WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Nancy! I am so excited to interview you about To the Bridge. I’m rather new to the genre of investigative journalism and true crime books, but To the Bridgedid not disappoint. From when it was first mentioned to me by mutual friend Bob Kolker, it intrigued me. When I dove into the book, I found myself intrigued in more ways than one. I want to start with basic questions instead of diving into the heavy issues, though. How did you come across this story and why did you decide to pursue it?
Nancy Rommelmann: Thank you for your early intrigue. I came across the story of Amanda Stott-Smith, who threw her two young children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon – her four-year-old son Eldon drowned, her daughter Trinity, age seven, screamed for help until two good Samaritans motored their boat onto the river and rescued her forty minutes later – the day after it happened. Amanda’s mug shot– she was caught nine hours after committing the crime – was on the front page of the Oregoniannewspaper and I thought: How does this happen?
Which is not is an unusual reaction. What separated me from the pack, so to speak, is that I wanted to look past the initial – and when I say initial, I mean based on no evidence other than an emotional reaction to a mother throwing her children from a bridge – declarations of “evil” or “crazy.” Police claimed, without context, that Amanda dropped the children as a “fatal act of revenge” against her estranged husband, the children’s father, Jason Smith. The only other judgment was, “No one will ever understand how this happened.” This was put forth in editorials, by the judge who sentenced Amanda, and by Jason Smith. When he said during Amanda’s sentencing, “No thoughts of the murder will ever make sense to anyone,” my first thought was, yes, we will. Nothing comes out of the blue, and certainly did not in this case.
MT: I loved your use of language, the both calm and journalistic plainness of the book mixed with a very fluid, love of language that I’ve learned to love from nonfiction writers. What was your favorite part of writing this book, and what was the hardest part of writing To the Bridge?
NR: Sometimes the writing comes easily, you get on that track and bang it out and fix it in the editing. This is easier, or easier for me, when writing a scene I’ve been part of; as you know, the book runs on two tracks, the omniscient one that moves through time, and the one when the reader is finding the story with me, from May 24, 2009 – the day after the crime – to mid-2015, when I did my last interview. Writing the scene at the boat dedication, for instance, was easy; I was there, I had my notes, you give it the right velocity and boom, you’re done.
The hard part, or hard for me, is making sense of 5,000 pages of legal and other documents and interviews. I love (love-love) constructing narrative, finding the right way to tell the story, to lead the readers in and keep them in the story. You will have many missteps along the way. The nice thing about writing for a while is, you know when it’s wrong and that what you need to do, is keep working. And construction is king; without it, you have a bunch of facts no more useful to the reader than shreds of paper.
MT: In the book, you unload so many heavy ideas but do so in such an easy and carefree way that the reader, including myself, is able to engage and understand exactly how you relate each idea to the story. One idea that hit home with me and really pressed me forward in reading the book was the idea of attorney and specialists “humanizing” the criminals. Megan Abbott, an author friend of mine—and I mention this quote often in many of my interviews—has often told me I have to avoid judging even fictional characters. Were you able to “humanize” and perhaps avoid judging the all-too-human characters of your nonfiction book?
NR: I did not do any judging when I started the book. How could I? I knew nothing about what got these people to where they were. If I had, say, taken the position that Amanda was a monster… you could never write a book from that place, or not one I would want to read. You just progress slowly toward people and their stories. I had a fellow journalist ask me last week whether at the outset I had a litany of questions I wanted to ask Amanda, and my answer was that I did not. I wrote to her in prison – she was sentenced to thirty-five years before the possibility of parole – saying, if she put me on her visitors list, we could talk about clothes, or cooking, or sit and not talk at all. I thought that would be okay, to just sit and start to understand her grief, if there was grief; her caginess, if there were that; her denial, whatever there was would be fine. No agenda.
As any story you stay with, in this case for years, progresses, you start to form opinions about people. This one lied to you, this one is no longer answering your calls, this one wants to see you again and again. People become rounder, they start filling in the story. I have more than once been told by readers that they appreciate that I do not tell them how to feel about people; that I let them form their own opinions (which are not always the same, which is cool), and I tell them, yes, but do remember who put together the story.
MT: What works, fiction or nonfiction, long or short—really literature and art in any medium—have influenced the writing of To the Bridgeand affected how you viewed the characters—the very real characters—who played their parts in this story, and also how you wrote about them and their stories?
