Kimberly and Mary Conversation about the upcoming Madonna: A Rebel Life book, released in October 2023.
Hi Mary, great to be talking to you once again as I have felt we have gone on a bit of a journey together for the past few months. I am really excited that Madonna: A Rebel Life will finally be hitting stores soon. I was lucky enough to read an advance reviewer’s copy and believe me, at 880 pages I was a bit reluctant I would be able to finish it in a short time span, at least before the release date. But when I started reading, I was absolutely unable to put it down, I was completely drawn into your book and was honestly sad when I finished the final page.
Thank you so much Kimberly, and thank you for your help at the end of my five-year Madonna project. The book went through multiple fact-checks, but you, as a Madonna expert and fan, were able to find things that even professional fact-checkers missed. I can’t thank you enough for offering your time and sharing your knowledge so that the book is – hopefully – correct. As we both know, that’s been an ongoing problem with Madonna’s story. There are so many errors that move from one story to another, and one book to another. Along the way, they become accepted as fact.
As a die-hard Madonna fan myself I was impressed by the amount of in-depth research you have done to cover all of Madonna’s life and career. I could never have imagined I’d be learning something new about the woman I have adored and cherished for the past 32 years. How do you feel about the fact that I ended up admiring Madonna even more after reading your book?
Hah! I feel thrilled. I wrote this book for people like you, who have loved Madonna, because I wanted to take you back to the start so you could re-live your life with her. If, in the process, you were able to learn something new, then that’s an added bonus. I also wrote this for people who think they know Madonna but actually only know the Madonna newspapers have described in screaming headlines. And then I wrote the book for a younger generation that doesn’t know Madonna at all. I think it’s so important for young people to understand history so they can learn from it and be inspired by it. I hope there’s a young person out there – maybe an aspiring artist – who is brave enough to open a very big book about an older-generation cultural figure and learn that their dreams are possible if they follow Madonna’s prescription: work hard, never give up, dream big.
It’s absolutely incredible to know that you went through so much research to write up every little detail on Madonna, without being a fan at the start, do you personally feel that it helped your writing?
I think it did because it was a journey of discovery for me. My last book was about five women painters and it ended in 1959. I wanted to continue writing about women artists but I feared that if I wrote about women visual artists again that I would repeat myself. Then I heard Madonna’s 2016 Billboard Woman of the Year speech and it really stopped me in my tracks. I was one of those people who knew the Madonna of the headlines. I associated her with self-promotion and scandal, and all the empty-headedness of pop music. I’m really ashamed to say that now, but there you are. When I heard that speech, which was so powerful and came at such an important moment after the 2016 elections in the United States when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, I realized how wrong I was.
And then, when I began reading about Madonna, and listening to her music I realized how much I had missed. Because I knew nothing about her, I had to look everywhere to find her, through hundreds of interviews, tens of thousands of pages of books and magazines and newspaper articles. I also sought out her friends and collaborators, and learned everything I could from them and about them because I believe that in order to paint a true picture of a person you need to put them in context, you need to show who and what is influencing and affecting them at any given moment to understand their work and the decisions they make. We don’t exist in a vacuum; we’re constantly buffeted and changed by the people and events around us. So, that’s what I did. If I had been a fan, I might have thought I knew much more than I did and I might have skipped parts of that valuable process.
Madonna fans have been presented with so many biographies on Madonna and so many have included rumors and were sensationalized, so we have come to be a bit wary to welcome a new book on Madonna in our collections. As far as we see it, any book that isn’t written by the lady herself cannot completely be 100% accurate when it comes to her life and her career, as she is honestly the only person that has lived it all. Why do you think, that your book is different from the sensationalized books we’ve come to get used to.
There have been some good Madonna books. Lucy O’Brien’s Madonna: Like an Icon focused on her as an artist, and Caroline Sullivan’s Madonna: Ambition. Music. Style is also good, again because if focuses on Madonna’s work. But so many others are interested in Madonna as a celebrity, not as a figure who has changed the world. I think it’s partly that that’s what the broader market wants – even today. Some readers want to be outraged by what she does in her personal life and don’t really care what she produces. It’s just the disrespect given to any woman artist. They’re a body first and, maybe, an artist second. In Madonna’s case, she’s an artist pure and simple. That’s who she is and to write about her in any other way is to miss the story entirely. I think the other reason my book is different is that I’m not a pop culture writer. I write books about people who change the world. I treat Madonna with the same respect and gravity as I did Karl and Jenny Marx when I wrote about them in Love and Capital. Maybe that’s the difference. I’m looking at Madonna as a historical figure, not as a pop culture figure.
When looking back at your journey researching Madonna, what is the one thing that she did that has impressed you the most and why?
There are so many things, an infinite number of things, that I can’t identify one. But, I can say that when I think of her life, one of the things that amazes me most – aside from her work, which is truly amazing – is her courage. I cannot imagine the strength of character it would take to be in the public eye, working as hard as she did — on music, videos, films, books, in fashion, and engaging in philanthropy — against a relentless backdrop of criticism, professional and personal. Sometimes it was so cruel, it bordered on insane. And it lasted for 40 years, and it’s ongoing. I suppose at a certain time she tuned it out. But how do you continue knowing that everything you do and say is scrutinized by people who apparently hate you? And how do you continue to try to speak truth when everything you say is twisted into a lie? I suppose that’s what impressed me most about her. She is probably the strongest person I have ever written about. Her belief in herself and her mission must be unshakeable. And it’s not a matter of vanity. It’s a matter of art. She has something important to say.
As a Madonna fan I can honestly state that Madonna: A Rebel Life is the ultimate biography on Madonna, that is until she decides to either write down her own memoires or starts filming her “biographical documentary.” Can you imagine in many years from now people will pick up the book (or access it digitally) and will start reading about “that remarkable woman that made such a cultural impact and is such an important part of our history and our freedom” and find that even though they might not be a fan, they cannot deny the sheer admiration they have for her after reading your book, how do you feel about that?
I hope your crystal ball is right, and that people will read this book and be inspired by it – not because I wrote it, but because Madonna’s is such a remarkable, singular story.
Thank you, Kimberly.
Madonna: A Rebel Life is available to order through AMAZON
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