(A version of this essay was first published in the LA Weekly in 2005. It has been added to and updated.)
We moved to L.A. in May of 1988 in a ’74 Corolla, pregnant, jobless, no insurance. We had just finished teaching English in China (a whole other essay) and had been living in my parents’ basement in Roswell, Georgia. My father had recently been fired by the Atlanta Falcons along with the whole coaching staff. LA bound, my husband, Kiffen, had intentions of acting. I would write. We shipped out 200 pounds of books from the South. The days became temp jobs at banks on Wilshire (my MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee did not impress) and substitute teaching for LAUSD. A night out meant Ships coffee shop or House of Pies, where the cashier had nails so curly she needed a spoon to scoop change.
The Corolla up and died at a regular clip, so we kept jumper cables in the trunk. They got stolen. My brother-in-law, an embittered TV cameraman, fled L.A. for Hawaii but gave us a couch from The Jeffersons and the lease to his Hollywood apartment at 716 Valentino Place, a building squatting in the shadow of Paramount Studios. Valentino’s ghost was said to roam the halls. Our neighbor, a frail actress, Suzanna Kim, played Little Fool in The Good Earth, 1937. She wore eyelashes pasted to her lids and always propped a tiny black shoe in the automatic locked gate and forgot about it. To make a connection, I told her that we had spent the previous year teaching English in China. She wept and said, “I was born there!” But she was suffering from dementia and never remembered us from one day to the next. My brother-in-law’s apartment came with a roommate whose father sent him dope from Hawaii for rent money — we were so naive and so broke and so pregnant. My boss at the bank was a woman named Sheila Love, who was having an affair with the guy who ran Thai restaurant across the bank.
I began missing the South.
Our son, Flannery, was born at a birth center in Culver City in November, and we paid off the birth early ($2,250) because of a $500 discount. I was home within four hours of giving birth. A neighbor, Aphrodite, helped me up the steps since the ancient elevator was broken and Kiffen had to find a parking space safe from “street cleaning.” Aphrodite looked at me with incredulity and said, “This baby was born today? And you’re home? Why?” I began to cry. I was 26 — not ready.
By the time we had two kids, we were both teaching full-time, though I still wrote plays set in the South. One was The Goddess of My Heart about a Nashville housewife who falls in love with k.d. lang and another, Blood & Marriage, was inspired by my embittered brother-in-law, who by now had returned from Hawaii and wanted his couch back from The Jeffersons. (But he just said he did and never actually came to get it.) He got Kiffen a job driving the prop truck for one day for The Golden Girls. Kiffen occasionally acted in theater. I wrote a terrible spec script for an old sitcom, Empty Nest, and plotless short stories and plays with titles like Big Orange Graduation and I Am A Futon and Other Umbilical Tales.
At Garfield Adult School in East LA, I was asked to teach a class of teen moms in exchange for Lucy's, my daughter, free pre-school. I was reluctant only because those girls scared me with their high hair, sculpted triangled eyebrows, and dark lipstick, but I found that I enjoyed working with them very much. Many had been told, “Don’t use your big dictionary words with me. Don’t get above yourself! Who do you think you are?” I took groups of teen moms to the theatre, and I grew close to two girls who had babies at 14 and again at 17. We wrote a play together called Waiting for the Bus – a sort of East LA Waiting for Godot for teen moms. I also thought that teaching them to write their own stories might be a kind of birth control. It wasn’t. By the time the play was finished, both girls, aged 20, were pregnant again, but professional actors performed a great staged reading, ironically at Paramount Studios near Valentino Place, our first home.
I attended a baby shower for one in an apartment perched above the 10 freeway — a mixture of cake and sadness and shower games with baby pins. But I had to learn to shut up about my disappointment. The girls were doing better than their mothers. They weren’t drug addicts. They finished high school and some community college. They still had ambitions of writing. A few years later, one of them invited me to a Tupperware party at a park in El Monte. I saw both young women. They had jobs, husbands, and four children apiece. They were happy. We watched demonstrations of salad spinners, jogging cups with key holders, and Jell-O molds. I bought a salad-spinner.
