The Daily

My Literary Hero

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

November 30, 2010 | by

Norman Mailer in 1949. Photograph by John H. Popper.

Why can’t we keep our literary heroes where they belong, at the top of the bookshelf next to all the others? And why must we ache for their approval, their admiration, their love?

I can’t help but think of an anecdote about Norman Mailer, who was provoked one day to reach out to his hero, big Papa himself. Mailer had just completed The Deer Park and sent off a copy inscribed

To Ernest Hemingway:

—because finally after all these years I am deeply curious to know what you think …

—but if you do not answer, or if you answer with the kind of crap you use to answer unprofessional writers, sycophants, brown-nosers, etc. then fuck you …

Norman Mailer

The book came back to Mailer unopened, stamped “Address Unknown—Return to Sender,” in Spanish. (See Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself for a complete telling in hard-earned italics.)

I have my own relationship with one of my heroes, and the mere fact that I call it a “relationship” is in itself deeply sick. I’m veiling a juvenile obsession, hiding behind the very word: hero. In truth, this relationship consists of a few encounters, some good, some bad, the first of which happened one night at Hunter College when I was an M.F.A. student.

D. said he had only been in a classroom full of writers once or twice before. He didn’t teach. Never had. He just wrote novels, and he’d been doing so quite well for forty years. I knew I was in the presence of a great artist not only because of the novels I had become enamored with, but by the way he spoke about his sentences, with a certain degree of spirituality. To him, words were like mysterious objects that lined up in an order based on syllable and beat, sight, sound, and meaning. It was our job as writers to figure out that order.

During D.’s lecture, he and I spoke across the room about Max Frisch, who we were both reading at the time. We discussed Man in the Holocene and Montauk, and I grew confident that I would have enough material for a good chat when I went up to get my book signed. And then, when the time was right, I would ask him for a picture. Yes, I had come to class that night with the intention of getting a picture. And not just any picture. I wanted one with my arm around him, and his arm around me, like we were old buddies.

Broaching the subject was easy. “Would you mind?” I asked, brandishing my camera. “It would mean a great deal.” He didn’t immediately say yes, but instead began fidgeting in his plastic chair. His eyes darted from side to side as though looking for an exit. I could feel myself falling out of favor. I was no longer a writer or a student of the craft; I was a sycophant, a brownnoser, an amateur. I was a kid with a camera. Of course he didn’t want to take a picture with me.

To save face, I suggested we take a picture together with my two teachers, so the four of us lined up, with D. and I on opposite ends.

At first it started as a joke. I was going to Photoshop my teachers out of the picture so that it was just me and D. I thought it would be funny, something to show my classmates. I even asked a photographer friend if he would do it for me.

“It took some cropping,” he said. “But luckily your arm was around the other guy precisely where we needed it to be.”

“Great,” I said. “It looks real.” So real, in fact, that part of me would forget there had been two men standing between us.

The next time I saw D. was a few months later, at the Norman Mailer colony in Provincetown, where I was living for the summer. I was nervous that he wouldn’t remember me, or, worse, that he would remember me as the guy who forced him to take that stupid picture. But that wasn’t the case. “Of course I remember,” he said. “The tall guy at the end of the long table.”

We sat in Mailer’s living room with the other writers at the colony, and D. told us a story about the first time he met Mailer, a writer he had idolized in his youth. They were both attending a literary event at a Manhattan theater. D. stepped out to get some air, and there was Mailer leaning against the balustrade, smoking a cigarette. D. introduced himself, and, wanting to make an impression, began talking about a new book he was working on about Lee Harvey Oswald. This was very unlike D.; he rarely told anyone what he was writing about before it was finished. In response, Mailer abruptly stubbed out his smoke and said, “Let’s go back inside.” Little did D. know, Mailer was at work on a very similar book, what would become Oswald’s Tale.

