Abraham Lincoln, Arthur Miller, Canada, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn's Mindset, Mark Twain, Norma Jeane's Wishes In Time, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Science Fiction, Stuart P. Coates, Time Travel, Whispers Across Time
An interview with Stuart P. Coates, the Canadian author of three science fiction novels (two of which feature a time-travelling Marilyn Monroe.)
Hi Stuart, and welcome. Can you tell us something about yourself, and your writing?
I was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, November 11, 1961. I grew up in the Eastern Townships, which is approximately 160 kilometres East of Montreal.
I was educated here in the Townships and acquired two degrees — the first was a Bachelor of Science having majored in Mathematics with a Minor in Computer Science, the second degree was a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Economics two years later.
I read a lot of American, British and World history while acquiring that second degree. While pursuing that second degree, I also chose all of my complementary courses within the field of English Literature — where I read a lot of British, American and Canadian works of fiction.
In 1990, I moved to Ottawa, Ontario, the capital city of Canada and I started my career as a software engineer working for Lockheed Martin for the first 4 years, then as a consultant for Prior Data Sciences for the next 2 years, and for General Dynamics Canada from March 1996 until May of 2009.
General Dynamics Canada went through a series of massive layoffs in 2009-2010. I was tired of that career at that point. I was tired of the company politics that often goes hand in hand with software engineering projects.
I had some choices to make. Hard choices, as Ottawa had been my home for nearly 20 years, but I decided to move back closer to my own family, back to where I grew up to pursue an entirely different career.
I wanted to contribute something that I could call my own, as the software engineer never retains ownership of whatever he or she produces, so I decided to make a permanent career switch to becoming a full-time science-fiction writer.
I wanted to do something more meaningful, lasting and creative. As a then hobby, I had my first novel, Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time, published in 2008.
In May of 2009, when I was laid off, I was about halfway through completing my second novel, Marilyn’s Mindset.
Marilyn’s Mindset is the sequel novel to Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time. I completed it and published Marilyn’s Mindset in 2010. In 2012, I completed and published my third novel Whispers Across Time and I am currently finishing my fourth novel, Pyramid.
Marilyn’s Mindset is the second book in a series. Why did you choose Marilyn Monroe as a protagonist in your novels?
As an aside, the reason I chose the title of my first novel to include her real name was because I wanted to dedicate it to the real person Norma Jeane Baker, not the Hollywood personality Marilyn Monroe.
My first novel, Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time, is divided into four sections called Wishes — ‘Norma Jeane’s First Wish’, ‘Norma Jeane’s Second Wish’, and so on.
The novel has its origins in a short story called ‘Norma Jeane’s Wish’. It was a 40 page short story that I wrote in 2006 in honour of Marilyn Monroe’s 80th birthday.
I originally posted it to various online Marilyn Monroe Fan Clubs. I have studied Marilyn Monroe’s life since reading Norman Mailer’s Marilyn in the summer of 1977 and was a member of several of her online fanclubs. One of these clubs, Forever Marilyn, had a contest and each one of its members was allowed to submit whatever they wished to honour Marilyn’s 80th birthday.
Arthur Miller, Marilyn’s third husband, had originally written the play The Misfits as a gift to honour her. He created a fictional work and wrote her into one of his plays by creating the character Roslyn. I decided to do something similar, with one added twist. Everything else, other than Miller’s play that had been written about Monroe, up to that point had been biographical.
For a long while, I had a time travel story in the back of my mind. I decided to insert a Marilyn Monroe character into it as a real-life fictional character. The premise behind the story was — sometime in the future, the world would be faced with the ultimate final nuclear holocaust, eliminating all life on the planet.
If one were able to time travel in the future, a time traveller from that time may be able to travel back into the past, with the intention of changing a prominent life in the past, such that the future would be changed in a significant enough way so that the nuclear holocaust would never occur.
The initial plot behind Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time actually had the time traveller altering the past by stopping the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
However, the time traveller would overshoot his intended destination of 1963 and land in the year 1960, three years before the assassination would take place. It was here, in 1960 where he coincidently lands in the Nevada Desert at the timing of the filming of The Misfits.
There, he befriends Monroe, realizing that she knew Jack Kennedy and that he would try to get to the president to warn him of his future assassination through Marilyn. He tells Monroe of President Kennedy’s future assassination and of every other significant event leading up to World War III in the year 2080, the year where he came from.
