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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: 6 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes

Print Norman Mailer Interview Print Interview

  Norman Mailer

You look back in The Spooky Art to the very harsh reviews of Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, and it sounds like you came away stronger for it, even though it was obviously very painful at the time. You learned that you could get up off the floor.

Norman Mailer: With those bad reviews of my second and third book, I learned the way a young professional fighter would learn that they can take a beating. They can take a bad beating, and they're not ready to quit the ring, and that does give you a fine strength. It also takes something off you forever. I mean, to write a book, a good novel that you care about, and you put a lot into for a couple of years, and then get very bad reviews, takes something out of you forever. If nothing else, it takes away from you a certain large love of humanity that you might have had. Your love of humanity is somewhat smaller. That is part of -- every professional in every trade or discipline goes through that. As professionals, they harden up. It's why they're professionals and not amateurs. Amateurs are still full of love. That's the meaning of the word. A professional is someone who measures the cost of every achievement and decides whether that achievement is worth the effort -- and sometimes the killing effort -- that will go into it. And so for that reason, if you're going to keep at one trade all your life, as I have, you truly do well to become a professional, because it enables you to take the bumps.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

You have often used the boxing metaphor. You did some boxing yourself, and...

Norman Mailer: Never made a cent at it.

It's impressive that you got into the ring at all. At one point you compared the boxer thinking about being in the ring with his opponent and the terror of contemplating that blank page as a novelist. There's a similar battle that's going to ensue.

Norman Mailer: No doubt. I've written at times about the spooky element in writing. You go in each morning, and there's a blank page. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe it takes an hour. Sooner or later you start writing, and then the words begin to flow. Where does that come from? You can't pinpoint it. You always wonder, "Will it all stop tomorrow?" In that sense it's spooky. In other words, you're relying on a phenomenon that's not necessarily dependable. That's a particular kind of fear but there are other fears in writing of an altogether different sort.

Sometimes, when you're writing a novel, you can feel the fear of future reviews. You can recognize that reviewers are going to hate this, hate this passage. It's a passage that a writer who is interested only in success for a given book will take out, but nevertheless you like it. You like it because you feel you are saying something there that others are not necessarily saying, and you want it. It seems true to you, and so you decide to keep it, and then you have to take this inner measurement. Just the way certain ambitious young fighters, for example, and their managers will contemplate whether they want to take on another fighter or not - a fighter who may very well be able to defeat them. On the other hand, if they win, it means so much to them. It's a gamble. And so, in that sense writers very often gamble -- very often, every day, every week, every month, every year -- with the themes in their book. How much do I dare to say? Because in a certain sense you can say anything you want, but then who is going to publish it, or if it's published, who is going to read it? Who is going to review it?

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So there is this inner measure of, "How much do I dare?" as opposed to the other measure of, "How skillful am I to bring this off? Can I bring it off or not?" In a funny way, once you become a professional, which can take years, the inner life becomes more intense. The professional inner life becomes very intense. The emotional or rhapsodic inner life becomes less than you had as an amateur.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
With that distinction -- I will go back to it again and again -- when I called The Naked and the Dead a book written by an amateur, I wasn't saying ipso facto it's no good. There is this certain snobbery that people have, that professionals are always better than amateurs. No, they are only better nine times out of ten. When you get an amateur who is better than the professionals, that amateur is usually incredible.

What do you mean by that?

Norman Mailer: I'll make a very large remark. In a certain sense a lot of people couldn't bear Muhammad Ali in those early years, because they felt he was sort of an amateur. In other words, everything he was doing was out of character with what was expected of professionals. As it turned out over the years, he was the greatest professional of them all. But the point I do want to emphasize over and over is I didn't sneer at amateurs. I should have written a little essay after I said The Naked and the Dead was a book written by an amateur. I should have exactly gotten into what I'm talking about now, which is there's a difference between being an amateur and a professional, and you have to respect that difference.

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