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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: 5 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes

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  Norman Mailer

In The Spooky Art you referred to The Naked and the Dead as a bestseller by an amateur. What did you mean?

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
Norman Mailer: I think I said, "A talented amateur," number one, and what I meant by that is I was not yet a professional. Amateurs can very often write novels that attract more public approval than professional writers. Any number of best-selling novelists remain amateurs all their lives, and they don't really learn their craft. What they have is an openness to their subject that appeals to a great many people. Very often, professional novelists attract fewer people because you almost have to be a professional reader to enjoy the merits of what the professional writer is doing. But in any event, when you're a professional -- and this is where I make the separation -- you have a much better sense of the odds against you in doing something. So you make hard calculated judgments, the same way a professional athlete will. Do you make your superior effort here, or there? You know you have a superior effort you can call upon. You know that superior effort is not going to be present every day in every way. You pace yourself. So you make a great many decisions on the basis of whether you can bring it off in the writing, or you're taking too big a chance and you're going to mess up your book and waste a great deal of time.

An amateur lives with a different question altogether. It's, "Am I really a writer? Am I a fraud? How can I possibly be a writer? I don't know enough to be a writer." On the other hand, "I know things nobody else knows." In other words, there's a great deal of arrogance and inferiority in someone who is an amateur. They really don't have a measure of themselves. And in that sense, that was absolutely true when I was writing The Naked and the Dead. I didn't know if it was any good at all or if it was the greatest thing since War and Peace. I was all up and down all over the place. I had no idea if it was going to sell 1,000 copies or do very well. I remember saying to my editor at a certain time, "Do you realize that if The Naked and the Dead doesn't sell, I'll have to write historical novels to make a living?" Something of that sort. You know? I was complaining, and I was staggered when the thing became a best seller, and I wasn't ready for it.

There's no use pretending that at the age of 25 I was a tried and true professional who knew what he was doing. Nonetheless, probably half the people who read me think The Naked and the Dead is my best book, because it has many of the qualities that a marvelous novel written by an amateur can have. It's open, it's daring, it's not afraid to take chances. It takes chances all over the place. More of them succeed than fail. It's not bound by the rigors of style. Once you become a professional, style becomes very important to you. It's the way professional models wouldn't dream of going out in public improperly dressed, by their lights. It's part of who they are. And so, in a certain sense, once you become a true professional, style is part of what you are. You wouldn't turn out a piece of sloppy prose, not anymore. When you're an amateur it's the excitement of writing is so marvelous. There it is! The words are coming out! You don't really pay attention to where the words are that good and where they're that bad. You don't have the experience to judge yet. So in that sense, yes, The Naked and the Dead was a book by an amateur.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

If people look at my career 50 years from now, there will still be people saying, "The Naked and the Dead was the best book he ever wrote." And other people will be saying, "No, not at all. It was a good novel. A very good novel for a 25-year-old, but he did other things afterwards that were much more interesting."

It sounds like it was a mixed bag for you to be so successful with your first novel. The pressure with the second one was so great, and also you made a wonderful analogy about becoming like a lion that can't just observe without being noticed.

Norman Mailer: Like most other young novelists I was essentially shy and not purposive, and not forward leaning, so to speak. I was like a bird up on a branch observing activity. I was a wonderful observer in those days, compared to now. What happens is, once you become successful suddenly, you grow from a bird to a lion in a very short period of time, but you don't feel like a lion. So it's pretty awful in a certain sense to be a lion who is not feeling like a lion. In other words, you're having an identity crisis. And, as I've said in my book, The Spooky Art, it took me something like 20 years to realize that if I had become a literary lion, that was now part of my true personality. I was not a fraud. Willy nilly, whether I wanted it or not, I had become a literary lion. I had learned to live like one, and I had made all the mistakes of a literary lion, and I could begin to feel like a professional. But, it took 20 years perhaps to get to that point.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Norman Mailer Interview Photo

That you didn't feel like you were wearing a lion suit?

Norman Mailer: Very well put. I felt as if I was wearing a lion suit, but inside it there was still the bird. It took a long time before I began to say, "In the literary sense, I might have the beginnings of a lion's art."

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