‘Late’ Author Michael Fitzgerald Talks About the Myth of Celebrity and His Version of Marilyn Monroe in This Interview

Author Michael Fitzgerald has crafted an impressive bibliography that engages in speculative fiction about notable figures throughout history. For his first novel, The Pacific Room, Michael explores the end of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and Australia’s relationship with the Pacific through a non-First Nations perspective. With his most recent novel, Late, Michael takes readers to 1980s Sydney and introduces us to Zelda Zonk, a Hollywood screen legend who has shifted her life from the bright lights of Los Angeles to the geographically similar, but culturally split, world of Australia.

While her name is never truly mentioned within the novel, the inspiration for Zelda is that of Marilyn Monroe. As hinted at with the peach backed, line-art cover by Peter Lo, Late explores the idea or notion of a free Marilyn Monroe. Within Michael’s creation, Marilyn as Zelda is a legend untethered from the expectations of Hollywood, the demands and gaze of men, giving her the freedom to explore her own literary intentions, whether it be by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses one line at a time, or creating her textual symphony with her typewriter.

Late isn’t exclusively focused around Zelda Zonk, as Michael folds in the considered tale of Daniel, a surrogate neighbour of sorts who is housesitting the apartment next door to Zelda. Adrift, Daniel finds himself in the company of Zelda, spending a day with her as they guide and support each other in a tender manner, recognising the kindred connection they have with one another. It’s here that Late provides a subtle nod to the queer icon that Marilyn has become, but like much of the presentation of Zelda’s life, it’s never overt, instead Michael’s writing encourages the reader to sit within Zelda’s mindset and see the world from her perspective. It’s a kind offering to extend to a reader, and one that helps adjust just who Marilyn Monroe was, is, and could be as a cultural icon.

In this interview, Michael talks about the inspiration for Zelda Zonk, about the myth of celebrity, and about the visual connection that Sydney has with Los Angeles.

Late is published by transit lounge, and a copy of the book was provided for the purpose of this interview. Late is available directly from transit lounge or support your local bookstore and purchase it in person. Michael will be engaging in launch events across Australia from 10 October; visit here for more details.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.      

What was the foundation of your version of Marilyn?

Michael Fitzgerald: I’ve [worked for] the last couple of decades in the visual arts, editing art magazines, but all along, my secret passion has always been cinema and I realise I’ve never really been able to fully express it. A figure like Marilyn Monroe, even though she’s not explicitly the subject of the book, her alter ego Zelda Zonk is, and she’s always [been] a fascination for me. It’s almost like a secret affection in the same way cinema holds for me. I keep changing my mind about her as a figure in cinema, but also as a person, and why we’re always so intrigued and fascinated by her. As I’ve got older, I think she’s become more and more fascinating.

In my book, she would be about the same age as me, and it’s speculating on if she hadn’t died and where she might be now, perhaps in the late 1980s [when] she would have been in her late 50s. For someone like myself, what really fascinates me about her is that she eloquently expressed the dilemma of being alive and existing, of being alive in the world. That in itself is such a challenge on how to be herself in the world. That’s such a human quality and such a human existential question for so many people. I think she was always trying to be the best version of herself; she was always trying to improve, trying to be perfect, and that’s something that a lot of people can really relate to considering her choice of film roles and that quest for perfection that you can see on screen and in her off-screen life as well.

As you mentioned, you’ve worked in media for some time. Can talk about how that work has influenced your understanding of the myth of celebrity?

MF: I started off in newspapers. I moved to Sydney in the early 90s and I worked as a fact checker on the Who Weekly magazine which is an Australian version of People magazine in the States. The celebrity industry over there is incredibly litigious, so when Who started in Sydney, every story was obsessively fact-checked and I was one of those fact checkers.

Then I moved on to be a reporter and I interviewed quite a lot of actors and celebrities during the early to mid-90s. You always had to try and interview them at home surrounded by their pets or their partner. You’d have to check what age they were and the name of their pet. It was something I felt very uncomfortable with, but it was part of the job. That whole idea of celebrities that I explore in the book sprang out of that discomfort I had as a young reporter interviewing people that are equally uncomfortable talking about their personal lives and putting it in print.

