Interviews

Norman Mailer, The Art of Fiction No. 193

Interviewed by Andrew O'Hagan

I saw Norman Mailer over the course of two days in April, at his home on Cape Cod. The sun was out long enough to let me see the Provincetown transvestites making their way down Commercial Street in a caravan of fake curls, but then a storm came and it was time to retire to the downstairs sitting room of Mailer’s house by the ocean. We sat on two chairs by a large window, and as we spoke a strange northern light crept through the rain and through the glass to make a becoming halo around the eighty-four-year-old author’s head. Mailer’s wife of twenty-six years, Norris Church, was in New York for the weekend, but her presence could be felt in her paintings around us.  

Mailer was last interviewed for this magazine in 1964, the year he published his seventh book. This year he published his forty-second, The Castle in the Forest, and dedicated it to his ten grandchildren, as well as various godchildren and a grandniece. Mailer is thinner than he used to be, and he walks with two canes. He is an old prince of duality, so it comes as no surprise to learn that he also has two hearing aids, which allowed him to get most of my questions the first time. We went for supper together the night before the interview began, to Michael Shay’s, a nearby restaurant that specializes in oysters. Mailer knows the waiters by their first names and he knows the menu even better. He usually takes his oyster shells home because he likes cleaning them, looking at them, and sometimes drawing on them. “Look here,” he said, lifting one. “An oyster shell quite often looks like the face of a Greek god.”

There was something Zeus-like about Mailer himself as he pondered my questions, yet at times he was as earthy as Studs Lonigan. His blue eyes shone when he told me how often a man needs to pee at his age. “At George Plimpton’s memorial service,” he said, “in Saint John the Divine, I suddenly had to go and I knew I wouldn’t make it down the aisle. So I went into a corridor at the side and there I met Philip Roth. Sometimes I have to go into a telephone kiosk to pee, Phil, I said. You just can’t wait at my age. I know, said Roth—it’s the same with me. Well, I said, you always were precocious.”

Now and then during our interview, Mailer would stop and have a drink. He’s not much of a boozer these days, and when he does drink it tends to be in surprising combinations. At one point I made him a red wine and orange juice; at another point it was rum and grapefruit. His intelligence never flickers, and I soon felt that Mailer would be a good person to be stuck with in the army. He is loyal to the spirit of argument and attentive to his opponent’s appetites. For instance, after several hours of us locking into one another like two convicts in a Russian novel, Mailer suggested we go lie down, and we were soon asleep on our respective beds with the wind howling outside from Melville’s old shipping lanes.

At times, as the interview progressed, it felt as if the beams of the house were twisting in time to Mailer’s thoughts. He uses his hands like a filmmaker or a boxing coach, forever framing the idea of movement. But with the storm coming down he was most like Captain Ahab, strung out on this spit of land that beckons to the North Atlantic, struggling still with the big fish. It was pleasant to watch him pitch and roll with the unknowable. After that first meal at Michael Shay’s, I helped him into his car and told him I would walk into town. It was a New England evening, and the long straight road to the commercial district was dark and quiet. Mailer’s house was very close, and I got there first and stopped across the road. He soon arrived in his car and got himself onto the sidewalk very gingerly, the sticks working hard. I stood watching him for a minute until he disappeared through the gate. As I walked away I noticed a plaque on a house further down stating that John Dos Passos lived there eighty years ago, just as Norman Kingsley Mailer was learning to read. I was happy to see these houses so close, the lights burning bright in the darkness. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Dwight MacDonald once called Provincetown “Eighth Street by the Sea.” How long have you been coming here?

NORMAN MAILER

I first came when I was about nineteen. I was having a romance with a girl whom I later married, Beatrice Silverman, my first wife. We decided we wanted to go somewhere for a weekend and she’d heard of this lovely town on the tip of Cape Cod. It must have been 1942 or ’43 and I absolutely fell in love with the place. There was a great fear of the Nazis landing suddenly on the back shore—we have more than forty miles of open sea coast here. So there were no lights in the town. Walking on the streets at night it felt like one was back in the American colonial past. All through the war, I kept writing to my wife that the first thing we’d do when I got back—if and when—is we’d go to Provincetown. 

INTERVIEWER

And you started to write The Naked and the Dead hereabouts?

MAILER

I got out of the army in May of ’46 and we came up here in June. I started the book in June, maybe by the beginning of July. I began writing in a rented beach hut in Truro. I usually need a couple of weeks to warm up on a book. 

INTERVIEWER

You had notes?

MAILER

I always make a huge number of notes before I start. I tend to read a lot on collateral matters and think about it and brood. Now it takes me a half year to get into a novel. I think it took me a few weeks with The Naked and the Dead, because I was young and so full of it and full of the war. I didn’t really have to do any research—it was all in the brain. I wrote almost two hundred pages while I was here that summer.

INTERVIEWER

And you knew it was good?

MAILER

In one mood I thought it was terrific, and then in another I’d think, Oh, you don’t know how to write. I wasn’t a stylist in those days—I knew enough about good writing to know that. Last night at supper you and I spoke about Theodore Dreiser. We agreed more or less, didn’t we, that style was not his forte and yet he had something better than style? Dreiser was one of the people I read at that time, and I would rally my literary troops whenever they were showing signs of bad morale by saying to myself, Well, Dreiser doesn’t have much of a style.

There’s such a thing as having too much style. I think the only one who ever got away with it is Proust. He really had a perfect mating of material and style. Usually if you have a great style your material will be more constrained. That applies to Henry James and it applies to Hemingway. The reverse of that tendency would be Zola, whose style is reasonably decent, nothing remarkable, but the material is terrific.

I think in my own work I’ve gone through the poles of style. It is at its best in An American Dream and virtually nonexistent in The Executioner’s Song, because the material is prodigious. In An American Dream it was all my own imagining. I was cooking the dish. 

INTERVIEWER

It may be argued, in your case, that a great subject has a tendency to unlock a secrecy in your style, something that was not obvious before. 

MAILER

I’m smiling because you give it such a nice edge. My motives at the time of The Executioner’s Song were not all that honorable. I’d been running into a lot of criticism of my baroque style, and it was getting to me. My whole thing became, you know—you asses out there, you think a baroque style is easy? It’s not easy. It’s something you really have to arrive at. It takes years of work. You guys keep talking about the virtues of simplicity—I’ll show you. There’s absolutely nothing to simplicity, and I’m going to prove it with this book, because I probably have the perfect material for showing that I can write a simple book. So I proceeded to do it. My pride in that book is that the best piece of writing is Gary Gilmore’s letter about two-thirds in. I quoted it verbatim. No writing by me up to this point could be superior to that letter, because that letter makes him come to life, and suddenly you see this man was a man of substance, despite all. He might have been a punk, as he was called, he might have killed two people in hideous fashion, but by God, he had a mind and he had a sense of personal literary style, which was in that letter.

