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"The idea for the book came out of one of those meandering conversations we have where -- I don't even know how it popped into my head and why Marilyn Monroe had come up -- but I remember saying, 'I'll bet that if Marilyn Monroe had lived, she would have been a feminist.' I think that's true."
Imagine the possibility that Marilyn Monroe never died. That, in fact, she ended up as a rosy and contented hausfrau in rural Ohio. This is what Eli Schuman does when an elderly hitchhiker tells him he saw her many years before. "Boy oh boy. Saw her with these very eyes. Wearing an apron and looking every bit like a farm wife but pretty as a picture." In Michael Kaufman's 1999 novel, The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars, Eli begins to imagine possibilities everywhere.
The Possibility of Dreaming is Kaufman's first novel, though not his first book. Earlier publications have largely been about gender issues and third world studies. Hardly, one would think, preparation for writing a novel based on the premise that a 1950s screen icon might still be alive. Yet, Kaufman maintains, the thoughts aren't mutually exclusive. The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars is not, Kaufman says, so much about Marilyn Monroe as it is about, "this whole idea of creating dreams and living dreams. Creating our own dreams. The dreams that are realizable dreams and yet are still dreams."
This is a topic that Kaufman, 48, does have experience with. His non-fiction book Cracking the Armour received international acclaim when it was published in 1993. More in the realm of dreams for him, Kaufman personally spearheaded the White Ribbon Campaign. A group whose slogan is, "Men working to end men's violence against women."
The White Ribbon Campaign started, "eight years ago," says Kaufman. "Sitting around in my living room with a couple of guys, we came up with this idea. And now there's people around the world who have started white ribbon campaigns." The reality, then, of creating something tangible from a dream is very real for Kaufman. And it is this concept, the idea of dreaming about possibilities, that is the real meat and potatoes of Kaufman's new book. The idea that we can -- and even should -- reach for those things outside of ourselves that are attainable.
Linda Richards: Do you have any sense of how well The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars is doing?
Michael Kaufman: I think it's doing well. It looks like it's close to selling out the first printing. I've been on tour and it's been so much fun. My previous books have been non-fiction, and doing non-fiction on gender issues is a lightning rod sort of thing. In some cases it brings out the best and in other cases the worst in people. In the interviews for the non-fiction books they'd basically ask you the same questions, because it's there. It's all black and white and what you see is what you get. But with fiction, there's a million stories in a good book. Personal stories. Stories that will differ from reader to reader. That's what's been really exciting, because everyone has different questions and people have been so excited about it. A lot of people -- I'd say the majority of people who I've done interviews with -- have been really excited about the book. People will start telling me their relationship stories and will pick out a particular character or situation that actually meant something to them. So, to get that type of response -- particularly for a writer moving from non-fiction -- to have people say they didn't want the story to end. Or that they picked it up intending to read for an hour and stayed up half that night. It's so rewarding to hear that.
The reviews have been wonderful, as well.
They've been good.
They've been glowing. And I didn't realize at the time that it was your first work of fiction.
It's not my first work of fiction. It's the first one to hit the pages. I'm happy to say that my autobiographical first novel is sitting on some computer disk. Hopefully it's an early enough version of WordPerfect that I won't be able to transfer it in a couple of years. [Laughs] But yes: this is my first published work of fiction.
Yet, it's somewhat autobiographical, is it not? There's elements of you in there, I think.
Well, there are and there aren't. One of the things I worked hard to do was to get past the autobiographical first novel. What I tried to do was, as much as possible, create a character whose life was different from mine. Very different family situation. Except for a couple of in jokes, his parents are completely different than my parents. My siblings are different. My relationship with my son is very different than his relationship with his kids. That much said, I think that most heterosexual men in our culture struggle with these images of attraction to women. What we're looking for. Battling and engaging in a personal struggle between connecting up with real live women and yet working through these layers that are all about the social construction of our ideas of a desirable woman. And, of course, that is Eli's challenge in this book. He's so consumed by these inchoate images of the perfect woman. It's almost indescribable what it ultimately is because perfection, of course, doesn't exist. So he's struggling to emerge through that. And, of course, one of the things that he discovers in that process is that it has much more to do with him and his own insecurities than it has to do with her. It's not about whether the woman looks exactly like this or exactly like that, or whatever. Those things are so fluid. It has to do with his own sense of himself. The passage where he talks about how he's consumed by the thought of other men seeing him with Alexandra and wondering if that's the best he can get. It's a really bizarre twist, because we're so accustomed to thinking about men with regards to their social power and dominant position in society and the way that men have manipulated images of women. We've done our part to perpetuate the stereotypes of what is beauty. Yet there's something underneath that that I think speaks even more about men and what we consider normal. The extent of which women almost become trading cards. You sort of see this in particular in young people. Trading cards in terms of your own personal value.