What I thought would be my big Hollywood break came when Diane Keaton attached herself to my football novel, Offsides, in 1996. Hollywood compared Offsides to The Great Santini from the girl's point of view. The backdrop was college football instead of the military. (I’m not John Madden’s Daughter - another essay.) At pitch meetings, as we got to know each other, I told Diane Keaton about my work with teen moms, and how one of the girls was without a bed. Diane bought her two beds that Kiffen and I hauled to East L.A. one Christmas.
And to show my gratitude for her interest in Offsides, I invited her to our home for dinner, never dreaming she would accept. When her assistant called to set a date, I think I gasped because the assistant asked, “What? Didn’t you mean it?”
I had little time to prepare our 760-square-foot sheetrock stucco dump in Silver Lake for Diane Keaton. The backyard garden was its one redeeming feature. Deeply concerned friends offered their homes as a decoy for the dinner. I peeled off the spider webs and kid art, and painted the walls autumn harvest. It didn’t look great, but it was an improvement.
I had the 1928 toilet replaced with a new low-flush model from the DWP, which made our cheapo landlady hit the roof. I had to find the right Merlot, organic tomatoes from the Farmers Market. A friend made a mushroom quiche. Kiffen whipped together penne pasta and sauce. Lucy and Flannery were 7 and 9. In a fit of cleaning despair, I threw their cardboard cars, airplanes, old toys, battered bikes and Hula-Hoops under the house so we could eat outside, but not have to step over the junk-pile on the way to the candlelit table under the apricot tree near the jasmine King Kong topiary.
Before Diane arrived, I warned both kids not to mess up a thing - I had worked too hard for anything to go wrong. They sat meekly while we waited for Diane and her 2-year-old, Dexter. They were an hour late because our neighborhood in Silver Lake is very confusing with its looping streets. The kids were starving. Finally, once all gathered around the table, Lucy heaved a dramatic sigh, and Diane inquired if she was tired, and Lucy said, “Yeah, I’m tired! We had to work for you, you know!”
I tried to laugh but was too horrified, and then seconds later, Diane’s daughter discovered the dung heap of child junk under the house just below the Nerf basketball hoop. We shot hoops by candlelight. Dinner had lasted all of five minutes. Diane admired the garden, but Flannery said rather wistfully, "Some of it's barren." Then he added with a big smile, "Barren is one of my spelling words this week."
But barren is soon what happened to Offsides when it died in development between Lifetime and Fox Family. It was soon out of print altogether. We had another child, Norah, who is now 9. Flannery is in college, and Lucy is in high school. I spent years ghostwriting, health writing, writing novels that didn't sell, and shadow soap opera writing. When I found myself writing lines like, "My that bathrobe looks familiar" for the soap, I cracked. My grandmother was dying, and I knew I had to write something that I loved.
I decided on a huge family growing up in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I thought of Kiffen and his twelve brothers and sisters from Tennessee and North Carolina, the children of a fiddle player, Jim Lunsford, who played with Reno & Smiley and Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys and many more. Jim's uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher and a banjo player in the mountains. It took a good long while to get it right, and it was almost ten years between Offsides and Gentle's Holler, but I was able to go home every day in my head writing the Smoky Mountain novels.
Sometimes, I'd pick up the kids from school blasting Reno & Smiley, the Carter Family, Loretta, and Lucinda...They'd dive for the volume in shame. I love our friends and our life in Los Angeles, but I miss the South every day. I go back every chance I get to do writing workshops for students, and we bring our children to visit the relatives in Tennessee and North Carolina almost every year.
We still rent our home here in Los Angeles. That, too, is another essay.
Kerry Madden's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) was published as Penguin Puffin paperback in 2007, and received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Finalist) was published in the spring of 2007. Jessie's Mountain, the third book in her Smoky Mountain Trilogy for children, will be coming out on Valentine's Day. She is currently working on a biography of Harper Lee for teens for Viking's UpClose Series (2009). She has been a writing teacher with PEN-in-the-classroom, Vromans Ed, and the UCLA Writers Program. She is also the author of OFFSIDES, a 1997 New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age, and WRITING SMARTS, an American Girl Library Book. She does writing workshops for kids of all ages across the country. http://www.kerrymadden.com/