Five kids, three best-selling novels and more on the way (books, that is). Come along for a day in the life of this Elk Grove crime writer.
Allison Brennan rolls out of bed and heads to the kitchen to make her first cup of coffee for the day. (She’ll drink up to eight before the day is done.) With cup in hand, she boots up her e-mail and responds to fans before digging into the real work of the day: writing her next romantic suspense novel.
Time is precious. In two short hours, her five children will begin waking and Brennan will have to switch gears to make breakfast and get backpacks ready.
But for now, it’s all about suspense, sexual predators, serial killers and handsome FBI agents out to save the day. And, of course, romance. Yes, even romance makes it onto the page at this dismal hour of the morning, while Brennan, sporting bed head and pajamas, sits in her living-room-turned-office. For two glorious hours, she’ll take her characters to exciting places, through perilous chases and into romantic embraces. Or, as Brennan likes to look at it, they’ll take her along for the ride.
Then, sometime around daybreak, this rising star in the world of romancic suspense novels will drift back to Elk Grove, where a 2-year-old needs a diaper changed and a 10-year-old can’t find her homework.
Brennan buckles her two youngest children—ages 2 and 3—into car seats and revs up her aging Honda Odyssey to drive them to their morning day care program. Her eyes are on the road, but her mind races with dialogue between her book’s main characters.
“My 5-year-old once told me, ‘Mom, stop talking to yourself.’ I started to say, ‘I’m not talking to myself,’ but then I suddenly realized I was!” She laughs good-naturedly. “I guess my mind never quite shuts off.”
Brennan, 36, wouldn’t have it any other way—this dual, sometimes schizophrenic life as an author, wife and mother. An only child raised by a single mother in the Bay Area town of San Carlos, Brennan shared her mother’s passion for reading and spent many hours browsing her mother’s extensive book collection. Soon she was writing stories using an electric typewriter her mother brought home from work.
“She just wrote and wrote and wrote. She had a very fertile imagination,” recalls Brennan’s mother, Claudia Turner, who now lives in Folsom. “When I finally moved from that house, there were boxes and boxes of paper from all the things she had written. But she never finished anything.”
By college, Brennan had decided to become an English teacher, thinking the job could feed her love for books (and pay the bills) while she wrote the next great American novel. But only months into her freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, she caught the political bug and switched her major from literature to a double major of business economics and politics. Two years later, she quit college entirely to work for a political action committee.
“I was very impatient,” Brennan says.
Impatient, but also driven. She worked three jobs to pay off student loans while searching for her dream job in politics. Eventually, she landed a job working in the 43rd District State Assembly office in Southern California: first for Republican Pat Nolan from 1992 to 1994, then his replacement, Republican Jim Rogan, for another year.
Brennan loved the work but missed Northern California. So after meeting and marrying her husband, Dan, Brennan was happy to relocate to Sacramento in 1995 and take a job as a senior consultant with the Assembly Republican Caucus. Finally, she was pursuing the public policy work she had always envisioned.
And yet, after work, when the kids were in bed and the house was quiet, Brennan would sit at her computer and write sexy crime stories. “I probably had over 100 beginnings of novels. When I got stuck on one, I’d put it aside,” she says. “It wasn’t until I finished my first two books that I gained some confidence. They weren’t any good; they’ll probably never be published. But it made me realize, ‘I can do this.’”
Brennan pushes “Save” on her computer and grabs her car keys and sunglasses. She has been writing furiously all morning, taking advantage of the quiet, empty house. It’s time to put writing aside for the day and return to her roles as wife and mother. She even looks the part—jeans, T-shirt, white leather sneakers; short, low-fuss haircut—not at all the black-leather-jacket-street-savvy-crime-fighter look she sports on the inside covers of her books.
Even with several completed manuscripts on her desk, Brennan’s transition from politics to stay-at-home mother and full-time writer didn’t happen overnight. Her first attempt to land an agent using one of her manuscripts came back with a one-word response: “Superficial.” Undaunted, Brennan revised her strategy: She would keep writing, but she wouldn’t attempt to approach another agent until she had the right book—one that would really sell.
She began reading through her old manuscripts, including one she’d started but set aside two years earlier. “I found myself thinking, ‘This is really good,’ but it needed a lot of work. So I deleted all but the first two chapters and started writing. Four months later, I had finished The Prey.”
That book caught the attention of one of the industry’s leading agents, Kimberly Whalen of Trident Media Group, who sold the book to Ballantine Books/Random House in March 2004, a week after submitting it. Brennan secured a contract to write two more books along the same theme—FBI heroines overcoming their tragic pasts—and triumphantly pocketed her first advance (somewhere in the six figure range for all three books). Nine months later, in January 2005, she quit her job.
It was official: She was a writer.
Brennan is spending her afternoon like mothers throughout Sacramento, making and cleaning up after lunches, coaxing her youngest two into naps, picking up children from school and day care, playing Nintendo with her preschooler, shuttling her oldest two to gymnastics or a play date.
She may have snuck in a bit of writing or checked e-mails during naps, perhaps, but other than that, her focus now is strictly her family.
