Years ago, in my very early twenties, I set out to write a book. I started a routine. I no longer drank, so I substituted a glass bottle of sparkling water for beer (similar heft), thrived on a diet of Parliament Lights and iced coffee, and always took a nap in the afternoon. For inspiration in the early mornings, though, I turned to Norman Mailer’s book on writing, “The Spooky Art.” I would read passages for motivation; it was as if Mailer, like the boxing coach in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, was a few steps behind me, over my shoulder in a hooded sweatshirt, imparting brutal words of encouragement: never skip out on the muse, write every day, and, please, for the sake of your readers, don’t be such a chicken shit.
Dr. J. Michael Lennon is the man who helped Mailer put “The Spooky Art” together. Lennon, an author and professor at Wilkes University, also collaborated on Mailer’s last book, “On God: An Uncommon Conversation.” Since Mailer’s death in Nov. 2007, Lennon has been at work on the only authorized biography of Mailer’s life, a 300,000 word volume that will be published by Simon&Schuster. At the same time, he’s played a major role in establishing The Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, MA.
I spent a week at the Colony last month, and the word spooky fits—drizzle, fog, receding tides, Lovecraftian sounds over the bay. A perfect setting to write. (Certainly one that worked for Mailer, as he wrote the majority of his books there.)
I also had the privilege to meet Michael Lennon, and over lunch with the other Colony attendees, he shared his wealth of literary anecdotes, writing tips, and knowledge of all-things-Mailer. He also very graciously agreed to do an interview for The Hastings Report. How do you write a biography? What’s Mailer’s legacy? Imagine Mailer as a blogger? Twittering? And what did Hemingway say when he finally wrote Mailer back? The full interview below.
How’s the biography going?
The biography is going well. It’s sort of like a military campaign. There are various outposts that have to be captured. You have to gather your logistics before you write about any period. You really have to have, at your fingertips, the pertinent materials, the background material, the quotations in Mailer’s books that deal with that period. You don’t want to write a piece about Harvard and find ‘oh my goodness, he gave a long interview about Harvard,’ or even a short interview. That takes time. The writing is fairly easy when you have all the materials. What’s frustrating is when you have to stop and take a day to search things out.
So how are you tackling Mailer’s life?
It’s going to be cradle to grave, of course, that’s the first thing that has to be said. It will go beyond that, actually, it will go back to his grandparents. His grandfather, Schneider, his mother’s father, was a very noted rabbi and Talmudic scholar, a real star in the Talmudic firmament. I don’t really have an idea of how I’m going to end it, but obviously I’ll look to his legacy and his reputation, and have some comments about that.
It’s going to be one volume, right?
To get this in one volume, I can’t be as expansive as I’d like to be, but I have plenty of room to stretch around, close to three hundred thousand words to tell his story. It’s a big, big, life. There will be a lot of comments on his book. It’s a critical biography, but I can’t have extended comments on all of them. So one of my choices is to pick which are the books to comment on. There are some obvious books, of course, like The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, and The Executioner’s Song. But he wrote over 40 books, and some of them are not as well known or obscure. There’s also unpublished material, and materials that appeared in underground press publications that are useful to the biography. The biographer has a different way of looking at those materials. Looking at those materials insofar as they reveal the life. But overall, I want the life to reveal the art. I want the writing to be the thing that’s illumined. The life will be illumined along the way, but we read Mailer because he was as great writer. So any way I can make the life illumine the art that’s fine, but I want to work it the other way as well. The writing illuminating the life.
What are the works that aren’t so well known that you plan to comment on?
First of all, the letters. No one has read all the letters except Mailer and myself. There are 45,000 letters to 50,000 letters. So reading the letters over a period of three years was the most important preparatory work I did. I have copies of about 3500 of his letters. Those will be the truly new material. There are some real juicy, meaty letters that no one has ever seen. They’re both literary artifacts and biographical artifacts. He reveals things about his life, he also reveals a lot of his intentions and motivations and the context for which he wrote things. After that, there’s a lot of unpublished things, short stories he wrote at Harvard, an unpublished novel called ‘No Percentage.’ Those will be very useful. Later on, there are a series of prefaces and introductions for books of friends—a preface to a book by Jose Tores on Mohammed Ali, for example. Fifteen times he wrote pieces about other writers or friends of his who’d written books. Those pieces have gone under the radar. He wrote an introduction to a book about Hemingway by Hemingway’s son, for instance. It’s really quite an interesting document. The pieces he wrote for the Village Voice, pieces he wrote for Parade Magazine, for Vanity Fair. He did a profile of Clint Eastwood for Parade, a profile of Warren Beatty for Vanity Fair. You get a nugget here and nugget there.
