Ten To One is a new series in which I’ll be interviewing writers I admire. First up is David Marshall, author of The DD Group, an investigation into the death of Marilyn Monroe, and Life Among The Cannibals, which imagines how Marilyn’s life might have progressed had she survived beyond 1962.
Hello David, welcome. Can you tell me a little about your life and work?
DM: For starters I’m one of those who is old enough to clearly remember Marilyn Monroe as a very much alive celebrity as well as the pure shock when the news came that she had passed away. I grew up in Los Angeles and I think that probably has something to do with the fact that I have always been interested in film. I worked for 20th Century-Fox for a brief period before I moved to Northern California to finish college and have lived in San Francisco since the Seventies. I was an art major in college with a minor in writing. Somewhere along the line the art fell to the wayside and my main preoccupation has become writing. That’s where my heart truly lies.
Why does Marilyn Monroe inspire you, and what do you think is the secret of her enduring appeal?
DM: This is a question most every Monroe fan has to give thought to at some point. There’s her stunning beauty of course – I think that’s always been the starting off point for everyone. A face like that catches your attention – be it in still photography or the first time you see her in a movie. It’s very true that it is nearly impossible to notice anything else once she’s on the screen. But the inspiration and the continuous hold, that comes from reading about her life and starting to get an idea of the type of person she was, her actual character beyond the physical attraction. Unfortunately, even today, so very many people get stuck at the physical and haven’t any idea of the woman behind the famous face. Mention Monroe as a role model and most people will look at you as if you had a screw loose. But hers is a story of an incredibly strong will overcoming exceptional obstacles – and not only persevering but reaching the very pinnacle of her profession. Add in basic human kindness, compassion and empathy, an insatiable curiosity, and quest for self-improvement, and you’ll just start to understand why this woman should be held up for emulation. Of course she was also very human and far from a saint. Yet there is always the feeling that even at her worse moments, at her core she had a kind heart and reached out to the disenfranchised. Her continuing appeal, even for those who know nothing of the person or her life story, I think, comes from the simple fact that she is incredibly fun. You can’t help but smile when seeing her image. Even though you are looking at a movie that is over fifty years old, the appeal is timeless and she somehow seems contemporary. Fun, beautiful, and timeless. But that’s just scratching at the very surface of her appeal.
What inspired the title of your new book, ‘Life Among The Cannibals’?
DM: Although I am writing about Marilyn’s life post-1962, I think the title pretty much applies to every phase of her story. She discussed the feeling in the Meryman interview, that somehow being famous gives people the idea that they have a right to take a chunk out of you. She was referring to the concept of fame and her experiences of it, how the very idea of fame somehow makes people treat the celebrity as a thing, an object to be consumed. When I read the interview that was the image I came away with – the near cannibalism all of us are guilty of, the way we gleefully devour celebrities, eagerly ingesting every crumb we can get our hands on. Got me to wondering just what that life must be like for the celebrity, what life among the cannibals must be like.
In ‘Cannibals’, you imagine how Marilyn Monroe’s life might have progressed had she survived to old age. What made you decide to tackle this subject and how did your idea develop?
DM: I guess this was an idea that I’ve toyed with for a long time, as most fans have. In part it comes from a deep connection I feel with Marilyn. I know it sounds ridiculous but I think most fans have had the feeling, that somehow Marilyn, in their hearts, has gone from a famous movie star to more like someone they actually know in their day to day life. A friend. And when a friend dies, especially someone with such potential, there’s always that What If thing going on – what if she had lived, what would her life had been like? The book is my own “shoulda/coulda.” What Marilyn’s life could have been like, what it should have been like had she not overdosed. One thing though I was certain of, I wanted the work to be realistic. There is no grand revenge played out. She does not become president or a superhero. What I have attempted to do here is to present a very realistic look at what might have been. The world went on after Marilyn’s death. Movies were made. Political changes occurred. History went right on without her. But had she lived, how would she have fared as the summer of love evolved, what would her reaction have been to see people she knew assassinated and the world of 1962 evolved to the world of 2001? What film roles would she take on, which would she want but lose? Everything in the book, (with the exception of two friends I have created for her), did take place. The movies she appears in were real and the roles would have been age appropriate for her. This isn’t how Marilyn’s survival changes history, but simply how she herself would have experienced things that happened after she left us. Like any actress she would have been in a few dogs. Her life would have highs and lows. It’s simply the biography of a celebrity who had a career that stretched from the Fifties and on into the 21st century. The book developed pretty much by researching and studying the years since 1962 and how Marilyn Monroe would have fit into the events of the last part of the 20th century. And as I worked, I tried hard to keep my focus on the Marilyn Monroe that I had come to feel I knew – the woman as well as the actress. Hopefully the result will ring true to those who know her work or have read biographies of her.
How did your experience of writing ‘Life Among The Cannibals’ compare to your previous book about Monroe, ‘The DD Group’?