So how much of it is autobiographical? I've tried to create a character and a story that isn't me. And yet those issues are ones that -- like many men -- I've had to struggle with. That made it both exciting and hard to write about at times. But there's parts of me in Eli Schuman and there's parts of me in Alexandra; parts of me in Eli's mother. The limit of any fiction writer is his or her imagination, but that is a limit. What I'm able to conceive of in terms of what humans think about comes out of me and my experience. Some of it, I guess, is from observing other people and imagining why they do what they do. But because it is coming out of my imagination, I guess you could say it's all autobiographical, in a different sense than we normally mean it. Not literally, but in terms of the unconscious.
It's your sensibility.
Yes. And it's interesting because in the book that I'm just now beginning to write, I ended up with the narrator -- and it's a first-person text -- as a woman and I know I'll get some flak for that in some circles. But I realized that when I thought about her background and her values, I actually had a lot more in common with her than with her husband or another man who arrives on the scene. The same sensibility in terms of morals or world view. I mean, yes: there are parts of her that I can only imagine. But there are more parts of a couple of men in the book that I could only imagine. And I probably won't get the question to that book, "Is this autobiographical?" Because it's a woman narrating it.
You were talking about men seeing women as trading cards. I don't think that's exclusively the area of men.
I agree with you. I think that we've used different markers for women and men. In western culture until recently the big marker was physical beauty or great bodies. The markers for men were different. It was success, it was money. It was intelligence and power. I think one of the huge changes we're seeing right now is a real shift to that. For the past decade there's been such a rise in the commodification of men's bodies. Twenty years ago if you talked to men about advertising images of women, most men would say, "Oh, it's just a picture. Don't worry about it." Now as a guy you drive around town and you see hunks on Calvin Klein ads and Ralph Lauren ads and most of us don't look that way. So suddenly men are feeling what women were feeling before. Which is crappy about yourself because you don't look that way and no one does and those guys don't even look that way. I think that this, though, is affecting probably younger women in terms of what they value in men. What they're looking for. So, you're right. I don't think it's something unique to half of the species.
Do you think sometimes it's a justifiable turnabout?
I guess there is an aspect of that. But I think in the end that commodification hurts us all. The more that we're just reduced to a certain type of appearance and a certain kind of image you can create by the clothes you wear, it's awful for all of us.
What I've tried to do with this book is create a character who is struggling with these issues. And is struggling with them in part because of his childhood and the things he experienced as a kid growing up. The sense of being an outsider growing up. This whole part of the search for the perfect woman is a search for himself, ultimately. But there's another novel to the book, too, besides that whole thing we've been talking about. It's this whole idea of creating dreams and living dreams. Creating our own dreams. The dreams that are realizable dreams and yet are still dreams. I think there's so much in our society that tries to push us to one extreme or the other. In culture there's the "build it and they will come image." The completely ridiculous images of if you dream it and believe it enough it will happen. Give me a break. Well, it doesn't. Maybe once in a gazillion times it does. Or, on the other extreme, people that are pushed and pushed and pushed just to abandon any dreams. Abandon any desire beyond what they can purchase at Wal-Mart and Safeway. To lose any sense of dreams.
One of the things that Eli Schuman is trying to do is find a way to live his dreams. To turn dreams into reality and yet to have dreams that are grounded in the earth. So, this whole image of The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars is that the stars are out there. The dreams are out there. But you have to be able to know that they're there even when you can't see them, but they have to be realizable here on earth. Part of what he's grappling with and the reason why it is a book full of hope is that he's making that leap from pulling his images down from the stars right here onto the planet. And that is a challenge for us.
Are you saying you should be more realistic about your dreams? That if you dream about it all the time and dream too lofty it'll never happen? Sort of thinking about and not actually doing it.
You see, I would only say that if you allowed me to also say, "Be more dreamy about your goals. Don't be more realistic." It's a dialectic there. The thing is not to be a prisoner of impossible-to-realize dreams. The number of Canadians right now who believe they're going to retire on lottery winnings. It was in the paper a few weeks ago. It was something like 40 or 60 per cent, it was staggering. So there's a case where they're dreaming but it's completely out of sync with what's possible, except for one or two of them.
Then on the other hand, there are all those people out there who are in mind and body numbing jobs who don't even necessarily need to be in that job. Aren't just at the edge of survival and can't give up the terrible job. That would actually have a bit more possibility in their life, but don't give it up because they've lost the capacity to dream. So, I wouldn't say "be more realistic," because we don't want people to be stuck with what passes for reality, because that reality is often a very oppressive reality. We wouldn't have had women's liberation if women had just said, "This is the way it is." We wouldn't have movements of different oppressed peoples. We wouldn't have an environment movement. We wouldn't have any of those if people said, "Well, you know: it's reality." Reality is ours to create. Reality is something we make. And in part we make that reality through our dreams.