In that sort of ambivalence of actors wanting approval and respect and popularity is that there’s that contradiction of shunning that and avoiding it and trying to keep a part of themselves so there is something of themselves that is untouchable. There’s that aspect in the book as well that I try and explore with my character Zelda Zonk.

Let’s talk about that name. What informs the decision process behind using the name Zelda Zonk?

MF: I’ve got quite a large library of books on Marilyn Monroe that I’ve collected over the years. I think it was in Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography – which I still consider probably the best and most sympathetic biography –, there was mention of this alter ego character called Zelda Zonk that Marilyn Monroe assumed around the time of her breakup to Joe DiMaggio when she escaped to New York trying to get out of her Fox contract, and she donned a black wig and assumed this name of Zelda Zonk.

For me, it’s the first name that she chose for herself, and I think it’s incredibly revealing about her. I think there’s an incredible wit and sense of humour and self-deprecation in that name. My book has a slight a slight quality that you could tie with Judaism. I believe Zelda is a Hebrew name or has some association [with Judaism][i]. The fact that she did convert to Judaism in her third and final marriage to Arthur Miller, I thought for a writer of fiction, it turned her into a perfect character name for my novel where the main character who has converted to Judaism is an American actress that has escaped celebrity to move to Sydney in the 1960s. My book is set in the late 1980s, so it takes up her story a couple of decades on.

I’ve been looking at your Instagram and you’ve shared these wonderful photos of places in Sydney that remind you of Los Angeles. Seeing those alongside reading Late, there is a perspective that you’re seeing Australia through a different lens, whether it’s Marilyn or Zelda’s eyes. I’m curious then, as you’re reconsidering Australia in the book, what kind of discoveries did you come up with after seeing it through a different perspective?

MF: It’s always interesting overlaying a culture with another culture. [With Late], if you look further afield from Sydney, you wind up on the West Coast of America. I’ve always been fascinated by the aspects of Sydney [that are] almost like Hollywood on the harbour. In the 90s, there was a huge amount of Hollywood films made here and they talked about a similarity of light. Then when you start looking at the architecture, California bungalow houses sprang up here around the same time as in Pasadena. I find it interesting that it’s almost like a sliding doors aspect of these two cities with parallel realities, they could be the same city. I do play a little bit with that in the book with moments where Zelda astral travels back to Santa Monica Beach, for instance.

[I did] the research here in Sydney, and [while] I did get to Los Angeles at the end of the novel to spend some time there, like Zelda, I did have to sort of astral travel to Los Angeles for parts of the book. Sydney does allow those possibilities with the coastline and the fact that we’re the same distance from the equator down as Los Angeles is the same distance up. There are all these sorts of interesting similarities. The quality of light here is not that dissimilar. As you’ve picked up on my Instagram, some of those obsessions of mine [are] seeing those uncanny parallels between Los Angeles and Sydney.

I want to shift to talking about Daniel as a character. He is equally as prominent as Zelda is. Can you talk about the foundation of creating him as a character and where the inspiration for him came from?

MF: Daniel is the other main character in the novel which is set in a modernist apartment block that overlooks Vaucluse/Dover Heights in Sydney. He’s housesitting Zelda’s neighbour’s apartment, and he gets locked out of his apartment and they meet on the breezeway and that begins their relationship. He was inspired by a former next-door neighbour of mine who has sadly passed away. He was someone who in the late 80s, early 90s was working in television. He was a very beautiful person with that sort of long dark hair and was very witty. At one point, he was learning sign language because he wanted to teach with hearing impaired people and I thought that was such a beautiful thing to do. In a way, he really inspired this character. He was also adopted. He was- sorry, I’m getting emotional here.

Take your time. Daniel is quite a powerful character. I found a beautiful emotional resonance with him as well in the manner that you brought the legacy of that character to life.