One of my basic notions for a long, long time is that there is this mysterious mountain out there called reality. We novelists are always trying to climb it. We are mountaineers, and the question is, Which face do you attack? Different faces call for different approaches, and some demand a knotty and convoluted interior style. Others demand great simplicity. The point is that style is an attack on the nature of reality. 

So I wrote the Gilmore book simply. Maybe it led me to think I could take a crack at Hemingway, but the fact of the matter is, when it comes to writing simply, I am not Hemingway’s equal. My great admiration for Hemingway is not necessarily for the man, the character. I think if we had met it could have been a small disaster for me. But he showed us, as no one else ever has, what the potential strength of the English sentence could be. 

INTERVIEWER

Let’s linger on Hemingway for a second. Is it possible he showed a generation how to get emotion into a sentence without mentioning emotion?

MAILER

Yes, and he did it more than anyone ever had before or after. But he’s a trap. If you’re not careful you end up writing like him. It’s very dangerous to write like Hemingway, but on the other hand it’s almost like a rite of passage. I almost wouldn’t trust a young novelist—I won’t speak for the women here, but for a male novelist—who doesn’t imitate Hemingway in his youth. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember where you were when you heard Hemingway had killed himself?

MAILER

I remember it very well. I was with Jeanne Campbell in Mexico and it was before we got married. I was truly aghast. A certain part of me has never really gotten over it. In a way, it was a huge warning. What he was saying is, Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.

INTERVIEWER

Did it compromise your sense of his courage?

MAILER

I hated to think that his death might do that. I came up with a thesis: Hemingway had learned early in life that the closer he came to daring death the healthier it was for him. He saw that as the great medicine, to dare to engage in a nearness to death. And so I had this notion that night after night when he was alone, after he said goodnight to Mary, Hemingway would go to his bedroom and he’d put his thumb on the shotgun trigger and put the barrel in his mouth and squeeze down on the trigger a little bit, and—trembling, shaking—he’d try to see how close he could come without having the thing go off. On the final night he went too far. That to me made more sense than him just deciding to blow it all to bits. However, it’s nothing but a theory. The fact of the matter is that Hemingway committed suicide. 

INTERVIEWER

Might it be said, in any event, that writing is a sort of self-annihilation?

MAILER

It uses you profoundly. There’s simply less of you after you finish a book, which is why writers can be so absolutely enraged at cruel criticisms that they feel are unfair. We feel we have killed ourselves once writing the book, and now they are seeking to kill us again for too little. Gary Gilmore once remarked, “Padre, there’s nothing fair.” And I’ve used that over and over again. Yet if you’re writing a good novel then you’re being an explorer—you’re getting into something where you don’t know the end, where the end is not given. There’s a mixture of dread and excitement that keeps you going. To my mind, it’s not worth writing a novel unless you’re tackling something where your chances of success are open. You can fail. You’re gambling with your psychic reserves. It’s as if you were the general of an army of one, and this general can really drive that army into a cul-de-sac. 

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about age, growing old, and let’s be precise. How does the matter of growing old affect your vanity as a writer? There is perhaps nothing more damaging to one’s vanity than the idea that the best years are behind one. 

MAILER

Well, I think if you get old and you’re not full of objectivity you’re in trouble. The thing that makes old age powerful is objectivity. If you say to yourself, My karma is more balanced now that I have fewer things than I’ve ever had in my life, that can give you sustenance. You end up with a keen sense of what you still have as a writer, and also of what you don’t have any longer. As you grow older, there’s no reason why you can’t be wiser as a novelist than you ever were before. You should know more about human nature every year of your life. Do you write about it quite as well or as brilliantly as you once did? No, not quite. You’re down a peg or two there.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

MAILER

I think it’s a simple matter of brain damage and nothing else. The brain deteriorates. Why can’t an old car do certain things a new car can do? You have to take that for granted. You wouldn’t beat on an old car and say, You betrayed me! The good thing is you know every noise in that old car. 

INTERVIEWER

It was suggested to me that a certain senior American novelist went to see another senior American novelist at the twilight of the latter’s life and said to him, Enough now, no more writing.

MAILER

He said to him don’t write anymore?

INTERVIEWER

Yes. It’s one of those stories you hear in New York. If it happened, one might think of it as an act of love. One great and elegant swordsman disarming another. 

MAILER

No, I can’t believe it. I’ll tell you if anyone ever came to me with that, I’d say, kidding is kidding, but get your ass off my pillow. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think America is a good place in which to practice the arts? 

MAILER

When I was young it was marvelous for a writer. It’s the reason we have so many good writers in America—most of our literature had not yet been written. English novelists had all the major eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geniuses to deal with and go beyond. What did we have to go beyond? A few great writers, Melville and Hawthorne. The list is very short. For us, the field was wide open. Now we’re beleaguered. The movies were bad enough, though American novelists always felt a certain superiority to what was happening in Hollywood. You weren’t learning more about human nature from films, you were just being entertained—at some cost to your ability to learn a little more about why we’re here, which I think is one of the remaining huge questions. 

Now people grow up with television, which has an element within it that is absolutely inimical to serious reading, and that is the commercial. Any time you’re interested in a narrative, you know it’s going to be interrupted every seven to ten minutes, which will shatter any concentration. Kids watch television and lose all interest in sustained narrative. As a novelist, I really feel I’m one of the elders of a dying craft. It once was an art, and now it’s down to being a craft and that craft is going to go. The answer to your question is this: America is no longer a good place to be a novelist, and once it was a wonderful place.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a time when the country looked to novelists for the truth?

MAILER

The important writers in my day, back in the early forties, were much more important to me than movie stars. Movie stars were oddities, curiosities. Actors could be dynamic, they could be attractive, but that wasn’t important, not in the scheme of things. Novelists were. I can’t speak for how people feel when they enter the priesthood, but that was the way I felt as a novelist—vocational. Nothing was more important to me.

INTERVIEWER

The country seems to have been so hungry for great novelists—for a great American novel. Did that feed your sense of vocation?

