The Writer’s Song: A Conversation with Norman Mailer

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Last night Norman Mailer spoke to a packed audience at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. In his only New York appearance to promote his new book, The Castle in the Forest, a novel that explores the childhood of the epitome of evil, Adolf Hitler, and Mailer’s first major work of fiction in 10 years, he talked about his career, his politics, and of course his writing.

Mailer was born in 1923 in Long Branch, NJ and grew up in Brooklyn. He went to Harvard, fought in World War II, and has been married six times – six! He’s written numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, of which The Executioner’s Song is most well-known to this blogger, primarily because of the Tommy Lee Jones movie.

Interviewed by New York Times book editor, Sam Tanenhaus, Mailer talked on a range of subjects. Rather than try to summarize the whole evening, here are some highlights.

Mailer on:

His new book. It started as a work about Hitler’s mother who, through research Mailer found to be a modest, hard-working woman who adored her son. Mailer was fascinated with how even a loving household could produce a monster like Hitler.

Good and evil. He likens devils to a sly group interested in obtaining clients (hmm, sounds corporately familiar) while angels are like marines who when they find devils, simply “beat the crap out of them.”

Hitler. “The Devil’s answer to Jesus Christ.”

Writing novels. Unlike nonfiction, which to Mailer is more straightforward, writing a novel is like falling in love. You don’t choose to do it; it just happens to you and you’ve no choice but to follow through.

Playing up one’s virtues. Mailer’s is, like Picasso, doing something different every time and part of the reason he chose a subject like Hitler’s childhood, feeling as of now he’s said all he has to say about America. Plus Mailer really likes Picasso.

Sudden fame. At 25, Mailer published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, which almost immediately landed on the bestseller’s list. While he enjoyed the ride, afterwards he found the shot to fame and fortune debilitating, and as a result had an “identity crisis.” He admired writers like Kurt Vonnegut and William Kennedy who achieved success at a later age, when they were “ready for it.”

Narcissists. Because narcissists find it so difficult to move beyond themselves, they have a hard time falling in love. (Hmm, think I’ve dated one or two). They usually have the most intense relationships with othes like them because for two narcissists to be able to move out of the confines of themselves and connect with each other creates an intense yet short-lived energy.

Bush. President, that is. While a “leftist conservative,” Mailer was against Dubya from the beginning, even before 9/11. “A good democracy equals good language in its leaders,” he remarked. ‘Nuff said.

New York City. In 1969, Mailer ran for mayor of New York, and as part of his platform, proposed making the city the 51st state. “New York City has nothing to do with New York State,” he said. “We’re like Hong Kong.”

The Castle in the Forest is available from Random House now.

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