Norman Mailer: The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing
By Norman Mailer
Random House. 330 pp. $24.95
I am tempted to call this section Economics, for it concerns the loss and gain (economically, psychically, physically) of living as a writer. Let's settle, however, for a term that may be closer to the everyday reality: Lit Biz. Spend your working life as a writer and depend on it-your income, your spirit, and your liver are all on close terms with Lit Biz.
In 1963, Steve Marcus did an interview with me for The Paris Review, and I have taken the liberty of separating his careful and elegantly structured questions into several parts in order to give a quick shape to my first years as a writer. For those who are more interested in what I have to say about writing in general than about myself in particular, you are invited to skip over these autobiographical details and move on to a few comments on my first two books, The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore. Or, if you are in search of directly useful nitty-gritty, move even further, to "The Last Draft of The Deer Park."
steven marcus: Do you need any particular environment in which to write?
norman mailer: I like a room with a view, preferably a long view. I like looking at the sea, or ships, or anything which has a vista to it. Oddly enough, I've never worked in the mountains.
sm: When did you first think of becoming a writer?
nm: That's hard to answer. I did a lot of writing when I was young.
sm: How young?
sm: A real novel?
nm: Well, it was a science fiction novel about people on Earth taking a rocket ship to Mars. The hero had a name which sounded like Buck Rogers. His assistant was called Dr. Hoor.
sm: Doctor . . . ?
nm: Dr. Hoor. Whore, pronounced h-o-o-r. That's the way we used to pronounce whore in Brooklyn. He was patterned directly after Dr. Huer in Buck Rogers, who was then appearing on radio. This novel filled two and a half paper notebooks. You know the type, about seven inches by ten. They had soft, shiny blue covers and they were, oh, only ten cents in those days, or a nickel. They ran to about a hundred pages each and I used to write on both sides. My writing was remarkable for the way I hyphenated words. I loved hyphenating, and so I would hyphenate "the" and make it "th-e" if it came at the end of the line. Or "they" would become "the-y." Then I didn't write again for a long time. I didn't even try out for the high school literary magazine. I had friends who wrote short stories, and their short stories were far better than the ones I would write for assignments in high school English and I felt no desire to write. When I got to college, I started again. The jump from Boys' High School in Brooklyn to Harvard came as a shock. I started reading some decent novels for the first time.
sm: You mentioned in Advertisements for Myself that reading Studs Lonigan made you want to be a writer.
nm: Yes. It was the first truly literary experience I had, because the background of Studs was similar to mine. I grew up in Brooklyn, not Chicago, but the atmosphere had the same flatness of affect. Until then I had never considered my life or the life of the people around me as even remotely worthy of-well, I didn't believe they could be treated as subjects for fiction. It never occurred to me. Suddenly I realized you could write about your own life.
sm: When did you feel that you were started as a writer?
nm: When I first began to write again at Harvard. I wasn't very good. I was doing short stories all the time, but I wasn't good. If there were fifty people in the class, let's say I was somewhere in the top ten. My teachers thought I was fair, but I don't believe they ever thought for a moment I was really talented. Then in the middle of my sophomore year I started getting better. I got on The Harvard Advocate and that gave me confidence, and about this time I did a couple of fairly good short stories for English A-1, one of which won Story magazine's college contest for that year.
sm: Was that the story about Al Groot?
nm: Yes. And when I found out it had won-which was at the beginning of the summer after my sophomore year -well, that fortified me, and I sat down and wrote a novel. It was a very bad novel. I wrote it in two months. It was called No Percentage. It was just terrible. But I never questioned any longer whether I was started as a writer.
sm: What do you think were some of the early influences in your life? What reading, as a boy, do you recall as important?
nm: The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway were glorious works. So was Captain Blood. I think I read every one of Jeffrey Farnol's books, and there must have been twenty of them. And every one of Rafael Sabatini's.
sm: Did you ever read any of them again?
nm: No, now I have no real idea of their merit. But I never enjoyed a novel more than Captain Blood. Nor a movie. Do you remember Errol Flynn as Captain Blood? Some years ago I was asked by a magazine what were the ten most important books in my development. The book I listed first was Captain Blood. Then came Das Kapital. Then The Amateur Gentleman.
sm: You wouldn't say that Das Kapital was boyhood reading?
nm: Oh no, I read that many years later. But it had its mild influence.
sm: It's been said often that novelists are largely nostalgic for their boyhood, and in fact most novelists draw on their youthful experiences a great deal. In your novels, however, the evocation of scenes from boyhood is rare or almost absent.
nm: It's difficult to write about childhood. I never felt I understood it in any novel way. I never felt other authors did either. Not particularly. I think the portrait of childhood which is given by most writers is rarely true to anything more than the logic of their novel. Childhood is so protean.
sm: What about Twain, or Hemingway-who drew on their boyhoods successfully?
nm: I must admit they created some of the psychological reality of my own childhood. I wanted, for instance, to be like Tom Sawyer.
sm: Not Huck Finn?
nm: The magic of Huck Finn seems to have passed me by, I don't know quite why. Tom Sawyer was the book of Twain's I always preferred. I remember when I got to college I was startled to find that Huckleberry Finn was the classic. Of course, I haven't looked at either novel in thirty years.
© 2003 Norman Mailer
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