Carl Rollyson is an impressively prolific writer. How does he do it? To find out, I asked him five questions (plus one bonus question) about Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, which comes out this June in an updated edition with a smashing new cover. Here are his answers.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress?
Carl: After completing my doctoral dissertation on William Faulkner in 1975, I wanted to begin work on the next generation of American writers. My dissertation had to do with Faulkner’s understanding of history, and I decided to deal with a writer who had similar concerns. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night intrigued me because of its two sections: The Novel as History, History as a Novel. So I began to read Mailer and discovered biography when I read his book about Marilyn Monroe. I say “discovered” because biography was never a subject of study in any of the schools I attended, and that remains the case today. Biography is not a permanent part of any curriculum I know of.
While Mailer’s biography of Monroe has been much maligned, it is, in fact, an important work not only about Monroe but about the genre of biography. I suddenly realized that I was not merely interested in history but in biography, in the way individual lives are interpreted. Mailer used one word to describe Monroe that no other biographer had used. He called her ambition “Napoleonic.” That was very astute. The more I read about her, the more I could see his point. She really did want to conquer the world and, in many ways, she has succeeded.
I put my argument for Mailer’s Marilyn in a new journal, Biography, which was just getting started in 1978. Then a former professor of mine, M. Thomas Inge, asked me to write a biobibliography for Greenwood Press. This was essentially a biographical essay with various commentaries on books about Monroe and how she has been presented in different media. So I spent the summer of 1980 reading the literature about Monroe. I realized that even the most important books about her, including Mailer’s, missed the most important part of her biography. She had this terrific desire to be an actress. Did she, in fact, become an actress, or just a star? I began as an actor, doing high school plays, community theater, and summer stock, and I felt I knew a great deal about acting. So I believed I was bringing something new to Monroe biography — and I still believe that.
No book that has been published since mine shows, as I believe I do, how she did become an actress and how that got translated onto the movie screen. To write the kind of book I wanted to do, though, I had to give up the Greenwood Press contract. My work no longer fit their format. And so began quite a long search (six years) to write the book and find a publisher.
HDYWT: How did you get started on the project?
Carl: The real start of the project occurred when I realized I was not content with summarizing and then commenting on what others had said about Monroe. I wanted to meet people who knew her. I was fortunate that I knew Bruce Minnix, director of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Bruce had told me long before I ever dreamed of writing about Monroe that he knew two of her friends. So I called on Bruce, who put me in touch with Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur and confidant, and Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who helped Monroe invent some of the more dramatic stories about her life. They, in turned, connected me with others, like Rupert Allan, Marilyn’s most important publicist. Just as important were my contacts with Maurice Zolotow and Fred Lawrence Guiles, two of Marilyn’s early and most important biographers. They were wonderful to me, sharing their insights, and providing me with still others to interview. Guiles let me visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart attack, and later he sent me a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s most important acting teacher. Zolotow became a friend, helping me on other projects, especially my biography of Lillian Hellman. And so I began my networking as a biographer.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Carl: I had no idea how to organize my research, let alone write a biography. Graduate school had been no help in that regard. As a literary scholar, I just studied and wrote about books. I had no experience interviewing people. I just did it as on the job training. I had to learn how to write narrative. The breakthrough moment came when Susan Strasberg read part of an early draft. I had interviewed her about her memories of Monroe and Actors Studio, and we got along very well — in part, I think, because she could see I was going to write about Marilyn as an actress in a way no one else had done before. I sent her an early draft of the book, and she said: “When you tell the story of her life and her acting you establish your voice. But then there is also this other stuff that sounds like a treatise. Who are you trying to impress — your colleagues?” That’s when I threw out about two thirds of the book and rewrote it as a narrative. As soon as I had my story, the organization of research fell into place. I had files, of course, that were chronological and thematic. But, in truth, I never worry much about organizing research. I determine what story I want to tell and then look for the details and dates that sustain the narrative. Now when someone asks me how I organize my research, my short answer is “I’m too busy to organize.”
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Carl: I used to write in the morning first thing — 500 to 1000 words a day, without fail. That would take about two or three hours of actual writing. Now in the social media age, I look at and post on Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes a few other sites. The afternoon is devoted to reading, which often ends up in a nap too. I never work at night. Night is for watching television.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Carl: Right now I’m finishing a biography of Walter Brennan. IMDb is invaluable for reviews, synopses, and other data about movies. I especially like to check the user reviews and sometimes even quote and refer to them because I have found visceral responses that don’t always get into the professional critics’ reviews. I do my work on an iPad, so I’m especially pleased when I can get ebook editions so that I can quickly go back and forth between books without having to pile up lots of stuff in my workspace. Wikipedia is very helpful. I realize that sometimes it is unreliable, but I don’t use it as a single source. I always check it against other sources. But Wikipedia is so readily available and convenient, I go to it all the time.
IMDb, by the way, is not always reliable either. The IMDb entry on Walter Brennan reports that when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Brennan cackled and did a jig on the set of his television series, The Guns of Will Sonnett. He did this according to crew members on the series. It is a shocking story and not like anything else I ever read about Brennan. He was a reactionary, but he was also a devout Roman Catholic and was born in Massachusetts to an Irish American family. Now that in itself does not mean, of course, that Walter Brennan did not do that cackle and jig. But he often spoke well of people he didn’t like after they died, so I was skeptical. Also, King was assassinated in April 1968 and Kennedy in June of that year. Did Brennan cackle and jig twice? The story seemed too pat. Well, with the help of the redoubtable Ned Comstock, an archivist at University of Southern California, I determined that The Guns of Will Sonnett was not in production in April 1968, and it did not resume production until the last week in June. I very much doubt Brennan did as IMDb reported, since the story is supposedly a report of his spontaneous reaction to the news of two assassinations.
Also on my iPad is an app for ZITE, a news aggregator. It breaks down the news into several categories, including books and biography. I get lots of leads checking ZITE every morning, and I sometimes post articles from ZITE on Facebook and Twitter, and I sometimes get valuable responses that lead me to do more research.
Bonus question: Why biography?
Carl: I would love to write a novel, but my talent does not seem to work that way. And I’m also on a mission not only to write biographies but to write about the history of the genre. I think Samuel Johnson is right about the importance of biography. It is at least as important as the novel, although very few critics seem to realize it. Biography, in my view, brings together everything: people, events, story-telling, criticism, and the actor’s joy in entering a role. To me, biography is a form of knowledge that is irreplaceable. That biography has virtually no place in academic life is a scandal as far as I’m concerned.
I review biographies because I also think the reviewing of biographies is appalling. Most of what you get are book reports just summarizing what the biographer discovered and those reviews are done in a tone that makes you think the reviewer is the authority. In most cases, the reviewer has no idea how to read, let alone write, a biography. And most reviewers don’t have the time or space to check the biographer’s sources, or measure one biography against another on the same subject. I’ve been fortunate to find publications that allow me to use my resources as a biographer. This was especially true at The New York Sun (which, alas, is no more) and at The Wall Street Journal, which, by the way, has a book review weekend section that is better than what you will find in The New York Times. Reading and writing biography requires a kind of energy and labor most critics are not equipped to exercise, and monetary compensation for such work is minimal. I try to provide an alternative way of reviewing biography in my collection of New York Sun reviews, entitled Reading Biography.