Evelyn McDonnell on Writing the Story of the Runaways
"I really feel like I did some of my best work while at the Miami Herald," Evelyn McDonnell admits. The writer spent eight years there as the pop music critic. But she was familiar with Miami even before moving here. She'd attended years of Winter Music Conference (which she calls "pretty much Miami at its finest") while living and working in New York for our sister paper the Village Voice. Now, as an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Loyola Marymount University, she's looking forward to returning to this strange Southern city to read from and discuss her newest book, Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.
Along with Lynn Goldsmith, David N. Meyer, and Mark Kurlansky, McDonnell will also be part of a music-focused panel at the Miami Book Fair International. Queens of Noise, she says, "is a story about young women, it's a coming-of-age story, and it's a story about Southern California. It's got these great characters who also happen to be rock stars," she says, adding that it is both "a cautionary and inspiring tale."
If you think you're an expert on the Runaways because you caught the movie, know now that you aren't. This book brings the background to the forefront and reveals the complete story of this all-female rock band. We spoke with the author about which Runaway was the most difficult to speak with (spoiler alert: None sounds like a piece of cake), Mötley Crüe's The Dirt, and her finest Miami memory.
New Times: Is this your first time reading at the Miami Book Fair?
Evelyn McDonnell: When I lived there, I frequently participated in it, either reading or introducing panelists. You know how they have local journalists, ask local writers to introduce panels. I participated almost every year in one of those two forms. I always went. I really love the book fair. That and Basel are my two favorites.
Did you come for your two other books?
I definitely presented for Mamarama [A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock 'n' Roll] there. I put together a panel with Neal Pollack and Erika Schickel, who also had sort of alt-parenting memoirs out at that time.
How do you decide what your focus is? Why Björk [Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Björk], why the Runaways?
The one piece of advice I've been given and that I'd pass on is to make sure that you're writing about something that you really care about and won't get bored with and are not going to hate spending years of your life thinking about and talking about. There was that. The Björk book, it really would have been like a Kindle single, but it was before they had Kindle singles. It was when they were first launching ebooks, and they really didn't know what they were doing. I think that was four months, as opposed to four years with the Queens of Noise.
Björk, I absolutely love her, I adore her music, I think she's a genius. I really like the Runaways. I grew to like their music the more I spent with it and the more I discovered about it. But I never would have put them in my top five, even top ten list. But I was really compelled by their story. And I interviewed Joan Jett a couple of times and liked her a lot, and felt that she was under-appreciated. Then I came to realize that was true of the whole band. It's such a great story. It's got so many crazy elements. It just also appeals to the storywriter in me as much as the music fan.
Which of the Runaways do you feel you relate the most to or have the most empathy for?
That changed during the process of the book. It would shift as the allegiances of the band members shifted. They're all really fascinating individuals, and they're also really frustrating individuals. All of them are very defensive and protective, and they sort of want to control the script about the band, often in different ways. That was frustrating. I guess I went into it knowing Joan the best.
The book started as a master's thesis at USC. And it was really about Sandy, though of course, when you're telling the story of Sandy West, you're telling the story of the Runaways. And I really grew fond of her while keeping in mind that she also had this extremely dark side. But I always have a thing for drummers, so... I found her story very moving. I never met her, but I think if I had, I'd really like her.
You had some emotional encounters with the band. Was there any one that made you the most uncomfortable?
Probably with Cherie [Currie]. Cherie was very sensitive about Sandy. She was very protective. I think I underestimated how much she was still grieving and in a stage of intense grief. It had actually been a few years when I interviewed her, but I think that she was not prepared to talk about Sandy as some of the others were.
My questions really upset her, even though I wasn't doing a hatchet job on Sandy. Certainly there were bad things that had to be discussed. I had interviewed her twice before for the thesis, and she wouldn't talk to me again for the book. Of course, she had her own book.
The fact that they're women is an important element. If they were men, do you feel like there would have been a different reaction to you?
They were protective of each other, but they were also very critical of each other. There was also a lot of negativity. I also do often compare them to Mötley Crüe and the book to The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band. God, if I'd revealed anything like what was revealed in The Dirt, you know, it would have been pretty phenomenal. And Mötley Crüe completely cooperated. That was their book. They cooperated with each other, even though some of them couldn't stand each other. They still wanted there to be this story of what they had gone through to be told. And they were able to overcome that.
And there was a lot more money at stake. They were getting paid a lot more than the Runaways were getting paid to tell a book together. I also think that if a book had come out about the Runaways that was as tawdry and scandal-ridden as The Dirt is, I think that would have been much more damaging to their reputations because they are women. Guys can literately get away with murder, which to a degree happened in the Mötley Crüe story. That's all that anyone would think about with the Runaways. I think that's part of the problem: They were certainly more notorious than they were famous.
When you started to write the book, how did you decide how you were going to present it, as far as the structure?
Basically, I created a chronology of the band. I literally have a timeline. One of the really difficult things was reconstructing that because there really wasn't that much factual information about the Runaways. They themselves had mistold the story many times. They didn't even know what'd really happened. Every time I found new information, I had to find the order in which things happened. I continually fleshed out that timeline. Every time someone joined the band, then I spent some time talking about that. When there was a record, I'd describe that album. Then, because there's such a fascinating afterlife to the band, I wanted to give that some attention too. I could have written a lot more about that, but I ran out of room.
What's one of your favorite Miami memories?
I think one of my favorite memories is covering Winter Music Conference for the Herald one year. And another reporter and I, we called it an early night, but then we got up at 6 o'clock in the morning, and we went over to Club Space, or one of the clubs, and Danny Tenaglia was doing one of his marathon 27-hour DJ gigs. So, at 6 o'clock in the morning, we went over, and Yoko Ono was actually doing a guest spot. So we went and listened to Yoko and danced for like two to three hours, and then we went to work at the Herald.
What'd you learn writing this book?
Be careful what you wish for. It's kind of the ultimate dream to be a teenager in a rock band traveling the world, but it's a dream that these girls never completely achieved, and it has so much bad stuff associated with it. It was damaging for some of the members and completely liberating for others.
Evelyn McDonnell, Miami Book Fair International. 12:30 p.m., Sunday, November 24, at Room 8202 (Building 8, second floor). Visit miamibookfair.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.