She, of course, believes him to be completely insane and that he is possibly out to kill Kennedy, who is not yet president. It is June 1960 and Kennedy will not be elected president until November of that year. She tries to stop him from reaching Kennedy.
In so doing, she sets in motion a series of events that accidentally places her and the time traveller on board the time machine (a Time Bubble) along with the time traveller, sending them hurling out of control back into the past, back to the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and then sling-shooting into the far future, even beyond the time traveller’s time, to the year 2378.
If Marilyn Monroe goes missing in 1960, this would alter this future and this particular, beautiful renewal of the earth. The time traveller is stuck in the year 2378 and Marilyn returned to the year 1960. So ended the short story that I wrote called ‘Norma Jeane’s Wish’.
I then did a series of sequel short stories called The Second Wish, The Third Wish, and The Fourth Wish. Finally, I tied all four together, added more background and plot materials in each – for example, the first five chapters in the book surrounding the events in 2080 before the time travelling occurs did not exist in the original short story, where he simply stumbles upon the movie set half-dead from walking through the desert – and combined all four into a single novel, my first published novel, Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time.
The transition between the Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time story and the Marilyn’s Mindset story is the epilogue of the first book.
By the end of the first novel, both Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy have learned of their early demises and have taken appropriate measures in their lives by making significant changes in them to avert their early deaths.
I had initially envisioned a trilogy after my first novel was published and the epilogue to that first novel certainly established enough material to write a trilogy, but I decided in the end to write a double length novel and complete the story at the end of the second book.
Marilyn’s Mindset is a mother-daughter story. The story skips ahead 11 years from its opening and over those 11 years the relationship between mother and daughter has steadily deteriorated.
In this sequel novel, it is 19-year-old Jennie who does the time travelling into the past in an effort to change the present. She enlists her future mother’s help, by travelling back in time to 1954 New York, during the filming of The Seven Year Itch, and Jennie must convince Marilyn that she is indeed her future daughter.
Jennie runs the risk of unravelling everything that has happened in the first novel by creating a paradox in time, but it is a risk she is willing to take, considering the circumstances that presently exist within her family and the loss of her friends 11 years earlier.
What interests you about time travel?
I use time travel in my first three novels to create situations to change a particular, unwanted future. In the first two novels, Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker is the main character, but she was not fictitious, and she was a person who lived at a particular time in history. The only way to bring her into a fictional story beyond the limits of her lifetime June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962, is literally to put her in a time travel adventure.
Given the particular circumstances of her early death, and particular traits of her personality that were destructive in nature, this sets up some interesting possibilities within those stories.
In a previous question in this interview, I was asked why I’ve made her the protagonist of my novels. The interesting thing is, about Marilyn Monroe in particular, although she may be the protagonist of my first two novels, if you closely examine her character in those stories, she is her own antagonist in many ways.
Her character is constantly fighting against her own fate in history. The time travel element allows this conflict to be addressed and resolved, altering her particular fate in history, and it also allows her to grow as a character through the experience. This was something she wasn’t permitted in her own life, because time travel in reality is not possible.
Actually, none of us can escape from our own fate or destiny. We may make minor corrections along the way to our life, but the overall larger pattern is pretty much in place, solidified and cannot be altered to any great extent. That is simply my own belief and it is based on my own experience in my own life.
Will time travel be possible? Who knows? Two hundred years ago man taking flight other than in a balloon was impossible. I would think that the energies involved required for one to travel through time would be so immense that mankind would probably turn it into some sort of weapon, as was the case with the initial splitting of the atom in 1945.
I would submit that the very nature of man would have to change first, before we could harness such energies that would be required to break a time barrier. It will be possible to time travel in the future only if we don’t blow ourselves up in the process of advancing our technologies to that point.
Which books or authors do you admire, and have they influenced your own writing?
Two authors immediately come to mind — Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury wrote exclusively within the genre of science fiction, although some may classify his works as fantasies.
From Mark Twain, I think the best advice he ever gave for someone wanting to become a writer, a good writer, was to write from your own personal experience. That means, don’t try to copy or mimic another writer’s style or form. Rather, concentrate on forming your own. I am in full agreement with that advice.
