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Norman Mailer

Interview: Norman Mailer
Two Pulitzer Prizes

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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It's very interesting to read that you tried your hand at a science fiction story when you were very young. Could you tell us about that?

Norman Mailer: Yes. I can't remember whether I was 8 or 11. I think probably the latter age, but...

There's one detail that makes me almost certain I did a little bit of writing when I was eight years old, because at that time the one thing that interested me was hyphenation. And so, I adored being able to write "th" -- hyphen -- and put the "e" on the next line. Now, I like to think that an 11-year-old wouldn't do that, only an eight-year-old. So, I think I did a little writing when I was very young. And, then I did an awful lot when I was around 11 because my family was staying with my mother's sister's family in a house in Long Branch, New Jersey, that was a little away from the beach and town. There was not much to do, very nice relatives and a very sweet atmosphere, but not much to do. And so, I started writing, and I ended up writing a science fiction novel in a blue notebook with lined pages, and found it very exciting.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
And then I didn't write again for years. I had friends who wanted to be writers and were writing, and I just looked upon those as, "Why weren't they out playing ball?" Then when I got to college there was a psychological shock. To go from Brooklyn to Harvard means that you're skipping six or seven or eight social steps. As we all know, you advance in society step by step. You learn what the next level demands of you before you go to the next one or the next one, and I literally jumped these five, six or seven steps because Harvard was so totally different from the Brooklyn that I knew.

And you were only 16?

Norman Mailer: 16-and-a-half, yeah. Yeah. So it was a double-triple shock in so many ways. I was immensely innocent but at the same time I had the kind of arrogance that every writer needs.


You almost can't become a serious professional writer unless there is a built-in arrogance in yourself that you have something special about yourself. It's a vanity and when the vanity is misplaced, as it usually is, it's sad, if not tragic. But, once in a while you're up to your own idea of yourself. Now, I was never up to my own idea of myself and any other activity. You know, we could get funny about this. I could say, "Well, of course, at six, one is always forgiving about one's own merits," but in any event, when it came to writing I was totally serious about it. Truly I had great good luck in my life, two ways. One was, I very early in life -- by the time I was 17 or 18 -- I knew I had a vocation. I knew there was one thing I wanted to be and that was a writer. That's a great help. Then I had the secondary luck that my parents who, being good Jewish folk, thought I should have an absolutely practical profession -- medicine, law, something like that -- but converted, because I won a college contest when I was 18. It was a nationwide college contest for short stories, and after that there was no argument in their heart. They thought, "He's going to be a writer."

But you studied aeronautical engineering?

Norman Mailer: Yes. I studied it for the first couple of years and realized I didn't want to be an engineer and I wasn't going to be a good one. But I stayed on and got my degree in engineering. Parenthetically, Harvard didn't even give a degree in engineering. It was a Bachelor of Sciences. But I got my degree by taking the minimum of courses necessary. I took art history and advanced writing courses and stuff like that. I had a very easy time in college for which I'm paying now, because I didn't study economics and history when I was in college. I now have to plow through such books with great difficulty.

Let's go back your early childhood. What books stand out in your memory? What books did you like reading?

Norman Mailer: They were all romantic books. I loved Jeffery Farnol, who wrote The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway. I loved Sabatini, I think the name was. Yes. And, I remember Errol Flynn made a movie called Captain Blood. It was probably my favorite movie. I remember walking home on stilts I was so happy after seeing that movie. I was an enormous romantic, and when it came time to apply to Harvard and they asked what books you've read, I put down books that I knew vaguely were highly esteemed. I put down Moby Dick. I put down War and Peace and Anna Karenina and so forth, which I hadn't read. I hadn't read any of them. For me it was just a game - how do you fill out your entrance blanks? But actually, all my reading was easy, romantic. I'll say one thing, at least they weren't bestsellers. They were old best-sellers that I was reading.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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.
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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."


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.

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?

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.

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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.

You've spoken about wanting to explore every world, as a novelist. In a certain sense, you've seen fiction as more true to life than nonfiction.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
Norman Mailer: I do. I look at good fiction as much more true to life than nonfiction, for a very simple reason. Nonfiction is almost always written to a deadline, until you get up into the very finest nonfiction writers. You sign a contract to deliver a book in six months, a year, year-and-a-half, two years, and then you pretty much have to deliver it. It spoils everything if you don't deliver it on time, because one of the assumptions that's almost always made in nonfiction writing is that you are part of a living context in which this nonfiction book will have a say. You certainly don't want it to come out too late.

It's often said that it takes privacy and solitude to get much writing done, but as a young writer, the gregarious side of you was not particularly attracted to life as a literary monk. You've been incredibly prolific in both fiction and nonfiction, but you were also very much engaged with the world as an activist. You've managed to straddle both these worlds.

Norman Mailer: We all have two sides to our personality. If people think that I have two sides, they're absolutely right. I've confessed to as much in myself, a great desire for privacy, and a real need, whether I like it or not, for public life. I think we each live with two souls, not one. Or, if you will, souls is too big a word. We live with two psyches. If I'm trying to understand someone, I always try to separate out the two people that are in them. That doesn't mean they're schizophrenic any more than I would say we are all schizophrenic. I would say it is natural to have two divided sides to yourself, two sides that develop in different ways.

In other words, if two people sit side by side watching a movie and they each react to that film. One of them likes it more than the other. One of them is more amused than the other. One on the other hand, the one who likes it less, may be more moved than the first who is just enjoying himself or herself. When they go out afterwards they talk about it. They may even argue about that film, but I would say that is paradigmatic of our own natures, each of us. We are two people. We receive experience in different ways. We develop that experience. We become more and more developed in these two ways. What is mental balance? What is sanity? Sanity is the ability for these two halves of one's self to be able to speak to one another, to understand each other.