NR: The first book I was knocked over by, and in what I flatteringly tell myself is the same genre as To the Bridge, was Dave Cullen’s Columbine. It’s masterful in every way: the storytelling, the character studies, the humanity, the way he moves the lens in and out. I very much appreciated Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as are you, I am a huge fan of Bob Kolker’s Lost Girls. There is great execution and heart in these books, especially in the case Cullen and Kolker—you can feel how very much they care about the people they are writing about – while keeping their story steadily in their sites.
Which is funny, because I also tend to like books that, in the words of my former editors, “look at stories from the side of the eye.” Here, I will name Didion, and Mary Gaitskill, and JM Coetzee. I can never say enough about Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which she is able to marry the two perspectives, while, in the words of another former editor, “leaving a lot of air between the lines,” which is where the story (also) lies, and in which the reader has room to enter and consider what’s going on here.
MT: How did you go about beginning to write this book? How did you go about compiling everything? What was your writing process like, and how do you feel it’s different from the writing of a fictional piece?
NR: I had a blog in 2009 and started posting essays about aspects of the case I could follow. I met a few people this way who wound up in the book; Sabrina Trembley as well as the person I call “Molly” found me through the blog. Amanda’s attorney, Ken Hadley, was remarkably kind and, as I say in the Acknowledgements, let me “stick to him like a limpet.” Those were the easy parts, as was getting some of the legal documentation I needed. The exception to the latter would be police records, a Sisyphean endeavor, as I suspect every investigative journalist will tell you. If you stay with it, in my case for six years of “no,” you may eventually get what you need. You need a similar stick-to-itiveness when it comes to getting interviews. My friend, the author Inara Vernemniekssays, of potential interviewee responsiveness, “‘No’ means, ‘not now.’” This is usually true. You also learn with time that even when people are not talking to you, or when they are lying, they are telling you the story.
I don’t have a particular writing process, though once I commit to a story, I work every day, to varying degrees of effectiveness. I can absolutely assure you there will be days when you feel as though you are, not metaphorically, but literally shoveling garbage all day, pushing words around, making a mess, making nothing better at all. Then the next day, you see you had to get that out of the way to get the story where it needed to go. I can tell you that several times during the writing of the book, I put it away for months; it was too hard, I didn’t know how to do it, and worked on other books and stories.
In 2014, I committed to getting it done. I had at the time neither an agent nor a publisher. It sounds corny but I believed that if I wrote it, the book would gather enough thrust to make it where it needed to go, which turned out to be the case.
Fiction writing is for me not about fact gathering or other people. If I write a short story, it usually launches from one image, usually a final image, and I have to figure out how to get there. A short story usually takes me five days to write, beginning to end. I’ve put out one collection, called Transportation. I’ve only written one very short noveland it took a thousand years because I didn’t know how to go about it. I still feel very tenderly about that kids in that book, to the point where I never talk about it, except, evidently, here.
MT: What do you think were your duties as a journalist and a writer to the families, the friends, the acquaintances of both the killer and the victims, deceased and not, in this book? What conclusion did you reach by the end of the book toward humanizing women who kill their own children?
NR: I think the duty of any journalist on any story is not pre-decide the story, and to report it as you find it and as it is told with you, with care toward the subjects. The writer William Langewiesche said to me, “My only agenda is to serve as the reader’s eyes, and trusted eyes, and then to express it so that it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.” That’s exactly right.
MT: What do you think, other than for entertainment purposes, is the importance of journalistic narratives and true crime for the public? From the extremely literary to the very mainstream, true crime books, the genre has grown more and more popular over the years. Why do you think this is, and what are the most important aspects of this genre?
NR: In the past month I’ve read two essays that put forth the theory that women in particular engage with true crime because it’s a way of vicariously forearming themselves against real violence. Maybe, though I’m never wild about sticking all women, or all anyone, under the same umbrella. I do think, without really having stats to back it up, that more women are creating true crime narratives, whether journalistically or via podcast or in fiction. Pamela Colloff’s recent “Blood Will Tell”was triumphant, if maddening, and the number of true crime podcasts seem to proliferate by the day. One I highly recommend is “Dirty John.”
As for why people respond to true crime, it’s very immediate; we have faces and dates and broken people and injustice and people fighting for justice. I think we engage for any numbers of reasons: because we find the stories titillating or terrifying; for the sense of sadness or outrage; for resolution or the mystery.
MT: What do you feel makes the story of Amanda Stott-Smith feel unique to you? What makes it different from, say, the story of Susan Smith, a woman from my home state of South Carolina who has committed similar crimes? How do you see these two stories, if at all, as being tied together, as I’m sure you know about both stories extensively?
