Joyce Carol Oates on Blonde and Marilyn Monroe

A 2000 interview with the American writer
Marilyn Monroe
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. Her iconic American status continues to fascinate. Blonde, an imaginative retelling of the Marilyn myth, if often hailed as Joyce Carol Oates' masterpiece. Celestial Timepiece, the Joyce Carol Oates homepage, is hosting a fascinating interview with the author by Greg Johnson, in which she discusses its inception. The interview was first published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in 2000:
What was the genesis of "Blonde"? What prompted you to choose Marilyn Monroe as the focus of a novel?

Some years ago I happened to see a photograph of the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Baker. With her longish dark curly hair, artificial flowers on her head, locket around her neck, she looked nothing like the iconic "Marilyn Monroe." I felt an immediate sense of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes. For days I felt an almost rapturous sense of excitement, that I might give life to this lost, lone girl, whom the iconic consumer-product "Marilyn Monroe" would soon overwhelm and obliterate. I saw her story as mythical, archetypal; it would end when she loses her baptismal name Norma Jeans, and takes on the studio name "Marilyn Monroe." She would also have to bleach her brown hair to platinum blond, endure some facial surgery, and dress provocatively. I'd planned a 175-page novella, and the last line would have been "Marilyn Monroe." The mode of storytelling would have been fairytalelike, as poetic as I could make appropriate.

Obviously, you've produced a long novel, not a novella. What happened?

In the writing, characteristically, the "novella" acquired a deeper, more urgent and epic life, and grew into a full-length novel. "What happened" is what usually happens in these cases. "Blonde" has several styles, but the predominant is that of psychological realism rather than the fairytale/surreal mode. The novel is a posthumous narration by the subject.

After I abandoned the novella form, I created an "epic" form to accommodate the complexities of the life. It was my intention to create a female portrait as emblematic of her time and place as Emma Bovary was of hers. (Of course, Norma Jeane is actually more complex, and certainly more admirable, than Emma Bovary.)

What led you to choose this unusual point of view, "a posthumous narration" by Norma Jeane herself?

This is a difficult question to answer. The voice, point of view, ironic perspective, mythic distance: this curious distancing effect is my approximation of how an individual might feel dreaming back over his or her own life at the very conclusion of that life, on the brink of extinction even as, as in a fairy tale, the individual life enters an abstract, communal "posterity." Norma Jeane dies, and "Marilyn Monroe," the role, the concoction, the artifice, would seem to endure.

At over 700 printed pages, this is your longest novel. But your original manuscript was even longer—1,400 pages. Why did you cut the novel so substantially?

At 1,400 pages, the novel had to be cut, and some sections, surgically removed from the manuscript, will be published independently. They are all part of Norma Jeane's living, organic life. To me, the language of Norma Jeane is somehow "real."

Still, a novel of such a length is a problem. Rights have been sold, according to my agent, to "nearly all languages" except Japanese where, if the novel were to be translated it would grow again by between one-third and one-half in length. In German, for instance, it will be massive enough!

You wrote and extensively revised this huge novel in less than a year. It must have been an intense writing experience?

I think, looking back upon the experience, that it is one I would not wish to relive. In psychoanalytic terms—though we can't of course "analyze" ourselves—I believe I was trying to give life to Norma Jeane Baker, and to keep her living, in a very obsessive way, because she came to represent certain "life elements" in my own experience and, I hope, in the life of America. A young girl, born into poverty, cast off by her father and eventually by her mother, who, as in a fairy tale, becomes an iconic "Fair Princess" and is posthumously celebrated as "The Sex Symbol of the 20th Century," making millions of dollars for other people—it's just too sad, too ironic.

Could you describe your writing process as this novel evolved?

With a novel of such length, it was necessary to keep the narrative voice consistent and fluid. I was continually going back and rewriting, and when I entered the last phase of about 200 pages, I began simultaneously to rewrite the novel from the first page to about page 300, to assure this consistency of voice. (Though the voice changes, too, as Norma Jeans ages.) Actually, I recommend this technique for all novelists, even with shorter work. It's akin to aerating soil, if you're a gardener.

Since the 1960s, a number of well-known writers—Capote, Vidal, Mailer, DeLillo, and others—have focused ambitious novels on famous, and sometimes infamous, historical figures. Do you consider "Blonde" as falling into this tradition of the "nonfiction novel"?

The line of descent, so to speak, may derive from John Dos Passos's "U.S.A." with its lively, inventive portraits of "real people" mixed with fictional characters. Dos Passos's Henry Ford, for instance, is an obvious ancestor of E.L. Doctorow's emboldened portraits in "Ragtime." Some of these are rather more playful/caricatured than serious portrayals of "real people."

So much of "Blonde" is obviously fiction, to call it "nonfiction" would be misleading. (I explain in my preface: if you want historical veracity, you must go to the biographies. Even while perhaps not 100% accurate, they are at least predicated upon literal truth, while the novel aspires to a spiritual/poetic truth.) [Read More]
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