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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: 3 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes

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  Norman Mailer

In The Spooky Art you mention your professor at Harvard reading one of your stories aloud, and the unintentional laughter it caused.

Norman Mailer: In my sophomore year at Harvard I wrote a story that I thought was the best story I had written up to that point. And, looking back on it, it was rather a good story. It involved a young man, a bellhop, going and finding -- terrified that something terrible has happened because a husband has come home unexpectedly to this summer hotel in the middle of the week, and he knows one of the other bellhops is up with the man's wife. He's trying to reach him on the phone and he can't, and then there's a terrible sound, the sound of a gun. He goes up there. At the end of the story -- and the story is well written up to that point, full of tension and better than anything I had done up to that point probably -- but the end of the story involves a description of what he sees when he goes into the room. And, the writing teacher, a fine man named Robert Gorham Davis, read it aloud to the class, just that paragraph. And, as I recall the paragraph went something like this: "When I went in, I could not see her nose, and I wondered if it was floating in the air or fallen down to the carpet and I was stepping on it." Well at that point the audience began to roar! The entire class. They were Harvard men after all, and at Harvard one of the things you developed in those years, back in the very early '40s, was, "Don't go in for excess. Whatever you do, don't be caught off base, don't be silly, don't be stupid, don't make a fool of yourself." And so, of course, they just loved that. They roared and they roared, and it went on and on, and it got worse and worse from that point of view. And, I think the writing teacher, who was sort of a somber, serious man, didn't usually that have that much laugher in his class. So, I think despite himself because he was full of rigid principles, his whole feeling was, you know, he couldn't quite control the laughter, nor did he really wish to. I sat there in a rage. I didn't know what to do. I thought at first I'd stand up and say, "I wrote that story and you don't know how wrong you all are!" You know, make a speech and walk out of class forever, or just swallow it and sit there, and I was in a tumult. And, I went home that night - right after class went home and I didn't declare myself, and I could hardly sleep. Luckily enough, I had a conference with him the next morning, and when I walked in, Robert Gorham Davis said, "Look, I want to apologize for yesterday. I didn't realize it would have that effect. It's really a very good story. I've given you an 'A minus' on it. I think that last paragraph is most unfortunate, but other than that the story was fine." And that saved my delicate little ego. You know, that's an example where you really want a good writing teacher, good enough so if they make a mistake with you they feel personal enough about it so they come back to you.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
Nonetheless, I still argue in favor of the community college writing class, because that was a part of it. I learned an enormous amount about audience reaction that day, whether I liked it or not. I probably learned things I could hardly name, like the difference between writing a short story and writing a play. The fact that it was read aloud changed what had been some very good, sort of Hemingway-like prose that was very restrained but brutal, into something that became high comedy, because there was a voice involved.

The name Hemingway comes up a lot in your literary life, and the name Faulkner. You said something about their both knowing not to try to save souls, or to save the nation.

Norman Mailer: Well, they knew enough not to be too morally ambitious. That's right.

You don't try to save souls, that's not what literature is for. You don't try to change political histories or political events from your writing. You are very limited in what you can do with writing. It's a point of view, and it's a powerful point of view, and it's right three times out of four at least. But on the other hand, I hate to see that desire that makes one a writer in the first place, the desire -- exactly that -- to change souls, to change the political world, to affect history. These are powerful emotions. European writers have it much more than Americans. In a funny way in America, we look as a nation to change history more than any other country around, but we also talk about it that way. In other words, we must not pretend that we're ambitious. Parenthetically, someone like George W. Bush would be less impossible to bear if he would just say once, "I'm a very ambitious man and so I want to change the world." But, instead no, no, no, he's doing it for God, he's doing it because it's the moral or right thing to do. It's that American vice that he promulgates, which is why he's so detested by half the nation and exactly why the other half of the nation loves him so much. It's because moral promulgation is one of the American diseases. I think it's one of the reasons why Hemingway stayed away from it, precisely because his mother was full of moral promulgation and he just felt that it's so wrong. She was so wrong. "I've really got to get away from that. I don't want any part of it." And, it helped to make his style.

What do you think you got from both writers? From Hemingway and from Faulkner.

Norman Mailer: I got a sense of the power of restraint from Hemingway, which is the smallest way to put it because I got much more than that from him. I learned the power of simple language in English. He showed what a powerful instrument English is if you keep the language simple, if you don't use too many Latinate words. And, from Faulkner I learned the exact opposite, that excess can be thrilling, that, "Don't hold yourself in. Don't rein yourself in. Go all the way. Go over the top. Overdo it." And between the two, it's almost as if you've now been given your parameters. This is the best of one extreme and this is the best of another and, somewhere between the two you may be able to find your style in time to come. But, it does open you, if you love both Hemingway and Faulkner as I did, it opens you to experimentation. Of course, I also loved James T. Farrell, who is the exact -- he triangulated the other two because he was sober and journalistic, if you will. He was sober. He was journalistic and he was immensely powerful because he stayed so close to the facts. Much closer than any newspaper reporter could, because he took the time to lay things out and to give you a sense of the monotony and the boredom, and the killing deadness of the average simple life among many people who were not well educated, did not have much money, did not know what to do with their time. And so, he gave you a powerful sense that Hemingway and Faulkner didn't, that you could write about anything, provided you were honest enough.

So on the one hand what you had was moderation, and also a certain poetic intensity of metaphor in Hemingway. And in Faulkner you had the orgiastic sense of the power of excess, of being carried away on a flood of words. Henry Miller, in my opinion, was even better at that than Faulkner. And at the vortex of the triangle or, if you will, the base of the triangle, depending on how you look at them, there was Farrell. And Farrell gave you the sense that reality is what you had to obey more than anything. I think I learned more from those three writers than any other American writers.

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