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In Prose or in Person, Still the Tough Guy

What would you expect from Norman Mailer? The author, who's just published an anthology of his work, is ever the prizefighter.

May 27, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Norman Mailer and I meet for lunch at the Bel Air Hotel, his current favorite in Los Angeles. He is here doing publicity for the new anthology of his work, "The Time of Our Time." Everyone tells me that the only thing you can do with a man who has been interviewed over the decades as much as he has is try to derail him--make him mad. This makes me dread lunch, since it's a beautiful day and do I really want to argue with Norman Mailer? There he sits, part imp and part prizefighter, at 75 America's most famous living writer.

Question: I throw my best punch first, still harboring the illusion that I can discompose Norman Mailer: Tell me about your mother. There was that picture of you as a young man in the New Yorker. You look like you were a sweet kid once. But you must have caused her a lot of trouble.

Answer: That's pretty good. She was short, maybe 5 feet at most. She wore high heels and corsets and was slightly heavyset but not plump. She had a very agreeable face, very expressive. She was very much a woman of that time, her emotions were open, she adored her children. She was a kind of mafia mother in that she had a circle of loyalties--children, then sisters, then her husband, then the outer relatives. You couldn't trust anyone outside the family.

If she had a fault it was her blind loyalty. I mean, if I climbed up on a tower in Texas and shot 18 people she'd say, "What did these people do to Norman to make him do that?" There was a sense that you had to fight through her enveloping arms of love in order to do anything of your own.

Q: You have a famous ego. How do you maintain it?

A: I had a great thought about ego recently. Ego is the prostate of the mind--you can't let it get too swollen. Now that's not too bad, that's a serviceable idea. I'm not really an egoist--it's just that my ego functions on a very narrow road. I get into trouble when I skid off the road--that's the trouble with having a strong ego--when you skid off the road the shoulder is particularly treacherous. Fragile people are awful--it's like climbing up a rock face talking to them."

Q: What are your thoughts on feminism these days?

A: Even being called a male chauvinist pig doesn't make me react any more. Women sold out to the corporation. It was a middle-class revolution.

Q: So you still have a strong impulse to shock.

A: Yes, but I want to shock at a deeper level. Instead of delivering a ringing slap to readers' perceptions, I want to achieve a powerful blow to the seat of the heart. The great ones do that.

Q: What makes a writer great?

A: You have to understand, there are people who are talented but not especially eager for what they were given. I'm a huge believer in the continuation of dreams over generations, in the gene stream. For myself, we could go back to a ghetto where people dreamed of doing something. My father used to write beautiful letters, almost Jamesian. He dreamed of being a writer but between avoiding the Feds on one hand and the mafia on the other. . . .

Say you're given this huge gift. You don't sit around being satisfied with yourself. After all, it's not really a gift, it's an endowment. It's like a rich kid who hasn't made money himself. You don't want to be less than the people who made the money. On the one hand it's stewardship. On the other, it's an ablity to expand what you were given.

Q: You've said that you have never been able to write an autobiography because you have yet to become the hero of your own life.

A: I can hardly look back on my life and say it's a series of wise and well-chosen moves. I've done a lot of damage to people who were close to me. My children didn't exactly benefit from what happened with Adele. [Mailer is referring to the time in 1962 when he stabbed his second wife, Adele. He was arrested but not charged.] I'm not a hero to myself, a protagonist maybe, but not a hero.

Q: Tell me why you refuse to go to Israel.

A: If I go there, I'll end up with a novel and I can't afford that--I'm already two novels behind. You understand, there are novels you've been wanting to write for years, and now at 75 I've got to look around and say which of these novels I can actually write. You have to be happy about the novel you're doing. You can't be wishing you were writing another novel.

Q: Someone said recently that the American reader is still buying Norman Mailer off the rack. In other words, there hasn't been anyone to take your place.

A: There are a lot of good writers, but they're not changing anything in American life. They are writing for each other. People read bestsellers because a book is still more agreeable than a TV screen, but by the year 2025, I'm certain bestsellers will be written by computer. No assemblage required.

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