitz draws inspiration from a life-long fascination with Audrey Hepburn. “I’ve always felt so connected to the Hepburn film, Sabrina, since it takes place on Long Island,” says Janowitz, who resides there with her husband and sons. Her latest novel, The Audrey Hepburn Estate, is packed with family drama, swoony love stories, and an intriguing mystery. When protagonist Emma Jansen discovers that the grand Long Island estate she grew up on is set to be demolished, she’s determined to save the storied property. But returning home not only unearths forgotten childhood memories of her two best friends, but also reveals a shattering secret about her own family.
Janowitz is the author of seven novels including The Grace Kelly Dress, which will soon be made into a movie for the Hallmark Channel. Jennie Wexler spoke with Janowitz about her writing process and the familial themes she explored throughout The Audrey Hepburn Estate. This conversation was edited for content and clarity.
Jennie Wexler: I really enjoyed The Audrey Hepburn Estate. My favorite quote is, “Home isn’t a place. A house is a physical space, but a home? Home is the people you want to be with, the ones you come back to at the end of a long day. It’s the life you create for yourself, not an actual place.” This quote really captures the main theme of this novel so perfectly. As a mother and partner, how do you create a sense of home for your family?
Brenda Janowitz: Thank you for telling me you enjoyed that quote. I worked on that for weeks. That was the whole point of the novel, so I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. I grapple with this all the time because my kids are young. I think a lot about home life and how they’ll remember it. Creating a sense of home is important because that’s the foundation for our family. It’s the little things that build up, those weeknight dinners trying to coordinate the schedules so we can all sit down together. It’s cooking their favorite meals. Every Friday, we do a long Shabbat dinner and that’s our time to sit down and talk about the week.
JW: I found it fascinating that you were able to weave Audrey Hepburn’s little-known childhood history into the novel. How did this kernel of knowledge help spark the core idea for The Audrey Hepburn Estate?
BJ: I pitched the idea for the book before I’d written a word. I think when people think of Audrey Hepburn, they think of her pretty black dresses, her elegance, and her charm. When I started researching Audrey, I didn’t know that home was such a big thing for her. She was a homebody. Audrey Hepburn also lived in Nazi-occupied Holland for five years as a child. She and her mother barely survived the war, and often fought off starvation. Hepburn suffered from severe malnutrition due to this period in her life. In fact, she trained to be a ballet dancer, but health problems that resulted from malnutrition kept her from achieving a professional career and plagued her during her life. I was fascinated to know that she had been through so much because it brought her life into focus. Her work and dedication to UNICEF are a big part of her legacy. Everything comes together when you realize the challenges she faced.
JW: Why do you think Audrey Hepburn is such an enduring and fascinating icon? How was Emma’s character inspired by Audrey Hepburn?
BJ: I’ve been thinking about this a lot since we announced the book because so many people have reached out to me saying they are obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. For me, Audrey Hepburn symbolizes beauty and grace. I’ve loved her as an actress since I first saw her as a kid in Funny Face. I couldn’t get over her effortless humor and charm. (And, of course, that dancing!)
As a child living in Nazi-occupied Holland, Hepburn became a part of the Dutch Resistance (a passive, organized group consisting of people from all segments of society who resisted the Nazi forces and helped shelter Jews). She carried secret messages in her shoes to Allied forces, danced in underground concerts to raise money for Jews in hiding, and delivered newspapers for the Resistance.
Holland was liberated on the day of Audrey Hepburn’s sixteenth birthday. She believed that the work of the UNRRA, an organization that provided desperately needed food and medical relief and later became UNICEF, saved her life. Since she was so affected by hunger herself, later in life she used her celebrity for good when she worked with UNICEF. The work she did was incredible, and it is underreported. I think when people discover that she lived through Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, it adds another layer. You see the strength that she had to endure something so horrific and come out to live this beautiful life.
There’s a little of Audrey in every character and every part of the book, but certainly, Emma was the most important person to really infuse with Audrey. She’s obsessed with cooking just like Audrey. Audrey’s search for her home also inspired the character of Emma. Even in certain parts of the book, Emma wears iconic Audrey Hepburn outfits.
JW: With antisemitism on the rise, was it particularly important for you to incorporate the World War II story thread into this novel? What do you want this generation to know about that awful time in our history?
BJ: It’s an unfortunate truth of life that antisemitism is on the rise. And it’s shocking to me as a Jewish woman living in America that this is where we are right now. I think we felt like we were safe, and everything was fine for so long. But history is a pendulum and things come and go and then they come back and unfortunately, that’s where we are.