MAILER

Most certainly. I think a number of us used to dream fifty and sixty years ago of doing just that—writing the great American novel. I will say, that dream dies hard.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a story Shelley Winters told about you. The way I heard it, she came to you around 1950 and asked you to help her understand Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. She badly wanted to be cast as the factory girl in George Stevens’s screen adaptation. It eventually came out as A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift. A sweet story, that. 

MAILER

And absolutely true.

INTERVIEWER

I love the idea of a girl coming to a novelist wanting to be educated.

MAILER

Well, we’d known each other. Shelley called me up one day. She was hysterical. She said, I have to go see George Stevens tomorrow. In those days she was viewed as a ditzy blond who was not much of an actress. She was terribly serious about acting but she played silly blonds in silly movies, and she wanted something better. 

She said, I’ve got to read this book An American Tragedy, and it’s seven hundred pages, I can’t read it by tomorrow, and so forth. So I said, All right, I’ll come over and see you. And of course I had my own little agenda tucked into the middle of it. Hey, I’ll be alone with this blond movie actress and maybe good things will come of it. So I get there and she’s got a bad case of hives, and she’s got a bandanna wrapped around her head, and her chin is swollen, and she looks like hell, and she’s in an old kimono, totally unsexy, and she looks ready to go in for a strong case of the weeps. 

In those days I wasn’t always very effective, but that day I was. I said, Now look, first of all it’s a seven-hundred-page book, but your part of it is only in the middle, and I showed her about two hundred and fifty pages in the middle. Read as much as you can tonight, and don’t panic. The key thing is that you can play this role, and what you want to remember is, she’s a working-class girl you’re playing, and she’s a girl who’s completely without artifice. She is what she is. And that’s the core of Roberta Alden. It’s what gets her into the love affair with Clyde, and it’s what makes her lose it. 

So I go home afterward. I might as well have been in the desert for all the sex there was going to be that day. And I speak to my wife, in the righteous tones of a husband who’s been out trying to gallivant and has failed. And then, of course, twenty-four hours later Shelley calls me up and says, Norman, I got the role. She says, I was talking to him and I said, Mr. Stevens, the way I look at it is Roberta Alden is a girl completely without artifice. And he said, Hey, you know, you’re not the dummy I thought you were. So she got the role. Once she’d been working on it for a few weeks, she called again and said, Norman, I need some new dialogue. I need some new lines. I’ve used that statement about artifice a few times now and he’s getting tired of it.

INTERVIEWER

Much of the interviewer’s art is concerned with the question of motive. What made you write this? What caused you to marry her? How did you come to be involved in that particular action? Why did you do it? And it strikes me that your new novel, The Castle in the Forest, is likewise shrouded in the question of motive, the overarching one being what made young Adolph Hitler into a personification of evil? The family incest? The example of the bees? The severity of his father’s beatings?

MAILER

None of that. None of the above.

INTERVIEWER

Hold on. You mean it doesn’t matter? But to what extent was the question of motive your motive for writing the book?

MAILER

Oh, my motive is separate from whatever motives I gave Hitler. I hate it when writers give psychological explanations that pretend to answer questions and don’t. 

INTERVIEWER

Nevertheless you chose to put these things in the book. 

MAILER

Well, they are contributing factors. But my notion of the book from the beginning was to have a devil narrating it. There’s a long riff in the novel about how the average intelligent intellectual today finds it hard enough to believe in God, let alone the devil. And my feeling is that there’s no better explanation for Hitler than that he was inspired by the devil, as Jesus Christ was inspired by God. If people will believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God then I don’t see why you can’t see that Hitler is the offspring of the devil. It’s the simplest explanation. There’s no other. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you stand with Milton and with Paradise Lost in the understanding that the devil sometimes has the best lines?

MAILER

Oh yeah, more than the best lines. I really do believe that there’s a close-knit war between God and the devil that goes on in all our affairs. People hate the thought today, because we live in a technological time where human beings are sick and tired of the heritage of the Middle Ages, a time when we all crawled on our bellies and prayed to God and sobbed and said, Oh, God, please pay attention to me. Oh, God, please save me. Oh, Devil, stay away. Well, we’ve had the Enlightenment since then. We’ve had Voltaire. We’ve had several centuries in which to forge our vanity as human beings, and now we are a third force. There’s God at one end, the devil at the other, and there we are occupying this huge center. And half of us alive don’t believe in God or the devil.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in God?

MAILER

Oh, of course I do. But I don’t mean I believe in God as a lawgiver, as the Jehovah. I think that was a power grab by priests way back then, a power grab implicit in the notion that if you can get people afraid of a powerful force who will punish them if they don’t do the right thing, then the agents of that force wield huge power. And so there’s no such thing as a priesthood that doesn’t believe in God as all-powerful and all-punishing. But I don’t believe in that at all. I believe in God as the creator. My notion of God is that God created us, and that like all creators God is not in command of the situation. God is the best that he or she can do under very difficult circumstances.

INTERVIEWER

So is this an existential God?

MAILER

Absolutely. Doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out, doesn’t know whether he or she is going to succeed or fail. Has a war with the devil. This God is a local god, if you will. And there are local gods all over the universe. All with different notions of existence. And some of them are at war with each other and some of them are so far apart they don’t have to worry about it. But if we’re going to go with rank speculations, absolutely errant speculations, illegal speculations, I’d say that the devil was probably sent here as a counterforce to God. In other words, there were higher forces in the universe that didn’t like this upstart God who had a vision of humanity. 

INTERVIEWER

A large number of Americans today hold the notion that God and the devil are at work in their daily lives.

MAILER

I think they are. Not in a controlling sense—I don’t believe that the devil seizes you and you’re gone forever. But can you say that you’ve never had a fuck where you didn’t feel evil for a little while? 

INTERVIEWER

A little angelic, maybe. 

MAILER

No. A little evil. And I think that’s the answer. 

INTERVIEWER

In The Castle in the Forest, I wonder if you aren’t mystifying the process by suggesting that Hitler could only be as he was because the devil was present at the moment of his conception. That would be my argument with the book: a novelist can’t ignore the capacity of human beings to create terror in the confines of their own minds, in the structure of their own lives.

MAILER

You can argue that. Hitler is, however, one of a kind: there’s no explanation for him. Stalin was a monster of a comprehensible sort. We can read Stalin’s biography, we can study the Bolshevik movement, we can study the conditions in Russia, we can study the hideous aftermath of the Russian Revolution. We can add Stalin up bit by bit, piece by piece, and understand him in human terms. He may have been one of the most evil human beings that ever lived, but he was a human being. You don’t need to bring in the devil to explain Stalin. But Hitler is different. Hitler is not a strong man the way Stalin was. He’s almost weak. He is inexplicable, unless you buy the idea that he was the devil’s choice for reasons that go very deep into German nature. 

