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Interview with Norman Mailer


published in Washington Post Book World, with an extra at end in New York Magazine

For my generation of writers, Norman Mailer is the ultimate father figure.  We have been measuring ourselves against the sweep of his brilliance – for it must be conceded that even his lesser books have the sweep of brilliance – our whole adult lives.  He is the giant who dared giant leaps and, sometimes, giant pratfalls. Thus my drive to his brick house on the very end of Cape Cod in Provincetown, Mass. had the excitement and dread of a pilgrimage.  Beside me on the passenger seat, the author photo on his latest novel, "The Castle in the Forest," drilled into me with a father’s intensity – equally admonishing and exhortatory – until I finally had to cover it with my hat.  But I took my hat off when I entered his house.


Whatever else that can be said about it, this new book is written with the vigor of someone half your age.  


Mailer:  Good to hear.  But every time I hear compliments, my feet start doing this [twitching].


You want to run away?  


Mailer: I’ve never learned to take a compliment graciously.


How come?


Mailer: Damned if I know.  My father, an elegant man, always took compliments very well.  But I, being rough hewn, loved messing his hair.  Maybe I defined myself in opposition to him.  


In this book, the relationship between young Adi (Adolph) and his father is very fraught – more moving than I expected it to be.


Mailer: I’ve been thinking about how many of my books have that recurring theme.  My relationship with my father was very interesting. Not hostile, but never near. I couldn’t reach him. He was an exceptionally complex man. He was very proud of me after “The Naked and the Dead,” which he must have read ten times.


Did he “get” it?


Mailer: Oh yeah.  


So you were able to communicate on that very deep level.


Mailer: Yeah, he didn’t go in for long speeches, but he would look at me and say, +“This is good.”+


Was it from him that you got your grit?


Mailer: My father was a very bold man in his quiet way.  And my mother was a remarkable woman – not only strong but also loving.  


You demonize Hitler here, quite literally – the demon narrator is there at the conception. Aren’t you thereby letting mankind off the hook?


Mailer: It seems to me there have been two exceptional births in human history: Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler.  Hitler is the devil’s answer to Jesus Christ.


You like making large statements, don’t you?


Mailer: Drives wives crazy.


I can only imagine.


Mailer: I make them for the sheer joy of making them.


When you read younger novelists today, are you impatient that they don’t seek to go larger?


Mailer: I don’t read them.  Which I think is one of the reasons they’re not particularly in love with me.  


Are you impatient with some of your contemporaries, then, for not contending with the larger questions?


Mailer: Look, for better or for worse, I have that kind of mind. They have [theirs]. I used to be very competitive.  By now I’m sick of it, in the sense that it has no meaning. Either one of us will last, or ten of us, who knows.  History can wipe all of us out.  


I wasn’t expecting to hear such mellowness from you.


Mailer: It’s not mellowness, it’s shared amusement.  After competing with someone who used to be a rival, in the end we have a shared conversation. I respect Roth, I respect Updike, DeLillo, Vonnegut, I could name ten of them, they’re all good writers.




Mailer: Salinger I’m pissed off at, because he had such a glimpse into America when he was young, and he didn’t use it.


Any theory as to why he went silent?


Mailer: No theory worth airing.


At your age [of 83], are you more prudent not to air a theory if it’s half-baked?


Mailer: I’ve gone off half-cocked so many times in my youth that yes, now I’m a little older …


So you’re still actively growing?  


Mailer: Better growth than decrepitude.


It’s marvelous that you have this capacity…


Mailer:  Well listen, we’ll see.   But I can guarantee you one thing:  At the moment there are 20 writers, male and female, who feel that they are the best living American writer. And I of course am one of them.  But that’s as far as I’ll go.


You deal in opposites a lot, don’t you?  You like the way the world is balanced.


Mailer:  Yeah.  Oh yeah.


So how do you finally measure up on the wisdom scale?


Mailer: I’d probably give myself a very good mark.


Care to offer a numerical grade?


Mailer (chuckling):  No. That would not be wise.


As a man, are you ever intimidated?


