The Devil in Norman Mailer

Posted: September 18, 2007 in A Chat with Author, Norman Mailer

An Interview by Mike Lee

Sitting across from Norman Mailer, whom I’ve known for close to 30 years now, I’m struck by how regal he looks. This is despite the two distinctly different canes resting at his side and that he appears smaller, sitting in his favorite interview chair. The chair has a fanned headrest that gives him this sense of a white rattan halo. Over his shoulder, Provincetown harbor is choppy, the moored boats dancing and bobbing in the afternoon light. He looks older each time I see him, but then we begin talking and that extraordinary mind of his, that can be simultaneously combative, genial, humorous, and never without hypothesis or opinion, clicks in.

LEE: Are there some books that young writers shouldn’t write and some books older writers shouldn’t tackle either?

NM: The answer to that automatically is yes, but don’t ask me to name the books because it depends on the individual. Look, when a young writer tackles a book that is too big for their capacity at that point, it’s not necessarily a total loss. They can lose a lot of time, they can lose a lot of ego, they can really take a bath. But on the other hand, they learn a lot about themselves. So I would rarely discourage somebody from tackling some-thing that’s too big for him-unless I thought he was truly incompetent. But if I thought they had a fighting chance, I’d tend to encourage him. You learn more from defeats than victories, I’ve decided. Victories are wonderful for the ego, but they generally create the next fuckup. Unless you’re a real winner, but if you’re an in and out guy, like most of the people I know-including myself-then victories are dangerous. The ego gets swollen and it’s so hungry for victory and you tend to make mistakes. But in relation to that, books that old guys-I think for an old writer who’s been around and knows what he’s doing, there’s no book I would tell him not to try. Because you don’t know; you never know when you’re going to pop off. So you try.

LEE: Is it harder today to write the so-called “big book,” with all the com-petition for attention?

NM: Again, that question answers itself-absolutely. Much harder. I find that I’m drawn more to writing about the past for just that reason. In the past there weren’t the iPods and TV, and so there is a tendency for the figures to appear a little more clearly.

LEE: All right, let’s get to The Castle in the Forest. At the risk of being called a sycophant, I thought it was one hell of a read.

NM: Well, I’m glad. I’m really glad, because it’s going to get the worst reviews.

LEE: You think so?

NM: Well, not completely. But I’m going to get some.

LEE: I’d like to ask first about the genesis of this novel. Have you been thinking about this for some time?

NM: Yeah, you know what, Mike? I said the other day that I’d been thinking about it since I was nine years old. I don’t mean I was thinking of writing it, but I’ve been immensely aware of Hitler since I was nine for one simple reason: I was born in 1923, so in 1932, before he came into power, my mother, who was not an intellectual, but an intelligent, sensitive woman, full of feeling, and Jewish, of course. And she saw Hitler as a disaster for the Jews from the word go. And she used to suffer over him and when he came into power it made her very upset. So I grew up with the idea of Hitler as someone who was going to kill the Jews-and he succeeded by half. So I think in the background in my mind, all along, I should write about him sooner or later. I was going to do the second volume of Harlot’s Ghost, that I’ve been promising for years, and as I sat down to write it, it was almost as if this whisper came into my brain and said, “No, no, that’s not the book you’re going to do next, it’s this one.” And it was the idea of having the devil tell the story that brought it into focus for me.

LEE: You were lucky to get that whisper early on.

NM: I was getting ready to write a long book called Harlot’s Grave. I had it all figured out, must have spent a half year thinking about it in depth, and it was so funny that about a month before I was ready to begin this other voice came in and said, “No, not here-there.” And of course the idea was to tell it in the voice of the devil that made it possible. It enabled me to write a biography that was a fiction. The book is very accurate so far as you can make it out.

LEE: I want to ask you about some of that too. One of the levels of reading that I found so fascinating, given the subject is the childhood and adolescence of Hitler, is that this book is also very much a family saga.

NM: Yeah, oh yeah. Even if it hadn’t been Hitler, you’d have a novel there.

LEE: Did you feel compelled to couch the metaphysical aspects of the novel with that familial approach?

