Interview by John Wisniewski
When did you meet Norman Mailer, Mike? What was your first impression of him?
Mailer and I corresponded for about 20 months before we met. After watching Mailer and Gore Vidal go at each other on the Dick Cavett Show in December of 1970, I wrote a letter to Mailer sympathizing with him. Vidal got the best of their tussle, but the audience did not know that Vidal had compared Mailer to Charles Manson, quite unfairly, in an essay in the New York Review of Books (years later, Vidal changed the essay, eliminating the comparison). About ten days after I wrote to Mailer, I got a long reply. I was in my 20s at the time, and recall being stunned when my wife handled me the letter. In 1971 Mailer was at the pinnacle of the literary world, having won a Pulitzer and the National Book Award for his 1968 account of the anti-war movement, The Armies of the Night. I was then a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island, and was just starting my thesis on Mailer’s work. I told him about my ideas in my letters , and he sent back some supportive comments. It was the beginning of a 35-year friendship.
In the summer of 1972, we moved to Illinois after I got a job teaching at the University of Illinois-Springfield. One of my courses that fall was devoted to Mailer’s books. It was pure luck that as I was teaching my Mailer seminar, he was on a book tour that took him to a nearby college. The book was “St. George and the Godfather,” an account of the 1972 political conventions with a focus on the manipulations of Richard Nixon, who ran against and defeated George McGovern. I took my class to hear Mailer speak—this was in October 1972—and ended up in a bar with him afterwards. We drank and talked until the wee hours, and he invited me to visit him when we were back in New England during the summer. He was at his peak then, 49 years old, full of beans, but also very witty, with all kinds of insights about politics—although he thought McGovern would win. He was also curious about my background as a former U.S.N. officer—he had been an enlisted rifleman in WWII—and what sea duty as a junior officer was like. We hit it off. For almost every summer for the remainder of his life, my wife and I, and in the early years, our three sons, visited Mailer at his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, or in Maine, where he rented a place near Bar Harbor. Eventually, I began editing some of his books, and interviewing him, and writing essays about him. The idea for editing his letters came many years later, around 1998.
What research and editing went into compiling the “Selected Letters of Norman Mailer?”
For a trial run, I put together a collection of 75 Mailer letters that made comment on his 1965 novel, An American Dream. I was then teaching at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and a half-dozen students in my Mailer seminar helped me. The book came out in a limited edition in 2004. All the while I was reading Mailer’s letters, an enormous undertaking—he wrote over 45,000 over a sixty year period. I read steadily from 2002 through 2005, and then put together a first cull of about 1,000 letters for Mailer to examine. We went over them carefully and he gave me detailed information on the people and events, the books and controversies and triumphs and failures they recorded, or alluded to. I think I am the only person, besides Mailer, to have read them all. Selecting the letters was the first task, one that could not occur until all of them had been read. One of the traits of a good letter collection is that it contains strings or chains of letters to a number of different people, written in spurts over a few months, or over many years. In Mailer’s case, there were perhaps fifty people that he carried on a significant correspondence with over a short or long period. Chains provide a through-line, or lines, in a letter collection. To mix metaphors, they are the glue. I choose, with some difficulty, the best of these chains. I also included letters to famous people—writers, politicians, movie stars and so on—and letters to his family, and, occasionally, letters that were so well-written, so revealing or evocative of his life and books, that they had to be included, even if Mailer only wrote to the person once. In short, there were multiple criteria for inclusion. Mailer approved all my picks, and never asked for any changes; he suppressed nothing. Writing the notes was the second most time-consuming task. Every person, event, book, film etc. mentioned in the letters must be succinctly and accurately identified, and sometimes contextual statements are needed, or background information. Tedious but essential. There are 90 pages of close-printed notes in the edition.
In December of 2006, Bob Lucid died suddenly. I was the understudy for the biography. My immediate impulse was to complete the letters edition—I was about 80% done at that point. But Mailer, his wife Norris, his agent (Andrew Wylie); his editor (David Ebershoff of Random House), as well as my agent (John T. “Ike” Williams) all felt that the biography should be the first priority. And that’s what happened. I shelved the letters and for the next six years wrote the biography (I started it from the beginning of Mailer’s life, as Lucid’s style was quite different from mine). “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. A year later “Selected Letters of Norman Mailer,” containing 714 letters from 1940-2007, was published by Random House. Mailer died in November 2007, as I was doing research and interviews for the biography.
Was there a particular letter written by Mailer that really stands out in your mind?
There are two letters that I keep thinking about, returning to: no. 416 to Edward McAlice, and no. 539 to Peter Arthurs. Both were people that Mailer only met once or twice, but he took the time to expatiate carefully, personally, metaphorically his sense of where novelistic voice and tone reside to them, revealing his own hard-won insights, and also helping two struggling writers. Norman was unusual in the amount and quality of advice he gave to people who could not advance his career. He used to call it “church work,” simple acts of charity. The letters edition is in one sense somewhat unrepresentative in that the established, well-known writers and actors and public in intellectuals that he corresponded with are somewhat over-represented, for obvious reasons—it would be a mistake to leave out letters to Hillary and Bill, Brando or Lilian Hellman, even if they were not his very best. Suffice to say that he wrote to far more unknown, unsung writers than he did famous people. If you wrote Mailer a serious letter, you invariably received one in return.