So it's a strange dialectic, isn't it? And as someone who has tried to do things, not for the purpose of dreaming, but you just think, "Hey, let's make something happen." And when I think about something like the White Ribbon Campaign, where eight years ago sitting around in my living room with a couple of guys, we came up with this idea. And now there's people around the world who have started white ribbon campaigns. So there's a case where you don't want to restrain yourself and say, "Well, we shouldn't think too big." Because it's not that we were thinking big or ambitious, but we just thought, "Hey, let's create a different reality. Let's help make something happen." So that's, I think, another running theme of the book.
I was thinking that. Because you're certainly not one to tell people to limit their dreams. You've done incredible things.
No. I wouldn't say limit. More like have two feet on the planet and your head in the stars.
Another thing you have in common with Eli is that you're a parent.
Yes. I'm a parent and now I'm a step-parent. My son is 17 years old and lives with me full-time. He is, in many ways, the best thing that ever happened to me. And now I'm a step-father of an 8-year-old girl, so I'm very lucky.
All my indicators tell me this book is doing very well. Which is wonderful: your first work of fiction is selling well and has been well received. So it's successful. But of your non-fiction books, what was the most successful. And you can quantify success however you like.
Four of my non-fiction books were essentially academic books. Either on gender issues or third world studies. And one was a trade book and it was called Cracking the Armour: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men and I don't even know how well it did in terms of sales. But that's one of the ones that I certainly measure by the type of response we were talking about. It's so incredible.
It touches people.
So that was a male empowerment book?
Well, yes and no. It explored the paradox of men's power. It certainly isn't one of these men's rights diatribes against women. It starts with the unequal social power between women and men. Political power. Economic power. It looks at that. And it looks at the paradox of that power. Or what I call men's contradictory experiences of power. How the very world that men have created to give us power is the source of our own pain. Is the source of our alienation, loneliness, isolation from other men, from kids, even in many cases from women. So in a sense it's a course for men to engage in a process of challenging the gender status quo, because it argues that even though it may have been better for men than it has been for women, the paradox hasn't been good for us either.
In the novel, I set out to tell a story, and I didn't want it to have a message every other page and the reader going, "Whoa! Message." But certainly the work that I've done and the thinking that I've done on gender issues and gender identity have been important to me.
Was there a strong Marilyn Monroe thing for you?
There wasn't actually. This is what's so funny.
And everyone's asked you that, I'm sure.
Well, some have and some haven't. I think some people just assume it. But I -- like a lot of men growing up in my generation. In the 50s and 60s -- I never really got her. Because I was 10 or 11 when she died. I was too young really to even get it. She was this icon. I think I'd seen maybe two of her movies before I started doing this.
The idea for the book came out of one of those meandering conversations we have where -- I don't even know how it popped into my head and why Marilyn Monroe had come up -- but I remember saying, "I'll bet that if Marilyn Monroe had lived, she would have been a feminist." I think that's true. Without any substantiation, because I knew nothing about her at the time. But I had this sense. Then two sentences later, I said, "That would be a really wonderful book to write." An alternate history about her living and what she would have become. And about two sentences after that I said, "Yeah, but I'm not the one to write that book." However, I thought, what about a book about someone who thinks she lived? So I started developing that and it quickly developed into his [Eli's] story. Of course, the story itself is about Eli's two parallel searches. One is for the icon of the perfect woman from that era, and his own search for his own perfect woman. And how those two searches come together.
Doing the research though I started reading about her and I saw a number of her movies. What an amazing combination of allure and vulnerability. I don't know if there's ever been in anyone in the movies who is so vulnerable in front of the camera. Most of her roles were so insipid. Most of the movies I can barely watch because of all the dumb blonde stuff, but if you go a bit beyond that or in a movie like Bus Stop where you get past that and it's just breathtaking. What a tragic figure. She was someone who was both physically beautiful and yet watching her you almost feel that you want to look after her. You want to save her. You want her to do well. Something like that.
What's your take on it though, Michael? Are the Marilyn aspects of the book central to this story?
It is and it's not. What I've been hearing is that people who love Marilyn Monroe love it because they love reading about her and they love hearing a different perspective. Other people who have been Marilyn Monroe fans find that part really interesting but I tried to make it so it didn't become the story. Yes, the book is a search for Marilyn Monroe, but that's not the main search of the book.
Where are you from?
I'm American by birth, but my parents were Canadian so I have dual citizenship. When I was 16 my family moved to Canada, so I've lived in Canada most of my life. I lived in Durham, North Carolina from the time I was nine until I was 16. That was an incredible experience because it was at the height of the civil rights movement and to move to a place from the North. And I got beaten up for being a Yankee, a Jew and -- as was said at the time -- a "nigger lover". In a way it was wonderful, because it was really important to get accused of things that have to do with other people. It really sets up an identification with other people. So it's not just me versus others. Sometimes you hear people go on about how bad they've had it, and they use it as an excuse not to be compassionate to others. I always figure that if someone's had it so bad they should be even that much more compassionate. I'm not saying I had it so bad, but it's interesting. | July 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.