I felt better after hearing that story. It placed D. in a context I could understand. I could see him as a younger, eager writer, trying to swim in the same pool I was drowning in.

I kept the photo taped above my writing desk in my little room at the colony, but it never brought the inspiration I thought it would. When I left, I packed it away in the pages of D.’s first novel, and that’s where I keep it still.

When it comes to meeting your hero, you can’t shut off the obsessed fan inside. I’ve seen D. since, and my admiration for him is still there, along with the desire to impress and to be remembered. But part of me knows we can never really be friends; he will likely never read a word I write, and I’ve accepted that. I do, however, return to his books, and that relationship—perhaps the more important one—remains strong.

Alex Gilvarry is the editor of Tottenville Review and the author of a novel forthcoming from Viking.



  1. pd | November 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    don delillo

  2. marie Lee | December 1, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Honest, lovely, and, instructive, too. I actually don’t want to know who “D” is.

  3. Tina Toler | December 2, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I have relationship with my favorite author (She actually sent me one Twitter reply, so it’s not actually a relationship, but hey, I can dream). It’s good to hear I am not the only that feels this way, and hopefully if I ever meet her I won’t make too big of a full of myself. And, I know she more than likely won’t read my writing, but again, I can dream.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Book Lovah | December 2, 2010 at 11:49 am

    What a beautiful little article. As an often-obsessed fan, I’ve found that I’m as frequently disappointed by authors in real life as I am inspired by them. It’s too bad, really, how we’ve held them to impossible standards of personality, as well as literary genius. And yet, as unpoetic it might be for a writer to be remembered as “the tall guy,” rather than the “brilliant guy who will surely write the next great American novel,” it’s also rather perfect. No one wants to be the brilliant guy anyway.

  5. Don DeLillo's Real Number One Fan | December 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    “I could see him as a younger, eager writer, trying to swim in the same pool I was drowning in.”

    No, not really.

  6. word up | December 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I once stole Salman Rushdie’s soiled cocktail napkin when he wasn’t looking.

  7. Alex Gilvarry | December 2, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Humiliating, but well done. I bet you cherished that napkin, and maybe you still have it, hidden in one of his books somewhere.

  8. John Charles Gilmore | December 3, 2010 at 12:09 am

    I really liked this. And to soiled napkin guy: I got Gay Talese a scotch. He asked for a light scotch on the rocks. I got him something not light enough. Ten minutes later he walked passed me shaking his head: I don’t know what you got me but I’m going to have to trade it in.

  9. Emmanuel Okoh | December 3, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Wonderful and so real. Idolizing your hero can’t me masked. It shows like a baby’s smile.

  10. Sufi66 | December 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    When you meet someone you idolize it’s important to have something to say. Otherwise no connection is possible, no matter how brief. I know who I connected with and who I didn’t. It’s wonderful when it happens.

  11. Albert LaFarge | December 3, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I hope you’ve seen Hemingway’s letter in response to Mailer; if not, check out the latest Mailer Review.

  12. creyes | December 4, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Our literary heroes belong atop our shelves, next to our beds and within distance. We may furiously try to catch them, and if we’re lucky, they may nod in our direction.