At present, I am working on my fourth novel. My very first novel was barbaric in comparison to what I am writing now. I have evolved as a writer because I refused to copy another writer’s style or technique.
Mind you, that isn’t to say you can’t learn something from other writers — and that’s where Ray Bradbury comes into the picture. From him, I’ve learned the technique of how to get around a mental block in writing. When you do hit that wall — and you will — it is an absolute certainty, no matter how creative you are, you will hit that wall at one time or another.
What you simply should do is open up Microsoft Word, with a blank page in front of you, and start writing little snippets of dialogue for each character — even if the character has no name yet. In other words, Character A said so-and-so… Character B said so-and-so… Character C said so-and-so, and so on.
Now, for my own little bit of advice to all writers — for God’s sake in Heaven, sketch out a complete outline, before you even write one word of your short story or novel! Make sure you have as much detail as possible in each of the sections of that outline. Once you’ve done all that, then you can start your book, or short story, or essay, or poem — yes it applies the poetry as well. But don’t you dare start writing without a fully developed outline.
Also, read other people’s works, but don’t try to copy their style. Try to develop your own.
What inspired you to feature other historic figures alongside Marilyn?
Finally a fun question.
This wasn’t so tough. Anyone who knows anything about Marilyn Monroe knows she had an explosive personality. So all I had to do was think mean. She needed conflict in the story from other characters.
Now, I admit I was initially nice to her character in the novel, but that gets boring awfully fast! What did I mean by initially nice? Look into the background of Marilyn Monroe and you will find that her greatest hero in all of history was Abraham Lincoln.
The Marilyn character had already been rescued from her own demise. She was rewarded. This is a time travel story and she was rewarded by being allowed to visit her hero in history. All of time is open in a time travel story — past, present and future. She was in a time machine after all.
Travel one century backwards — exactly 100 years — and you arrive at August 5, 1862. Who was president of the United States on August 5, 1862? Abraham Lincoln. Isn’t that convenient! And he is alive in 1862. He was not assassinated until 1865.
Let’s just take a little look at 1865 from another angle. Alright, we’ve given her a figure in history I’m sure she very much would like to meet in person, if given a chance, and she was. Next step — now I needed to find somebody who was going to create some sort of conflict, just to make the story more interesting for her and for you, the reader.
His mind was quick. He had a sarcastic wit. He also needed to be a well-known figure in history, so the reader could easily relate to him. Does the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens mean anything to you? Of course I’m talking about Mark Twain.
As a political correspondent, I am sure he travelled to Washington DC on occasion. So let’s let Marilyn Monroe meet Mark Twain — or rather a future Mark Twain, still going by the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens — aboard that steam train that she has to catch up with to find her own great-grandmother, who is then only eight years old, and she’s been given some very bad information that could rewrite Marilyn’s entire family tree, if she were to somehow remember the name Marilyn and decide to name her daughter several years later Marilyn instead of Della Mae.
So now you have all the pieces in play and the characters in place for a really good story, because now you have a character in the story that is going to create a lot of conflict for Marilyn, a lot of humour for the reader.
How do you approach writing about different eras, and creating fictional characters and plots?
That all depends on the story. With time travel stories, you have to pick out the era or eras that will be involved; and then use Wikipedia or perhaps just do Internet searches using Google for the particular year and regions of the world that you want to use in your story.
In other words, just use a bit of common sense and a whole lot of research. This is not the 1950s. You don’t have to camp out inside a library. All the information you need is on the Internet. Google becomes your best friend. Do your searches. Do your research.
Learn whatever you need for background material and then, at least as far as fiction is concerned, or for that matter plain fiction, manipulate your research material to whatever form that you need to suit the story you are writing. This is why I like the flexibility of writing fictional stories, because the writer is not restricted. He or she is only limited by their own imaginations.
Please describe your daily writing routine.
First of all, I write daily and I try not to get hung up on word count. Whatever is good for that day, is good for that day! Typically, I try to write at least one page which amounts to about 300 words per day. That’s a bare minimum. Usually, I average between 2000 to 3000 words per day.
I have been known to write 15,000 words in one day. That was under an exceptional circumstance when I ended up entering a three day novel contest, whereby you literally had 72 hours to produce a minimum of 120 pages novelette. I actually did it. I produced 123 pages in a 72 hour period. And I slept for a grand total of 3 hours over those 3 days.
