As a journalist for several outlets, including this one, Nancy Rommelmann covered the gritty and the glamorous sides of Los Angeles. Now with her debut novel, The Bad Mother, she chronicles the lives of Hollywood street kids, crank vials and all. Rommelmann, who's relocated to Portland, Ore., also is at work on To the Bridge, a nonfiction account of Amanda Stott-Smith, who dropped her two young children off a Portland bridge in 2009.
L.A. WEEKLY: The people and places in The Bad Mother feel like a fictional extension of your story about the Saharan Hotel in Hollywood. Were you thinking about fiction when you were researching and writing that piece?
NANCY ROMMELMANN: I wasn't at all; plus, how do you top the people staying there at the time? The abandoned Russian mail-order bride; the African art dealers, whose wives washed diapers out by the pool; the 80-year-old former kid actor and his Errol Flynn obsession; the man who looked like a 1970s TV detective — Burt Reynolds 'stache and russet leather blazer — who told me the best part of staying at the motel was watching the hookers at work in the parking lot.
Are there any characters in the book that are based on real people?
Only one. When my daughter was a toddler, I lived a few blocks from the 7-Eleven on Cahuenga. I was there one day when I met a couple; they had a little girl in a stroller, same age as my daughter. They told me how they'd come from Sacramento, how the guy's job had evaporated. My heart went out to them. I found the husband a job, bought him gym shoes. I took the woman and the baby to my house and we did her laundry; I sat in the den with her and folded baby clothes. Meanwhile, my friends are saying, “Nancy, they're drug addicts.” I'm thinking, no, well, maybe. The guy never showed up for the job, and when I confronted the girl, she admitted they were crack addicts. I think it took a lot for her to admit this, because we genuinely liked each other. At least, I liked her. I gave them a ride to a shelter and never saw them again. I don't remember her name in real life, but she was who I thought of when I wrote the character of Miralee.
You show their lives as really rough — but is there a fun or romantic side to living on the streets? Have you ever thought about how you would survive in that situation?
The kids do have it rough; they don't have a lot of currency, or rather, the kinds that don't take it directly out of their hides. But even in the book, they have fun; I am thinking of Mary and Roach, my lead female and male characters, and how they try to take care of each other. All the kids — well, most of them — help one another as best they can, whether this means washing your buddy's clothes at the laundromat or turning a trick to buy a friend who's just had a baby some food.
When I was a teenager, in New York City, I dropped out of school and spent a lot of time not going home. I romanticized it, certainly, which is easy to do when you have a home to go to.
Portland has street kids, too. Why did you choose Hollywood as the setting?
I started writing the book when I lived in Hollywood. I never considered changing the location. Not to give anything away, but the bad mother of the title is Hollywood. People come here thinking, “My real and starry life will be waiting for me!” That all they have to do is show up and meet their destiny. But Hollywood does not take care of you in the ways you think it will.
Have any real street kids read the book? Any response?
There is an organization in Portland called P:ear that provides art, education and recreation for homeless teens. The gal that runs the program was reading my book, and one of the kids said, “I want it next.” I donated some copies to the center. The kids told me I got it right, which is gratifying, seeing as I did not do on-the-ground research for the book.
What's your favorite street or area of Hollywood?
Wow, so many. Hollywood Boulevard, close to Wilcox, where the book takes place. It feels like the center of that particular universe. The Griffith Observatory, at night. And any good bar in Hollywood that has not gone all frou-frou — Boardner's and Musso's come to mind.
What do you miss about L.A.?
I miss the stories. People come to Portland with their achievable goals, whereas people come to Hollywood with their hyperbolic dreams. Ten, 20, 30 years down the line, they are still there, convinced that if they stay, it's all going to happen. I feel very tenderly toward this sort of hope, some might say delusion. Several years ago I wrote an article for the Weekly about the carnival; I spent a week with carnies out in Indio, including the man who ran the Ferris wheel. For a dozen years he had been sleeping beneath it, and he tells me, “I don't want to die here with this piece of equipment. I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand. That's who I am.” Also, how he has a painting, Floral Still Life, in this very famous collection in New York; that the curator tracks him down every few years and offers him thousands of dollars for it. And when I fact-check, when I actually track down the collection, there is no Floral Still Life, no record of the man.
Nancy Rommelmann discusses and signs The Bad Mother at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs., June 30, 7 p.m.; free, book is $14.99. (310) 659-3110, booksoup.com. Rommelmann also reads at Sandra Tsing Loh's “First Annual Bad Girls of L.A. Literature Flambe and BBQ” on Fri., July 1, 5-8 p.m. in Pasadena. Exact location with RSVP to BadGirlsLALit@gmail.com; more info at flavors.me/badgirlz.)
Thu., June 30, 7 p.m., 2011