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If you like Norman Mailer's story, you might also like:
Nadine Gordimer,
Louise Glück,
Frank McCourt,
James Michener,
N. Scott Momaday,
Vincent Scully,
John Updike
and Gore Vidal

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Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer
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Norman Mailer Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes

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  Norman Mailer

You said your parents made their peace with your wanting to be a writer as early as your winning that story contest.

Norman Mailer: That was much later. That was when I was 18.

When I say my only reading was romantic, it was before I went to Harvard. One of the great changes was that now my reading turned completely. I discovered that people could speak of poetry without an apologetic grin. They could be dead serious about listening to classical music. You know, I came from Brooklyn and you were lower than a sissy if you took music seriously, if you took poetry and so forth. That wasn't there. The game was on the streets. I don't mean by that that I was a tough kid out on the streets and such, but we all were slightly tough. You know, we learned to play touch football jeering at cars when they occasionally went by because they interrupted our game. That was as tough as we got, but nonetheless there was an attitude of machismo even though we didn't fulfill it. And so, going to Harvard where culture was important was the key shock. It was four or five steps at that point. So, then I began to read seriously of necessity. Everybody else was reading seriously, so I did, too.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Norman Mailer Interview Photo

What did your parents do?

Norman Mailer: My father was an accountant and my mother ended up having to work, because we weren't that well off. So, she ran a small "T rail" company, a one truck, two truck deal for my uncle who had some money. Typical middle class Jewish family. Typical in that one way.

Had anyone in your family shown literary talent before you?

Norman Mailer: My father, he used to write the most impossible letters. They would always be eight or ten pages long, and particularly after The Naked and the Dead, I would get these letters that would have an introduction that would be seven or eight pages about, "How do I presume to write to my son who is such a talented writer when I, who after all, have never published anything," and go on and on and on with wonderful circumlocutions and turns and twists. And, the letters never said anything much, other than "I love you, son" and so forth, but these endless apologies were very well written. He did have natural talent. Nothing in his life ever gave him the notion he could be a serious writer and he never tried. Also, he was a very secretive man, and that's not necessarily a prime requisite for becoming a writer, unless you are [Marcel] Proust or [William] Faulkner or someone.

You mentioned taking writing classes at Harvard. What do you think you learned there?

Norman Mailer: I learned a great deal from writing classes. I don't sneer at them. In fact, I often give people -- when I get a letter from someone and perhaps they have enclosed a few pages of a story, and they obviously have a raw talent but they're completely untutored -- I often tell them to go to the nearest writing class they can find. And what I tell them in the letter -- and later I put that, I think, into The Spooky Art -- was that it doesn't matter if the teacher is not extraordinary. After all, if you're going to take a writing class in some community college, the odds are that the person who is teaching the course may be dedicated, but they are not necessarily the best writing teacher in the state, but nonetheless what is good is you get a wonderful sense of audience. You come to learn that your story is not what you thought it was, that if ten people are reading it you're likely to find that there will be two or three at each end - you really have a bell-shaped curve. There will be one, two or three people at either end who love it or hate it much more than you thought they would. And it also chops down that terribly unstable vanity that young writers have, you know, where they think, "I'm a great writer," and at the same time they can't take a single criticism, and writing courses are good for that; they weather you. It's a little bit like a kid who wants to play varsity football but never tries out for the team. So you go to that writing class and you get toughened up a little.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

One of the greatest difficulties in writing, and it's built into it, is that on the one hand you have to be very sensitive to be a writer. Sensitive in some special way. At the other end, you have to be tough enough to take the criticism and the rejection. Now compared to being an actor it's much easier to be a writer because actors encounter face-to-face rejection over and over and over in auditions, but a writer can live at certain distance from the rejection. But nonetheless, once you get published it is one thing, maybe just a short story and nobody ever reviews it. Once you write a novel and it gets published -- the first novel -- you can't believe how furious you get at reviews. I remember with The Naked and the Dead, which got very, very good reviews, I couldn't forgive the people who gave it bad reviews. I wanted to find them and argue with them, and if it came to it, punch them out if I could. I just hated reviewers. To this day they're not my favorite people because I've always felt it's too easy. You know, it's so easy to be a reviewer and put something down. And, many reviewers have motivations that, to put the nicest word on it, they're ugly. So, in that sense, one of the things you have to learn is to be able to take a punch without punching back, and that's very hard for writers, very hard.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So you've got to be sensitive on the one hand, and you've got to be tough enough to take the difficulties of the rejections, and writing classes are excellent for that.

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This page last revised on Jun 20, 2011 11:00 EST
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