Now, one must understand the quality of that writing was not up to my usual standard. However, that was a unique, one time event, just to see if I could do it. It cost me $50 for the entrance fee to find out.
Also, I haven’t mentioned this to you anywhere in this interview, but when I write, I don’t actually write, I dictate. I have a special tool called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. It is a piece of software that allows me to control my entire computer, not just write documents, all by voice.
The typical typist in the world can typically take approximately 80 words per minute. The typical, average human being can usually speak at anywhere between 100 to 120 words per minute. I challenge any typist in the world to keep up with me while I’m using this tool.
The last book I actually typed was Marilyn’s Mindset. I have a physical disability called cerebral palsy that affects three of my four limbs. I can only use a computer keyboard with my left hand.
Remember, I was a software engineer for over 20 years and all that coding that I did — amounting to approximately 1,000,000 lines of code over those years I did with just one hand. Add to that the fact that I’ve done a lot of writing since 2006 and you can see why I was having trouble with my wrist. It was becoming sore. It could’ve been corporal tunnel; a condition that left unchecked will eventually cause one to lose strength and flexibility in their hands.
After I finished that second book, Marilyn’s Mindset, as I said, my wrist was getting sore. So I went out and found a piece of software to solve my problem and you are literally looking at the results right now. I don’t write, I dictate. Everything I do on the computer is all by voice.
There’s my routine. My routine is probably quite different from other writers. I will say this much — once you practice with the tool for a couple of months, you will never go back to using the keyboard ever again. It is as archaic as writing using a pad and pencil.
I can tell you a little more about my routines. I rarely write in the morning. I usually think about what I want to write about in the morning and then write it in the late afternoon or in the evening or late at night. I’m typically like Bruce Wayne/Batman. I work and think best at night.
Some of my very best writing in Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time, Marilyn’s Mindset, Whispers Across Time, and in my latest novel that I’m working on, Pyramid, has been done in the late evening or late night.
How does your third novel, Whispers Across Time, compare to the previous two books?
I don’t really understand this question very well. Every new book an author writes is different from the previous books he or she may have written. I’m assuming you’re referring to the time travel element of each of the three books. Whispers Across Time is different from Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time and Marilyn’s Mindset in how I approach the means of time travel.
In the two novels involving Marilyn Monroe, a machine is used called a Time Bubble. In Whispers Across Time, time travel occurs after two people are struck simultaneously by lightning, standing in the same spot, but 101 years apart from each other.
As freakish as that may sound, here’s the real kicker for you — it is actually the same electrical storm that interconnects both periods in time. Both the Tiffany Nichols character and the Kate Dixon character become ghosts and are interchanged, such that each wakes up in the other’s body, but one of them is still dead and still in her ghostly form.
No machinery involved here. This is a ghost story. It takes place in the years 2011 and 1910 to 1911 and it involves The Titanic. Unlike my first two books, I’m not using real people in the fictional plot or setting for this third book, Whispers Across Time.
I may not be the most well-known author in history, but I will guarantee you that my writing is original — each and every time I start a new book, I start from scratch.
All my materials are original — even for me, especially for me. That’s how I stay fresh as a writer and that’s what has kept me going in the game this long. Every story has to be different. Every story has to be completely new. Or it just isn’t worth it.
What are you writing now, and do you have any future plans?
I am nearing the end of completing my fourth novel, with the tentative title of Pyramid. I’m not at liberty to discuss its contents because I have yet to complete it, and I need to have a copyright put on it to protect it after I make the final corrections to it.
Pyramid is about to enter the proofreading phase of development. I have an excellent proof-reader. She is an avid reader and her tastes are eclectic. She is also a very honest friend, who will tell me the truth as to whether or not the book is worth publishing. I am very fortunate to know her and to having her critique my work.
Wish me luck, as the next phase will involve finding a publisher.
Which aspects of being an author do you find most challenging?
The aspect I find most difficult about being a writer is finding sustainable, lasting meaning in what I am doing.
With the very first book I wrote, Norma Jeane’s Wishes in Time, the initial challenge, for me, was to simply get a book into print that honoured Marilyn Monroe.
At that point in time, it was 2008. I had a full-time job, with a steady paycheck. I was even fortunate enough, the year before, to travel to Los Angeles and speak as a guest speaker at her 45th Memorial.
