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The Bad Mother: A Novel Paperback – December 21, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


Journalist Nancy Rommelmann left her Hollywood beat some time ago. In this, her debut novel, she delivers a heartfelt, unforgettable love letter to the street kids who society would just as soon forget. --Mark Ebner, author Hollywood, Interrupted

Utterly harrowing and sweet, alien and recognizable all at the same time. I didn't know which child to empathize with more. This is obviously the work of not only a good writer, but also a very good mother. --Erika Schickel, author of You're Not the Boss of Me

I've long admired Nancy Rommelmann's non-fiction because, with brutal compassion and emotional wallop, she unfailingly reveals that no life is really ordinary. Now, she brings the same promise and punch to her first novel, The Bad Mother. You may find it hard to look at these beautifully desperate characters, but it's much harder to look away. --David Rensin, author of A Few Perfect Waves and The Mailroom

From the Publisher

You were an East Coast girl. What drew you to Hollywood in the first place?

I was absolutely sure from age five that I was going to be a movie star. I did very little to encourage this happening, aside from the usual high school and college theater. When I came to Hollywood, I figured it would be a matter of time before some man drove up in a big car and said, "Get in, I am taking you to your destiny." I realize that this sounds ridiculous, but I believed that simply by showing up, it would happen. Um, it did not.

Meanwhile, I was writing, without any real deliberation or ambition, while still going on the random audition. I realized the jig was up when I was up for a commercial where we were asked to ad lib, and when I finished, the director said to me, "I don't know if you're right for the part, but do you want to write the copy?"

Not journalistic experiences, but something that happened in real life. I stopped in at the 7-Eleven on Cahuenga in Hollywood, two blocks from my house. My daughter was still in a stroller, and I met a couple with a child my daughter's age. They told me how they'd wound up on the street, and my heart went out to them. I bought the husband new gym shoes, I found him a job, and I took the woman and the baby to my house so we could do her laundry. Meanwhile, my friends are saying, "Nancy, they're drug addicts," and I am thinking, no, maybe, well... The guy never showed up for the job, and when I confronted the girl, she admitted to me that they were crack addicts. I think it took a lot for her to admit this, because I think we genuinely liked each other. At least, I liked her. I gave them a ride to a shelter, and never saw them again. Years later, she is who I thought of when I wrote the character of Miralee.

You often write, in your non-fiction as well as in your novel, about people who live on the margins of society. What is it about the underbelly that attracts you?

I was just having a conversation with a colleague who's done a lot of writing about the glitterati. What she writes about is starry on the outside, but often rotten and boring on the inside. The people and stories I am drawn to usually look kind of sad and dusty, if people see them at all. The people remain in Hollywood because they are convinced that if they stay, it's all going to happen. Their hope and tenderness are pulsing right there for you. It's the pathos of failing; for instance, the man who tells me a Disney animator is going to help him get his cartoon series on the air, followed by the information that the animator was fired from Disney a decade earlier, and currently has inoperable brain cancer. Or the carnie I interviewed who explained he was really a painter; that his Floral Still Life is part of a world-famous collection; that the curator tracks him down every few years, offering thousands of dollars.

"I don't want to die here with this piece of equipment," he says, of the Ferris wheel he's been sleeping under for a dozen years. "I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand. That's who I am."

And when I fact check, when I track down the collection of which the carnie speaks, there is no Floral Still Life, no record of the man.

How is fiction-writing different from your work as a journalist?

With fiction, I very often know the end. This was the case with The Bad Mother. I knew from the instant I started writing the book what the last sentence would be, as well as the title I just had to figure out what came between.

With journalism, I never know how things are going to end; I don't think you ethically can know. Certainly, you walk in with certain ideas of how the story will go, and with the best stories, you are nearly always wrong. The process is thrilling once you realize that if you just keep ferreting out the truth, you are going to find something startling and better than you could have imagined.

The way fiction and journalism are the same is that when you really get going on the story, and you start getting hit with all these ideas and these words you want to use, you see that these connections were there all along, and now you know how to make them fit. This happens for me especially near the end of the project, when I have to keep a pad on the passenger seat when I am driving, because I am scribbling every two minutes. It sounds corny, but it's almost magic at that point, sort of, "You've come this far, here are some little presents, some little bows to sew it all up."

What are you working on now? What's next?

On May 23, 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith dropped her two young children from a bridge in Portland. Her four-year-old son died; her daughter, age seven, survived. I've been writing about this event since May 25, 2009. I had to know what nearly everyone needs to know when they hear about something like this: How did this happen? I am telling you how, in To the Bridge. The story, which is ongoing, is both not what I expected, and not what has been reported, at all.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 150 pages
  • Publisher: Dymaxicon (December 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0982866909
  • ISBN-13: 978-0982866900
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,028,833 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nancy Rommelmann writes features, book reviews and essays for the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

Recent books include the novel THE BAD MOTHER (2011). THE QUEENS OF MONTAGUE STREET (2012), a digital memoir of growing up in Brooklyn Heights in the 1970s, was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, and named as a Top Ten Longreads of 2012. The story collection TRANSPORTATION was released in 2013. DESTINATION GACY, an e-book about Rommelmann's visit and interview with serial killer John Wayne Gacy, published in 2014.