When did Norman Mailer meet John Lennon? What was their relationship like?
Mailer and Lennon were not close friends, just social friends. They were both anti-war and pro-marijuana, to put it simply, and shared political turf. They saw each other socially a bit, and Yoko and John attended a wedding celebration for Mailer’s eldest child, Susan. Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment was the scene for the gathering of lots of major figures in the 60s and 70s. Dylan, Hunter Thompson, Lennon and Yoko, Capote, Legs McNeil, new leftists, Buckley, punk rockers, what have you. Mailer was deeply upset when Lennon was killed. He heard about it when he was in Germany making a documentary with me. He admired Lennon, no doubt.
Lennon and Yoko also contributed to a defense fund for a guy up on marijuana charges in Canada, gent named Robotham, at NM’s request. As you know, this situation is detailed in “Selected Letters Of Norman Mailer.”
Did Norman Mailer speak often of Hollywood and about the film version of “The Naked and the Dead?”
Besides the letters in “Selected Letters of Norman Mailer” where Mailer discusses Hollywood (see index), there is his 1955 novel “The Deer Park” which concerns a Hollywood director being investigated for leftist leanings, and the shenanigans of various actors and movie stars, producers and flunkies. This would be the key document, a searing indictment of the Hollywood system. Mailer lived in Hollywood for a year, 1949-50, and worked as a screen writer for Sam Goldwyn.
Norman Mailer’s letters to martin Luther King were quite memorable, Mike. Why did Norman choose to write to him?
I don’t know much about Mailer’s relationship with Martin Luther King, and the letter in my edition is the only one I know of. Mailer wrote about King, however, and admired him. He did a column in Esquire about King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and mentions him in passing in several of his books in the late 60s and early 70s, the creative nonfiction narratives. Certainly the assassinations of King and RFK in 1968 profoundly affected him, and made him think that America was on the verge of a civil war, or an avalanche of assassinations. This led to his film, MAIDSTONE: A MYSTERY, about a famous movie director named Norman T. Kingsley (NM’s middle name), and played by him. The director was one of many considering whether to run for president, and is fearful that he may be assassinated. King and Mailer met once, briefly, and were not close, but through the years of upheaval, 1963-73, King was much on his mind.
How did Norman Mailer feel about writing “The Executioner’s Song”? How did the idea begin to write this book?
Mailer, like everyone else in the country, read about Gary Gilmore back in the fall of 1976. Gilmore had been convicted in Utah of murdering two store clerks, and was sentenced to die, and the appeal process was underway. Not wanting to rot away and die spiritually while this took place, he asked the court to carry out the sentence forthwith. This was a unique request in judicial history, and it caught the nation’s attention. Lawrence Shiller, the photographer and media entrepreneur was already in Salt Lake City arranging for and paying for exclusive access to Gilmore. But Schiller needed a writer and turned to Mailer, with whom he had worked on a biography of Marilyn Monroe a few years earlier. They were a great team.
Mailer wanted at first to write an essay on Gilmore, who incarnated many of the ideas about death and karma that Mailer had puzzled over for decades. Mailer shared Gilmore’s belief that the soul can die, or live, after the body dies, depending on the nature of one’s final moments. Mailer’s next thought was that the story should be a play using the long, amazing interview in Playboy that Schiller had done with Gilmore. But Larry knew the story would need a lot of pages to capture Gilmore’s friends and family, and those of the victims as well, and convinced Mailer to write a narrative, which he did over a hectic 18-month period. Schiller did the brunt of the interviewing, although Mailer did a good deal, traveling to Utah several times. The transcripts ran close to 20,000 pages. Mailer worked twelve-hour days for months at a time to complete the book.
Mailer had difficulty at first deciding what point of view to employ, and after much head-scratching decided on using the one he employed in “The Naked and the Dead” —third person omniscient, relying on the transcripts and Gilmore’s letters for access to the thinking of the principals. For a decade he had been inserting himself into his narratives of American life (“The Armies of the Night,” “Of A Fire On The Moon,” “The Fight” etc.) and now he removed himself entirely, writing in what he called “a quiet voice from the other side of a hill” to capture the life and death (by firing squad, four bullets to the heart) of one of the most infamous, yet admired for his courage, criminals in American history.
The 1000-page book was published in November 1979, and immediately became a best seller. It won the Pulitzer for nonfiction in 1980, and Schiller made a highly lauded mini-series for TV a couple of years later. Tommy Lee Jones, a young actor from Texas, won an Emmy for portraying Gilmore. Joan Didion ended her front-page review in the New York Times Book Review with this sentence: “This is an absolutely astonishing book.” It is.