NM: You know, I sort of work-to put it in its lowest version-I push a pea with my nose. I’m a great believer in organic novels, in that you don’t decide in advance where you’re going. You let the characters point the way. I remember once-this is a coincidence-but it may indicate what I’m trying to say. At one point I was directing a play at Actor’s Studio and Elia Kazan was there, we were sort of friendly, and I said to him, “I don’t know how to tell the actors how to move, that’s where I have the most trouble.” And he said, “You know, Norman, let them decide for you. Actors generally have a better sense of movement than we do.” Of course, he was a great director, and he was being very honest about it. He said, “They’ll often point out the way and if they don’t, then you can step in.” So I did that and it absolutely worked. The play was reasonably well staged as a result. The same way I think is true in a novel, only more so. Let the characters point the way for you. Now here there was something different, which is, of course, I did know the events. They were recorded summarily; there were very few books about the early childhood and they’re sketchy. So it wasn’t as though I was overloaded with facts, which would be true further down the road where there’d be a hundred books for every decade. So, given the fact the devil is telling the story, I could follow the events because the unforeseen would be the devil’s interpretation of what was going on and what he must do. He’s the devil’s assistant, of course, not the devil. And that made it absolutely organic for me because even though I knew where I was going in terms of the narrative, the interpretation now became the part I would not determine in advance. I would let the events and the devil’s interpretation of these events dictate where I’d head next. And it worked.

LEE: That’s interesting because I remember Nabokov used to say “All my characters are galley slaves.”

NM: Well, that was Nabokov and he had a different way of doing things. Don’t forget, he was a Russian autocrat, and Russian autocrats tend to like the idea of galley slaves.

LEE: Look, I know you’ve answered this question dozens of times, but for the benefit of those who don’t know, what are your beliefs in terms of God?

NM: Well, my beliefs are that God is not all good and all powerful. I believe in God. I believe in a creator. I find it philosophically impossible to conceive of having a world here without there having been a creative force present. But I’m totally opposed to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the major corporation of the devil, because in that corporation, God is all good and all powerful and that is resolute in its refusal to face any of the human facts. So that the result is, the people who are fundamentalists deprive themselves of the ability to think along unforeseen lines to a conclusion. They have to end up at a given station. No matter where they set out in the morning, they know where they have to be that night, and that tends to be stultifying. No, I believe in a God who’s not all good and not all powerful, a God who can make errors, a God who’s a creator, not a law-giver. And is doing His or Her best. Or, if it happens to be a marriage, Their best. But my notion of God is not precise, it’s general, but the general notion is as a creator, not a law-giver and, as a result, the end is not foreseen. We and God are all existential. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That’s the fundamental meaning of existentialism- you’re engaged in a situation where the end is unknown.

LEE: And so you would also believe in a Satan?

NM: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s an evil principle and for me the two are at war. One place in the book there’s a statement to the effect that in the middle ages, humans saw themselves as peons and there’s this God and the Devil dictating what they did with their lives. But with the growth, first with the Enlightenment and now with technology, humans see themselves as a third force. Instinctively. Even if they believe in God and the Devil, they also seems themselves, in fact, paramount to the other two, in dominance over the other two. So it’s a three way war you might say.

LEE: When you write a novel that employs so much historical fact, how do you decide where to draw the line between reality and dramatic purpose?

NM: Well, you never violate a fact for too little. In other words, you’re a relatively law abiding citizen. Who make the best criminals? They’re those who obey the law until they don’t. Enough people break the law every day. So in the same sense, if you want to think of a novelist as being criminal in that they offer you a version of reality that may or may not exist, they do play a slight of hand with reality, then by all means, I don’t like a novel that cuts too many corners. It’s enough you’re writing that novel. If you can create something that gives people a sense of a universe, a world which they can inhabit for a little while, it helps a lot, for them and for you, if you stay close to the facts. Now, there are places in the book that become a little bit more fictional than others. For instance, there’s no doubt that Alois, the father, was interested in bees and kept bees while he was in Hafeld, which is the town the family lives in for a good part of the book. Now, there’s no record of who he did business with as far as the bees go. So I invented a bee keeper, Herr Alter, and he is a fictional character. I felt there had to be somebody there who was a bee keeper with whom he did business and there I felt I could indulge a fiction.

LEE: You’re also careful to have the devil point out not to make too much of the metaphor of bee keeping with what would happen later with Adolf.

NM: You mean where the bees are all burned?

LEE: Yes, but was that just a red herring?