And I would go further than that. I’m now anticipating the next book that I’m going to write. Who knows if I’ll be around long enough to write it, but if I can, Hitler will emerge as the devil’s choice. By the end of The Castle, he’s one of tens of hundreds of candidates that the devil has seeded all over humanity as possible monsters. The devil, like God, gives a command for many things, but history is not wholly predictable. God and the devil are warring with one another. Humans are warring against them and among themselves. And the devil does not try to create one Hitler the way God created one Jesus. He’s a pragmatist, so he creates hundreds and thousands of potential Hitlers, and this is the one that came through. Why? Because of the extraordinary conditions in Germany, which were not present when Hitler was conceived, and that’s what the next book will get into. How this crappy kid ends up being this powerhouse.

INTERVIEWER

We’re living in a world increasingly defined by people who believe that the other party is the force of evil.

MAILER

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER 

We live with these terms. The Axis of Evil. The Great Satan. The Evil Empire. 

MAILER

The brunt of my effort is to make certain that all the bread is buttered equally. Is there evil in America? Yes. Is there evil in Islam? Yes. Is one side more evil than the other? Who knows. We’re both immensely evil, we’re both immensely good. It’s part of our religious beliefs that we are mixtures, profound mixtures. Atheists say they are perfectly happy not believing in God. But they can’t be happy philosophically, because they have no answer to the question of how we got here. It’s very hard to describe the complexities of human nature having emerged ex nihilo. If you have God as a creator doing the best that he or she can do there’s a perfect explanation for why we’re here. We’re God’s creation, and God has great respect for us, the way a father, a good father, has respect for children because the father wants the children to be more interesting than himself. And ditto for the mother. And in that sense we are, you might say, the avant-garde for God. The notion of heaven as Club Med or hell as an overheated boiler room makes no sense to me. 

INTERVIEWER

You believe in reincarnation. So what are you coming back as, Norman?

MAILER

Well, I’m waiting, right? I’m in the waiting room. And finally my name is called. I go in and there’s a monitoring angel who says, Mr. Mailer, we’re very glad to meet you. We’ve been looking forward to your arrival. Let me tell you the good news, absolutely good news, is you’ve been passed for reincarnation. I say, Oh thank you, yes, I really didn’t want to go into eternal peace. And the monitoring angel says, Well, between us, it isn’t really necessarily eternal peace. It can be a little hectic. But nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that you’ve been passed for reincarnation. Let me see, before I look and see what we’ve got you down for, we always ask people, What would you like to be in your next life? And I say, Well, I think I’d like to be a black athlete. I don’t care where you put me, I’ll take my chances, but yes, that’s what I want to be, a black athlete. And the monitoring angel says, Listen, Mailer, we’re so oversubscribed in that department. Everybody wants to be a black athlete in their next life. I don’t know now . . . I can’t begin to . . . let me see what we’ve got you booked for. So he opens the big book, looks, and says, Well, we’ve got you down for a cockroach. But here’s the good news: you’ll be the fastest cockroach on the block. 

INTERVIEWER

Not bad. 

MAILER

Reincarnation is the best evidence of God’s sense of wit and judgment. God, I repeat, is not a lawgiver. He is a creator, and creators have judgment. 

INTERVIEWER

Was it Gary Gilmore’s belief in reincarnation that initially attracted you to him?

MAILER

Oh yeah. But the thought has been with me for years. In 1954, when I was a very proud atheist, very proud, very sure of myself, very sure that God had to be dispensed with, I went out to visit James Jones in Illinois. He started talking about reincarnation. Now, Jones was one of the most practical novelists I’ve ever met, real Midwestern. He was absolutely solid in his sense of the real and the given and how you dealt with it. His pleasure in life was how you dealt precisely with the difficulties of reality. He was a great believer in the real, and yet he believed in reincarnation. I said to him, I’m sure you don’t believe in that stuff do you? He said, Hell yes I do! It’s the only thing that makes sense. So I had to live with that remark for the next ten years before it finally moved over to my head.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have violent dreams?

MAILER

No, I don’t. I put those dreams into the work. 

INTERVIEWER

A capacity for violence clings to your concerns as a writer, and it clings equally to your reputation. 

MAILER

The reputation is worse. The legend is much fatter than I am. 

INTERVIEWER

Let’s pause over the reputation. There are two recent movies that bring it up. One is Infamous, Douglas McGrath’s movie about Truman Capote. There’s a scene where Capote is having dinner with some of those rich girls he loved. One of them asks him if it isn’t frightening to go into the cell with the Clutter murderers, and Capote says, “To be frank, I’m much more concerned for my safety around Norman Mailer.” 

MAILER

If you’ve been in five—say, five—fights in your life, the public sees it as fifty fights or one hundred and fifty. 

INTERVIEWER

And in the other movie, Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, there’s a scene in which Andy Warhol is sitting in a confessional box and he’s saying to the priest, “I have this friend and Norman Mailer walked up and punched him in the stomach, and all I could think was, Will Norman Mailer ever punch me?” 

MAILER

People are always at a loss when they meet me.

INTERVIEWER

Are you sick of it? 

MAILER

Oh, I’m beyond being sick of it, you know. You have to shrug. 

INTERVIEWER

Yet your work has always been taken up with violence.  

MAILER

The interest in violence is legitimate. I always thought it was one of the frontiers left to us as novelists. The great novelists of the nineteenth century dealt with love, they dealt with disappointment and love, they dealt with honesty, they dealt to some degree with corruption, they dealt with the forces of society as general abstract forces that could bend a person’s will. Then came the twentieth century. Hemingway was fascinated with violence because his body was torn apart in the war. Violence was central to him. When I read Hemingway I was fascinated with the way he treated violence, but never satisfied. 

INTERVIEWER

Was part of it your knowledge that man was living under the threat of mass violence?

MAILER

But that was the irony. That individual violence was taboo and yet we lived very seriously with notions of mass violence. There were perfectly serious people in both the Soviet Union and America in those years who spent their days and nights dreaming about how they could absolutely destroy the other country. I mean, they asked themselves how much damage would we have to suffer to destroy the Soviet Union totally. Those are the kind of calculations that were being made all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s keep to the line here. We come into this period when your generation of American novelists really begins to have a nuanced understanding of how violence exists both in our imaginations and in our societies. Please take that up. 

