In Prose or in Person, Still the Tough Guy
Norman Mailer and I meet for lunch at the Bel Air Hotel, his current favorite in Los Angeles. He is here doing publicity for the new anthology of his work, “The Time of Our Time.” Everyone tells me that the only thing you can do with a man who has been interviewed over the decades as much as he has is try to derail him--make him mad. This makes me dread lunch, since it’s a beautiful day and do I really want to argue with Norman Mailer? There he sits, part imp and part prizefighter, at 75 America’s most famous living writer.
Question: I throw my best punch first, still harboring the illusion that I can discompose Norman Mailer: Tell me about your mother. There was that picture of you as a young man in the New Yorker. You look like you were a sweet kid once. But you must have caused her a lot of trouble.
Answer: That’s pretty good. She was short, maybe 5 feet at most. She wore high heels and corsets and was slightly heavyset but not plump. She had a very agreeable face, very expressive. She was very much a woman of that time, her emotions were open, she adored her children. She was a kind of mafia mother in that she had a circle of loyalties--children, then sisters, then her husband, then the outer relatives. You couldn’t trust anyone outside the family.
If she had a fault it was her blind loyalty. I mean, if I climbed up on a tower in Texas and shot 18 people she’d say, “What did these people do to Norman to make him do that?” There was a sense that you had to fight through her enveloping arms of love in order to do anything of your own.
Q: You have a famous ego. How do you maintain it?
A: I had a great thought about ego recently. Ego is the prostate of the mind--you can’t let it get too swollen. Now that’s not too bad, that’s a serviceable idea. I’m not really an egoist--it’s just that my ego functions on a very narrow road. I get into trouble when I skid off the road--that’s the trouble with having a strong ego--when you skid off the road the shoulder is particularly treacherous. Fragile people are awful--it’s like climbing up a rock face talking to them.”
Q: What are your thoughts on feminism these days?
A: Even being called a male chauvinist pig doesn’t make me react any more. Women sold out to the corporation. It was a middle-class revolution.
Q: So you still have a strong impulse to shock.
A: Yes, but I want to shock at a deeper level. Instead of delivering a ringing slap to readers’ perceptions, I want to achieve a powerful blow to the seat of the heart. The great ones do that.
Q: What makes a writer great?
A: You have to understand, there are people who are talented but not especially eager for what they were given. I’m a huge believer in the continuation of dreams over generations, in the gene stream. For myself, we could go back to a ghetto where people dreamed of doing something. My father used to write beautiful letters, almost Jamesian. He dreamed of being a writer but between avoiding the Feds on one hand and the mafia on the other. . . .
Say you’re given this huge gift. You don’t sit around being satisfied with yourself. After all, it’s not really a gift, it’s an endowment. It’s like a rich kid who hasn’t made money himself. You don’t want to be less than the people who made the money. On the one hand it’s stewardship. On the other, it’s an ablity to expand what you were given.
Q: You’ve said that you have never been able to write an autobiography because you have yet to become the hero of your own life.
A: I can hardly look back on my life and say it’s a series of wise and well-chosen moves. I’ve done a lot of damage to people who were close to me. My children didn’t exactly benefit from what happened with Adele. [Mailer is referring to the time in 1962 when he stabbed his second wife, Adele. He was arrested but not charged.] I’m not a hero to myself, a protagonist maybe, but not a hero.
Q: Tell me why you refuse to go to Israel.
A: If I go there, I’ll end up with a novel and I can’t afford that--I’m already two novels behind. You understand, there are novels you’ve been wanting to write for years, and now at 75 I’ve got to look around and say which of these novels I can actually write. You have to be happy about the novel you’re doing. You can’t be wishing you were writing another novel.
Q: Someone said recently that the American reader is still buying Norman Mailer off the rack. In other words, there hasn’t been anyone to take your place.
A: There are a lot of good writers, but they’re not changing anything in American life. They are writing for each other. People read bestsellers because a book is still more agreeable than a TV screen, but by the year 2025, I’m certain bestsellers will be written by computer. No assemblage required.
I had “Anna Karenina” on my desk the whole time I was writing “The Naked and the Dead” because I was looking for a sense of compassion. Tolstoy was severe about his people, but he had compassion. In the other direction lies sentiment and a writer must eschew sentimentality with a severe appraisal of your characters. Most women novelists don’t know how to write about men and most men can’t write about women. Until that gets better, literature will dry up.
Q: You’re getting some mixed reviews of this anthology--some people saying they’re worried about you not writing anymore, some being snide about your reputation.
