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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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