MAILER

I was always alert to the animosity that the literary world felt when having to deal with violence. This was during a period when it wasn’t at all certain we’d make it to the end of the century. We lived with that—we still live with such uncertainty. At the same time, individual violence is considered very unpleasant and not to be talked about, and for me violent moments are always existential moments. They are crucial. One looks at them and says, Maybe I can do something terrific with this.

INTERVIEWER

So you look at a figure such as Lee Harvey Oswald, a man whose name will always cling to a single devastating act of violence—and what do you see?

MAILER

Well, first of all, I have to decide whether he did it or not. When I started Oswald’s Tale I felt that if I ever got over to Russia I was going find out an awful lot. I believed there was a conspiracy. And the better I got to know Oswald the more I came to believe that if he was a member of a conspiracy he was only there as some great extension, he wasn’t the sort of person who’d be a useful member to the conspiracy, because he was a loner. He was much too proud. He wanted to do it all himself. I could be wrong about all this. When I say I think Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, I come to that conclusion in the way of an intelligence officer, which means I’m seventy-five percent certain he killed Kennedy. Certainly if someone came up with incontrovertible evidence that he was part of a conspiracy, I’d have to say I was wrong. But I believe he did it, for a very simple reason, which is he wanted to be famous. He wanted to be immortal. It stands out about him. Because of his experience in the Soviet Union and in America, he crossed from mass violence to individual violence, and he may indeed have felt that he was afforded a special role in existence.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still stand by your essay “The White Negro”?

MAILER

I stand by it in that I’m sure there are any number of people—particularly young men—who lead their lives according to the quality of their orgasm. In other words they find a chick who gives them a greater orgasm than another chick and that’s what they follow, that’s their idea of love. And who’s to say they’re wrong? The orgasm is a very deep expression of ourselves. A lot of black people resent that I ascribed the search for the orgasm more to black people than to white. My feeling was that since many other avenues of achievement were cut off to them, it made perfect sense. 

INTERVIEWER

I want to talk to you about how a novelist transfigures factual material. Lawrence Schiller brought you interviews for the Gary Gilmore story and for the book about Lee Harvey Oswald. So can you begin to say what happens to turn facts into art? 

MAILER

To make it novelistic? All right. With Gilmore, Larry came in with a third of the interviews, or half of the interviews—something massive like that. And then I did a great many, and my assistant Judith McNally did all the lawyers, because she was very good at that. And so we ended up with about three hundred interviews, and maybe half of them I participated in. From there, it was a little like reducing maple sap to syrup—you boil the stuff all day long until you get down to an essence. Then came the next step, which was to transmute that into a fictional form. 

I realized at this point that there exists a funny reciprocal relation between fact and fiction. I had this feeling that I can’t really justify or explain, that the closer this book stayed to the given statements the more fictional it would be. When you have a collection of bare facts, the trouble is that most of the facts are not—what’s the word I’m looking for—refined. They are warped. They’re scabby. They’re distorted. Very often they’re false facts. And there’s a tendency when you don’t have to live with these facts to lump them all together, and so the story very often ends, despite good and serious efforts, with a betrayal of the reality. 

INTERVIEWER 

This is excellent. Break it down. 

MAILER

OK. I would go so far as to say that any history that gets built entirely upon fact is going to be full of error and will be misleading. It’s the human mind that is able to synthesize what the reality might have been. Now, that reality doesn’t have to be the one that took place, it has to be a reality that people can live with in their narrow minds, as the likelihood of how something could take place. And that’s the key difference. If you read a book and say, Yes, this is how it could have taken place, your mind has been enriched. The feeling I had with The Executioner’s Song was that these facts, if very closely examined and reexamined and reduced and refined, would begin to create a manifest of the given that I would call fictional. Fictional because it breathed, and there’s the difference. If you put facts together in such a way that they truly breathe for the reader, then you’re writing fiction. Fiction is not tales or legends, or saying stuff that’s not true as opposed to stuff that is true. Something can be true and still be fiction. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve never been entirely happy with this. When you wrote The Armies of the Night did you feel it was a novel? 

MAILER

Yeah, well, I didn’t do much of a job with the “history as a novel, the novel as history” label. To this day I’m not sure what I was doing when I did that. I think that The Armies of the Night is not a fiction. That book was as real as I could make it. It is an autobiographical narrative, and that’s not the same thing as fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Does it bother you that your two Pulitzer Prizes were for works based on factual situations?

MAILER

Some say with bland certitude, Of course Mailer is a good nonfiction writer—he’s not much of a novelist. That irritates me, yes. Because the person saying that is just not familiar with my work. No one could read Harlot’s Ghost and say it’s nonfiction, you know. No one could read Ancient Evenings, for God’s sakes, and say that’s nonfiction. They’re not familiar with those works, that’s all. They’ve made up their minds on the basis of the stuff they have read, which tends to be the nonfictional work. 

I accept that I have been living with the problems of nonfiction over the years, and that I have often been happy writing nonfiction because it’s easier than writing novels. You don’t have to worry about the story.

INTERVIEWER

That won’t do, Norman. No way. 

MAILER

No, let me go on. When you’re writing fiction you can lose your novel on a given morning. You can have your protagonist take up a serious act that appeals to you at the moment, and then you have to follow up on that act, and you have to deal with the consequences of that act. And two months later, six months later, horror of horrors, two years later, you wake up and say, I took the wrong turn that day. That happens in the writing of novels, and it’s enough to frighten you to death.

INTERVIEWER

OK. But you’re not going to suggest that you wrote nonfiction because it was easier?

MAILER

No—not quite. I wrote nonfiction because the jobs were offered to me. For instance, with Marilyn, Scott Meredith, who was my agent at the time, called me to say he’s got some pretty terrific money for twenty-five thousand words on Marilyn Monroe. And he named the figure. 

INTERVIEWER

What was it?

MAILER

For the sake of the record, it was fifty thousand dollars. In those days that was enormous. And Scott said to me, Look, Norman. It’s very good. But don’t write too much. I proceeded to get so taken with Marilyn that I ended up writing ninety-five thousand words. Fifty thousand ended up being a modest payment for the book instead of a coup. The point is, it was such an agreeable book to write. I didn’t have to do any thinking. I didn’t have to create this incredible blond star who had such an incredible life—the material was all there. And on top of that, writing the book taught me a great deal about facts and false facts. See, I was dealing with a group of liars. Everybody in Hollywood exaggerates and distorts and trims and manipulates stories, and so it was almost like being an intelligence agent. You had to decide what might be true and what might not. 

