By Lindsey Wojcik
When news broke that a 32-year-old woman had dropped her 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter from a bridge in Portland, Oregon, in May 2009, local author and long-form journalist Nancy Rommelmann suspected there was more to the story than what local media and law officials uncovered.
Rommelmann, who had covered crime as a reporter, was determined to understand what led Amanda Stott-Smith to the bridge as the media coverage had provided no background on Stott-Smith’s life with her children and her husband Jason Smith.
What Rommelmann discovered through research and interviews with Stott-Smith’s family and friends is the focus of her new book, To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder (available July 1 from Little A). The page-turner chronicles Stott-Smith’s trial and sentencing, her life before the incident, and how the murder was used for political purposes. It also offers a deep and nuanced look into how such a crime can occur, to offer illumination, perhaps even hope of averting future incidents.
Rommelmann recently spent some time answering my questions about her writing process, what she was surprised to discover while researching the book, and the best advice she’s ever received.
Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?
Nancy Rommelmann: Growing up I was sure I was destined to become a movie star. I did theater in high school and college and, after working as a cocktail waitress for a little while in New York, wound up working on films—behind the camera, which I liked, though I still wanted to be the girl being primped and fussed over, as opposed to laying dolly track at 3 a.m.
I did wind up in Hollywood, where, like most people who head there to actuate some sparkly destiny I did not. I did, when I was pregnant with my daughter, start to read scripts and write script coverage, which I was fast at and on which I was able to make a living.
I did go on one last audition, after I’d pretty much given up on acting. I think it was for a Coke commercial. The director stood me in front of the camera and asked me to ad lib. When I finished, he looked at me for a good 20 seconds and said, “I don’t know if you’re right for the part, but do you want to write the copy?”
LW: What is your writing process like?
NR: My work habits depend on what I’m working on. For book reviews, I’ll read the book and then, for reasons I have yet to figure out, wait a few weeks to write. For articles, it depends. I am sometimes in the field reporting, sometimes at the computer doing research. Initial drafts of almost everything usually look pretty awful, to the point where you think, wait, did I forget how to write? But you just keep working. Once I get my lede, I know I will be able to write the piece. The lede, or opening paragraphs, need to contain a lot of invisible architecture: a tone, a rhythm, and a structure that establishes and can support the rest of the piece. I forget which writer said, you should be able to tap your foot to a beat for an entire book. That’s right.
If I’m on a big project, such as To the Bridge, I will go away for a few weeks and follow a schedule of my own making: up at five, write, take a walk, write, lunch, write, walk, maybe write some more but probably not, dinner, a half-hour of television, sleep; repeat. I eat the same meals every day. I do a little reading but not much. I usually do it at my best friend, the novelist Deborah Reed’s house in Manzanita, Oregon. My husband’s friend said, “You need to get out of the house,” and I said, “No, I need to get out of my life.” The last big push on the book, I wrote something like 160 pages in two weeks, which is insane and not doable but was done. I also recommend Freedom or some other app that keeps you off the Internet for when you really need to push.
LW: To the Bridge chronicles the tragedy of Amanda Stott-Smith, who dropped her two children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon in May 2009. In the book, you cite a few other children who were murdered in the Portland area around the same time, two of which were murdered by their adopted father. What specifically drew you to Amanda’s case?
NR: The moment I saw Amanda’s mug shot in the paper, the day after the crime occurred, I needed to know how this story happened. It just made no sense. I was at computer within minutes trying to find out more and at the courthouse two days later. I was sure, within a week, that I had a book on my hands. There was so much subterfuge, so many people wanting the story to go away. I can understand this, from an emotional perspective—there are many things nicer to contemplate than a mother dropping her children from a bridge—while countering that not looking at how the story happens helps nothing and no one moving forward. I also disagreed with the press and the judge and the general consensus that the crime was inexplicable and always would be. During Amanda’s sentencing, after her husband, the children’s father, said in court, “the murder will never make sense to anyone,” my immediate thought was: yes, it will.
LW: What did you want to explore in To the Bridge?
