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Books Chat

Author Joyce Carol Oates discusses "Blonde," her new novel based upon the life of American icon and legend, Marilyn Monroe

May 2, 2000
Web posted at: 4:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Joyce Carol Oates has written a new novel entitled "Blonde," based upon the life of American icon, Marilyn Monroe. Oates’ novel presents the story of Norma Jeane Baker -- the child and woman who became the celebrity Marilyn Monroe -- in her own voice.

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/ Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. Her previous works of fiction include "Broke Heart Blues," "We Were the Mulvaneys," "Black Water" and "Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart." Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University.

Chat Moderator: Good afternoon Joyce Carol Oates, and welcome to CNN Book chat.

Joyce Carol Oates: Hello, I'm very happy to be here.

Chat Moderator: In a USA Today interview you said, "I would never want to write about Marilyn Monroe, but I would want to write about Norma Jean." Could you explain what you meant by that statement?

Joyce Carol Oates: I had been drawn into the project by having seen a photograph of Norma Jean Baker taken in 1944 when she was 17 years old. I saw in her a quintessential American girl who looks nothing like the "Marilyn Monroe" to come, with her platinum blonde, synthetic hair and exaggerated glamour. My interest was exclusively in Norma Jean, who had brown, curly hair to her shoulders and a very sweet, pretty face that was not beautiful, but very attractive.

I wanted to write about the experience of being a private person to whom celebrity comes from the outside, like fate. By contrast, I have virtually no interest in writing about celebrities per se.


Question from VicVega: Joyce, Monroe's life has been an interesting topic, both before and after her death, for many people for many years. After all the research you've done, can you explain the ongoing fascination?

Joyce Carol Oates: The fascination with Monroe's life has much to do with her particular personality, which exuded a combination of extreme innocence and experience, ambition and vulnerability. She has become a secular icon. Like so many secular icons, she would seem to have taken the place of sacred icons of tradition. Her fame seems to be based upon her photo stills, rather than on any particular screen performance.

Chat Moderator: Was this a difficult book to write emotionally?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, it was extremely difficult in many ways. I had to organize a vast amount of material, and I had to live through it in a very intense and personal, emotional way, as one does with every novel. But this was a particularly difficult experience because, of course, the subject had actually lived. I was always conscious of the probability that the real-life Norma Jean Baker had a more difficult life than I was able to express.

The organization of vast amounts of material is always difficult for a novelist. I had originally written 1,400 pages and would eventually edit the stack to 1,000 pages. Some of the material that has been excised has been published separately as short stories.

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I also came to feel that in writing about Norma Jean, I was providing a voice for one who never really spoke to us in her own voice, except in scattered interviews. Our experience of her is always as a screen presence in which she utters lines written for her by other people.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Joyce, does your book give us any new information on Marilyn?

Joyce Carol Oates: The book is a novel, so it takes us into the interior of the subject and its focus is emotional, psychological and spiritual. What is "new" about it is the concentration upon the subject from the inside. I would not suggest that anyone read "Blonde" as if it were a conventional biography. I don't invent very much, but I imagine everything.

Chat Moderator: How long did it take you to write this book?

Joyce Carol Oates: Approximately two years.

Chat Moderator: Was there anything that you came across in researching the book that surprised you?

Joyce Carol Oates: Many things surprised me! Perhaps primarily I was astonished by the fact that Norma Jean Baker through her life as Marilyn Monroe was always working. From the time she was a girl in a foster home and later in an orphanage, she had work that was hers. When she was a young wife, she was a diligent housewife -- very devoted to her young husband -- and would probably have remained a suburban housewife and mother for most of her life if her young husband hadn't left her.

She then worked in a defense factory -- this was during World War II -- where she was discovered by a roaming photographer for Stars and Stripes magazine. Her photograph appeared in this magazine and was seen by thousands of people, mainly men, who recognized in her a combination of sweetness and vulnerability and sexual allure that was very exciting to them. She was like a younger version of Betty Grable, who was "America's sweetheart" during World War II.