“I’m enjoying doing all the things I couldn’t do with my kids when I worked full time,” Brennan says. “I’ve made more cookies since I quit my job than in the first 12 years of my marriage combined.”
To the outside world, it may indeed seem like she does it all: Martha Stewart morphed into a soccer mom. But Brennan is the first to admit she has made some clear choices about how to spend her time, and not everything fits. She does field trips, but won’t coach sports or lead Scouts. She doesn’t have hobbies, unless you count reading suspense novels or writing a weekly blog for the Murder She Writes website. And, thanks to the success of her books, cleaning is out. She now treats herself to a housecleaner.
But laundry is a family affair. “A lot of times I’ll just dump the clean laundry on the floor and have all the kids grab what’s theirs,” she says.
Clearly, Brennan has survived her current pace of life—and kept her family and sanity intact—because she knows her limits and keeps her goals in mind. Right now, those goals are raising her children and advancing her writing career, period. The other stuff will just have to wait.
Allison and Dan Brennan tuck their last child into bed and return to the family room, picking up toys as they go. The couple, normally fairly relaxed in their parenting, are unbending when it comes to the children’s bedtime. They are tired by 8 p.m. and ready to relax, watch TV or read. But not tonight. Allison heads straight for the computer. She has a contract to write three more books for Ballantine, with the deadline for the first book looming only two weeks away. No time to rest.
“We used to try to go out for a date at least once a month, but we really haven’t had any private time since her success,” says Dan. “With each book, Allison’s deadlines have gotten tighter.”
Sometimes, Allison will bring her laptop into the family room while Dan, communications director for State Sen. Roy Ashburn, watches television. At least then they’re sharing space, if not conversation. But Dan remains upbeat about his wife’s success, despite her workaholic schedule. “I’m really proud of her. I don’t know anyone who has the gumption to keep going year in and year out like Allison.”
One reason writing about crime takes so much time is the amount of research needed to make the stories seem realistic. How would a young girl’s body look after decomposing in the woods for several weeks? What would motivate a serial killer to begin his life of crime?
“I’ve found some great resources online,” says Brennan. “I’m in this Yahoo group run by a retired crime scene investigator. He’s terrific and will answer any questions by writers.”
Brennan also gleans information from other writers—published and unpublished—with whom she corresponds through various writers groups. And there’s her own growing collection of resource books, which could pass for something out of a “CSI” series: The Serial Killer Files, The Forensic Casebook, Murder and Mayhem.
Some softer souls might flinch at immersing themselves in crime and death day after day, but Brennan has long loved the genre of suspense literature. She started reading Nancy Drew books as a child and grew to appreciate authors as diverse as Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote and Patricia Cornwell.
“My favorite show as a child was ‘Quincy,’ where he solved crimes by examining dead bodies. I even wanted to be a forensic pathologist until I had to dissect a pig in seventh grade and realized I’d rather write about the crimes than see them,” remembers Brennan.
Yet although Brennan thrives on crafting plots involving psychotic killers and haunted heroines, she remains unapologetic about the romantic scenes woven throughout her books.
“Nearly every mystery and suspense writer puts romantic relationships into their books, even the men,” she explains. “The two elements work well together, because when two people are in a life-or-death situation, everything matters more. The suspense builds. And the reader is kept wondering, ‘Can these two people, who were meant to be together, get over the obstacles to live happily ever after?’”
Brennan herself reads mostly romantic suspense, including her favorite authors Linda Howard, Tami Hoag and Iris Johansen, and she isn’t alone. Romance is the best-selling genre in the market, and all of Brennan’s books have made it to the New York Times extended list (which lists books that are high-selling, but not in the top 15). Her agent even sold the rights to translate the books into German, Spanish and French.
Apparently, the old adage is true: It’s love in any language.
Brennan pushes her chair away from her desk and stretches. She has managed to complete 15 pages during the past three hours (it typically takes her about three months to finish a book), but now she is stuck on several details. Could a killer use glue to seal a victim’s mouth shut? If so, what kind of glue would he use?
Never mind; the story will continue tomorrow. Or perhaps in the middle of the night in a dream, or during those half-awake moments when she rises to comfort a restless toddler.
This constant thinking, the long work days and stressful deadlines are part of Brennan’s new life as an author and stay-at-home mom. It’s a price she’s willing to pay, at least for now. “I’ve always believed anything worth having was worth sacrificing for,” she says thoughtfully.
Maybe one day she’ll work less, space out her deadlines a bit, take a vacation now and then. But until then, this writer, wife and mother is a lot like the rest of us: She just needs to get some sleep.
-Books by Allison Brennan, all available from Ballantine Books/Random House
The Prey—Ex-FBI agent turned crime fiction writer wakes up one morning to discover her books are being used as blueprints for murder. (December 2005)
The Hunt—The sole survivor of a brutal serial killer tracks her attacker 12 years later when another college student turns up dead in the Montana wilderness. (January 2006)
The Kill—When DNA evidence frees the man convicted of her sister’s murder, an FBI scientist sets out to find the real killer. (February 2006)
Speak No Evil (February 2007)
See No Evil (March 2007)
Fear No Evil (April 2007)