NR: Aside from the crime of maternal filicide, I don’t think the stories are similar. Amanda never denied what she did; Smith initially blamed the murder of her two sons on the proverbial bushy-haired stranger, as did Diane Downs, Oregon’s most notorious filicidal mother. If I had chosen to write about Smith (or Downs), there would no doubt have been a story to unpack. But as I told Amanda’s defense attorney, it is not murder per se that I am drawn to. It’s looking into stories that are presented (by the courts, the press, in public opinion) as one thing, but seem to me not that way at all.
It was not that Amanda so much struck me as unique; it was putting together the factors that got her to the bridge that night, some of which were extreme, not in their particulars—most bad behavior is banal—but in the psychological obfuscation that several of the book’s characters got away with, for decades, resulting in devastating ends.
MT: I loved your little asides, the bits of the story that sounded almost like you were delving into a sort of memoir, about yourself, your father, your husband, etc. When revising and editing, how many parts of your own life did you include and later exclude, or vice versa, in an effort to make clear your own connection to the case, as well as various aspects of people who either do or do not act on these homicidal urges?
NR: Astute question. I showed maybe the first fifty pages to the writer Suzannah Lessard, who said, “You know, you can’t be in the book and not in the book at the same time.” I was trying to keep myself off the pages, with just dots of me for context. The writer Rebecca Skloot said she ran into the same issue with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I cannot recall the exact quote, but it was a scene where Skloot is thrown against a wall by one of Lacks’s relatives, but still tries to leave herself out of the picture, to which her editor said something like, you are going to look insane if you don’t have yourself here. Skloot later said, “I had to be in the book because I was part of the story. It wasn’t that I was inserting myself. Without realizing it, I had actually become a character in their story.”
I too had become part of the story, so I put myself in. After my editor bought the manuscript, he said he loved it—now take myself out. We wound up splitting the difference, moving the story as mentioned along two tracks.
MT: You are able to paint nearly every character the reader comes across in multiple, complicated, and truly complex dimensions. No character seems flat, even those who are briefly mentioned, and every character seems like, no matter how briefly they are mentioned, they aren’t given their own bit in the spotlight, as well as criticism where criticism is due. How do you accomplish this?
NR: Keep noticing—and type your notes within twenty-four hours. You think you will remember details later but you won’t. Take notice of tiny things that might be useful, how someone smells, how slowly they eat, the temperature that day, kids playing soccer in the background, what’s in the news, what’s on TV. Woolgather lots of stuff and use it judiciously when trying to let the reader see and understand your character.
MT: The section in your book about sociopaths and psychopaths struck me in an odd way, both on a personal level and as a subject of interest. How long were you thinking of relating sociopaths and psychopaths to the case of Amanda Stott-Smith and how deep do you think the connection goes?
NR: At this point in my career, I have written about many sociopaths, about serial killer John Wayne Gacyand literary hoaxer Laura Alert, about a mother with Munchausen by Proxy syndrome who killed her daughter and herself, and a man whose public altruism fed something more ugly and dangerous. Maybe I have some sort of homing instinct for this stuff—which we do find in Amanda’s case—but I did not enter her story looking for it. When I did encounter sociopathy therein, I had some tools with which to understand it, gathered firsthand or from books. One I recommend is The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout. Dave Cullen in Columbinedraws a masterful portrait of Eric Harris, a textbook sociopath, and Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Outis its own kind of crazy.
I interviewed Kirn while I was writing To the Bridge, and included the following in the book:
“There was not really any way, Kirn and I agreed, to avoid being the target of sociopaths, with their terrible talent to identify and play to whatever is important to a person, to shape-shift into what that person wants to see. We do not assume the motives of others are custom made to fool us; that they will dangle a morsel made of our best morality until we take the bait.”
Which I think is very much the case for how Amanda came to be on the bridge that night. There are other factors; including there being something to the theory that Amanda did what she did as “a fatal act of revenge” against Jason. But as her grandmother said to me, “[Amanda] did it. She’s guilty; she’s in prison and deserves to be. But you have to think how she got to that point.”
MT: Nancy, for now, I feel I’ve questioned you more than is fair. I am very thankful for all of the time you’ve spent corresponding with me and responding to these questions. Your book is beyond amazing and both endearing and horrifying, and I encourage all readers of this interview to pick up a copy from their nearest (preferably indie) bookstore to learn more about this complicated cast of characters and what drives women to kill their children. Thank you so much, and feel free to depart with any comments, suggestions, remarks, or information as you please. I really enjoyed reading your book.
NR: I am happy to have had the chance to do so, and thank you so much.