INTERVIEWER

There’s a part of you that enjoys the notion of being an intelligence agent?

MAILER

Does it just! I once did a story on Warren Beatty for Vanity Fair. I really liked him, and I think he liked me. I also wanted him to run for president. This was in 1991, and he demurred. And then later Arianna Huffington wrote that he should run for president. So I called Warren up and I said, Will you settle for vice president? And he answered, All right, all right, what do you want? Head of intelligence, I told him. You’ve got it, he said. How we laughed. Ah, if only Warren Beatty had been president. 

INTERVIEWER

Flaubert felt that one could find the model for Emma Bovary very close to the author. How much of you is there in the grand persons that you’ve taken as your subjects, and would it ever be possible for you to say, Adolf Hitler, c’est moi?

MAILER

While I was doing the story on Warren, I went to see Bugsy, which hadn’t been released yet. And the violence in Bugsy was truly apparent. Now Warren Beatty is obviously physically able, he’s a bit of an athlete, but you don’t think of him as violent. And so it was a shock to see how marvelous and convincing a portrait of violence he managed to give. And I said to him, Aren’t you a little bit concerned that your friends won’t be comfortable around you now? And he said, Oh, no, most of my friends are actors and they understand it. You don’t really need to have more than five percent of a character in yourself to be able to play him. Then he grinned and said, Of course if you’ve got seventy-five percent it’s a lot easier. I’d say with Adolph Hitler, five percent was all I needed.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve gone quite far with five percent.

MAILER

You bring whatever powers you have to high focus. It’s why very few people ever become successful novelists and are able to remain successful novelists. They have the talent, but it’s also about bringing the powers to focus. It involves stuff that isn’t agreeable. For instance, being a novelist means you have to be ready to live a monastic life. When you’re really working on a novel there can be ten days in a row when you’re just out there working and offering nothing to your mate and nothing to anyone else. You don’t want to be bothered, you don’t want to answer the phone, you don’t want even to talk a great deal to your kids—you want to be left alone while you’re working. And that is hard. And of course every morning you have to go in there and face that blank page and start up again. So this business of bringing your powers to focus is not routine. You have to believe you’re going to engage in spiritual discomfort in order to get to the place where you can think. Not just to think as yourself, but to do so as the person who’s fashioning the novel.

INTERVIEWER

Has there been an instance of seventy-five percent with you, where you felt that you really knew an extraordinary amount about the subject? I mean natively knew a lot about the subject, as opposed to knowing their dates and the names of their wives. I’m thinking of Picasso.

MAILER

That was easier. But no, never seventy-five percent. Always less than half. I mean, these are extraordinary people. You mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler. What’s the common denominator in all of them? They’re all essentially people without roots—people who’ve gone through identity crises.

INTERVIEWER

Muhammad Ali?

MAILER

Oh, I think he’s had to reforge his identity every few years.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

MAILER

Ali embraces not only the fighter but the ring, and the audience. He has a sense of absolute awareness. So for him every time his status shifted, and it shifted dramatically several times, he was a somewhat different person. So he had identity crises. Or modulations, identity shifts. 

INTERVIEWER

Jesus Christ?

MAILER

If you think you’re the son of God, you got a lot of identity crisis.

INTERVIEWER

You have been drawn to icons and to the travails of the celebrated ego, but not so much to the minutiae of family life or the American suburbs. Saul Bellow put everything that ever happened to him into his novels. You’ve been married six times but have not used your private life in that way. 

MAILER

Never, and for a reason—which is, I believe that the fundamental experiences of your life form crystals in your imagination, and that you can take your imagination and beam it through from different angles. It hits the crystal, you beam it through this way, you beam it through on another angle, and you end up with different stories, different aperçus, different novels. It’s exactly what actors do. I’ve never written directly about a wife at the time I was married to her. I don’t think that I’ve ever written about a wife. I think I write about aspects of wives, aspects of children, because I don’t believe in using one’s experience directly. I think if you do, you cut off other possibilities. 

INTERVIEWER

Now, it would be impossible to talk to you about the art of fiction without talking about politics. You once called yourself a left conservative. 

MAILER

I still do. I am a left conservative.

INTERVIEWER

But let us talk about neoconservatism. It has become such a thing in America. I’m interested in your relationship with people like Norman Podhoretz, people who went on a journey that took them very far from the place where they started. 

MAILER

Well, I can understand it. And in fact, I feel partly responsible for Podhoretz. He and I were close friends at one point. He wrote a book called Making It, and the book got trashed terribly. He was unpopular on the left. I never quite understood why he was so unpopular. But they trashed his book like you wouldn’t believe. It was truly ugly. And I hadn’t read it yet—or I’d read the first half of it, which was pretty good. And I witnessed this trashing and said to him, I’m going to write a review. So I read all of the book. And the book betrays itself. The second half is god-awful. In the first half, his thesis is that the dirty little secret among the left, among artists and intellectuals, is that they really want to make it, and they want to make it big. And they conceal that from themselves and from others. But this is really the motivating factor that is never talked about. You can talk about sex but you can’t talk about ambition and desire for success. So he does all that. And then he starts to give portraits of all the people on the left who have made it—pious, sweet little portraits, with people who we know goddamn well are not that at all. And I was horrified at the way he could betray his own book. There was a failure in nerve there—in other words, if you want to be strong theoretically, you better be strong in detail as well. That’s what makes a good general. Strong at both ends. And he wasn’t. 

So I ended up mocking his book, too. And I was pretty cruel. Looking back on it, I was probably too cruel. He went into a depression and stayed there for about a year . . . just didn’t do much. Worked on his magazine and listened to music and hardly saw anyone. And by the end of that time, he’d moved over to the right. Podhoretz is nothing if not active and enterprising. So the moment he moved over to the right, it wasn’t enough to be on the right, he had to be far to the right. And so I feel that I’m responsible, to whatever degree, for helping to have shoved him over there. Which is too bad, because he now is paying for his sins on the right by having supported the war in Iraq and he has to live with it—has to live with all the idiocies of the neoconservatives. 

INTERVIEWER

Politics was a consuming passion for you—on the level of action, for a time, as much as on the level of writing. Did you have the political effect you desired?

MAILER

You spend your life, if you’re a politically minded writer, attacking what you hate politically. And it probably has no more than a very small effect. But the inner call is there to do it. At one point I actually went into politics and tried twice to run for mayor of New York and thought I’d make a difference. What I discovered is I might just as well have tried out for a soccer team, when I don’t know anything about soccer. 