A: When a reviewer cares about writing and they explain why you failed, that’s fine. You can learn from it, sometimes. But most reviews are little ego trips for mediocre mentalities. They get a free shot at you each time you write a book. I’m such an easy shot--there I am, a small hulk on the literary horizon--you can’t miss.
The New Republic had a review a few years ago of “The Gospel According to the Son” and that was the worst review I’ve ever gotten. Not only that, but they ran a picture of me on the cover looking fat and wound in barbed wire with a headline that read: “He Is Finished.”
I thought, OK, that’s going too far. I’ve known the publisher, Marty Peretsky, for years and that summer I saw him on the street. He came up and smiled at me, so I punched him in the stomach. If he hadn’t smiled, I wouldn’t have done it. Then he hit me in the face--my wife, Norris, was there saying, “Stop it, stop it,” and I punched him again in the stomach. It was hilarious. He told everyone in the restaurant he went into that I punched him, so I guess it was kind of a badge of honor.
Q: Are you disappointed in the way America has changed in your lifetime?
A: Being American is like being married to a beautiful woman for 50 years and she gets worse and worse and worse--more selfish, stupid and benighted. Bill Clinton drives me crazy. I met him in 1984 in Arkansas, and I came back to New York talking about him. He’s very bright and [Hillary Clinton’s] extraordinarily bright, but what they’ve done is disgusting--being a pussycat of the Republicans, dismantling welfare and not doing away with corporate welfare, enabling the rich to maximize their profits. The last thing we need is a society in which some people are making 5,000 times as much as other people.
There are a great many things I detest about progress and I can name them: architecture, plastic, frozen food, political correctness, blind [acceptance of] women’s liberation. We used to sneer at guys in suits in corporations. The poor bastards, we’d think, working 9 to 5, couldn’t trust their friends--it wasn’t a life we wanted. Now women are in tailored suits and leading global capitalism.
Q: You’re a self-described left conservative. What does that mean? Is it like a libertarian?
A: I’m not a liberal in any way. I think of liberals as politically correct. I sneer at libertarians--no respect for ‘em--greedbags. I love the idea of human liberty, but left to itself it’s not much better than despotism. The great tension is between individual liberty and collective liberty--that’s where all the great revolutions have foundered.”
Q: What do you think of Los Angeles?
A: To my horror, I’m beginning to like it. I lived in L.A. for nine or 10 months back in the late 1980s while I was making “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” Then, I thought the place was ridiculous . . . so unlike New York with its iron and concrete and sense of force. But now I appreciate it. I mean, if we have a Jakarta in America, it’s Beverly Hills, with the barbarians inside the gate.
Q: You’ve had six marriages and nine kids. Your wife, Norris, is writing a novel. What if she’s a better writer than you are?
A: (Mailer sputters.)
Q: You said I couldn’t make you mad!
A: Yeah, but you can irk me. What a conventional notion--you think I dominate my women with an iron fist? She has too many talents; even she’d say that. She started as a painter, then became a model and an actress. We wrote a screenplay together.
Better than me? Of course not. How could she? I’ve been around 50 years. If I were a shoemaker married to a young shoemaker, she couldn’t be better with all the things I’d have learned about leather in 50 years.
But I’m glad because now she understands my moods. Sometimes after a day of writing, I’m like a surly businessman. Now we’re both surly. She used to think I was angry at her. I’d say it has nothing to do with you . . . but you can’t talk that way to a woman. I know that much. You can’t say it has nothing to do with you.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: “I’m going to spend the summer catching up on contemporary writers like Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo. Then I’m going to get psyched up to write the second volume of “Harlot’s Ghost,” which I’ve wanted to do for seven years. All the air went out of the CIA, out of novelistic possibilities for it after the Cold War. There’s no sense writing a second volume if it’s not as good, it’s like a broken promise. I think I know how to do it.
Q: I’m going to repeat some statements you’ve made in your life and some positions you’ve taken and I want you to tell me if you regret them.
“Soldiers in Vietnam ought to eat what they kill.”
A: Yeah, I go with that. It was such wanton slaughter. I meant that if they had to eat it, they might do less killing.
Q: “Executions should be televised.”
A: Absolutely. If you’re going to enforce it, you ought to be able to watch it.
Q: “Culture is worth a little risk.” (With reference to Jack Abbott: Mailer’s championship of imprisoned murderer Abbott, author of “In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison” (Random House, 1990) was partly responsible for Abbott’s release. Soon after, Abbott murdered again.)
A: I have to go with that--it cost me a great deal, maybe more than any other comment. I think there’s no culture without a little risk. That’s what’s wrong with political correctness.