A Writer’s Life… Behind The Scenes

When you think about a writer’s job, you maybe imagine someone sitting at a laptop (or typewriter, or even maybe a quill and scroll!) and squirrelling away, desperately trying to get the words onto the screen. Of course that is the biggest part of our job, but behind-the-scenes there is so much more to do, such as:

  • Researching many different newspaper archives (which often means subscribing to those I am not yet a member of). This can be a frustrating experience when I’m looking for something specific and nothing comes up. However, all it takes is just one tiny snippet or nugget of information, and my research takes on a whole new direction, or I am able to solve a mystery that has baffled me for years. It can be absolutely fascinating in that regard!
  • Using Ancestry to find out what happened to some of those people mentioned in the book. I don’t know what I’d do without this website. It’s a mine of information, especially when I’m trying to track where people used to live ‘back in the day’ and find out if they are still alive now. Sometimes I’m able to find relatives who can help with my research and other times maybe just a tiny piece of information comes up, but that can also lead to something fabulous. I remember when I was researching the second edition of Private and Undisclosed, I was able to track the movements of Stanley Gifford, the man many believe to be Marilyn’s father. At one point I even found him sharing a house with another of Gladys Baker’s ex-boyfriends. (Gladys being Marilyn’s mother). Also when writing this book, I was able to find records of people who lived close to Marilyn when she was a child. This meant I could then do a little newspaper research into their lives – particularly the things they were doing when living alongside Marilyn. These pieces of information may not have made it into the book, but they helped give me a taste of what life was like in the area.
  • Tracking down interviewees. If they are still active in the industry and have an agent or website, this can be a fairly easy process. However, other people are much harder to find and it requires many hours of studying newspaper articles, obituaries, and organisations that may somehow be connected. Sometimes I draw a blank, but other times I’m able to at least get a letter to my intended source. For instance, for The Girl, I was desperate to interview a feminist artist but she was a little elusive on the Internet. However, I found out that her work was for sale at a particular gallery, so I asked if it would be okay if I wrote to her through them. They were happy to pass on an email for me, so that was successful. Unfortunately the artist was unable to help because she had various deadlines to adhere to, but at least I found her!
  • Interviewing people. This part of the process is one of the most exciting but also the most terrifying, too. It’s absolutely fantastic when someone agrees to speak with me, and if they can do it over email, that makes the process fairly easy. However, most of the time they like to speak over the telephone, so that involves many hours of preparation, buying phone cards if they’re based overseas and then gearing myself up to make the big call. Quite often I’ll take a deep breath and finally dial the number, only to be met by a busy signal or an answer-machine. This can be frustrating, but when I finally get through to the person I want to talk to, it’s all worthwhile. One of the best feelings is when I’ve just finished an interview and I come off the phone with a tonne of notes in my hand. I can’t wait to transcribe them and get everything into the book!
  • Finding archives. This can be a difficult process, with many false leads and dead ends. For instance, I heard that the records for one interesting person were now housed in a university. I was ecstatic until I discovered that they were not yet catalogued and would not be available to the public for years. I did my best to persuade the librarian, but sadly I was unable to get my hands on the information. However, on the other side of the coin, I have had tremendous success with other archives. Finding the papers of Joshua Logan – the director of Bus Stop – was a fantastic feeling during the writing of The Girl. These letters and memos gave tremendous insight into the making of the film, as well as his extremely positive feelings about Marilyn, and it was a joy to find them.
  • Trawling through cupboards, drawers, containers, and even under-the-stairs for that lost piece of information. Because I have researched Marilyn’s life for over 30 years, I have many files scattered around the place and I don’t always know where everything is. During the writing of The Girl, all of my folders from Private and Undisclosed were easily found in my cupboard, but others weren’t so forthcoming, and made for many hours of searching and swearing! However, in the end this frustrating task uncovered some real biographer’s gold! Around 20 years ago, a friend of mind gave me a huge file of newspaper clippings that had been printed during Marilyn’s lifetime. I thanked him, put them in my cupboard and promptly forgot all about them! 20 years (and a house move) later I finally remembered the file, opened it and discovered a host of long-forgotten Marilyn interviews and other goodies. Sometimes braving the spiders and digging deep into the back of a cupboard really pays off!
  • Reading every book I can find about my subject. This doesn’t just mean biographies about their life, but also biographies of those they knew, were married to, or worked with. I also need to read about the period of time I’m writing about, the location, the industry and basically anything else that is relevant to my book. I am extremely lucky in that I now have many books already in my collection, but others I find on Amazon marketplace and vintage book shops. Any excuse to wander around musty old books is fine with me, so I don’t mind this part of my job!
  • ┬áDiscovering old magazines. When writing The Girl, researching magazines was an interesting part of the job for me. Because this book is also a tribute to women and their bravery, I wanted to learn as much as I could about what it was like to live as a woman in the 1950s. This meant spending many hours in old bookshops, looking through (and buying) old women’s and film magazines, as well as subscribing to various online resources. I was even able to find some teenage girl magazines at an antiques fair, and these were useful for seeing what kinds of issues were being reported on for the younger generation – the very people who were watching Marilyn’s films at the time. In relation to this, my husband found approx. 150 theatre magazines from the 1950s, at a car boot sale! He snapped them up for me, and they provided not only some terrific information about the industry at that time (including reviews of the West End production of The Seven Year Itch and many articles about The Actors Studio), but it also lead to new interviewees!
  • Finding photographs. This can be an extremely difficult and stressful part of the writing process. However, for The Girl and also Madonna, it was really wonderful because I was able to choose pictures from photo agencies. This was so much fun for me, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to look through thousands of Marilyn and Madonna photos all day long?!

So as you can see, writing books (especially non-fiction ones) has so many different elements than just the writing itself. And that’s before it has gone through the editing and polishing process! But while it involves lots of tears, dead ends, perseverance, hard work, long hours, and the mentality of a private detective, it is also the most rewarding job when it all comes together. Nothing beats that feeling!

Until next time.

Michelle x

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