Mailer: Not anymore.  The best thing about old age is that you’re no longer intimidated by anybody.  There’s a real cool that comes in with old age.  


Now that I’m sitting with you, I see that your eyes are remarkably clear blue.


Mailer: Can’t see that well, though.  Can only read for three hours a day.  


Do you do exercises for your eyes, or any brain exercises (in addition to the prodigious research for this book) to keep you out of what you refer to as the “quicksand of growing old”? [338]  


Mailer: I have a splendid solitaire game I play that’s good for my eyes. Love poker, Texas Hold ‘Em. Crossword puzzles, which I’m not all that good at.  We don’t play scrabble in my family, because it’s a no-win situation.  If I lose, everyone’s depressed: “Oh, Dad’s mind is going.”  And if I win: “Oh there he is, me me me, doing it all himself again.”  


Are you fond of your readers, of fellow Jews, of Harvard classmates?


Mailer: I’m not an affectionate man, in that I don’t throb with feeling for people I don’t know well.  I have nine children, been married to the same woman 33 years, that takes care of my affection.   There isn’t that much left over.


It doesn’t stimulate more love?


Mailer: There’s a limit.  


One last question.  Whom do you read for pleasure?


Mailer: I find I can’t read good novels anymore – not when I’m working – because they’re too disruptive.   I get excited by them, and go off in all sorts of directions. How would I do if I were writing it?  And I get off my own work.  I’m immensely single-minded, I’d even say dull, about sticking to my own work.  For the last ten years I’ve always felt I’ve got one book left, one book left, one book left.


If there’s still one left after this one, what will it be?  


Mailer: A sequel to this one about Hitler.  In this last, after all, I only take him to age 16.  I think there’s a little more to him …



By Daniel Asa Rose


(For New York Magazine)    


Overlooked in all the hubbub greeting Norman Mailer’s first novel in ten years (The Castle in the Forest, Random House) is the fact that he writes of homosexual love with some, uh, persuasion. But in fact, Mailer’s re-imagining of Adolph Hitler’s youth under the tutelage of a demon is studded with it.  Young “Adi,” as he is fondly called, has an older brother who situates “his fierce jack-in-the-box … his happy blood-filled organ ...” into the “yearning lips” [283] of an elderly bee-keeper with enough frequency to enable the reader to connect the dots between semen and honey.  (The old coot is preternaturally skilled in this arena, offering “languorous slides and inspired flutters of his tongue” [284].)  Additionally, not only do his brother’s buttocks “feel like the portals to a bounteously endowed temple” [285], his own are attractive enough to cause his father to admit he likes the feel of them when administering “one rousing slap.”  [360]       


So has the 84 year old author, who once confessed that he was “as guilty as any contemporary novelist in attributing unpleasant, ridiculous, or sinister connotations to the homosexual … characters in my novels”  (in Barbaray Shore, 1951, the villain was a homosexual secret police agent named Leroy Hollingsworth “whose sadism and slyness were essentially combined with his sexual deviation.” (“Advertisements for Myself, p. 222-223) finally warmed up to the masculine mystique?  Is he, so to speak, whistling a new tune?  Specifically, did he feel compelled to do any first-hand research in order to fully inhabit his characters’ hankerings?     

“You have to cross the Rubicon to do that [and] I didn’t feel comfortable doing that,” he told us, in the black-floral-wallpapered living room of his house in Provincetown, Mass.  “But then I thought, ‘come on, it’s not that hard to imagine what it’s like.’”   


Is that a leap he wouldn’t have dared making when he was 34?     


“I would have chosen not to.”     


Is there some safety in his age, allowing himself to imagine what he couldn’t have half a century earlier?   


“Oh yes,” said the old lion, shifting in his chair before the picture window overlooking the wintry Atlantic.  “Old age has its benefits.  When you’re younger it takes more courage to be brave.  Because you can lose so much.  You can lose four or five years when you’re seriously out of favor.  It can be very expensive. It’s enjoyable to be brave now, whereas when I was younger it was hairy and sweaty.”   


Here’s to your courage, Norman.  May the next half century bring you to an even braver place, hairy sweat and all.

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