Did you know much about Marilyn Monroe before you began Misfit?
Marilyn Monroe was not someone who was ever really on my radar. I knew the basic biography. I had a fondness for Some Like It Hot and The Misfits (with the former having a greater appeal when I was much younger, and the latter having much greater impact as I got older). But I never paid much attention to her and her legacy. When I was coming of age, I reflexively rebelled against most establishment icons—and I’m sure I placed her in the category to avoid. What I missed, of course, is that she too was rebelling against many of the same ideas, but in a much more complicated and complex way.
What surprised you the most in your research?
While researching the book, I spent a day at the Smithsonian with Amy Henderson, one of the museum’s popular culture curators. I had asked Amy to imagine that she was making an exhibit on Monroe (as she had just finished one on Katherine Hepburn). Amy really took pause. She said that other than a costume or two, it was hard to think of items that defined Marilyn in the way that, say, Hepburn’s sweaters or scarves defined her essence. I still recall Amy finally saying the difficulty was that Marilyn was something of a “tabula rasa.” That the object that most defined her was her.
In short, I guess most surprising was just how sad her story is—bearing witness to her oftentimes successful but ultimately failed efforts to define (or redefine) herself in a way in which she might feel a truly satisfied sense of self.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle in writing the book was finding the central story. For example, in November 22, 1963 I had a significant event to center the narrative around. With Misfit, I struggled early on to find that. I like to play with narrative structure. And while there are more times than not that I adhere to strict linear movement, I also need the freedom to move the structure around, to find just the right way that certain moments or ideas can work with each other.
But still it needed a core.
At first I just wrote some of the pieces as short stories, particularly involving many of the scenes that would turn into “The Misfits” section of the book. And then I wrote some that centered on the period of Something’s Got to Give.
But still it needed a core.
Somewhere along the way I stumbled into the stories about her last weekend alive, spent at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva Lodge. That penultimate moment spoke to me—her last tightrope walk between tragedy and hope.
In the research I learned that Sinatra had had a warren of tunnels carved out for secret passages between the show room and the lodgings and the casino.
That was a big moment for me.
I began to picture the physical structure of the tunnels as the physical narrative structure of the book—meaning, this idea of Marilyn going through these tunnels could take us into the different directions of her past that would justify the present story. Finally there was a core. A center narrative.
In the end that structure wouldn’t be enough to hold the ideas I wanted to explore. But that was the real launching point for what turned into the final draft.
Can you describe one small anecdote that you learned about Marilyn that inspired a larger scene in the book?
The one that jumps right to mind is the “Wrong Door Raid”—the so-called evening when Joe DiMaggio, convinced that Marilyn was having an affair after she filed for divorce from him, got Frank Sinatra and a small gang of local toughs to bust into the North Hollywood apartment she was visiting and threaten her and her supposed lover. Of course it became farcical, especially when it turned out they entered the wrong apartment (Marilyn was upstairs visiting with a girlfriend), and the single woman sleeping in her Murphy bed screamed, causing the whole event to turn into chaos, resulting in lawsuits and a legacy of scandal. Thinking about it, the failed raid seems almost cinematic, a scene from a movie that Sinatra might have starred in, with Marilyn in the supporting role. But it was real, and it was her life.
How much did you rely on other people’s interpretations of Marilyn?
I tried to keep away from formal interpretations (such as biographies, works of fiction, etc.), as I did not want to be influenced by someone else’s vision of her. I guess part of this was that my ambition was not to find a new take on Marilyn Monroe, but rather to understand aspects of her life in as much as they would help me better understand my ongoing obsession with modern mythmaking, identity, and the negotiation of the inner and outer selves. Now, all that said, I certainly read many interpretations from people who reported on her, knew her, or were around her. But their interpretations were less informative about her and her psychology, and more informative about them, and the effect she had on the people close to her.
Were there any works of fiction that influenced Misfit?
There weren’t any books that specifically influenced Misfit. But that said, I think all good works find ways to inspire my writing. Sometimes it’s a story with precise sentences—making me think very closely about my own, especially in terms of rhythm and precision and word choice. Other books cause me to look at narrative tension, particularly how tension can occur in “quiet” stories, such as the ones I tend to write. I also pay a lot of attention to creative nonfiction and the personal essay—mostly because many of my books are less concerned with coloring inside the lines of genre, and instead are more interested in moving back and forth over those lines in a way that can best articulate the truth of a story.
In an essay about writing nonlinear narrative, you write, “It’s about navigating an unfamiliar world with some sense of predictability, while accepting that underneath the surface meaningful experiences are happening in the most natural, least explanative way.” Can you give an example of how you navigate the unfamiliar world of Marilyn Monroe with some sense of predictability?
It is very easy to line up the series of known events in Marilyn Monroe’s life (or any life for that matter) and then ascribe conventional meaning to the chain of events in a way that may makes logical sense but, to my thinking, actually diminishes the life by turning it into a narrative meant to fit neatly into a larger, already accepted cultural narrative.
In the case of Misfit, the unfamiliar world is the internal world of the story.
As I mentioned earlier, my central objective was not to fashion a dramatized story of her life; it was to explore my own questions and obsessions about identity and myth and so on. To that end, my challenge was to take these known series of events and somewhat accepted myths and to find the human struggle beneath them—one that spoke to a more generalized essence of human nature, and not just something specific to Marilyn Monroe. To me, the moments in Misfit where this is most pronounced are when she consciously tries to shift her own identity—as a child, with her marriages, and at the end of her life.
Do you consider Misfit “historical fiction”?
In general, I’ve resisted the term “historical fiction” forever, mostly because it conjures up an image of a book whose concern is to dramatize an event, as opposed to one that is interested in exploring ideas through its subject or topic. But that’s my problem, and my hang-up. A stereotype I can’t seem to shake. And one that’s probably not even accurate. Overall, I guess, the labels of literature trouble me a little bit. And while I do believe that there are certain contracts to be made with the reader (for example Misfit is called fiction, so as never to misrepresent the imagined parts of the narrative as fact), I do reject the border of fiction and nonfiction as being impenetrable. The stories of our lives. The myths of our culture. They all have woven—no, not woven, that still connotes genre borders—they have all existed in a place where truths come out of facts, and memories, and imagination.
What are you working on now?
I’ve become very interested in an Irish woman named Kay Summersby, who was Eisenhower’s driver during World War II. While there have been many sensationalist stories speculating on their relationship (sometimes propagated by Kay herself), I’m finding her story as an unlikely person to end up in the middle of a moment of history to be really interesting.