NM: No, I wanted to get across how much these devils worry. In other words, the normal idea of the devil is that I don’t want to think of the devil, one. Two, oh, the devil can come in and change you overnight. And quite the contrary was my notion. Humans are most stubborn material. And so when the devil has a client, as I call them, someone they’re working with and looking to use more and more as time goes on, they have a lot of worries. Because there are angels around also who are fighting them and called Cudgels by the devil because the angels have often beaten up the devils. So what I’m getting at is they’re concerned all the time with the development of their clients. They’re very much like an overworked bureaucrat and that appealed to me as a notion of the hereafter-that the hereafter is just as tough as our world, with just as many worries, probably on a higher level. But the idea that it was all cut and dried, and the devil came in and cast a spell on you and you were a goner, no, get rid of that. I wasn’t trying to make this a railroad track as to how Hitler became a monster. The feeling I have is that there is a certain point in our lives as an adolescent or when we’re entering adolescence, where we can go any number of directions. And even if we become a client of the devil, wittingly, or in his case, unwittingly, that doesn’t matter. Nothing’s automatic; it’s existential.

LEE: What surprised you the most in your research about the Hitler family?

NM: I don’t know that I ever had a huge surprise because I came upon it slowly, bit by bit. It was nice to find out the mother [Klara] was probably a pretty good woman. I think that we can’t begin to understand human history until we recognize the depth and very often the ugliness of certain ironies in our lives. Because, after all, what is this book about finally? It’s an attempt to seek what we are as humans and the thought that a fine woman ended up producing a monster seemed to me in the nature of things. And rather than say, oh, he must have had a hideous mother and so forth-he had a father that used to whip him, but not everybody who was whipped by their father became Adolf Hitler.

LEE: Is it your belief that incest played more of a role in 19th-century family life than we commonly think?

NM: No, that’s just a supposition. I gave it to Heinrich Himmler, whom I thought was pretty eloquent.

LEE: The “Blood Drama.”

NM: Yes.

LEE: You had to learn about beekeeping as well, but I don’t see any hives . . .

NM: (laughing) No.

LEE: Assuming Hitler can only be the product of evil, George Bush’s notion of “the Axis of Evil,” and his continual use of that word, somehow trickles down to dilute even Hitler’s heinous acts. It’s like so many words that we overuse and they lose their meaning.

NM: Oh, I mean it’s one of the things I can’t stand about George Bush. He uses the word “evil” twelve times in a paragraph. You know what it is, Mike, he never got past eighth grade civics. Look at him that way when he starts to give a speech. The phrases he uses are the kind of phrases that an elementary school teacher uses. Somehow there’s never been a political leader, in my living memory, or historical notion as far as I know about it, who is as empty of nuance as George Bush. And so, yes, compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler as an example of the limp mediocrity of George Bush’s mind. You know there are certain kinds of weak men who come to recognize they are essentially weak. In other words, they’re not stand up-they wouldn’t be stand up in an alley, put it that way. They wouldn’t have a feeling that, all right, if this is my last moment, I’m going down fighting. I think, in that sense, whether he’s weak or not, he may see himself as weak. Those kind of guys almost always have an option of great stubborn-ness. Huge stubbornness. Because a stubborn man never looks weak until they give up their stubbornness. So it’s almost impossible for them to give up their stubbornness at a certain point. In that sense, he’s immensely stubborn. When you’re empty, get stubborn-it’s your best defense.

LEE: I’ve always wondered if you’ve felt fear as a writer?

NM: Fear? Oh, when I was younger a lot. A lot. I think it comes with the profession. Most professions have fear in them.

LEE: The fear I’m talking about is getting up in the morning and nothing comes.

NM: Well, I’m used to getting up in the morning with nothing in my head. After a few years, I came to learn that the best thing, in a way, was to have nothing in my head until I hit my studio or the room in which I work. And then, very often, it would be an empty hour before the writing would start. It’s almost as if the unconscious-see, I have this theory that the unconscious is not entirely our own. We have an unconscious, but it’s almost like it’s lent to us, almost like a Jungian notion, if you will, and I didn’t read Carl Jung to decide this, I decided it on my own. But it’s as if the unconscious taps into a deeper realm of knowledge that we possess. And it’s immensely reluctant to give up that unconscious strength for too little. So the unconscious has to trust you and if you have bad habits, as I did when I was younger-when I was younger, after The Naked and the Dead, and I had a good day of writing, I’d often go out and get drunk to celebrate it. I’d get so drunk I couldn’t work the next day. And what had happened, if I was writing a novel, the unconscious prepared some of it, but I wasn’t there to use it. So it festered in the unconscious source. That’s like if you’re a general and you leave your troops out in the rain because you want to get laid on a given night, so the troops are still standing out in the rain and you’re a dreadful general. Well, I was a dreadful novelist in that sense, I didn’t take care of my own unconscious. So I really have this belief that you almost have to make a compact with your own unconscious, where you state you’re going to be there the next day and working, you’ll be there-whether you feel like writing or not. I’ve often said, sourly, that poets just have to be good once every two weeks. They can wake up in the morning and write a beautiful poem, then that gives them honor for the next two weeks at least. But a novelist has to go every day like a working man with his lunch pail.