MF: Thank you. I’m sorry, I just realised that I haven’t really talked about it probably since that time. He was my inspiration, but again, he has taken on a life of his own in the book. I was also thinking of someone who could have an interesting resonance with Zelda so they could talk about both being adopted. They’re sort of an odd couple [in how] they find these connections. That’s what I was also trying to explore in this book. I’d always hoped Marilyn Monroe was perhaps like that in person, someone very interested in other people [who] was always looking for connections.

There was something I read in Arthur Miller’s autobiography Timebends: A Life, where he always spoke about his former wife as someone who had this sort of antenna for pain or wounds in other people. She would always detect that and would always be quite protective and motherly, so I wanted to explore that a bit within their relationship.

I’m glad you could relate to Daniel. Zelda was a much clearer character for me, I probably had to struggle with him a bit more to find the private or personal connection with him that I could express, but I was quite happy with the result in the end.

Within the story there is a sense of unrealised potential within people. Zelda or Daniel’s relationship with their mothers gets explored in some capacity to, even though we don’t hear or see them, they are there. The mothers are characters who were shaped by a time they lived in that never allowed them to be who they could have been, so there is that unrealised potential in them as mothers. I’m curious if you can talk about exploring the potential in your characters on the page and freeing them from their fates in some capacity.

MF: I think that’s true. I must admit, I always sort of get quite annoyed [with the way Marilyn is presented.] As much as I’m obsessed with reading anything about Marilyn Monroe, even the recent film Blonde for instance, which was quite a riveting and skilfully made film, I find [they can be] all about a person who [is] constantly reacting to things happening to her rather than being the creature of her own agency, and for me, something doesn’t feel quite right with that from what I’ve read about Marilyn Monroe. She never gets a chance to talk or for the interior side of her to be expressed, and it was a real pleasure to be able to try and do that in a small way. It’s only a day in her life, but it was quite thrilling to spend company with her and to try and channel her in that way.

When you’re writing a book, you’re going to have to spend a long time with these characters. I thought, “Who would I like to spend time with?” It wasn’t a hard decision. Someone like [Marilyn] was a real pleasure to spend time with and to read about and to imagine and to speculate on and to try and get inside her head.

She had a literary side to her personality. She had a library of 400 books, and all of those works would have been in her head. She wrote poetry in her life and many of her friends were writers. I tried to explore that and to bring that side of her personality to life, which really goes against this other perceived idea of her as being a victim of circumstance and of being a tragic victim. I have never seen her like that. I hope that hope Zelda in some small way speaks to that perception.

I find the title quite interesting in that it carries multiple meanings. There is the literal sense, in the sense of lateness, which Marilyn was known for, but in some capacity, there feels like a sense of a eulogy. She is late, she has passed away, so therefore, it is a eulogy, ruminating on the potential of who she could have been. I’m curious if you can talk about what the title Late means to you.

MF: It means all of those things. Another inspiration for the book was that many years ago, a school friend’s brother was also obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. I can remember he said that the reason she was always late is that becomes quite an addictive adrenaline rush. When you’re late everything becomes urgent, you’re always rushing, and it becomes almost like a drug. In one sense, maybe ‘late’ is that sort of emotional rush that she had through her film career.

When you think of artists, I think their late periods are even more interesting [than their earlier work] With some of the great film directors or artists, their technique starts to loosen up or they’re not quite as a perfectionist in stylistic terms, and something very human starts to come through in what they’re expressing. I also started to think about ‘late’ that way.

And there was that famous Marilyn Monroe moment where she was singing to the President of the United States and she was introduced as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe’, which is kind of ironic in hindsight, but she was famous for being ‘late’, but then she was famous for being dead as well. I do play on that idea of ‘late’ in all meanings of the word. I also kind of celebrate being late, in that we’re always so obsessed with being on time and obsessed with being young or all of those things. This book also questions whether being late has as much value.

[i] Zelda is the feminine form of the Yiddish name Selig, which means ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’.  

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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