One of the story’s you told at the Colony was about the letter Ernest Hemingway sent Mailer. As a Mailer fan, I was very surprised to learn that Hemingway actually did write Mailer back. I’d never heard that before. What’s the story?
In early ’55, Mailer sent a copy of The Deer Park, his third novel, to Hemingway in Cuba. Five or six weeks later, the book came back. He couldn’t tell if it had been opened, or resealed, or what. So in Advertisements for Myself, his 1959 book of essays, he speculates about whether Hemingway had ever received it. Whether Hemingway said, ‘You’re coming on too strong buster, here’s your book back,’ or whether Mary intercepted it. Mailer also quotes from the letter that he wrote to Hemingway, which is sort of a passive aggressive letter. On the one hand it says, ‘I really want to know what you think about this.’ On the other hand, it says, ‘If you’re going to treat me with any derision, then fuck you, I never want to hear from you again.’ It was one of those kind of letters. And Mailer never got a response. Well, Hemingway did respond but it wasn’t until four years later. Hemingway wrote back, ‘Hey, I got the book and I liked it.’
That’s a great moment in Advertisements for Myself where he lays that out, The Deer Park getting returned, unopened. But I don’t remember Mailer ever saying anything publically about finally getting a letter from Hemingway.
I don’t think he ever did. When I asked him about it once, he said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember getting that letter.’ But the time had passed, the moment had passed. He had moved on. And of course he had got the letter from Hemingway less than two years before Hemingway killed himself. It’s a very interesting little sidelight on his relationship with Hemingway. It was a polite letter, indicating he had read Mailer’s book, had enjoyed it very much, just sort of a letter of encouragment to a fellow writer.He never met Hemingway.
The thumbnail critical debate over Mailer’s career is this: his fiction versus his non-fiction, what’s going to last.
My view is that Mailer, from a conventional point of view that separates fiction and nonfiction along traditional lines—you’re either making it up or telling the truth—Mailer has claims on both sides of the aisle. Clearly novels like Naked and the Dead, American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam, Harlot’s Ghost, are going to be remembered as very important novels. But the fact is he wrote much more nonfiction than fiction. He was always putting his fiction on the shelf to deal with pressing events of the time. People were always asking to write about it. Part of it was economic. He would get a tremendous offer to write from Life Magazine to write about the Apollo 11 moon shot, which he was very interested in. So he puts his novel on the shelf in order to do that. So his nonfiction in bulk—Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Fight, Oswald’s Tale—those books are going to last, more important to historical memory in the recreation of the time. His novels are going to be remembered more as literary artifacts. Of course they’re about their time as well. Therein lies the problem. Mailer didn’t believe there was a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. He believed ultimately that historians were subjective and making things up and their biases were reflected in the way they handled historical data, whereas novelists on the other hand had an obligation to report the truth of the time they lived in. They were both poaching on each other’s territory. Finally, there was so much poaching going on, Mailer said ‘It really doesn’t make any difference. Everything is fiction. There’s a lot of good nonfiction that has the feel of fiction. It’s a silly debate, why are we arguing about it?’ Ultimately, you have to see Mailer’s work as one large work, that’s filled with the same obsessions, the same themes. They’re in his fiction, they’re in his non-fiction.
There’s such a depth of imagination, a daringiness in his best non-fiction that you can’t find anywhere else. I’m thinking Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Fire on the Moon.
Mailer has no peer in his writing about events through the 1960’s, from Kennedy’s assassination to Nixon’s election in ’72. No one else was going near it. Tom Wolfe was writing about social phenomenon, but he wasn’t writing about politics at all. He had some marvelous books, like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, but I don’t think anyone came quite as close. Probably the two people that come to mind under that same tent are Joan Didion and Gay Talese. They didn’t use themselves as prism the way Mailer did. Didion did use herself, but in an oblique way, and Talese was completely out of the picture, in the shadows. They had different modes. Mailer was the only who used his own ego as a burning glass to observe the events of the time. He always felt if you want to understand the events the time you have to observe the observer. There’s that wonderful back and forth between what you’re seeing through the lens and the pulling back to look at the lens itself. It gives a power to his books that you don’t find in anyone else. From 62-72, that’s always going to be the great period. There are a couple of novels—American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam—but after Why Are We in Vietnam there isn’t another novel until 1983. From 1955 to 1983 there are two novels. That’s when he’s at the height of his powers. In ’83 he comes out with Ancient Evenings, which is mainly unread because of its difficulty.
Is there anyone writing today, about the events of today, who could pull of what Mailer pulled off? Could they get away with it?