LEE: Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what Hemingway used to do, where he would stop in the middle of where he wanted to go next.

NM: Yes. Yes. Well, he had a certain kind of life and then he would go out and do things and be very active. Physically, I think he had tons of energy, more than I possess. When I finish writing for the day, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I’m very happy to play a little solitaire. But I want to finish, I don’t want to have it nagging at me because if I quit in the middle, I’ll be thinking and thinking afterwards. And so what he did was the exact thing for me not to do. I think every writer has his own route.

LEE: Yet you still have such muscle in your prose, a certain energy in there.

NM: Well a part of it is that I think we’re given gifts and we damn well better use them as best we can because if we don’t use them we’ll pay for it on the other side. I really think there’s an accounting on the other side. But the other thing in it is that I think my style developed as such after I stopped smoking. I spent ten years cutting out smoking. I used to smoke two, two and a half packs a day for many years. I haven’t had a cigarette now in about forty years. But what happens is the extra energy I got from cutting out cigarettes got into the style and my ear became much more sensitive to the sound of words. With cigarettes, I used to work with the meaning of words and so my early writings tend to be more intellectual and the later writing tend to have more of a sense of the rhythm of the sentence and letting the sentence lead me to where I’m going to end up. In other words, with cigarettes, I always knew what I wanted to say, without them I found it was more interesting to discover what I had to say. So that’s an element in it. But the key thing, to get back to it all, is you can’t betray the unconscious. Since my unconscious doesn’t trust me altogether, I literally had to go through this routine of getting up in the morning with an empty mind, waste an hour in the office once I got there, and then it would begin to come. It was almost like the unconscious said, “All right, you’re here. I can trust you; you’re not going to leave now, I can tell.” And then the stuff would start to come. It’s almost as if we’re assigned to our own unconscious, that it has a separate existence to a degree. And I found that’s true with the books I do. Sometimes I wonder, why am I writing this book? It doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with me and yet I’m doing it. It’s almost as if I’ve been assigned to do this book. I once even had a fantasy that the gods look down on us and say, “Well, here’s a tasty one for Saul Bellow, and that one might be just right for Updike, and, oh, here’s a good one for Mailer-he’s such a dogged little worker, let’s give him this one.” (laughs).

LEE: Whether it was fair or accurate, you were, at one time in your life, considered by many women to be a misogynist.

NM: Yeah.

LEE: Do you think you’ve changed much in your thinking about our gender differences?

NM: I thought it was an outrageous attack. There’s no attack I’ve resent-ed more in my life, I think. I mean, take the stupidest reviewer whose said the stupidest thing ever about me, I don’t think they irked me as much as these reasonably intelligent women deciding I was a sexist. They didn’t use the word misogynist, they said sexist. It just wasn’t true. If I had an error, I’ve said some stupid things about women because I adore them, I love them. I grew up with a lot of very good women around me. Not only my mother was terrific, but she had four sisters who were very nice indeed. And I had an aunt on my father’s side who was lovely. So it wasn’t as if I saw women as hateful or unworthy of anything, on the contrary, I saw them as a source of love and energy for me. I adored women and I was spoiled by them to the degree where I would make ridiculous remarks about women once in a while for the fun of it. But the idea that I hated women-a man who hates women does not get married six times.

LEE: Let’s just talk a little about ageing. Do you feel more captive by it now and what its day to day realities are as opposed to, say, when we sat down for our first interview five years ago?

NM: Oh yeah. Well, your physical limitations move in. It’s like a tide that comes in. And your incapacities move in. In other words, I take it for granted that I’m never going to be traveling through a wonderful foreign city in Italy, let’s say, exploring it. That’s gone forever. Walking is difficult. I don’t enjoy walking. I force myself to walk a couple hundred yards a day. So in that sense-of course the cartilage is gone in my knees.

LEE: Is it just because you didn’t want to undergo the recuperative process to have your knees replaced?

NM: I’m too old for it. The knees went bad about five years ago and at that point, the doctor said, well we can certainly do it, but I’m not going to do them both at once. I’ll do them one at a time.

LEE: That’s a year.

NM: That’s a year. And I thought I’m too old for that. If I knew I had ten years, okay, I’d do it. But what if I pop off in two years and I’ve lost one of them to this? And I can live with it, it’s not that bad. It isn’t like I live in pain and can’t sleep at night. It’s just tough to walk. So that’s one thing. My hearing is going and my teeth. By the way, make sure you don’t have any infected teeth if you go through a heart operation or they’ll take out your teeth.

