Last week’s Interview with the Dead concluded with Norman being frustrated by our lack of literary conversation. Actually, he was frustrated that we hadn’t yet discussed his literary accomplishments. So in this installment I turn my attention to his prodigious and often controversial work. I do admit a bottle of bourbon helped keep our interaction from being too contentious.
ME: You won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the National Book Award for Armies of the Night. Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 was brilliant, and Of a Fire On The Moon might be the definitive work about the beginning days of NASA.Yet you once said, “If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.” Why did you do so much of what you didn’t value?
MAILER: You disappoint me, Klein. If you had done your homework, in The Armies of the Night, I describe my conversation with Robert…
MY macho flared and I interrupted him.
ME:…Lowell. I think I remember the words exactly, “You know, Norman,” said Lowell in his fondest voice, “Elizabeth and I really think you’re the finest journalist in America.”
MAILER: Good jab, but you forgot the counterpunch…my response to him. “Well, Cal, there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.”
ME: When was a hierarchy of writing established?
MAILER: Since people used stones on cave walls. Actually, long before. Storytelling.
ME: Aren’t you creating a false distinction? Storytelling was as much about history as make-believe and the same could be said about cave paintings.
MAILER: The difficulty I have is not with journalism per se—despite what I said. The problem has been—was, now that I’m dead—the attempt to define the books you mentioned as simply journalism when so much more creativity went into them. Every one of my books killed me a little more, yet too many people made them sound as if readers were going to read a digest of newspaper accounts. As you well know, that’s not what they found.
ME: Yes those works were written in a highly subjectivized style and used techniques that were thought to be the sole domain of fiction at that time, but you were, in fact, reporting.
MAILER: I think it’s impossible to tease out reporting from what you termed “highly subjectivized.”
Mr. Mailer grinned mischievously.
MAILER: Did you just make up that word?
ME: Nah, I ran across it preparing for our interview.
MAILER: I always found it more fun to write about something I didn’t completely know but would discover on route. A friend once told me that “The only time I know anything is when it comes to me at the point of my pen.” I hope our interview manages to replicate that.
A stuffy answer, I thought, and smiled at his ever present ego.
ME: So do I, but I’m still stuck on the journalism issue. I’ll never understand why The Executioner’s Song (Mailer’s book about the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore) won the Pulitzer for fiction.
MAILER, pouring both of us another drink despite the morning hour: Perhaps we’re both too concerned about categories. It’s true I much prefer, preferred, to be thought of as a novelist, but that might have been shortsighted on my part. In thinking back to my response to Cal Lowell, I used the term “writer.”
Mr. Mailer broke into laughter.
MAILER: I probably should have touted myself more as the best living writer than argue about being a novelist rather than a journalist. Truth was, I sifted through thousands of documents before writing Gilmore’s story.
ME: I’ll be honest with you, I thought the first two-thirds were genius. Each paragraph seemed to be in the voice of the person you were writing about…”
MAILER: You have a good ear, Klein.
ME: But, the last third when your attention turned to the press and, frankly, yourself, just wasn’t as compelling.
MAILER: Reporters’ voices shouldn’t grab you the way main characters do; it’s the nature of their craft. But I’ll take “two-thirds genius.” It goes well with bourbon.
ME: One last question about Song. You’ve been quoted as saying, “The mark of mediocrity is to look for precedent.” Doesn’t The Executioner’s Song follow in the steps of In Cold Blood?.
MAILER, shaking his head: I’m dead and still being asked that question. Yes, there are similarities, but remember an entire movement called New Journalism was rearing its head. Capote, Tom Wolfe, later Hunter Thompson. And me, of course, right up there in the vanguard. Hell, we created The Village Voice to encourage a meld of fiction and non-fiction. So while I understand the question, I believe the notion that Capote set a “precedent” is a stretch.
Mailer raised his bushy eyebrows.
MAILER: And you certainly wouldn’t call The Executioner’s Song mediocre, would you?
ME: Another phenomena jumped at me while preparing for our talk…
MAILER: Pretty confident that I’d talk to you, eh?
ME: I figgered if I pounded on your gravesite shouting GORE VIDAL long and loud enough you wouldn’t be able to help yourself.
Mailer chuckled in a surprisingly wholehearted way.
MAILER: Funny, but that’s not why I’m here. I’ve read your books and you too are trying to redefine a category. Hard boiled detective fiction where instead of just plot, plot, plot and, shoot, shoot, shoot, the focus is on the inner life of your main character and interpersonal relationships.
Me: Well, thank you. That’s a hell of a compliment coming from you.
MAILER: I said “trying.” I didn’t say succeeding.
ME: You took “two-thirds genius,” I’ll take “trying.”
MAILER: Just stay at it. Perhaps you’ll actually succeed where I didn’t in Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
Mailer refreshed our glasses.
ME: Here you are encouraging another author, but during your lifetime it seemed as though you were always at war with other writers. I’m not just talking about Vidal. But even your friends like James Baldwin who liked you and wrote “you strode through the soft Paris nights like a gladiator.” In Advertisements For Myself you wrote, “he was “incapable of saying ‘F— you’ to the reader.”
MAILER, shrugging: Is it an insult if it’s true—at least at the time? Anyway, he eventually got his punch in with, and I quote, “The Negro jazz musicians among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’. Now that was an insult.
ME: And I quote,“Is it an insult if it’s true”—at least to them at the time?” But it wasn’t just Baldwin. According to you, Styron had “compromised himself;” Bellow wrote “in a style I find self-willed … I cannot take him seriously;” Kerouac lacked “discipline, intelligence, honesty.” “There were no talented women writers at all.” You can’t really believe that about women, can you?
MAILER: Again, one needs to look at the context of the times. I was savaged by virtually every notable woman, writer or not, after I published Prisoner Of Sex.
ME: Excuse me, Norman, I quoted you from 1959 and you didn’t publish Prisoner until 1971. What context are you talking about? Please! You called your cock “The Retaliator” in Prisoner.
MAILER: I was pretty angry when I wrote Prisoner.
ME: You think? Whatever year we’re talking about, you have an across-the-board reputation of being “psychologically, creatively, empathetically tone-deaf when it came to women, his female characters a creamy mélange of angel-whores whose lipstick was ripe for smearing…” Perhaps that’s why your novels don’t receive the acclaim your other writing does. In fact, your last wife (Norris Church Mailer) wrote that she begged you to eliminate the meanderings that made Harlot’s Ghosts, The Gospel According To The Son, and The Castle In The Forest critical failures.
MAILER: She might have been right, but no writer can afford to pay much attention to criticism. Then who the hell are you? And those fucking literary critics, I hate, excuse me, hated them most of all. They still don’t understand the importance of Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery.
ME: Let’s take a break and stretch our legs. When we return, I’d like to begin with Oswald’s Tale. It’s a perfect segue into your political activism and writings.
“They are men’s men. Rocky Marciano was one of them. Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo and Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, to name a few, have faces which would give a Marine sergeant pause in a bar fight. They look like they could take you out with the knob of bone they have left for a nose.” — Norman Mailer