NR: I had written previously about a girl murdered by her mother. In that case, the initial reporting, by a local paper, was a bunch of hearts-and-flowers bullshit, something about the mother having fibromyalgia and not being able to cope. I found out, and wrote, that the mother suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder that compels caretakers to exaggerate or fabricate medical conditions in those they care for, in order to get attention for themselves. The daughter in this case had been submitted to unnecessary surgeries, procedures, and medications from nearly the time of her birth. She was 14 years old when she was given an overdose of prescription medication by her mother, who then killed herself.
I felt some justice had been done, by exposing what the mother had put the daughter through. Soon after, the editor of the paper who’d printed the original story took me out for coffee and said, “We got it wrong, you got it right.” He turned out to be the person who ran the first piece I wrote about Amanda and the children, which had to do with our needing to see these sorts of stories clearly, to refrain from labeling someone who would do such a thing as “evil” or “sick” and then closing the door. This sort of default judgment is, I think, a cop-out. I understand why people do it; they do it because they are scared to look any deeper. But it also banishes the kids, who are now dead, to being no more than that: dead children. I have written about many dead children. It’s felt important for me to do so.
The fuller story is always more important, more interesting. There are few things, for me, as interesting as writing about humans trying to live in the cages of lies they build themselves, which Amanda and her husband certainly did. Unfortunately, it was the children who suffered most.
LW: After Amanda was arrested and the court proceedings began, you had some trouble connecting with people who knew Amanda, her ex-husband, and her kids, which presented an obstacle for you. What other challenges did you face as you wrote this book?
NR: Talk to any reporter about the joys of getting the police to give you what you need. As a news friend recently said, “Their first five responses are, ‘Fuck you.’ The next is, ‘What the fuck do you want?’” That said, most official organizations were very amendable to providing access and records. Several news people in Portland slipped me things unbidden—I’m freelance so have no big organization behind me and they did. That was super-kind and helpful.
The most challenging thing, always, is asking people to share their stories with you, in this case, about the worst thing that has happened in their lives. It’s so tough. But if you hang around and make yourself available, you learn that people need to tell their stories. Not all, but most. Once people opened up, they did not stop. I don’t think I had an interview run under five hours, and in the case of Amanda’s grandmother, we met eight or nine times, until we became friends, if under most unlikely circumstances. I became and have remained friends with several people in the book.
LW: Did any surprises pop up as you researched and began to write To the Bridge?
NR: How much time you got? The more I looked, the more unexpected, and sometimes shocking, events came to the surface. I was not shocked by, for instance, the drugs, booze, suicide, or infidelity. It was the things below the surface, actions that were engineered to appear one way, for instance, trying to look like the hero, when your real intention is to destroy the object you claim to be saving. The many people I interviewed also, and axiomatically, talked about what they knew and thought they knew from their perspective. This made for many points of view to weigh and mesh and sort through. As I write in the prologue, I would come to wonder “whether looking into the murder of a child by its mother was like staring into a prism in your hand: the more you turned it, the more possibilities beamed back, anguish, rage, comprehension, and untruths refracting—whatever you wanted to see you would find there.”
LW: What's the best advice you’ve ever received and what advice do you offer up-and-coming journalists?
NR: “‘No’ means, ‘Not now,’” from Inara Verzemnieks, regarding getting people to speak with you, and on the same topic, “They will, if you commit,” from Katherine Boo.
Advice for new journalists is all common sense: Meet your deadlines. Make your editors’ lives easier. Learn how to take criticism. Fight for your stories; don’t let anyone make them look like crap—it’s your name on it. Never betray your subjects, they have put their trust in you. Doing work you do not like and respect will get you more of the same kind of work. Never pre-decide the story. If you get stuck, do more research, write badly for a while, who cares; love editing, it’s the best. And the big one: if you are going to tackle a years’ long project, you need to commit. There are no shortcuts, sorry.
LW: What’s next for you?
NR: I recently put together a manuscript of Los Angeles journalism and essays, Forty Bucks and a Dream. That’s with my agent now. I am chasing stories, per usual, including one that came about because of someone who heard about To the Bridge and reached out to me. I cannot reveal who it is right now, except to say that this person is another part of the story.