DM: It was a very different process although I have to admit that working on a book about the circumstances surrounding her death did make me think of what may have happened had her death taken place long after the summer of 1962. I imagine that spending so much time researching her death made me want to write about her survival. The difference though is the fact that ‘The DD Group’ was very much a collaborative effort. ‘The DD Group’ is basically the sharing of a year long, very intense, discussion among several individuals, each of which provided their unique opinions and individual research. ‘Life Among the Cannibals’ is the work of one person, one set of opinions and imagination. I am certain that there will be a great many people who will disagree with my idea of a post-1962 Marilyn and that’s how it should be. We all have our own ideas and opinions. ‘Life Among the Cannibals’ are mine. Another maybe not so obvious difference is that the first book is non-fiction and the second is not. Although written as if it is a straight forward biography, a work of non-fiction, ‘Cannibals’ is a work of the imagination. To be honest, I think I enjoyed working on ‘Cannibals’ even more than ‘DD’ if only that it allowed me to create a pretend world, to have fun with it even when writing of serious situations. There were more than a few times though, I admit, when that pretend world seemed very real to me and I would lose track of the idea that Marilyn really did die all those years ago.
What aspect of ‘Cannibals’ are you most proud of, and why?
DM: I think the main thing I am proud of is the realism of the book. By that I mean the life I create is one of both ups and downs. Marilyn makes a few movies that are not all that great. Her problems do not magically disappear, her relationships are not always smooth sailing. I could have written something where she goes on to one triumph after another but that isn’t reality, that’s just wishful thinking – and not a very interesting read after awhile. I’m also proud, (and this is my opinion, of course), that I was able to keep true to Marilyn’s character. Even as one ages, one’s core values will remain the same. I would like to think that the experiences my Marilyn encounters in say 1990 and her reactions to them would be in character with the woman we know prior to 1962. She retains her empathy for her fellow man, her basic goodness at heart. So yes, I am proud of the book and the way I portray Marilyn as the world changes from 1962 to 2003.
Much of your book is set in San Francisco. What does that city mean to you?
DM: San Francisco is home for me. I’ve lived here now for over thirty years and the things I love about this city I am sure Marilyn would have appreciated as well. It is also a city of incredible history, a place where everyone from Fatty Arbuckle to Danielle Steel and Alan Ginsberg have left their mark. Somehow San Francisco seemed a logical spot for Marilyn to live out the second half of her story. It’s amazingly beautiful and has a much stronger sense of respect for its famous citizens than Los Angeles. I hadn’t set out planning on setting so much of the book here, that just came about logically as the story of her life unfolded. And it was a good fit, I think. Far enough removed form the unrelenting pressures of LA and yet close enough to be a part of the film industry. Besides, as I researched the years 1962 through 2003, there were so many things that happened in San Francisco that I wanted Marilyn to experience. She seems a natural for this wonderful town, sharing with it, I think, a great appreciation for diversity, political awareness, and compassion.
Has your perception of Marilyn changed at all since writing about her?
DM: I don’t think so, no. I admit that during the time I worked on ‘Cannibals’, and again when I read it after its release, I would lose track of reality and forget that her life did come to an end over forty years ago. But my appreciation of her as a person and my knowledge of those things she spoke out about during her lifetime, those things that interested her, I tried to make sure that all of that held true regardless if she were thirty-six or fifty-six.
What are your current writing projects and goals? Do you plan to feature Marilyn Monroe in any of your future works?
DM: After back to back books on Marilyn, I’m currently working on something new and believe it or not, it has nothing to do with her. Well, that’s not completely true. It’s based on the last month before my family moved to a new home in 1963. And a part of it has to do with the boy based on me having an imaginary friend who helped him get through a rough period – Marilyn Monroe. I can’t say that she won’t show up in things I do in the future but I think my work with Marilyn is at an end. But then, who knows?
Who or what inspires your writing, and how do you stay motivated?
DM: Good question. Tough question, but good. One of the things that inspires me is a love of history, particularly the later half of the 20th century. Could be because that was the period that formed and fascinated me even as it unfolded. My fascination with the year 1962 plays into it – I mean, all the cultural icons who were at the top of their game during that period – not only Marilyn but Garland, Sinatra, Fitzgerald, the Rat Pack boys with Jack Kennedy in the White House as a kind of icing on the popular culture of the period. I do find myself going back to that period whenever a story or a project is forming in my mind. So curiosity and a love of research is a very big part of those things that inspire me. The trick, as you know, is to stay inspired. There are so many projects that I’ve started and somewhere along the line lose interest. The human heart, compassion, emotions – all of that has to be present to keep me inspired. Human frailty as well as strength interests me and if I can work on a project where that comes through, the inspiration will hold. That’s probably one of the reasons that Marilyn has so inspired me – that vulnerability juxtaposed with amazing strength and perseverance. I believe that that is the reason she has inspired so very many artists – her incredible strength, her ability to just dive right back in no matter what the obstacles. All while retaining a sense of humanity and compassion. Now that’s inspirational, wouldn’t you say?
Definitely – and thanks for talking to me, David! It’s been a pleasure.