Every era has their own way of doing things. There’s so many great writers today, so much great nonfiction being written. I haven’t seen anyone that has quite been able to match Mailer, but maybe I’m missing it. We don’t know what the mode is going to be right now. What is the mode? Who’s writing it? There’s so much exciting writing going on. I don’t if there’s anything like Mailer. I don’t think you’re going to find the same thing. Mailer wasn’t writing like Hemingway and Faulkner and Dos Passos and the great writers of the generation before. He had to invent his own way of doing things. And there’s somebody out there who’s inventing a new way.
Mailer was very weary of technology, but when we were talking at the Colony, you made an offhand remark that I wanted to ask you about. You said that if Mailer was coming up in this generation, he’d be ‘blogging the hell out of it.’
It was kind an irresponsible remark on my part, that Mailer would be a blogger. But blogging does put you in touch with a whole new section of society. And it’s proved to be powerful tool. There’s wonderful writing in them. We’re in a whole new era. It’s almost like the era when the mass newspaper was invented. People used to read newspapers sitting in gentleman’s club, but then people were selling newspapers on the street for a penny. That changed everything. Television changed everything. Now the Internet is changing everything again. So Mailer was always looking for new audiences, always looking for new audiences. And he saw television in his day as a way to look for a new audience. He would say to himself, ‘There’s twenty million people out there, if I can get my message across, and my insights, even about how lousy technology is and how in some ways it’s destructive to our finer sensibilities, then I’m going to be doing a great thing.’ He had a huge flirtation with television. He wrote a long essay for Esquire in the late 70’s about television, called “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots.” A beautiful piece of writing about television, it excesses and possibilities. If Mailer had been a younger writer, he would have immediately been drawn to blogs. Indeed, he did write a couple entries for Arianna Huffington at the Huffington. He was curious about it. He would ask questions about Google and how it worked. ‘How many hits did I get? How many hits did Saul Bellow get?’ He had have us look up things like that. ‘Who gets the greatest number hits? Is it Jesus? Ali? John Lennon?’ He was always interested in social phenomenon. But he had huge suspicion of technology, that it was leaching out our ability to connect in a tactile way to the world. That technology was between us and nature, between us and people, between us and genuine reality, and wondered if it was the devil’s tool. He had very mixed feelings about the Internet. But there was always some part of him that was open to a new phenomenon.
This the first year of Mailer Writer’s Colony. How’s it going?
The colony is going great. The idea is to have people who knew Mailer teach, and let his spirit float over the top of the Colony courses. [For a list of the writers and editors who are planning visits to the Colony—like Douglas Brinkley, Kaylie Jones, and Christoper Ricks, among others—visit the NMWC website.] The Mailer Fellows are going to be coming in the month of July. It’s an experimental first year, but it augurs well for the future, so we might do the classes next year. There’s going to be a gigantic benefit for the Colony, in New York on October 20th.
That will be a great event, a round-up of all the old gang. Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Tina Brown, David Remnick, the Mailer family. We’ve done quite a bit for one year. We’re giving out Norman Mailer awards to high school and college students, getting the word out to a new generation of readers.
I’ve asked this to all the folks I’ve interviewed here: any advice on the writer’s life?
The two things that help me most as a writer are writing every day or almost every day. I follow Mailer’s advice: if you make a commitment the day before, keep the commitment. Don’t blow it off. Eventually the muse will show up. Writing is perspiration mainly. If you keep writing away, ultimately inspiration will show up. The other thing I do is go for a walk. Everyday, for two miles. I swear when I come back my head is bursting with ideas. It worked for Plato and Socrates, it works for me.
Is this biography your most important work?
This is the most important thing I’ve ever attempted. I’ve written all kinds of things about Mailer, a lot of it has been academic, but I’ve never done anything quite as extensive as this. This is a big book for me. I can die after I finish this. I hope I don’t–I want to go on and do the letters, get them out, and there are a lot of other things I want to do. But this is by far the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken because he lived such a big life. It’s going to take all my energies and all my knowledge and a lot of good luck to pull this off.
Final question. Personally, I’m interested in how writing relates to grieving, how one deals with the trauma of loss through telling stories. You were a great and close friend to Mailer. Has that impacted your work?
When Mailer died, I had a lot of opportunities to write about him. People were whipping these things out: a memory with him, an interview with him or day with him. I had spent so much time with him, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t synthesize him. In the memorial at Carnegie Hall, I talked more of him as writer than as a person. I wasn’t ready to write about him. I think I knew I was saving it for the biography. Mailer said that we all have crystals, private experience that were very profound and dense. You keep those crystals and you pull a crystal down and shine a light through it–a really personal situation you were in that was profound and moving to you. Instead of writing about it, you save it and use it as away to enter other experiences. There’s a few things I really don’t want to take the case off. I want to keep them private. They’ll help me writing the biography.