Last night Adam Braver was at Powell’s to read from his newest novel Misfit (which I reviewed here– shameless plug but people, readers aren’t that easy to come by). While it was not the mad crush of the Jenny Lawson event the week before it was, for me, better because it was an author thoughtfully discussing his work. Don’t get me wrong, Lawson is wildly entertaining but even she would admit she’s a heavily medicated blogger who happens to be funny, NOT a writer.
Braver began by giving a brief synopsis of the book for those who hadn’t read it yet. After reading a chapter of the book the floor was opened up to questions. I’m still a bit shy about all this and despite having prepared questions written down, could not seem to get my hand to move. Neither, it appeared, could anyone else so I jumped in with the first one and everyone got in on the act after that.
What was the inspiration for the novel? Why Marilyn? What started the book for you?
It’s sort of a two-sided question. One, what really started the book was a challenge. To just write a little bit about her. I’m not a Marilyn person so I had to learn a lot and I didn’t really know what I was going to write but as I started to write and do some research the story became very interesting to me. Particularly in the ways (I’m talking more thematically than narratively) in which she seemed to be able to be whoever people wanted her to be. And also in ways that worked for her as well. As I started to develop the story I started to realize, started to at least imagine, that she reached a point where it wasn’t what she wanted to be anymore but she was now this sort of creation that she couldn’t not be anymore.
It was interesting to me to research that she was this funny intersection of history. From the people we know DiMaggio and Arthur Miller but also connecting with the Freuds and the Kennedys. This whole moment of history, kind of almost a kind of Zelig character. Very interesting and interested me.
The Cal-Neva thing I sort of stumbled into because I was looking for something to have a center to the book. I didn’t want to do a birth to grave thing. I wanted one moment that would epitomize that. I had read that Cal Neva had this whole underground system of tunnels, that went mostly from Sinatra’s cabin to the showroom. As an image that seemed to make sense to me.
All those things were factoring in.
So much has been written about her- how did you narrow your sources for your research?
When I wrote my previous book about the Kennedy assassination I decided I only wanted first hand sources. That was my rule at first for this book as well but it didn’t pan out. I didn’t read any of the fiction. I didn’t read Blonde because I didn’t want to get influenced by it too much as I knew I would. I started off with basic biographies just to get a sense of the life because I realized there was so much I didn’t know. I read a lot of newspaper accounts, FBI reports, and just tried to get a sense of how people were perceiving her. I talked to a few people but I had a hard time interviewing people but many aren’t living anymore. Talked to the granddaughter of her regular stand-in who had a lot of family legend and lore but at least started to give me a framework to imagine in her head what was going because I could start to see the world that was being constructed around her, how other people saw her and were trying to make her and try to imagine what she would, what that might have felt like, especially as she was fairly simple .
Is there a lot of agreement about the way that people saw her? Did you find discrepancies?
Not really. There’s the clichés that we think everybody had like ‘the always drunk and the pills’, all this kind of stuff so there was that side of her then there was the tender side of her but even then they always still feel like movie versions, like different people’s movies of her. In the research I never found, (I guess this is why being a fiction writer helps in this case), that felt like a real person. They always felt like a character.
With all your research and your thinking about it do you think her overdoses were intentional or just sloppiness?
I’ll preface this by saying it’s very interesting that you can read all these accounts and none of them have any evidence behind it. Even the overdose at the Cal-Neva there are some people saying she was in bed with Sam Giancana, there’s always a story that has no supporting evidence to it. She just seemed to me like someone who self-medicated a lot to get away. She had tons of pills all the time. And she chased them with champagne. I don’t know, for the purposes of my Marilyn, I did not see her as someone who necessarily wanted to kill herself but someone who didn’t want to be where she was.
Given that there was limited time and books to be signed I didn’t ask anymore questions at the event but emailed Adam later that evening. He was kind enough to respond. I don’t know why but I am fascinated to know if writers read a lot and if so, what do they like to read. It’s becoming one of my favorite questions and a way to learn a bit more about the person in addition to their work.
By the time you finished the book, did you feel you knew Monroe better or that your research and personal voice had created another version of her?
I think a little bit of both. On the practical side, I just learned a lot more than I ever knew about her and her life. But as the “character” developed, I was connecting and empathizing with her quite a bit. It’s funny, in that I never felt as though I was creating my own version of her. It seemed as though the Marilyn that started to emerge, and was then reacting to the world around her, was a real Marilyn–maybe not the real Marilyn, but a real Marilyn. On some level, I suppose, once the emotional life became real, she felt like a human being to me, and the sadness and the rest of her interior became universal, and not so relegated to being Marilyn.
If you have time for reading- what do you like to read and what are you reading now?
I mostly read fiction, with the occasional nonfiction book. On the plane here I read the nonfiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which I found to be an interesting story. In terms of fiction, I really liked Dana Spiotta’s “Stone Arabia.” That one has stuck with me. I seem to have a lot of books going at once all the time. Sometimes they are books I feel like I need to read because they’re part of the larger conversation, sometimes they’re by friends, sometimes for teaching, and sometimes they just luckily end up in my hands.
Any plans for your next project?
I’m starting to research about a woman named Kay Summersby, who was Eisenhower’s driver during WWII. Not quite sure where it’s headed at this point, but there is something about her and her place in history that intrigues me.