Norman Mailer: The Art of Fiction

Posted: October 2, 2007 in A Chat with Author, Norman Mailer

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.

To read the rest of the interview with Norman Mailer, visit http://www.theparisreview.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5775

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