I made my first trip to California in 2004. I travel to LA a total of nine times, each time to visit the resting place of Miss Monroe. The very last trip to Los Angeles I made in November 2009. I stayed in Los Angeles for a week, longer than I ever had before. There was a reason for that. I knew it was my last trip to visit Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles.
Marilyn Monroe, however, was not the exclusive and only reason I enjoyed travelling to Los Angeles so much. It was the climate. I don’t function well in winter weather. I live in Canada, at about the same latitude as Siberia — a place where the Russians used to send prisoners to punish them. I find this climate very punishing on my body. Next month, I will be 51 years old, but I feel more like 81.
My life has not been an easy one. I didn’t walk till I was eight years old. I was told when I was six years old that I would never walk. I walked. In 1984, I ran in the Montreal marathon, on my own, without the aid of crutches. I ran in several 10 kilometre and half marathons in my early 20s — up until I was 27.
Damage in both knee joints — cartilage damage — has forced me to walk with a cane on wheels since about the year 2000. I refuse to be confined to a wheelchair.
When I was laid off in 2009, I had to give up my home, Ottawa, of some nearly 20 years and returned to a French Quebec. During my time in Ottawa, I spoke French a grand total of four times. I have lost my facility with that language. The French language is complete gibberish to my ear now.
During those 20 years I was in Ottawa, Quebec and its society has turned completely French and they ignore the few English who remain in this province, passing language laws, literally having a language police, they control our educational systems.
All signs within this province are unilingual and French only. English has been erased from all signs. Gradually, the English population is aging and being erased from existence here in this province. It’s almost like a separate country, separated much like the Soviet Union was from the remainder of the world. This Quebec that I live in now is not the same Quebec that I lived in over 20 years ago.
I’ve had my opportunity in life. It was an unremarkable career, in many ways. But at least I was able to operate in my own language and had a lot more freedom to express myself in that language. Here, those freedoms are gradually being eroded and removed. They practically don’t exist now.
As I said earlier, I had some hard choices to make. It was actually very little choice at all. It was for economic reasons that I decided to ultimately return back to Quebec, because it is cheaper here to live than in Ottawa, Ontario.
I kept my private life separated from my professional life while I was in Ottawa. When I lost my job, there was no one else up there in Ottawa that I knew. So I came back here, where I could be closer to my family. I still live independently. I pay rent on my own apartment, as I did in Ottawa.
I live with a disability pension — which only allows for a very meagre existence. After I pay for utilities, rent, telephone and Internet, I live on $270 per month, or $9 per day. I may make through royalties no more than $20 per month on top of that, so I’m not exactly living high. It’s everything I can do to just maintain my independence and maintain this apartment so that I will not become a burden to my own family.
The winters here are damp, wet, hard in my joints and very cold in February especially. Snow is my worst enemy. My mobility is extremely restricted during the winter months of November through April.
I moved back from Ottawa because there was nothing there for me. Other than a handful of perhaps three or four friends and two family members who are still alive here, there is nothing else for me in this province.
So, to properly answer your question, in all truth and all honesty, the aspects that I find most challenging about being an author, an English author, in a completely Francophone province, where I feel there is about 300 miles worth of insulation and barrier between me and the outside world which is English Canada and America, the biggest challenge here is — survival.
The only hope I have of improving my life is that if I become well-known as a writer. I am using my existing skill set — my knowledge of computers and my ability to write in English to produce something, to make my life count for something, and to keep my brain active, but it is not lucrative, not by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever.
Very few Canadian writers are even noticed. I would probably have a better chance with a lottery ticket than being able to become recognized as a writer in Canada. And that part of Canada that I’m talking about is English Canada. The possibility of being recognized as an English Canadian writer, in a French province? All the more remote.
Thinking back about how certain writers ended up in their lives — Edgar Allen Poe committed suicide, Charles Dickens died while writing his last novel, Mark Twain went bankrupt at the very end of his life and lost practically everything.
I am much like Twain, Samuel Clemens at the end of his life. I have lost everything, but I continue. Why? Sometimes, I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s just not in my nature to quit. Marilyn Monroe may have committed suicide, but I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to travel down that same path. So I continue — sometimes day-to-day, sometimes minute to minute, but I continue.