“I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”
I had some questions for Marilyn Monroe recently, but (as is often the case with the biggest stars) it was hard to get in touch with her to arrange an interview. So I found some old interviews and things she’d written and put my questions to some of her already-published, already-spoken material. - Sheila Heti
THE BELIEVER: Hello, Ms. Monroe. Thank you for coming! I thought maybe you’d forgotten…
MARILYN MONROE: [contrite] I am invariably late for appointments – sometimes as much as two hours. I’ve tried to change my ways but the things that make me late are too strong, and too pleasing.
BELIEVER: [laughing] Okay!
MM: [brightly] I just want to be wonderful!
BLVR: [laughing, charmed] Well, maybe that’s a good place to start. You say you want to be wonderful… what else do you want?
MM: [softly] It’s often just enough to be with someone. I don’t need to touch them. Not even talk. A feeling passes between you both. You’re not alone…
BLVR: [blushing] Please let me know if I get too personal, but, um, that feeling of aloneness… is that something you’ve felt your whole life?
MM: Until I was 11, the whole world was closed to me. I felt I was on the outside of the world. Then, suddenly, everything opened up. Even the girls paid a little attention to me because they thought, “Hmmm, she’s to be dealt with!” I had this long walk to school, two and a half miles there, two and a half miles back. It was just sheer pleasure. Every fellow honked his horn, you know, workers driving to work, waving, and I’d wave back. The world became friendly! All the newspaper boys, when they delivered the paper, would come around to where I lived and I used to hang from the limb of a tree, and I had sort of a sweatshirt on. I didn’t realise the value of a sweatshirt in those days, but then I was sort of beginning to catch on, but I couldn’t really afford sweaters. But here they came with their bicycles, you know, and I’d get these free papers and the family liked that, and they’d all pull their bicycles up around the tree and then I’d be hanging, looking kind of like a monkey, I guess. I was a little shy to come down. I did get down to the curb, kinda kicking the curb and kicking the leaves and talking, but mostly listening. Sometimes the family used to worry because I used to laugh so loud and so gay. I guess they felt it was hysterical. It was just this sudden freedom because I would ask the boys, “Can I ride your bike now?” and they’d say, “Sure.” Then I’d go zooming, laughing in the wind, riding down the block, laughing, and they’d all stand around and wait till I came back. But I loved the wind. It caressed me.
BLVR: Wow! That freedom you describe… I… I envy it. I think I could never be that free… amid all those men? I suppose I have never liked being looked at.
MM: It was kind of a double-edged thing. I did find when the world opened up that people took a lot for granted, like not only could they be friendly, but they could suddenly get overly friendly and expect an awful lot for very little.
BLVR: Yeah. I’m always afraid that if you’re overly free or friendly with people, they might come to expect things from you and want things. I guess that inhibits me. I would fear saying no to a man after appearing that free – that people might become angry, especially with a “no” from a beautiful woman, like you are. Haven’t you ever felt that way? I guess you don’t worry about violence?
MM: I don’t think people will turn against me, at least not by themselves. I like people. The “public” scares me, but people I trust.
BLVR: I don’t trust crowds or people! [laughter] Do you have any idea of how you came to trust people?
MM: I guess just I wanted love more than anything else in the world. A woman can’t be alone. She needs a man.
MM: A man and a woman support and strengthen each other. She just can’t do it by herself.
BLVR: But you had a huge career. Surely you could have supported yourself.
MM: A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.
BLVR: You’ve met and performed with some of the most interesting actors of your time. Was it wonderful, to be able to discuss things with them?
MM: I always thought that movie stars would be exciting and talented people, full of special personality. But meeting one of them at a party I’d usually discover that he or she was colorless and even frightened. I’ve often stood silent at a party for hours listening to my movie idols turn into dull and little people.
BLVR: Well, you’re certainly not dull. What would you say are your best qualities?
MM: A photographer once told me that my two best points are between my waist and my neck. [both are silent for a while] I used to get the feeling that I was fooling somebody – I don’t know who or what – maybe myself. I had that feeling on some days when there were scenes with a lot of responsibility, and I’d wish, Gee, if only I would have been a cleaning woman.
