Issue 181, Summer 2007
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.
Dwight MacDonald once called Provincetown “Eighth Street by the Sea.” How long have you been coming here?
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.
And you started to write The Naked and the Dead hereabouts?
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.
You had notes?
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.
And you knew it was good?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.