For me, it takes about a year to write a book and then a year to publish it. So when I started writing this novel, things weren’t quite as bad as they are right now. But with my books, I always take that kernel of truth and what’s going on in the world and what I’m obsessed with at that point in time and weave it into the story. I’m happy it’s there. It felt like it was the right time to write something that touches on themes of World War II and antisemitism. My point of view as a Jewish person permeates what I write, always.
JW: I enjoyed the love triangle in this novel. What made you decide to incorporate both Henry and Leo as love interests for Emma? Did you have a favorite as you were writing?
BJ: The Audrey Hepburn movie, Sabrina, gave me the idea for the love triangle. I enjoy reading about love triangles. The big question is, do you make it super obvious who the main character is going to pick, or do you make it a surprise? During the pandemic, I went to one of Jill Santopolo’s virtual book talks. She’s one of my favorite authors. One important thing she said was that she wants her protagonist to decide which life she wants, and who she wants to be. Because the truth is, when you choose a partner, you grow with that person and you change with that person. That was an interesting take on love triangles and that was part of what I was doing in my book. Ultimately, I wanted it so that Emma could have chosen either person. I love them both and my heart tugs for both of them.
JW: I’m struck by the father-child relationships in this story. How do you feel our relationships with our fathers influence our lives?
BJ: The relationship kids have with their parents in some way determines the trajectory of their entire lives. The father-child relationship is important because there are so many different ways to be a dad, especially now. For example, my husband is involved in parenting and he’s home whenever he can be. Whereas when I was growing up, my dad didn’t have that option. A lot of times he worked nights. I think parenting is always a reaction to how you were raised. If you think your parents did everything right, you’re constantly trying to recreate those perfect childhood memories. And if you think your parents did anything (or everything) wrong, you’re trying to fix the mistakes of the past.
JW: Emma has a very complicated relationship with her mother, Mila. Do you think mother-daughter relationships are inherently complicated? I am a mother to an only son, and while I love raising a boy, I have often wondered what it would be like to have a daughter. As a mother of sons, have you ever wondered the same?
BJ: Absolutely. I think mother-daughter relationships are complicated. I happen to be very close with my mother and she hates that I write about complicated mother-daughter relationships. But I’ve explained to her time and time again, if there’s no drama or conflict then they’re just best friends. But I think the mother-daughter relationship is difficult and rife with tension so there’s a lot to explore. As the mother of two boys, I think about it often because I’m desperate for a girl. I always joke with my girlfriends when they complain about their daughters—I say, send them to me!
JW: As a writer, I’m always interested in other writers’ processes. There was clearly a good amount of research that went into this novel. Once the research is complete, do you plot everything out before you begin to write? How much do you develop your characters before writing?
BJ: Every book seems to need something different. For this book, I didn’t have an outline. I did some research before I started but then a lot of research happened as I wrote. Then I would edit and tear apart the story and rearrange scenes. This book went through a few major revisions. But I think that’s part of the process. You have to do what works for the book and if that means throwing away fifty pages, you just gotta do it. Books that go back and forth in time are harder for me to plot. With The Grace Kelly Dress, The Liz Taylor Ring, and The Audrey Hepburn Estate, I did a lot of free writing. Then after the first draft was written, I went back and outlined it to figure out the structure. Regarding character, sometimes I just need to get into the writing flow to figure out who the character is. A lot had to be written first and then deleted to flesh out the characters and the story. But, I always knew how I wanted the story to end. So once I had that figured out, it flowed.
JW: You mentioned it takes you about a year to write a book. I would love to know if you have suggestions for other parent writers on maximizing productivity with kids.
BJ: I wish I did! I could use a few tips myself. For me, it’s about finding time in the spaces between. I’ll write while waiting for my kids at after-school activities, and I do most of my work when the kids are at school. Sometimes when writers start out, they think they need hours of uninterrupted time to write. For me, it’s about writing whatever I can whenever I can.
JW: Small nuggets of my own experience inevitably find their way into my stories, whether it’s a random comment someone once said to me or something humorous that happened to my son. As you wrote the characters of Emma, Henry, and Leo as children, did you draw from real-life experiences as a mother?
BJ: Nuggets of your life always make their way into the book. There are details I’m consciously putting in that I feel in my bones and then there’s the subconscious stuff that sometimes gets pointed out to me after the book is published. For this book, a lot of my personal experience is in there. Especially living on Long Island, because I’ve always been amazed by the Gilded Age mansions. Most have been converted to public spaces, so I’ve had the privilege of visiting a few of them. I’ve attended countless weddings and charity events at Oheka Castle, I’ve visited Westbury Gardens for numerous events (and even sent my publisher a photograph of it for inspiration for the cover design of my book), and I’ve spent many lazy days exploring the Vanderbilt Museum and the planetarium. But I love how you said it, because every book, in so many different ways, is so personal.