LEE: Really?

NM: Well, what’s the definition of a doctor? He’s a human biped who covers his buttocks.

LEE: Has ageing impacted your writing process?

NM: No, I don’t think so.

LEE: Do you have more big novels in you?

NM: I don’t know, I hope so. The point is, one of the things that happens when you get older is your command of your vocabulary begins to diminish. Very slowly, but it does. And you never know when your brain is going to give out on you. My knees have given out on me, my ears have given out, my teeth now. So, I don’t feel any certainty at all that I’ve got another big novel in me. I’m going to write it. I have it in my mind and in my sentiments, but whether I’ll be physically able to do it, to go through the grind of two or three very tough years is something I just can’t predict.

LEE: Do you think much about death?

NM: No. Surprisingly, not that much. I’ve thought about it all my life, so-I really feel death is the beginning of another existence. I believe in karma, I believe we’re reborn.

LEE: So you do believe in reincarnation?

NM: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

LEE: In a human form?

NM: Well, that’s not knowable. Listen, I’ve seen so many dogs that are more human than humans, that I’m not so sure-it may be the nearest we come to heaven is to be reborn as dogs. I mean the love a dog feels. How often do we feel that much love for anything?

LEE: I also understand you’re no one to mess with in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

NM: I’m not that good. I’m fair, I’m fair. I mean I can hold my own-put it this way, if I’m with a bunch of dolts who are a dolt like me, I’m okay. You know what it is? The serious people who play in Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments have something I simply don’t have. I don’t think they play all that much better than I do, but I can play Texas Hold ‘Em for an hour and a half. Two hours is really getting a little tough on my system. These guys play it for twelve hours a day, for three or four days to get to the final. So what I’m seeing at the end of it all is guys who’ve been playing it for forty-eight to sixty hours. So probably, they’re fifty per cent of what they were when they started. So at that point, I’m saying, well they’re all right, but they’re not that great. I’ve played with people who are much better than I am who’ve played in those tournaments and they wipe you out. If you play five nights with them, they’ll win big three nights. They’ll draw even one night maybe.

LEE: I want to wind up, Norman, with something I remember from at least 25 years ago, sitting on your deck in the afternoon with Eddie Bonetti, and we were having a few cocktails. You and Eddie started to spar for a few minutes-Eddie had very fast hands.

NM: Oh yeah. Well, he used to box with Willie Pep.

LEE: Right. But you also seemed to remember Jose Torres telling you to keep your left up because you did a pretty good job of blocking Eddie. And then afterward the subject of Hemingway came up. And though I was probably too intimidated at the time to bring it up, but I always felt I understood Hemingway’s suicide. Forget that he had it in his family, but the one thing that mattered to him-his writing-had been taken away by what might have been Alzheimer’s or whatever.

NM: He would have been awfully young for that.

LEE: And I’m not talking about suicide concerning you either. But I do notice a contentment about you now that I don’t think Hemingway ever had.

NM: No. Well, you know he overextended himself. He had a lot of balls, there’s just no getting around it. And the balls were to take real chances with his life. I’m not just talking about the things he did in terms of physical feats. Physically speaking, I think he was a braver man than I am, but I don’t think he was, like, five times braver than me-I think he was twenty-five or thirty per cent braver. Because to me, bravery has also been very important over the years when I’ve tried things. But I think he was truly overextended because he came from a mid-western family that was only partially cultured. And now here he was, one of the intellectual leaders of the world, willy nilly. He didn’t ask to be an intellectual leader, but he was seen that way. Every one of his pronouncements had a papal ring to them, especially for young writers where he had enormous influence. And I think for him, he was immensely obsessed with death all the time. And I do think his father’s suicide was a prodigious part of that. I remember there was a young talented writer here, whose name I don’t recall, who died in a motorcycle accident. But he had said in an interview that he was thinking of committing suicide, but he knew he couldn’t do it because if you commit suicide, you condemn your sons to suicide.

LEE: Was that John Gardner maybe?

NM: Exactly. Yeah. And I thought that was an amazing remark and quite true and I thought he was thinking of Hemingway. But anyway, what I’m getting at, I’m not so sure Hemingway committed suicide. I have this theory that every night, whenever he was feeling truly sick and bad, he would take a shotgun, load it, and put the muzzle in his mouth, reach down with his thumb and play with the trigger. He certainly knew where to cross the barrier.

Editor’s note: Another version of this interview appeared in The Cape Cod Voice.



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