Most writers have someone to whom they show their works in progress. Mine is Victoria, the lady that works the cash register at the donut shop. Victoria is maybe 5-foot-nothing in the 6-inch mules I have never not seen her tottering on behind the counter. She is also always, by seven in the morning, in full make-up, her processed blond hair rippling like a mermaid's to her waist. Victoria and her husband, who makes the donuts, moved to Portland from Mexico; they have seven children and own three businesses and work seemingly all the time. Despite this, Victoria is perennially cheery and a big reader, something I learned when I used to pick up the donuts every morning for my husband's coffee business.
As wives will do, we discussed our lives. When Victoria learned I was a writer, she asked to see some things I had written. I brought her two features I wrote for the LA Weekly. When I stopped in a few days later, she took my hands and said, "I need more." I brought her more. And more. She wanted to see everything, she professed to love the way I wrote and the topics I chose. How can this not be the best things a writer can hear?
Two years ago next month, I began to write about Amanda Stott-Smith, after she dropped her two young children from a Portland bridge at 1:43 AM, killing her four-year son. Her seven-year-old daughter survived for an hour in the 45-degree water and essentially saved her own life by screaming so long and so loud that two residents along the river motored their boat into the darkness and found her. I knew almost immediately the writing would become a book, if not how long it would take to get members of the family to trust and speak with me.
Victoria, who I would see every two weeks when I paid the donut bill, and I talked about Amanda, about the children. She asked when the book would be out; I told her, not for years. She said, she could not wait that long. And so last December I gave her the book in progress, about sixty pages. When I next saw her, she said, "I need more." I promised her that more would be forthcoming.
It was not, not for lack of material, but because The Bad Mother, a novel I finished writing in March 2009 -- two months before Amanda dropped the children from the bridge -- was slated to be published. I found this out in late December; there was editing to do, and once it was published, in March, pushing the novel into the world, what a writer friend refers to as, "rolling that log." There was and is travel, and appearances, things one does not anticipate, or that I did not anticipate, that make you portage from one writing stream to another.
When the novel was released last month, I brought a copy to Victoria.
"My god," she said. "You wrote it so fast!"
I explained, as I would wind up doing with many people, that the novel was not the book about Amanda, and that while I understood why people would, from the title, imagine it to be about a mother who drops her children from a bridge in the middle of the night, it was actually about homeless kids in Hollywood. That the confusing coincidence of the titles was just that, coincidence, and that the book about Amanda is called, "To the Bridge."
Last Thursday, I stopped into the donut shop. I had not seen Victoria for a month, as I had been out of town on readings. She was interested in these, saying, "I bet when people hear you read it, it changes their opinion about what happened."
I told her, that was true. That some people read the book and are scared of what happens to these kids and the dangers they are in. But when they hear me read it, they understand I feel only tenderness for these kids. Victoria nodded.
"You are also showing that the mother is a human being," she said. "That they didn't get the whole story in the newspapers."
Victoria had another customer, and so I had about two seconds to tell her, it was the novel I was doing readings for, not "To the Bridge." She looked puzzled, as though the overlaps in the stories were causing vexation, and it put me in mind of something my mother often asks: why are you always writing about dead children?
I left the donut shop thinking about this, as well a question I receive at each reading of The Bad Mother: was the novel inspired by your experiences as a journalist in Hollywood? I answer that, while it makes sense this is the case, it is not. That the characters are made up; that I have never interviewed a homeless or dying teen; that it must be the osmosis of driving through Hollywood every day for eighteen years that created the book.
I was pressing the clicker that opens my car door when I realized the genesis of the work is quite the other way: that I began writing nonfiction books and articles about murdered children after I began addressing them as fiction. That "To the Bridge," in fact, grew from The Bad Mother.
Nancy Rommelmann reads from The Bad Mother at Book Soup on June 30.