INTERVIEWER

The 1969 campaign for mayor marked the end of your political career.

MAILER

I realized a number of things afterward. One of them was I didn’t have enough stamina. I mean, I aged in the three or four months of the campaign, and I was tired all the time. We got very little press. And it really felt, a lot of the time, as if we were just beating our fists against the wall. What I said after it was all over is that a freshman can’t be elected president of the fraternity. And right after I made that remark, along came Jimmy Carter. He broke the rule, but he wasn’t a very successful president. 

INTERVIEWER

So it must interest you to imagine how Václav Havel managed to be a writer and be president too? 

MAILER

I don’t know much about his career. We met once and had an unhappy meeting because I’d been in Havana and I talked about meeting Castro, what an interesting man he was, which is undeniably true, but Havel just clammed up. Obviously I was not someone with whom he wished to have anything to do, so my feeling was, Hey, you tell me to get lost? I tell you to get lost! He brought out the old Brooklyn in me. 

INTERVIEWER

But at some level you must have understood? 

MAILER

I understood, but I also thought it was narrow-minded. Yes, he’d spent his life fighting the communists, and he hated them, but you’ve got to be able to make distinctions. There is such a thing as a relatively good communist, and if there’s one on earth, it was Fidel Castro. I mean, there’s a huge difference—the average communist that oppressed Havel was a bureaucrat who had kept his nose clean and in the trough and was an oppressor because he was a mediocrity. And there was Castro, who was hated by every American president for a very simple reason, which is that he had become head of a nation by daring to win. And how had they become president? By shaking hands with people they despised for decades. And Havel should have been able to see that difference.

INTERVIEWER

Flannery O’Connor once asked the question, “Who speaks for America today?” The answer she gave was the advertising agencies. Can you imagine a time again when the answer to that question will be the American novelist? 

MAILER

No, not now. I’m gloomy. I wish I could be more positive about it. But the marketeers have taken over the country. There’s been a profound shift in the American ethic. We used to be a country that prided itself on the fine products we made. Not necessarily the greatest or most beautiful or most finely machined products, but we made a very good level of product that made economic sense. Now the country’s pride is marketing. 

INTERVIEWER

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that America was addicted to illusion. But is it now more true to say that America fully believes its own lies?

MAILER

When it comes to foreign affairs, we’ve been living lies ever since World War II. Now, maybe for the first five or ten years after World War II, Russia was an ideological threat because it did have great appeal to certain poor countries, no question. And then after that they hit their bad years. They’ve never been a huge threat to us. Yet for forty-plus years while the cold war was on, we kept Americans believing we were engaged in a struggle of ideology that had to be won. So there was an awful lot of bullshit slowly rolling down, like lava, over the American mind. 

Most of the country believes in Jesus Christ. And they believe that compassion is the greatest virtue. But we only believe this on Sundays. And the other six days of the week, we’re an immensely competitive nation. We scramble like hell to make more money than our neighbor. Culture’s a word that most Americans don’t react to quickly. A European knows exactly what you mean by culture. They’ve got it there in their architecture. They’ve got it there in the curve of a street, and we have thoroughfares that go in a straight line because that’s the fastest way to get to market. So there’s a great guilt in American life, and this guilt is that we’re not good Christians. The Karl Rove concoction—stupidity plus patriotism—comes into play here. The basic propaganda machine of the parties, particularly the Republicans, is to enforce the notion that we are a noble, good country that wants only good for the rest of the world, and that we’re God’s blessing and that God wants us to succeed, that we’re God’s project. And under this exists, always, an ongoing sense of shame, an ongoing sense of guilt, the feeling that we’re not as good as we pretend to be. 

INTERVIEWER

Younger American novelists have voiced concern over the neglect of high culture and the rise of Oprah’s Book Club. But it seems to me novelists are doing fine, actually; it’s the critical culture that’s in trouble. You grew up as a writer in conditions of, shall we say, mutual recognition with a generation of literary critics—people who had political feeling and were respectful of high culture. I’m thinking of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, of course, and Edmund Wilson. Answer me two things: Did the existence of that critical audience affect your sense of the culture you were writing into? And two, has the disappearance of that critical culture taken away from the good of the novel?

MAILER

The answer to both questions is yes, absolutely. Those critics were my judgmental peers. It was more exciting to me to meet people like Trilling and Howe than to meet most movie stars. Edmund Wilson was the nearest thing to Jehovah. You wanted their respect, and you feared their disapproval. At the same time, as you grew and developed, you didn’t feel totally inferior to them. There came that time—that happy, blessed time—when you could say, Well, I might know more about this subject than Irving Howe. That was a nice moment. We don’t have it anymore. Those critics have all passed away. There’s no one to replace them that I can see. 

INTERVIEWER

You were friends with the Trillings. Did you feel such people helped you to define your style as a writer?

MAILER

Lionel was very remote, and he never really engaged with a book of mine as such. But it was nice to be in his presence. He was a very intelligent man. And there was that book he wrote, The Liberal Imagination—you could argue with it. You could live with it. You could think about it. And he was a fine man to spend an evening with because his intelligence was so good. Diana was enthusiastic, emotional, open, passionate, furious, absolutely took sides on everything, intolerant, full of fun—the exact opposite of Lionel. I suppose I was really closer to Diana. We were almost like cousins. We fought all the time and loved each other. And of course there was Lillian Hellman: they were impossible friends, the Trillings and the Hellmans, because Lillian was sort of sympathetic to the Party, and they were very much anticommunist. And yet they never brought that up between them until the end, when they parted company. 

INTERVIEWER

“Marriage is a workable institution,” says the narrator in the new book, “especially for dreadful people.” That made me laugh.

MAILER

Well, the devil was speaking. That’s not me. 

INTERVIEWER

As you prefer. But I still wonder if your marriages have made you a better novelist.

MAILER

Let’s transpose the question. Did Picasso’s marriages—we’d better say relationships—make him a better painter or a worse one? It’s an interesting point of argument. 

INTERVIEWER

They certainly afforded him variety. 