She then began to receive offers to be a photographer's model and she became a model for a modeling agency in Hollywood. From this point onward, she worked virtually nonstop. She didn't have any money so she worked happily for very little money. She was told to bleach her hair, which she did, and overnight she became the most popular model at this agency.

After that, she was offered a contract at Twentieth Century Fox. She became a contract starlet – "starlet" meaning little star or star-to-be or young girl available in Hollywood to predatory males. She worked virtually nonstop. She was said to be extremely ambitious and uncomplaining.

When she was married to Joe DiMaggio, she might have retired temporarily from movies but, on the contrary, she did one movie after another. She seemed driven. She may have been what we call a workaholic. I was, therefore, very surprised to discover in Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe a person I could really identify with.

Another surprise I felt in doing research had to do with the quality of her acting. I saw all the Monroe films that are available on video from "The Asphalt Jungle" in 1951 to "The Misfits" in 1961, and I was intrigued by the spectacle of a young actress learning her craft, varying her performance from one film to the next.

Question from voss: Do you think Marilyn was doomed, or would more aggressive psychiatric help have saved her?

Joyce Carol Oates: I don't believe that we are "doomed." I think that a fatal combination of forces foreshortened her life. Primarily, she had become addicted to prescription drugs. Initially, she had to combat feelings of deep worthlessness inculcated in childhood because her mother was not a loving mother, but rather mentally unstable, and her father never acknowledged her. She had a double burden of a wounded psyche from childhood and the lethal addiction to drugs.

I do think that, yes, she may have been saved by a different type of psychotherapy that did not depend upon drugs. And she might have been saved simply by leaving Hollywood and dropping out of the intense competition with ever-younger actresses. She might have had an ongoing career as a stage actress.

Question from news680: Speaking of that photo, Joyce. The word is that Norma Jean had 11 toes. Did the amputation of the superfluous toe have much impact on her life?

Joyce Carol Oates: None of the biographies I have consulted mentions this.

Question from Morgan: Do you have an opinion as to why some celebrities succumb to these pressures, and others are able to cope with them?

Joyce Carol Oates: It would seem to be a combination of factors. Obviously, one has to avoid any kind of drug addiction or dependence upon alcohol. Another factor is the necessity to have strong emotional support from family and/or friends. Once you're isolated and alone, you don't judge coherently. Marilyn Monroe died, essentially, because she was made to feel worthless by the world.

Question from news680: Joyce, why should the young people of today care about Marilyn? When the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson crowd grows up, will Monroe have anything to intrigue them?

Joyce Carol Oates: Probably Marilyn Monroe as a cultural icon will outlive the celebrities of today. We really don't know why some cultural features outlive others. For instance, it will be interesting to see if the cult of Princess Diana endures because, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di did not leave behind any work. By work, I mean Monroe's movies.

I would prophesize that both Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley will endure as prominent, if misunderstood, cultural icons of the 20th century. Many young people do seem to be extremely interested in these figures of another era, as they are becoming very interested in the Vietnam War.

Question from VicVega: Joyce, was there a particular event or turning point in Norma Jean's life that ultimately placed her on the road to Hollywood?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, this would have been when she was working in the defense factory in Van Nuys, California as a perfectly ordinary, anonymous girl of 18 who was singled out for attention by a photographer for a national magazine. This was the beginning of "Marilyn Monroe," for better or for worse.

Question from Voss: Do you think it’s the element of the timeless tragedy of self-destruction that makes Marilyn such a lasting figure?

Joyce Carol Oates: This is certainly part of the legend, but there are many Hollywood figures who came to self-destruction. Therefore, it's more than this. It must have to do with Monroe's unique radiance and her genuine talent, as evinced in such movies as "Some Like it Hot," "The Misfits" and "Niagara," which is my favorite Monroe film.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts or comments for us today?

Joyce Carol Oates: It was a unique experience for me, as a novelist, to be immersed in the inner life of Norma Jean Baker. I came to feel, in a mystical way, that Norma Jean -- or what she symbolizes of American idealism -- exists in all of us.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Joyce Carol Oates: Goodbye, and thank you for your wonderful questions.

Joyce Carol Oates joined the Book chat by telephone from Los Angeles. CNN provided a typist for her. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.

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