Rommelmann worked as a story consultant and appears in the documentary THE CULT OF JT LEROY, which premiered at the New York DOC festival in November 2014.

She recently completed the narrative nonfiction book TO THE BRIDGE, the story of Amanda Stott-Smith, who in 2009 dropped her two young children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon.

She is based in Portland. More at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Alice Bachini on March 2, 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a short, rewarding, fast-moving read, extremely tough yet somehow gentle account of the degradations and essential humanity of lost young homeless people in Hollywood. Although fictional, the details are concrete and intense, as you would expect from the author's widely-admired work as a journalist. The narrative arcs across these lives of tedious repetition yet total insecurity, from one fast-food doorway to the next 7 Eleven, with layers of hell into which the characters must descend at different times for the purpose of survival.

But the point of it all is the love it reveals. There is deep compassion in its unflinching truth, a love you get to share and take away at the end, just for spending time and witnessing the characters' lives; and their natural openness, innocence, vitality, the simple desire to do no harm. You may feel shocked and disturbed at the start, but The Bad Mother lays humanity out upon a table like an evening spread out against the sky (to misquote T.S. Eliot)- the humanity of the characters mirrored in the humanity of their author. The human soul shines through, and it is captivating.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Peter Blauner on March 4, 2011
Format: Paperback
Nancy Rommelmann is a first-rate practitioner of long-form nonfiction and she has adapted her talents gracefully and seamlessly into a first-rate debut novel. She has produced a book of unsparing honesty and tenderness toward her young wayward characters and created a memorable portrait of the down-and-out in LA in the early 21st century. Fans of Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and Joan Didion (in her streetwise mode) should sit up and take note.

Peter Blauner

Author of Slow Motion Riot and Slipping Into Darkness
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By N. Corl on March 1, 2011
Format: Paperback
As I burned through this gritty little book, I encountered the internal lives of its characters as well as very direct sensations of its setting. I have to say it knocked me around quite a bit - it was like getting in the ring with Manny Pacquiao. The moment I felt empathy, or any of the many feelings the book provoked, a deft shift in time, place or character forced me to experience the story from a different emotional perspective. The Bad Mother reminds of the neorealism films of DeSica and Rossellini, except it never lingers nor bows to sentiment.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jackie Danicki on March 1, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The characters in "The Bad Mother" are real people - or at least it feels like it. This reads like non-fiction, with vivid imagery that you won't be able to shake when you close your eyes at night. I read this in two sittings, but it would have been one had I not forced myself to savor the world in which I'd been immersed. I'm just sad I can't read it again for the first time.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Heather James on February 28, 2011
Format: Paperback
This novel is fantastic!
Heart-wrenching, gritty, and at times painful to read, The Bad Mother offers marginal characters not unlike those set in Faulkner's iconic tales about misfits. With a nod to Mary Gaitskill, Rommelmann brilliantly creates powerful relationships between her readers and these derelict young adults. Intense, commanding, and quick-witted, The Bad Mother leaves us not quite ready to cut the cord to these Hollywood street kids.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Dublanica on July 20, 2011
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"The Bad Mother" is a gripping and heartrending tale about broken people clinging to the hardest edges of life. With sharp and unsentimental prose, Rommelmann shows us a world that shouldn't exist, but does. I'll never forget reading it. You won't either.

Stephen Dublanica

Author of Waiter Rant and Keep the Change
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Lucy Dahl on March 6, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I loved this book. I found the lives of those who we see but never know, accurately intriguing. I couldn't put it down and have since found myself driving around the same streets looking for, at least a face, to the characters that are so beautifully and empathetically described within the lives of such sadness, yet without pity.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sharon Harrigan on April 28, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this novel in two sittings, which is a compliment! I don't usually read books that fast, but this one kept me turning the pages.

What I love about this book is what I love about all Rommelmann's work: her spare and direct and pops-off-the-page style. She wastes no words. She gets us in then out. The sentences are sharp and fast. It's almost like a play: heavy on dialogue and visuals.

I had nightmares about these characters. Which is a compliment, too. That means that I was moved, haunted, changed. The effect didn't always feel pleasant, when I was in the middle of reading. In fact, I'd liken it more to a sucker punch to the gut. Sometimes I felt a sweep of nausea course through me. Strong feelings are good. Only strong books create strong feelings. The worst thing a reader can say about a book is that it had no emotional resonance. The emotional resonance of this book was like an active volcano.

I was most reminded of the experience I had when I first read Bonnie Jo Campbell's amazing and disturbing short story collection, American Salvage. I had a feeling of physical revulsion but also of awe and gratitude. Her characters are the abused and the abusers, addicts and losers. Those on the fringe of society. I remember her saying: People tell me they don't know anybody like the characters in my books. I tell them: You're just not looking hard enough.

I was also reminded of how I felt reading Katherine Boo (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) and Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son). Jim Carroll comes to mind. I love the analogy on the book's blurb to Iggy Pop. Unflinching is the word I kept thinking about.

I do understand how this book could be controversial, how it could elicit strong and strongly opposite reactions in various readers.
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