MAILER

Every wife is a culture, and you enter deep into another culture, one that’s not your own, and you learn an awful lot from it. And given the fact that marriage is not always a comfortable institution, you chafe in that culture. For example, suppose you spend ten years of your life in France. And you finally decide to leave. You wouldn’t for the rest of your life say, I hate France. You’d say, France has an awful lot to offer. I have my differences with it, but I’m happy I spent ten years in France. Women don’t like arguments like that because they consider them denigrating. Oh, here’s this man who took my youth and enjoyed me to the hilt and then took off. That’s not the way it is. Men are aged quite as much by marriage as women. There’s no question in my mind that within each marriage Picasso was a different type of painter. And I think you could probably say—I don’t compare myself to Picasso, who had a much mightier effect on the world than I’ll ever have—that my writing shifted with each wife. Each relationship had a profound effect on the work. One has different loyalties, different interests, different understandings. One has a different sense of good and evil.

INTERVIEWER

Good and evil?

MAILER

Our understanding of good and evil begins with our parents. Down the road it is altered by one’s relationships with one’s children.

INTERVIEWER

If one is so minded—or so inclined—is it a good idea for a novelist to have children?

MAILER

I don’t prescribe for novelists. I mean, if Henry James followed my prescription, where would he have been? 

INTERVIEWER

James himself was full of prescriptions. 

MAILER

He made a fetish of point of view. That was as close as he came to an all-out religion.

INTERVIEWER

His most famous essay has the same title as this interview series, “The Art of Fiction.” In it he lays down the rules of good writing. “Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize.” “Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the color of life itself.” He had quite specific notions of what the job demanded. 

MAILER

I would never have wanted to live his life. Too much went to too little. Not necessarily in the work, but in the day-to-day living. The matter of what to wear for a given evening. The concern over whether the level of conversation at his end will be high enough or not. All that sort of stuff. No, one must be free of that. 

INTERVIEWER

Yet there is the question of friendship. American novelists have often been at least partly directed by their friendships—Fitzgerald and Hemingway, or Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser.

MAILER

Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s friendship was hardly untroubled. 

INTERVIEWER

No, but the friendship nevertheless defined something essential for each of them. 

MAILER

All right, well, I can give you James Jones and myself too.

INTERVIEWER

And William Styron?

MAILER

I was rough on William Styron at one point. He was a very talented man. You have to understand something. There was Jones and Styron and myself, and we were all immensely competitive. What’s not understood sufficiently about novelists is how competitive we all are. We’re as competitive as star athletes. Particularly the ones who break through into public renown. And we don’t say, Oh, what do you all have to be so envious of each other for? Isn’t it enough that we’re all talented? Why can’t we just enjoy each other? It doesn’t work that way. We’re competitive. You can’t say to athletes, What are you all competitive for? Isn’t it marvelous that you can catch a football with great ease and run quickly? Why do you have to be in competition with the other men? Anyone who talks like that is the silliest sort of liberal. 

At the same time we had a lot of respect for each other. I remember I received a copy of From Here to Eternity, which I think I’d asked for, and Jones had inscribed it: “To Norman—my most feared friend; my dearest rival.” That’s the nature of friendship among writers. Gore Vidal—who has never been at a loss to see the negative side of human nature—pointed out that, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” That’s an exaggeration of this notion of competition. But in time we may try to get to the point where, although something of you does die, some other part of you is encouraged. You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.

INTERVIEWER

But Styron?

MAILER

It was his style. He was a wonderful stylist. Probably the best of us. He was no intellectual, but he had a fine ability to create mood. And I think it was very important to him to be a great writer. So important that when he began to run into trouble as a novelist, I think that’s what brought on his depression more than anything else. 

INTERVIEWER

What explains your falling out? 

MAILER

I don’t want to get into it. At a certain point, I wrote him a very ugly letter to tell him to stop trashing my wife. The letter was written without sufficient knowledge to have justified the strong wording. 

INTERVIEWER

And your friendship ended with James Jones? 

MAILER

What happened with Jim is, we’d been very friendly and then he got married to Gloria. And I was married at the time to Adele, and I think Gloria, who was socially very ambitious, saw Adele as a sea anchor on her social ambitions. So she decided to end it. She turned to Jim and said, Adele insulted me, and Adele was very upset. She said, I didn’t insult her. I don’t know what’s going on. And so I always assumed, Oh, he just made a tough, hard-boiled decision. Gloria was a tough lady. So Jim and I stopped talking to each other for years, and we never became friends again, which was a great loss, but there it was. And then Gloria and I, oddly enough, after Jim was gone, became slight friends again. It was really only one night, enjoying dancing together at some party in New York. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible five years earlier. 

INTERVIEWER

Much of this provides a little updating of a famous essay you wrote. It was called “Evaluations: Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” It upset a lot of people at the time, but which of that group of writers you wrote about turned out to be the most surprising in the end?

MAILER

With their talents?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

MAILER

Updike and Roth. Because I dismissed them, you remember. And I was dead wrong. Given the perversity of novelists, I’ll even take a little credit. I think I got them angered enough to say, He’s going to rue those words!

INTERVIEWER

And does it surprise you, all this posthumous life of Truman Capote?

MAILER

He was an extraordinary person. Extraordinary. Not extraordinary in the depth of his intelligence, but extraordinary in his daring. I once made a comment that he was one of the bravest men in New York. And you’ve no idea what it meant to walk around the way he did when he was young. I remember he was living in Brooklyn, and there was a set designer—I think it was Oliver Smith—who had a house about two blocks from where I lived in Brooklyn Heights. Truman lived in the basement there, so we’d run into each other on the street once in a while. One time, when we did, we started walking, and I said, Let’s have a drink, and we went into the nearest bar. It happened to be an old Irishmen’s bar. It was one hundred yards long, or so it seemed, and they all had one foot up on the rail, these tough working-class Irishmen, and probably some Scots, all drinking there. 

And we walk in, and there’s Truman with the blond hair that he still wore in bangs and he had his little gabardine raincoat. He didn’t have his arms in his sleeves, he had it tucked around his shoulders like a cape. And he walked in, and I walked in behind him and suddenly realized, Oh my God. And we went to the back of the place and sat down and talked for a while, nobody bothered us, but you know it was one of those things where you just didn’t relax for a moment. I figured there could well be trouble before we got out of there. It occurred to me then that Truman lived with that every minute of every day of his life—he insisted on being himself. And he was ready to take on what might happen. I was most impressed by that. 

INTERVIEWER

And what is the lasting enemy? Vanity?

MAILER

It can take you down. Look at poor Truman. His attitude became, If I’m not recognized in my own time then something absolutely awful is taking place in society. And that vanity is something that we all have to approach and walk around with great care. It can destroy a good part of us if we get into it. You know, you really have to be able to exhale, just exhale, and say, Why don’t we just leave it to history?