  13. Arthur Mitchell | December 4, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    When we do meet our heros and have little or nothing interesting to say as Sufi66 points out our imaginary bubble bursts. Pop! It happened to me not once but twice with the same hero.
    First time in 1970 camping and hitchhiking to Eugene, Oregon and a professor picks me up and I mentioned my hero Ken Kesey; afer a couple more miles he pulls over & points out across a big field & says: Kesey lives over there. I get out with my huge backpack & stride in that direction & follow a fence for a couple minutes & see him in the flesh standing at the wide gate. I stammer something mentioning his name, & he plays dumb & says he “don’t know him.” but after a pregnant pause, he invites me up to the house & I end up in the kitchen helping his wife Faye peel apples. A bit later he asks if I might help a couple fellas gravel a duck pound as he has to do other chores. I hung around most of the day & saw him around but never worked up the courage to say another word to my hero. Late in the day after sandwiches & beer, & watching a guy build a giant hamburger out of a truck innertube, Kesey said he had an errand to do & he could drop me off back on the highway. I was tounge tied every time the few times that he spoke. Over twenty years later at a benefit for an ailing Jan Keroac in San Francisco, he was signing books & stuff at a table & when I got to him with my poster to sign, I was again speechless & only said that I helped him gravel his duck pond. He looked totally blank & just replied: “Oh you did” & two guy’s in back of me practically shoved me out of the way, and Kesey cracked up, as these dudes began spouting really pertinent, colorful witticisms as reality once again hit home too late. If you are in front of your idol, just speak as you would in a bar with a stranger. Star crossed twice heh! But I did reply correctly to the question of who Gilvarry’s hero “D” was yesterday in the Twitter “reply” box Don DeLillo. Never thought of the comment section.

  14. Sarah Collins Honenberger | December 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    So comforting to hear this. Funny that wordsmiths are without words in the presence of those brilliant heroes. When it happens for me, I keep telling myself he or she is a regular person, but it doesn’t make it any easier. And I try to remember that awkwardness when I’m talking to newer writers who might need encouragement from a more seasoned writer, albeit no where close to a literary icon like Proulx or Wolff or Hemingway. Still I have received many kindnesses from more accomplished writers and the weight of those kindnesses give me ballast in the sea of self-doubt.

  15. Sarah Collins Honenberger | December 5, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    So comforting to hear this. Funny that wordsmiths are without words in the presence of those brilliant heroes. When it happens for me, I keep telling myself he or she is a regular person, but it doesn’t make it any easier. And I try to remember that awkwardness when I’m talking to newer writers who might need encouragement from a more seasoned writer, albeit nowhere close to a literary icon like Proulx or Wolff or Hemingway. Still I have received many kindnesses from more accomplished writers and the weight of those kindnesses gives me ballast in the sea of self-doubt.

  16. Antonia Malchik | December 13, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I was in a workshop once with a guy who wrote an essay about running into Graham Greene in London. Not just meeting him — he practically knocked him over in the street. And then, realizing who it was, the guy writing the essay followed Greene back to his home. It was a really funny essay, and the central chunk was all about how he had idealized Greene and loved his novels for years, and imagining what he would say when he caught up with him (besides “sorry”), which, of course, he never did. Wish the guy had published that essay; it was good.

  17. Thessaly La Force | December 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I wish we could read it! Sounds perfect!

  18. Antonia Malchik | December 14, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Thessaly — it was! Well, with a little revision 🙂 Funny, though, as I was writing the above, it occurred to me once again that most of the really good writers I’ve been in workshops with (including my MFA) are the ones who didn’t end up pursuing a writing career or publication, usually due to a sincere belief that they *weren’t* very good writers.. That’s a topic for another day.

  19. pdz | December 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Great read, warm and personal.
    It transcends the mere literary ones to resonate with all hero obsessions.
    In my previous life I was a busboy at this upscale diner where my
    picture with a guest would have been grounds for immediate
    termination. Over the years, out of the hundreds of celebrities who
    would dine there, only two or three were of hero status to me. But
    when that special occasion presented itself, I would purposely try and
    lurk near their table, clear their yet-unfinished dessert plates and
    half-full glasses of wine, take plates and glasses to the back and
    finish them up there with a toast, in a sort of extended feast: my
    hero, my dishwasher friends and I.

  20. Joseph | May 20, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    I met Gore Vidal once and, not being sure how to speak to such an eminence, I just asked how he and Norman Mailer had come to patch up their differences. This was in 1987 when the two of them had, not long before, been seen happily together in Moscow at an international cultural gathering during Glasnost. Vidal didn’t miss a beat and dealt with me smoothly: “I think we both just forgot what the argument was about.”

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