BLVR: You were married three times, so the opportunity was probably there – to be a so-called “housewife.” Could you talk a bit about your first marriage, at age 16, to Jim Dougherty?
MM: He kept me busy cleaning the house and fixing meals. Everybody told me that it would be quite a responsibility being a housewife, and boy did I find out! But Jimmy was swell to me, and I felt that if I had waited five or ten years, I couldn’t have found anyone who would have treated me better. I really thought the world of him and we got along so nicely. He was just so sweet about every little thing.
BLVR: Then why did the marriage end?
MM: I had too many fantasies to be a housewife.
BLVR: I’m getting the feeling that a beautiful, ambitious woman can’t easily be happy – or maybe just on some boy’s borrowed bike, when all of life is still potential. What is one to do?
MM: [shrugs] Relax and enjoy it.
BLVR: One last question, if you would. People often speculate on whether your death was a suicide or not. Can you speak to that? Is being dead a relief?
MM: It might be a kind of relief to be finished. But you have to start all over again.
From an interview with WIll Hermes, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever:
Q. One thing that, for me, was really striking about [the early 1970s] was that everything was happening underground, as you were saying, but also in the context of a total decline in living standards in New York City, economic decline, the city going bankrupt, the theme you keep going back to of buildings burning down for the insurance money, crime everywhere. What’s the relationship between this pretty grim atmosphere and the explosion of creative, wonderful music at the same time – is there even a connection?
Will Hermes: In some ways it’s a perfect storm of things. Part of the result of the economic collapse of the city during those years was cheap rent, and cheap rent in former manufacturing districts which meant loft spaces that were large enough to rehearse in and for lots of people to live in for very little rent. That was certainly one factor. I think another factor was that the ‘60s had happened, because while people sometimes look at punk or disco or whatever as being complete breaks with the ‘60s, I try to make the point in the book that these movements were direct offshoots of the ‘60s. The first disco parties that David Mancuso and Nicky Siano threw in the early to mid ‘70s were largely fueled by LSD, they were very specifically about peace, love, tolerance, equality. There were mixed crowds, gay, straight, black, white, which was very much coming out of a ‘60s aesthetic sensibility and ideology, although it evolved from there. Punk rock too – Patti Smith and Television, Tom Verlaine, talked about their indebtedness to ‘60s artists whether it be the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, or the Stones, who Patti and Lenny Kaye were championing and sort of bowing down to. Television were huge fans of Coltrane and Albert Ayler and even the Grateful Dead – Tom Verlaine has mentioned that he knew some songs, particularly “Dark Star,” and was very intrigued by that even though he wasn’t a fan of some of their other stuff.
So yes, I think it was part low rent, part the creative ferment of the ‘60s still fermenting, and the other factor is probably just New York – New York is always a magnet for talent and people coming from all over the world to get up on the New York City stage and make an impression, so I think that’s a constant theme of the city.
INTERVIEWER: All novelists seem to have at least one in the drawer that’s just garbage.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I have three. Until I started writing Midnight’s Children, which would probably have been about late ’75, early ’76, there was this period of flailing about. It was more than a technical problem. Until you know who you are you can’t write. Because my life had been jumbled up between India and England and Pakistan, I really didn’t have a good handle on myself. As a result the writing was garbage—sometimes clever garbage, but garbage nonetheless.
“That’s just a story we’re telling ourselves because we’re rich and bored from the Irish point of view, and that’s exactly how I would feel if I were Irish. At the same time do you really want to foreclose on the possibility that cultures might be transmitted across generations and that there might be something in tapping into that? I’ve been a passionate reader of Irish literature over my life, and I’d like to think that I read it more intensely because I felt as if I had some stock in it.”
If you haven’t read Pulphead yet, maybe this will convince you. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine. No, really, it is. I swear.*
ERIC BEEN on John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead
and a conversation with Sullivan by MICHAEL GOETZMAN.Collage Illustration © Lisa Jane Persky
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011. 369 pp.