Schizophrenia is precisely when one takes over the ball game completely and dominates the other so totally that the subservient one can't speak, and so begins doing curious activities. Normally what you have is a relationship that's analogous to the American Congress, where you have Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Even though they have totally different notions of things, they are able to collaborate and work out bills and deeds and acts and conclusions, and so it is with us. I think I learned this early.

I take it for granted that there's a side of me that loves public action, up to a point, and there's another side of me that really wants to be alone and work and write. And, I've learned to alternate the two as matters develop. That doesn't mean that I have complete power over this. Very often events take me over, and if I want to be alone, nonetheless I have to be out front in public. Or if I want to succeed and be out front in public, the world pushes me back, and there I am. I have got to become a monk again, whether I like it or not. But, all I'm getting at is that it seems natural to me to have these two sides and to express them.

Over the years, you broke a lot of taboos in your work. "The Time of Her Time" is a short story that is still shocking, 20 years after it was written. You are credited with breaking a lot of barriers in your work, being more sexually vivid and graphic in your prose, daring to merge fiction and nonfiction.

Norman Mailer: "The Time of Her Time" was a piece of fiction, a pure piece of fiction. And I remember, at the time I wrote it, I had a brave publisher, Walter Minton, with Putnam. And he decided he wanted to try publishing it. He decided the time was right that he could do it, because most people who read it said, "Well, this is marvelous. This is wonderful. This is one of the best things you've ever written, but it's unpublishable. You can't possibly publish it. It breaks too many taboos." Nonetheless, Minton published it. A lot of people defended it at the time, because in those days we used to feel we were in a war. There were a great many of us, not only writers, but critics as well, novelists collaborated to a degree, in the sense that we were fighting the Philistines who wanted to hold literature back. So, a great many people came to my aid on that story. The net effect of it was that a book came out with the story. It was a book called Advertisements for Myself, and nothing bad happened. There was no censorship of it. Later, Minton used to love to say that one of the reasons he published Lolita was he saw he could get away with it. He could do it, because he realized that for all the brouhaha over the dangers of publishing "The Time of Her Time," nothing had happened. And so he thought, "Yes, with this wonderful book by Nabokov called Lolita, I'm going to publish that and I can get away with that too." And he did. He was a very bold publisher, the last of the Mohicans in a way.

You really pioneered the merging of fiction and nonfiction which seemed to be very daring at the time.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
Norman Mailer: In America, there is such a need to be proud of one's acumen, that there's a regrettable tendency, I think, in our culture, to leap into characterizations and hold fast to them. So long as we know nonfiction is nonfiction and fiction is fiction, we feel stronger. Our acumen can function more easily. It's like a beautifully paved road.

But my feeling is that there's no such thing as nonfiction. Everything is fiction, because in the moment someone tries to relate an experience of what happened to them, it's gone. The reality that was felt at the moment is almost impossible to describe. It's one reason why there are writers, to come close to how it felt when it happened. So in that particular sense, everything that you read in the newspapers is a fiction. Most of it is an ungainly fiction, because by the nature of newspaper reporting, people have to work too quickly, and come to small conclusions long before they really know what they're sure of. So people move forward to understanding the world through a mass of disinformation. When we get into disinformation, I much prefer fiction.

Fiction is the attempt to summarize artfully a set of human experiences that might possibly happen at some time just like this. Whereas nonfiction is the attempt to include what you consider to be all the necessary elements in a story, and in the course of including them, and getting bogged down in dull prose, you destroy the reality of the story. And so, as I say, from the word go it seemed to me there's no sense in separating the two. With the best will in the world to write nonfiction, you're writing fiction. I remember when I did The Executioner's Song, I worked so hard to have every fact absolutely as nailed down as I possibly could, because I thought it was the kind of book where, since it was daring to do that much with a man who is a two-time murderer, one had to absolutely know what one was doing. And yet, at the end of it, when I had been very, very careful to capture each character that had been interviewed, one or two of them came up to me afterwards and said, "I didn't feel that was me at all."

When Picasso and Bracque worked together for a while with Cubism, it was a great relief to Bracque. He said, "Cubism is nothing. I enjoy doing it, but when you paint someone's portrait, then you get into trouble, because everybody gets upset when they see the way you've represented their mug." And in that sense, everything is fiction.

We'd like to ask, what is your sense of the American Dream?

Norman Mailer: Oh, I can't answer that. It's too large a question. There are too many American Dreams. There is no single American Dream left other than the banal one that you can come here, you sink in your roots, you have a happy family life, you work hard all your life and you're rewarded at the end. This is the American Dream that very few people believe in any longer. You have different kinds of American Dreams. George Bush believes his American Dream is for America to take over the world, pure and simple. His feeling is America is the finest country there is, and he has every right, therefore, to try to take over the rest of the world and show other people how to live. I think he's now finally getting the education that he avoided coming near all his working life -- actually his dilettantish life, not his working life. [He is] the luckiest man in America.

My American Dream is that this country has more opportunities to be extraordinary than any other country around, but it doesn't make us extraordinary. That can make us worse. Here you could be the son of the richest man on earth, and it doesn't mean you're going to be a fabulous fellow. You could end up a monster. And so, to me, my American Dream is that we just become less sentimental, less God-ridden. I mean, I happen to believe in God, but I think we are religion-ridden. So, my American Dream is that we become what we could be, which is we search deeper and deeper into the mystery of life and develop a more fabulous sense of what the real American possibilities, are rather than the notion that the corporations know how to do it all -- believing in God and the corporation is going to solve the problems of the universe. They won't. End of speech.

Thank you very much. It's been fascinating.




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