Joyce Carol Oates is a novelist well-known for tackling large, controversial, uniquely American subjects.
Her novel them, winner of the 1970 National Book Award, culminated in a depiction of the Detroit race riots of 1967; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990) dramatized an interracial teenage romance; and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Black Water (1992) offered a fictional rendition of the Chappaquiddick incident, from the viewpoint of the drowning young woman. Oates's short, grisly 1995 novel, Zombie, suggested by the Jeffrey Dahmer case, explored the psyche of a serial killer in all-too-convincing detail.
Now Oates has produced her longest novel to date, a 738-page epic based on the brief, dazzling life of Norma Jeane Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe. From her home in Princeton, N.J., Oates clarified her aims and ambitions in writing Blonde (Ecco/ HarperCollins, 2000), a novel perhaps destined to become the most controversial of her career.
What was the genesis of Blonde? What prompted you to choose Marilyn Monroe as the focus of a novel?
Oates: Some years ago I happened to see a photograph of the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Baker. With her longish dark curly hair, artificial flowers on her head, locket around her neck, she looked nothing like the iconic "Marilyn Monroe." I felt an immediate sense of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes. For days I felt an almost rapturous sense of excitement, that I might give life to this lost, lone girl, whom the iconic consumer-product "Marilyn Monroe" would soon overwhelm and obliterate. I saw her story as mythical, archetypal; it would end when she loses her baptismal name Norma Jeane, and takes on the studio name "Marilyn Monroe." She would also have to bleach her brown hair to platinum blonde, endure some facial surgery, and dress provocatively. I'd planned a 175-page novella, and the last line would have been "Marilyn Monroe." The mode of storytelling would have been fairytale-like, as poetic as I could make appropriate.
Obviously, you've produced a long novel, not a novella. What happened?
Oates: In the writing, characteristically, the "novella" acquired a deeper, more urgent and epic life, and grew into a full-length novel. "What happened" is what usually happens in these cases. Blonde has several styles, but the predominant is that of psychological realism rather than the fairytale/surreal mode. The novel is a posthumous narration by the subject.
After I abandoned the novella form, I created an "epic" form to accommodate the complexities of the life. It was my intention to create a female portrait as emblematic of her time and place as Emma Bovary was of hers. (Of course, Norma Jeane is actually...