Book Talk: Life and times of Marilyn Monroe's dog

TOKYO Wed Dec 22, 2010 6:08am EST

TOKYO Dec 22 (Reuters Life!) - Maf, short for "Mafia Honey," is an opinionated, well-read, feisty Maltese terrier. Originally a present from Frank Sinatra, he belongs to Marilyn Monroe.

He is also the narrator of Booker nominee Andrew O'Hagan's latest book, "The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe," a romp through the United States in the early 1960s and the last two years of Monroe's life.

On the surface a broad departure from O'Hagan's earlier work, on things such as growing up working-class and Catholic in Scotland, the book allowed him to pair a long Scottish tradition of animal tales with Monroe, who fascinated him from boyhood.

Maf perorates on literature, philosophy, and anything that takes his fancy. His world, peopled with cats that speak in elaborate poetic forms, bedbugs with mournful Russian souls and giddy Nabokovian butterflies, took O'Hagan years to create.

O'Hagan's obsession with authenticity nearly got him into trouble with police in California when they found him crouching down outside houses to see things from a dog's perspective. He spoke to Reuters about his latest work and being a novelist.

Q: Somehow the dog and Marilyn Monroe came together?

A: I've always been interested in bringing worlds together if I can. I think every writer is a synthesizer and if we're any good we try to bring things into coalition which are sometimes unexpected. This of course is much more stark. I mean, Marilyn Monroe -- jeez. Even I was surprised.

If you want to see contradictions, I'm talking about a great number, impacted in one woman. Someone who seems so beautiful, yet so exposed to ugliness; someone who seems so lucky, and yet so lacking in fortune. Someone who seems so alive yet so redolent of death. Someone who seems to some extent to be so happy and so optimistic, and yet is somehow almost secretly a repository of what's sad and what's pessimistic. She carries all those things into the public space in one person.

Part of the purpose of this book, to tell you the truth, was to try to rescue this person from the size of her iconography -- in a sense, to bring back the woman. And I thought that only a dog could look at her with affection and without, as it were, their own selfhood getting in the way. Marilyn once said men used her and women judged her, and only the dog loved her.

Q: Was this book easy or hard to write?

A: Oh my God, it was so hard, I can't tell you. The research was insane for a start. I'm a champion researcher in a sense that I'm almost unfazable. You can say to me, I want you to write a book about a guy canoeing across the Bering Strait in the year 1206. I would make it a matter of honour to be able to write a decent paragraph or two on that subject. But actually, joking aside, this involved the best part of ten years on and off. Obviously I wrote other books during that time and did other things, but that book was persistent.

I really had to do some primary research. I had to go to Hollywood, I had to look at all the houses. I had to look at the houses from a dog's point of view as well.

Q: How did you get personalities for all the animals?

A: I was so determined that the reader would have a real experience of magic with this book. I gave painstaking attention to each of these animals. I became kind of a... nightmare to myself, making certain that the rhythms of the poetic forms the cats were speaking were exact. It was the joy of pure invention, to tell you the truth, that kept me going.

Q: I've heard that you say Maf's voice is close to yours?

A: I think that's true. I felt I'd accessed a much more available, much more recognizable version of myself in this book. Maf's much, much cleverer than I am -- I mean, he knows more -- and he's probably kinder in some ways.

Some things in characters just sort of take you by surprise. I was surprised at how kind he was, but I recognize in his voice something very familiar. Despite writing sad and melancholy things quite often, I'm one of life's laughers, I suppose. His capacity for wonder was mine, and makes him the one of my narrators that's most like me. He's sort of ready for anything.

Q: Parts of characters sometimes become like their writers.

A: That's one of the great questions in writing, isn't it? Did Kafka become more Kafka-like himself because he wrote those stories, or did Hemingway become more Hemingway-esque? I would say yes, in almost every case.

I went to Provincetown the summer before Norman Mailer died and we spent days talking and interviewing. I asked him which one of the arts he felt novel-writing was most like, which of the other arts, and without any hesitation he said acting. And I said why do you say that and he said, you know why. We inhabit these voices, we create these characters from a sense of ourselves.

It always surprises me when people talk about authors as if they have one self to be authentic about. I remember (F.) Scott Fitzgerald saying there could never be a great biography of a novelist, because if a novelist, if he or she is any good, they're too many people...It's a particular way of being. It suits an actor, it suits a writer, it suits a spy. (Editing by Paul Casciato)