In the swirl of commentary surrounding Pulphead, the essay collection by John Jeremiah Sullivan, nothing seems to come up more than the so-called New Journalism. Upon its release, for instance, the volume’s publisher claimed that Sullivan channels “the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion,” while Lev Grossman of Time magazine writes that he is “the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” And J.C. Gabel, in Bookforum, says Pulphead “calls to mind some of the best New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s.” Undoubtedly, Sullivan — a 37-year-old writer-at-large for GQ, a contributing editor for Harper’s, and the southern editor of The Paris Review — is an admirer of the ur-texts by the preeminent essayists of the movement. Like them in their best work, Sullivan proves to be a masterful handler of cultural confusion, approaching matters from oblique angles while eschewing boilerplate themes and orderly conclusions.
In his introduction to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism, Wolfe argues that the writers collected therein drew heavily from “the techniques of realism — particularly of the sort found in Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens and Gogol.” Sullivan’s work, however, isn’t a mere pastiche of his forebears. He’s not engrossed with social status like Wolfe, nor does he succumb to the cynical grandiloquence one often finds in Thompson’s journalistic transgressions. And unlike Didion, whose early nonfiction routinely stripped away façades to expose fraud, Sullivan works in the opposite direction, humanely revealing the complexity within subjects typically seen as neglected, overwrought, or insipid. Wolfe and his contemporaries, rather than illustrating, say, class hardships, chiefly addressed in their reportage newfangled phenomena and fringe subcultures with a mix of literary flair and a detached, ethnological eye.
What’s so fresh about Sullivan’s essayistic temperament, on the other hand, is that he runs his nonfictions through a Southern Gothic filter, emphasizing particularly the tragicomic side of the genre and its often overlooked compassion. Throughout the collection, his subjects — dehumanized outliers and the ineffable cultural artifact — are those with histories that adhere like kudzu weed. If there’s an ethos that frames the work, it’s at once an American sense of the grotesque and William Faulkner’s well-known adage from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
*I take all that back. You need to read this one, trust me.
“I had several jobs. I was a crazy person – I had a full-time job and a part-time job, so I was working about seventy hours a week. I was a part-time vocational counselor at Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the country. There were about twenty-two thousand people that lived there, and there was one social services agency that was dedicated to it. They had funding for one part-time vocational counselor, and that was me.
“I also ran a program called Siberian Intercultural Bridges, which was an alternative to the Peace Corps. They sent English teachers to Siberia, and I actually went myself for a month. I just went on idealist.org, found this job and applied. I was trying to find a job that would send me to Russia, and I found one, but it was the most bizarre job ever.
“So I was literally running this small nonprofit parallel to the impossible task of trying to get very poor, very down-and-out people into jobs. It was manic, and then I completely burned out. I went to grad school mostly to hide and read. Writing papers was amazing.”
From The Paris Review:
“The questions I wanted to answer with a ‘yes’ as I wrote were, Is this surprising? Does it make me laugh? Does it submit totally to the horny madness? Is it strange? I like strangeness. When something feels strange but doesn’t feel off-putting or unpleasant, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. So I was hoping for a certain amount of that. I thought the part where she ends up in the guy’s urethra was good and weird.”
From The Paris Review:
“My twenties weren’t terribly productive. I wasted a lot of time. I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline. I had a job doing technical writing, which was really consuming me. I wasn’t sleeping. So my wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written. I would get up at eight in the morning and write until seven at night.
“My wife was working two days a week, so I would take care of our daughter, Alice, on those days, and she took care of Alice on the other days. When you have a child, you get a surge of ambition, or a surge of hormonal urgency, to get something done, something worthy of your new station in life. I gave myself a new deadline: Finish the novel while you’re still thirty. Do something your child might be able to read when she grows up.
“My code name for the book was ‘Desperation.’”
“I was born in Brooklyn, but I never lived there. All my life, however, I’ve been regaled with stories of the glory that was pre-war Brooklyn, and since these tales seemed to have very little to do with my own experience of the place, the Brooklyn of that era has always appeared to me as something of an enchanted isle—a fiction, really. Setting a story there—not in the literal, geographical Brooklyn but in the one of memory, of romanticized recollection—is my way of visiting a place that I suspect never really existed.”