Andrew O’Hagan on Maf the Dog


At Work

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is Andrew O’Hagan’s fourth novel. It details the star’s final years in New York and L.A. as seen through the eyes of her frighteningly learned Maltese terrier, who was born on a Scottish tenant farm. Reporting from the intellectual, artistic, and political epicenters of America in the ’60s, Maf is uniquely positioned to chaperone us not only through Monroe’s private decline but also through the romance and turmoil of her era. On the phone, O’Hagan is soft-spoken and gallant, his Glasgow lilt similar (one imagines) to Maf’s.

You were born in Scotland and spent much of your life in London. What drew you to Marilyn Monroe and this particular scene in America?

I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland. We looked across the sea to Ireland, where my ancestors had come from, and beyond that, to the bigger-seeming civilization that was America. We always felt that we somehow had a strong relationship with the United States. We were very ready to accept American culture. There was, for instance, a great love of movies in my family. And the women all sang songs, not folk songs or Scottish ballads, but the songs of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. You might not immediately think of Glasgow as a world propagation center for glamour, but it is, and it was, and I feel the benefit.

Photograph by Eric Skipsey.

I realized a few years ago that I wanted to write about some of the less obvious ghosts of my childhood. I knew Marilyn Monroe had been given a dog by Frank Sinatra, and I started to look for evidence of this dog, feeling that, if I found him, he would prove a very reliable and possibly diverting witness to a culture that had influenced our lives. When I went to New York in 1999, I attended a sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal belongings at Christie’s. I was writing a piece at the time for The London Review of Books and intended a second piece for Barbara Epstein at The New York Review of Books, so I went to the auction and waited and waited and then my waiting was rewarded when six little Polaroids of Maf the dog were auctioned for $222,000. As I was watching all the people frantically waving their paddles and trying to get a hold of this seemingly crucial piece of art from the twentieth century—that’s how they behaved—I felt I could hear the dog’s voice. I went back to my hotel that night thinking, If I can capture this dog, I’ll have accessed something special, something that really matters to me—and, hopefully, to my readers.

In an article you wrote for The London Review of Books, you say we’ve returned to a point in art that is entranced by “the ordinary minutiae of the extraordinary life.” The novel seems interested in this idea, too.

I’ve always loved those occasions, when those occasions work, where history is illuminated by sidelight. In the life of Woolf or Dickens, it was sometimes a servant or the guy driving the carriage who could reveal the most intimate things about how they lived, and what the literary energies of the period were. I was attracted to the idea that Marilyn’s story is so well known. My ambition was to take on the most written-about woman of the twentieth century, a woman who had somehow been erased as a woman and replaced with mythology. And I thought Maf would give me an opportunity; that the small domestic details witnessed from floor level would reinstate themselves through the dog’s eyes and would revive her humanness.

She was, after all, a very funny woman; she was one of the great comedians of the American mid-century. She was optimistic, fresh, very natural-seeming in her responses, with a comic view of sex. We forget that—she’s been turned into this awful saint of tragedy and destruction.

Would you call this a comic novel?

I don’t know about comic; it seems such a large claim to make. I’d rather say that it’s a cheeky novel. It takes liberties with your patience. Growing up, I loved Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, people who pushed your sense of the credible to the very edge. I like the fun in that. A marked disregard for the hierarchy of solemn values. I like the idea that there is a sort of collaboration between the dog’s rather ostentatious and self-regarding philosophy and the reader’s expectations and hopes that this all be new. I wanted to invite the reader to deploy their own imagination along with mine, to make these creatures live in a moral sense. Being a novelist, it’s not merely about what you do, but what you allow the reader to do. As Lubitsch said, it’s our job to suggest 2+2. Let the audience say “4.”

The book takes such delight in sniffing out historical anecdotes and obscure facts. Maf also does a fair amount of name-dropping. Did you feel you could go off the leash with this narrator, indulge in things you’d otherwise avoid?

Like the most committed ghostwriter, I felt that I was conveying something of the dog’s essence whilst always adding things of my own. If you’ll allow me to venture a tiny, brazen theory: I would say all good fiction is ghostwritten. It amounts to an act of imagined faith. One disappears into the role. And oddly, it’s true to say that, in the end, Maf became the one narrator of mine, of all the books I’ve written, that was most like me. The irreverence, the determination to make the world conform to his vision of it—that was very, I’m afraid to say, close to the bone.

And also, I wanted to create a character that was cleverer than I am. What took me weeks to research, Maf can toss off in a paragraph. That’s one of the great little magics of fiction: Hopefully, you can give the reader the equipment with which to have a very effortless experience of reading. The trap doors and mechanics are concealed. A lot of my books are rather more predictably serious. This one is out of character for me, except that it’s the single book of mine so far that has actually been about invention and wonder and magic and writing itself. I wanted to dig down into the very resources of a writer’s imagination. So Maf becomes a little writer-manque, a little avatar for O’Hagan, God bless him.

When you interviewed Norman Mailer for the Review in 2007, you observed that some of his biographies seem shrouded in the question of motive. Did you feel any obligation to explain the historical Marilyn?

I thought it was enough to ask of the book that it evoke the true experience of her unknowability. Some people have said, She remains as unreachable by the end of the book as she has always been, and I have to say, whilst I am happy to swim among my many faults, I don’t consider that to be one. I wanted not to solve the puzzle but to offer a new perspective on its pieces.

You were never tempted by the role of psychologist or historian?

Marilyn was so scrutinized psychoanalytically, and her period has been so weighed and measured historically. Still, a conundrum about fame, desire, death, popularity, art sits at the center of that known material. It might be the work of an imaginative writer to dive to the bottom of that very deep and very blue swimming pool and open his eyes.

Near the end of the novel you have Maf and Marilyn visiting Forest Lawn cemetery, and at the end of your London Review of Books article, you yourself go to Westwood Memorial Park, where Monroe is buried. For you, it’s a disillusioning experience—no trace of the glamour remains. But Marilyn and Maf find something totally different: the grave of a girl Marilyn once knew, a sort of monument to friendship. Do you see these scenes as related?

I hadn’t been conscious of a relationship between them, but I must have been thinking, on some level, about my visit to Marilyn’s grave. I was a very young man the first time I made that trip to Los Angeles—a student, in fact, at the time scoping out the range of my potential future crimes. But I went back to L.A. during the research and writing of Maf the Dog. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like a Scottish novelist walking up the road in Bel Air, with a story about researching a novel to be narrated by Marilyn Monroe’s dog, to make a police officer reach for his handcuffs. But I got through it, and the book’s atmosphere is filled with a sense of the Californian way of death. Because you’re The Paris Review and I love you, I’m going to tell you a secret. No critic or feature writer has noticed, but the plot Marilyn sits beside at Forest Lawn, the place where she smokes a joint and speaks to her dog in my novel, and the plot number is given, actually belongs to a distant Irish relative of mine, Gertrude O’Hagan, born in the 1920s. No one noticed, and I bring it to your attention merely for the joy of it, and as a reminder that the magic of fiction is forever to be found dancing on the graves of we earthbound figments of reality.

Gertrude O’Hagan’s plot. Photograph courtesy of Andrew O’Hagan.