David Remnick: The novelist Joyce Carol Oates has the literary energy of a 19th-century figure like Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope. She's the author of 60 novels, and hundreds of short stories, and countless enigmatic, often controversial tweets. Lately, one volume, in particular, has gotten renewed attention. It's a book called Blonde, about Norma Jeane Baker who became Marilyn Monroe.
Katy Waldman: It's widely considered to be her masterwork. It's more than 700 pages. I think it clocks at like 738. It's her longest book, and apparently, the draft was twice as long.
David Remnick: Katy Waldman is a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers books and culture.
Katy Waldman: I think it's the best version of a lot of themes that she's been toying with and unpacking for her entire career. Marilyn Monroe, in a way, she's just a succession of incredible stills or photographs. She's this iconic figure who is both woman and so much more than woman, myth blonde, fairy tale princess, symbol of Hollywood.
David Remnick: Blonde was published in 2000. It's just now become the basis for a film on Netflix Written and directed by Andrew Dominic.
Katy Waldman: You told your biographer that you are inspired to write the book after seeing a photo of the 15-year-old Norma Jeane Baker.
Joyce Carol Oates: Yes.
Katy Waldman: You said, "This young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes."
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes. While I came from upstate New York, Western New York, North of Buffalo, it was not a very prosperous community that I lived in. There were broken homes and there was a good deal of brutality. My family was actually quite unusual. My parents and my brother and I lived with my mother's parents. We had a multigenerational farmhouse, and we were more of a stable family.
I went to school with these other girls who were often victimized. Their fathers may have been drinking or they may have been ill, or they abandoned the family. There was a lot of poverty. Norma Jeane Baker is one of those girls. She was in many foster homes but she was not an orphan because her mother was alive, it's just that her mother couldn't take care of her.
Katy Waldman: I was thinking about Marilyn Monroe, and about Hannah, the rich, elegant blonde at the heart of Babysitter, your most recent novel. Some of your most iconic creations have been seemingly pure blonde women who may be despoiled. The depictions are so evocative, it seems like it must have some special fascination for you.
Joyce Carol Oates: Well, it's hard to say. I'm probably drawn to writing about relative underdogs, so people who've been marginalized, or impoverished, or disenfranchised. They don't necessarily have to be blonde girls or women. They could also be men. I mean, I've written about boxing. These are like working-class Americans who had no unions to protect them. Basically, I'm interested-- I think, predominantly, there might be a theme where I'm interested in marginalized people who've been exploited by the establishment.
I was probably drawn to writing about Marilyn Monroe because she did exemplify the kind of person who was a victim, who really didn't have any protection. She was like a girl in a fairy tale, like the bigamy, and she had to make her own way. She was working in a factory when she was only about 16. She was doing the kind of work where she was breathing in fumes.
I guess the point I'm making is that Norma Jeane Baker, had she not become a starlet, and then Marilyn Monroe, she would have been used up by the world of capitalism. That's probably what I'm drawn to more than there being a blonde woman.
Male Speaker: "Everything's all right. Norma Jeane, what were you thinking of?"
Norma Jeane: "I wasn't thinking. Maybe I was remembering."
Katy Waldman: How did the film come about?
Joyce Carol Oates: Well, Andrew Dominic wrote a screenplay which he sent to me a long time ago. I was very impressed with that because he had distilled about 800 pages down into a two-hour movie.
Katy Waldman: Were you pleased with how it turned out?
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes, it's a work of art. Andrew Dominic is a very idiosyncratic director. He appropriated the subject and made it into his own vision. It's extremely emotionally exhausting. It's not a feel-good movie. It's not at all like most movies about Marilyn Monroe are kind of upbeat. This one, really, is probably what she was actually experiencing. I did have to stop watching and then go away for a couple of hours and then come back. It's very demanding of the viewer. The last quarter of it perhaps is very hallucinatory as Marilyn Monroe at this point is addicted to barbiturates.
Norma Jeane Baker: Please come. Please come back to me. Please.
Male Speaker: He's coming.
Norma Jeane Baker: Please come.
Male Speaker: He's coming.
Norma Jeane Baker: Towards back to me.
Male Speaker: She's coming. She's almost here.
Joyce Carol Oates: That's quite astonishingly vivid and realistic. You feel that you're losing your own mind. I think it's a movie not for the faint of heart. The real things that happened to Marilyn Monroe are much worse than anything in this movie. Does a superb job of acting under the armrest she becomes Marilyn Monroe. I mean, some actors are really like chameleons, though just-- [crosstalk]
Katy Waldman: Norma Jeane Baker was a chameleon too. I guess there was no Marilyn Monroe.
Joyce Carol Oates: That's right.
Katy Waldman: Was sort of a performance.
Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, that's true.
David Remnick: That's just a bit of Katy Waldman's conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. You can read the entire interview at newyorker.com.
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