Journalist Nancy Rommelmann, author of the Shebook Destination Gacy, explains what prompted her to visit serial killer John Wayne Gacy days before his execution.
What prompted you to write Destination Gacy?
I was living in Hollywood in 1994, writing pieces for these SoCal young dude magazines called bikini and Ray Gun. A video director I knew said, “Hey, Rommelmann, remember that party we went to at that guy Rick’s house?” I did, vaguely. “Well,” the director said, “he’s going to visit John Wayne Gacy and he wants someone to write about it.” Rick Gaez, who was 26, turned out to be a longtime pen pal of Gacy’s, as well as a collector of his paintings. Why would Rick court a relationship with a serial killer? Gacy was the most notorious killer of our time, his upcoming execution a mainstay of the nightly news. I saw the opportunity to explore the relationship between Rick and Gacy as fortuitous, as would be meeting Gacy and trying to understand why a man convicted of torturing and murdering 33 young men and boys held such sway on the public imagination.
I’d never written a feature longer than 1,200 words and did not know where or how to pitch, so I asked a friend who was at the time beauty editor at Glamour. She said to get it to her friend Joe Dolce, editor-in-chief of Details. I pitched Dolce; he bought the piece, 5,000 words and expenses for the trip. Rick and I set out in a rented Ford Tempo to drive from LA to Illinois. We knew each other not at all and he later confided to me that he’d packed a bag of psilocybin mushrooms in case I turned out to be a total drip. But we got on well, which was good, as the 6-day trip turned into 12 when we were at first turned away from seeing Gacy.
I filed my story. Dolce asked for a rewrite. As I was working on it, he moved over to Vogue and the new editor-in-chief killed my piece sight unseen. I was left holding what had grown to be a 9,000-word feature. Gacy had been executed, and it’s crude but still true to say I felt as though I were dragging around a corpse. Anne Thompson, a film critic at the time for the LA Weekly, got it to an editor there. The paper bought the piece. I was so green that when I went in to edit and the editor said, “We’ll put a drop cap here,” I asked, what’s a drop cap? I did not have the courage to ask whether the story would be on the cover. The day the paper was coming out, I was at the World News stand in Hollywood early. A truck dropped off a bound stack of Weeklys, and on the cover was my piece. I grabbed a copy, walked into the alley alongside the newsstand, and screamed.
The piece launched my career: within a month of it appearing, I had a column at the city magazine and was writing for the LA Times. The article did not, however, have long legs in itself, as it was published before the advent of the Internet; it’s never been online. I’ve had so many people in the intervening years ask to read it. Now they can.
Are there any themes you find recurring in your writing?
Murder has been a theme, if not a steady beat. Writing features and books about murder takes a long time—people, with reason, do not want to speak with a stranger about the hardest thing they’ve probably ever been through. Plus, we see a lot of sensationalism when it comes to the true crime genre, which is not what I consider my work to be, but sometimes those you seek to speak with cannot or will not differentiate.
Anyway, if I divide my career into decades, the first was murder and nightlife, the second, murder and food—I was freelancer for ten years for Bon Appétit—and now, moving into the third decade, murder and books, notably as a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. I also have written and always will write profiles of people, from barflies to movie stars. I find nearly everyone and what they do intriguing. My longtime editor at the LA Weekly said, “People tell you everything.” I am rapt to hear it.
Do you have an e-reader? When do you read on it? What are you reading right now?
I do have an e-reader. I am on my second Kindle, the Paperwhite, which I love. Actually, it’s my third. About 15 years ago, my husband bought me the first-ever e-reader, called a Rocket, which was about the size of a shoebox. I justified my not reading on it by thinking that I could not see myself tossing it in a cloth bag and skipping down some stone steps to a beach in Spain. Not that I’ve ever been to Spain. When the first Kindle came out, I was sent an advance copy in order to write a think piece about it for a Seattle Arts publication. I did, comparing it to “reading with a condom on.” My sister-in-law, also a writer, said pshaw, it is another way to read, and what can be wrong with that? She’s right, of course.
I love the Kindle—and the Kindle app; I’ve read about 25 books on my phone—because you can read about a book and just hit “buy.” I tend to read fiction more than nonfiction on the Kindle; as for work, I sometimes mark up books, and I don’t find it easy to make notes on the Kindle. I recently read Mary McCarthy’s The Group on the Kindle, and this morning a Shebooks title, Blood Brother, by Mona Gable. The Kindle is brilliant for singles and article-length e-books. Conversely, for massive books, as you don’t really notice you’re making your way through a 775-page hardcover, to wit, The Goldfinch. The only downside is the short attention span problem. If you travel with one book in your bag, to Spain or otherwise, you read one book. Your Kindle library can be a bit of a candy store. There are worse problems to have.
What writing projects are you working on?
I am working on To the Bridge, a book of narrative nonfiction about Amanda Stott-Smith, who forced her two young children off a bridge in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of the night on May 23, 2009, killing her four-year-old son. Her seven-year-old daughter screamed for 40 minutes and was rescued. I started writing about this the following day. I needed to know why and how this happened. I needed to know as a mother, as a journalist, as a citizen of a city rocked by the event. Reading, as I repeatedly did, that Stott-Smith was “evil, pure and simple” and should be slowly lowered into the Willamette River, preferably weighted with cinderblocks, told me of the public’s taste for vengeance but little about the road Stott-Smith traveled to get herself and her children to the bridge that night.
Do you have any secret talents?
Yes. I am a crack baker. I bake the best chocolate-chip cookies you have ever eaten. Don’t believe me? Let my friend Sandra Tsing Loh tell it, in Cookie Dominatrix.
Check out Destination Gacy: A cross-country journey to shake the devil’s hand only at Shebooks!