“Fail again. Fail better,” goes the well-worn Samuel Beckett quote former actress Heather Donahue chooses to open her new memoir, Growgirl. As epigraphs go, it would be hard to find one more appropriate.
In 1999, Donahue starred in cult hit The Blair Witch Project, only to watch her meteoric rise to fame crash and burn as soon as the hype surrounding the movie did. Ten years later, faced with a moribund acting career and zero marketable skills, Donahue fled Los Angeles to spend a year living off the land in Northern California. There, like any respectable Hollywood has-been, she rented a house in the woods near a place she calls “Nuggettown, CA,” and set about writing a book.
“I thought it would be in the 'city mouse becomes country mouse' vein. Growing the veggies and trying to become self-sustaining, that kind of thing,” Donahue says by phone from San Francisco.
In Nuggettown, Donahue managed to fail not only better but spectacularly. The stoner boyfriend she had followed north dumped her. Deer ate her vegetable patch. A fox killed all her chickens. Even her pet tortoise, Buga, ran away.
“At the end of the day, it was just me, the dog and the girls,” Donahue recalls.
By “girls,” she means the O.G. kush she was cultivating alongside chard and heirloom tomatoes, a lucrative side project that funded her escape, and a detail she fully intended to leave out of her memoir.
“I had over 1,000 pages of journals in the first two months, and none of them even include the word 'pot,'?” Donahue says. “I was that paranoid.”
Those notes are being published now — with marijuana references included — as Growgirl, a chronicle of the onetime Hollywood It girl's yearlong attempt to raise and sell the perfect bud.
Yes, Donahue admits, “It does make me nervous that I've just written a book about doing something that's technically, federally illegal.”
The purpose of her project, she says, was to offer readers a less stereotypical view of the medicinal marijuana industry. Pot farmers “aren't all mountain men with beards. I met a lot of grandmothers who couldn't live on their pensions, and single mothers trying to send their kid to private school.”
Maybe Donahue intended her memoir as a way to champion single moms and struggling grandmas, but the book she came up with — a gossipy insider exposé about the members of a local pot growing collective called the Community — is a lot more fun than that. Donahue introduces us to Zeus, a 30-year-old balding “country-tyme baller”; Zeus' girlfriend, Cedara, “who looked like Snow White if Snow White had spent some time as an expat in Thailand instead of going to college”; and assorted “semiretired massage therapists,” who raise their boyfriends' toddlers from previous relationships and tend to the vegetable gardens.
Faced with a lack of alternatives, Donahue spends a year enduring hippie staring contests and naked hot-tub romps that include both her (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend and the girl he has a crush on.
“What we all had in common was no Plan B,” she explains.
Growgirl is a portrait of a woman still trying to figure out who she is as she edges into her late 30s. As a memoirist, Donahue avoids self-pity, though she does tend toward the scatological, obsessively documenting every burp, fart and stray body hair. (One memorable early chapter centers on a “tit whisker.”) At times her openness can feel gratuitous, but it helps that Donahue is preternaturally self-aware, quick to point out her own flaws before anyone else has the chance.
“I've started to find beauty in the repulsive,” she explains. “I know how it can be seen as sort of an obnoxious overshare, but I felt it was important to put myself in that position.”
If you're not already planning your next trip to Burning Man, you're probably rolling your eyes. Then again, if you're not already planning your next trip to Burning Man, you're not the audience Donahue is looking for.
“I'm trying to think of it as building a tribe,” she says. “I'm trying to reach out to people who want to create lives for themselves that have some sense of autonomy and are willing to break a few rules to get there. I want to figure out what they're thinking about.”
Donahue reads from Growgirl on Jan. 16 at 7 p.m., Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.
Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.