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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,
John Updike
and Gore Vidal


Norman Mailer can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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Norman Mailer
 
Norman Mailer
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Norman Mailer Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes

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  Norman Mailer


I must say in my years at Harvard I spent more time reading American novelists than I was ever able to do again. I think I probably read every good American novelist there was at that time. I was also very open at the time, so I could see all the merits of someone like J.P. Marquand, some of the semi-good writers, you know? Not semi-good -- semi-major writers. I loved Thomas Wolfe, another example of excess, simple excess. Excess that was available to a young man in the way -- Faulkner's excess was much more sophisticated. You know, it would omit some -- all -- of his baroque complexities. There was his deep sense of tragedy and waste. Waste at a very high level. So, it was the most exciting time in my life and I think if you can't get excited by writing when you are a young writer, you really should question whether you want to be a writer.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


And also...


Nelson Algren once said something very interesting. I attended a writing class he was giving; he asked me to sit in with him. He was very kind to a rather mediocre writer, who imitated Hemingway so badly but so completely that after the class I said, "Why did you give all that time to that fellow? He really is no good." And he said, "Yeah, I know he's no good but, you know, sometimes these guys who are mediocre get better." He said, "The thing is, I like it if they have an influence when they're young and they write in the style of somebody else, because that speeds them up for learning how to write by themselves. Once they learn how, if they're any good at all they step away from the person they're imitating and begin to find their own style, but first they've got to be able to imitate somebody." And, I've never forgotten that. It was an interesting comment about writing.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


The Naked and the Dead obviously came out of your own experience in the war. What was the connection between your real experience and the book?

Norman Mailer: When you talk about the difference between real experience and the experience you put into a book, you touch on perhaps the single most basic difficulty. For some young writers it's very disturbing not to tell the story exactly the way it happened. For others it's equally disturbing to tell it the way it happened. They want to exaggerate it. They want to make it larger. That could be good or bad. If you are truly an ambitious writer it's not necessarily so bad to exaggerate, because that enables you to dare to take on themes larger than yourself.

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Very often people have a poverty of experience when they're young. So if they just write about what is true to them, their stories can be a little flat, and without interest for people who know this experience and comprehend it already. They're bored by the story. On the other hand, if you start exaggerating what happened to you and you don't do it well, you fall on your face. It's embarrassing. So this is the dilemma that faces a young writer very often, if they're capable of going in both directions. Not all writers are. Some writers can only fantasize, and some can only be true through the experience. But if a kid were going in both directions -- which is always a sign, I think, that you might have some possibilities in the future as a writer -- then very often you have to make a calculation deep in your unconscious of which method you're going to go with for a given book.

I've written books where I've pushed it very far, far beyond my own experience, and other books where I stayed very, very close to the experience I received, as in The Executioner's Song, for example. Now in The Naked and the Dead I did something in between the two. To wit: I had a lot of experience in the war, but it was not as intense as the experience of the people who were the characters in my book. Nonetheless, it was close enough so I could extrapolate a bit. I could exaggerate to a degree, because I had a sense of what the outer possibilities were, as you do when you get a little bit of combat. You get a very good idea of what a lot of combat might be like. Not necessarily a true idea, but a bigger idea. I came late to my outfit in the Philippines, and most of those guys went over for a couple of years already. They had been in other campaigns, so I picked up all the stories of battles that they had been in before I ever joined them. So you could say The Naked and the Dead was on the one hand realistic, and on the other hand it was an exaggeration of experiences I had. Specifically,


We were sent out one day to do a very tough patrol, and the patrol went wrong. We kicked over a hornet's nest as we were getting to the top of a hill. Half the platoon ran down the hill, afraid of the hornets. The other half of us ran up the hill to get away from the hornets, and the patrol was wrecked. This was on a day we were supposed to find a crack platoon of Japanese Marines who apparently had infiltrated our lines. The humor in it was the lieutenant, who was in charge of the patrol, radioed back to headquarters and said, "We've been divided, ran into a hornet's nest. We're continuing back to base." And at the other end, the major who was hearing it said, "What the hell did he mean by that remark? Is he speaking of a literal or a figurative hornet's nest?"


I chose to take this small patrol, which seemed very dangerous in the beginning to us, but ended in fiasco, and that became the patrol that took several days in The Naked and the Dead and got much exaggerated.


I think the thing that gave The Naked and the Dead its sense of absolute realism even when it was not absolutely realistic and was not about personal experiences all the way at all, just partially, is that the characters were good in The Naked and the Dead. I had lived among these soldiers for two years and I knew a lot about them. And so, when it came to drawing them, developing them, they became very real to me. In a certain sense, if your characters in the novel don't become as real to you as the members of your family, then you're in a lot of trouble. Your characters are not going to develop. But, once you've got characters who are real, and start to develop and you live with them, and they're -- as I say -- they're as real to you as uncles and aunts and cousins and friends, then they start to do things on their own that are very good. And so, I think the reason The Naked and the Dead has that realistic feeling -- although to repeat, it was not that realistic -- is precisely because the characters carried along, and you believe in the characters. And, once you believe in the characters, the book tends to become more realistic, whatever its stance.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


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