Imagine you were taken from your parents at six months old. Imagine you are a sleeping five-year-old child when a woman comes to you in the middle of the night to say, “Wake up. We have to leave. It’s not safe here.”
This is the beginning of Mikel Jollett’s striking memoir, Hollywood Park, coming in May from Celadon Books. It’s the story of his life born into an experimental Northern California commune that became the terrifying and destructive Church of Synanon cult. The woman was his mother, Gerry. “But,” Jollett says, “I had no concept of what a mother was, a father, a family. At Synanon, we were put into an orphanage soon after we were born; we were ‘society’s children.’ ”
With escape from Synanon in 1979, though, came other difficulties for Jollett and his then-seven-year-old brother, Tony. Stalked by the cult, and with Gerry severely depressed, the family moved to rural Oregon, where they “raised rabbits for food and lived on government assistance.”
What’s amazing is that Jollett, now 45, went on to graduate from Stanford, have a career as a music journalist, and become the front man of the indie band Airborne Toxic Event (the band’s name is a reference to Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise). His editor, Celadon president and publisher Jamie Raab, says, “Mikel should not have made it; things should not have turned out okay.” She adds that she almost never buys memoir: “It’s a crowded field, and most of the time they just aren’t good enough. The litmus test is when one comes along and there’s no hesitation. I loved this memoir the way I have never loved a memoir.”
Writer’s House senior agent Susan Golomb, who sent Raab Hollywood Park, first saw the manuscript in summer 2018. “I admired the immediacy and the deceptive simplicity of it,” she says, “ but I thought it ended too soon. He launched the story but didn’t land it.” Golomb tells me that she does a lot of memoir and a lot of development with authors. “The exciting part of agenting,” she says, “is finding a new voice.”
Golomb called Jollett and they talked it through; her ideas resonated with him, and she offered to take him on if the changes worked out. The manuscript was ready in April 2019, and Golomb sent it out selectively, looking for editors who appreciated literary quality and loved music.
Raab’s response was direct: “I’m into rock and roll; I’d like to consider it.”
There was an auction in May 2019, and Raab came in with the highest bid in a “substantial deal,” according to Golomb, for North American rights. The contract was signed in July.
“The good thing at Celadon is that we’re small,” Raab says. “There are no committees to pass when we want a book.”
It’s interesting that both Golomb and Raab sealed their deals without ever meeting Jollett, which speaks to the power of his story and his endearing personality. “He’s a lovely person,” Golomb says. “He’s kept his perspective and integrity.”
I spoke with Jollett at Celadon’s author lunch at Agern restaurant in New York City’s Grand Central Station, and hours after the meal, we closed the place. He is charming and effusive, his stories mesmerizing: like the shock of meeting his father, Jimmy, for the first time when he was six. “I remember walking down the street with this big man who could throw a baseball, who could swear,” he says.
Jimmy had been a drug addict and a felon but was an ineffective criminal, Jollett jokes—“a rebel without a clue” and an example of “disorganized crime.” Jimmy cleaned up in the early days of Synanon, where he met and married Gerry and had the two boys. He left before Jollett was born in 1974.
At 11, Jollett, who had spent summers with his father, went to live with him. He was a huge influence in Jollett’s life. One day, he says, Jimmy took him to Hollywood Park, an old racetrack: “Don’t be like me,” Jimmy told his son. “Do something better.”
Jollett listened. He became a straight-A student and graduated from Stanford in 1992. Always into music, he worked as a journalist writing about music for Filter magazine. “It was great,” he says, “I got to fly all over the world interviewing my heroes.”
At night Jollett wrote songs. In 2005 he was set to go to the Yaddo writing colony but met a drummer and instead started Airborne Toxic Event and went on tour, putting his writing ambitions on hold.
Then, in 2015, his father died, and Jollett says he was overwhelmed with grief and confusion. “I wondered why it hit me so hard, so I went back into my past—that day my mom took us out of the cult. I went in to lockdown and started to write.” He stayed with it for three years.
Jollett wrote Hollywood Park in different voices, and the first one is that of a small child looking back. “Writing this book gave that child a voice,” he says. “I had never acknowledged the neglect I’d suffered.”
Golomb appreciated this. “The book starts out with the limited perspective of a child,” she says. “We are in his head; the story develops in the moment.”
Jollett was also working on lyrics for a new album and writing songs, eventually realizing that he was writing the soundtrack to the book. The album, also titled Hollywood Park, will release in May from Rounder Records, at the same time as the book.
“It’s exciting cross marketing,” Golomb says, “and Celadon was the perfect publisher to make this happen.”
At publication in May, Raab tells me, Jollett will do a 12-city book tour and a 40-city concert tour. “The whole team at Celadon worked on coordinating the events,” she says. “We met once a week with the music team. With concert tickets to the Airborne Toxic Event, you’ll get Mikel talking about the book.”
Of Jollett, Raab says, “He transforms from rock star to writer. It’s something to see!”