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From the archives: Norman Mailer

For our second column featuring highlights from the New York State Writers Institute’s extensive archives, we’re presenting another one of William Kennedy’s most memorable Institute interviews, this one with Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Russell Banks, award-winning writer and New York State Author from 2004-2006, also participated in this interview. 

Kennedy and Mailer had a long friendship, beautifully described in the essay Kennedy wrote in 2008 to honor Mailer, "A Nonpariel Force Field” (reprinted recently in Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, edited by Suzanne Lance and Paul Grondahl).  In that essay’s first paragraph, Kennedy writes that “Norman lived…as a nonpareil force field in America’s literature, intellectual life, and popular culture; and his power to seriously oppress writers…was crystallized by Seymour Krim in a 1969 essay, ‘Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!’” 


Mailer was the New York State Author from 1991-1993, but this interview took place when he visited UAlbany on May 1, 2007.  (Watch an excerpt from our YouTube channel.) Mailer was on tour for what would be his final book, The Castle in the Forest, a novel devoted to Adolf Hitler’s childhood.  The interview with Kennedy, Banks, and Mailer explores the complex relationship between fiction and nonfiction, something that has fascinated and inspired all three of these writers.  Then, in the context of his new book, Mailer offers some brief comments about God, the Devil, and the nature of the cosmos. 


Once again, as with so much of what you can find in the Institute’s archives, the interview overflows with wisdom, laughter, and a love of literary conversation. -- Edward Schwarzschild, November 2, 2018

(photos from top, Norman Mailer, William Kennedy, Russell Banks)

Norman Mailer
William Kennedy
Russell Banks

Norman Mailer, Interviewed by William Kennedy and Russell Banks, May 1, 2007

Kennedy: You’ve said that everything you’ve written, including nonfiction or argument, comes from your knowledge, belief, or understanding of how you write fiction.


Mailer: I’d say that it’s all fiction. I think one of the greatest swindles that civilization has been pulling on itself is that there are two literary forms--fiction and nonfiction--and that there really is a profound separation between them.


As far as I’m concerned, nonfiction is fiction. Because you never get it right. I have much more contempt and respect for facts than most nonfiction writers, because I think that most facts are skewed, warped, and twisted in one form or another, whether outright lies or almost correct. And they get put together in these rickety structures which are then called history until somebody else comes along and casts it down for a new structure, and so forth. So, in that sense, it’s fiction.


Whereas in fiction, what you’re doing is dealing with things that are not facts, but you’re trying to move truthfully among several imaginations when you’re writing. And that makes for some very interesting structures, which I think have more tensile strength.  When you twist them, they tend to twist back, whereas with history, once you twist it -- once you demolish a fact in history -- it’s gone. The history is savaged. It was a serious fact, and now it’s seriously wrong.

Kennedy: Which of your articles or books comes to mind where you found out that as much as you tried to get it straight as pure nonfiction, it was skewed by something?

Mailer: The Executioner’s Song. First of all, I felt it was fiction for a very simple reason, which is that I was writing it as if it were fiction.  I was writing it as if it were a story, not a set of facts. And I thought that the form dictates your response.  In other words, we read fiction in one frame of mind, and nonfiction in another. And I thought that if you wrote something in the style of fiction, then people would read it that way.


But I felt that, to the contrary of what I was doing, it was very important to get all the facts as straight as I possibly could in order to test the premise of it. In other words, I didn’t want to get into something where here I’m really factual and there I’m just making it up. So, there’s almost nothing made up in The Executioner’s Song. And when it came to Nicole, who I loved....  I thought she was a wonderful example of a working class heroine if there ever was one.  She made me wish I was a Communist back in the Twenties and that we had a working class girl who was really something -- beautiful, sexy, and adventurous and everything. I worked on her like a demon in order to get every last thing right. And when she finally read it, she was furious.


She said, “That’s not me at all.” And then I remembered something that Braque said once, that “Picasso and I do Cubism, and we can do whatever we want and people will pay large sums for it and be happy with it, but the moment we paint someone’s face, oh, we’re in trouble.  Everybody gets mad at us and nobody likes what we’re doing.” So, in that sense, it is truly all fiction.


Even with an absolute effort to be accurate, you don’t necessarily come near it. Now, some might say, “You were more accurate than she was,” but that’s not so. I wanted to reach the inner life of a lady, and failed, evidently. On the other hand, I ended up with a very good character in a book, so I didn’t brood over it.

Kennedy: At what point did you call that “fiction?” You weren’t always going to call it “fiction,” were you?

Mailer: I think it started with the idea that it was fiction, and I wanted to prove a point, which was that fiction is a style that’s employed to approach reality. In other words, it’s a way of tapping reality. History is another mode. And if you employ a style, being one of a number of styles, fiction rather than nonfiction, then, essentially, people are receiving it as the mode in which you are attacking reality.


Now, let’s use a very crude image: Let’s say it’s some mountaineers, and they’re going up different rock faces on a difficult climb. In one situation, they might be using pitons, and in another case where there’s ice, they use ice axes. And in another case, where it’s very muddy, they might be using ropes and attaching themselves to stumps. These are totally difference kinds of experiences as you’re going up a mountain, and you’re going through different emotions at such times. And it seems to me that it applies also to fiction and nonfiction. A lot of people disagree with that, but it’s just my take on it.

Kennedy: When you were doing The Armies of the Night, did you start off thinking of it as novelistic – that is, the novel as history, history as the novel – in the same way you did The Executioner’s Song? Did you have the concept of fiction as you were beginning it?

Mailer: It was that happy situation where, on one hand, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had absolute confidence in what I was doing.  It just felt right. And you know what that means. 


When you’re writing, sometimes it feels right. And when it does, you never argue with it. You never say, “But what form is this?” After I had finished it -- and I had to write it in a great hurry, which makes it an odd book for me, because I wrote it and rewrote it in something like six weeks, and usually my books take years -- I started getting interested in the notion of the history of the novel. I think it was the beginning of all this wondering of what this is all about.

Kennedy: In this context, without going into it elaborately, how would you relate it to  Capote’s nonfiction novel [In Cold Blood]?

Mailer: Well, I hated the term “nonfiction novel.” He was writing a novel that was very factual. In other words, it stays very close, uses the real names of people, and he was entering their heads. Capote was…how to put it? I don’t want to dis him, because he can’t defend himself. I just didn’t like the term “nonfiction novel.” I gave it a terrible title myself -- “true life novel.” That was worse. I don’t know why I ended up with a ridiculous title like that.

Banks: It was probably, as it probably was with Capote, a kind of defensiveness against that categorization that people throw at you, starting with publishers and ending with the reviewers, and book stores, all the way down the cultural line.

Mailer: I’m not sure I agree, Russell. I think it was just a folly. There was no pressure on me to do it. I just didn’t come up with the right words. I meant something like “novel not unrelated to fact.”

Banks: I wrote a novel [Cloudsplitter] based on the life of John Brown, the Abolitionist.  It was a long historical novel, and I followed the facts as closely as I could follow them. And then there were all these lacunae -- places where people didn’t know where he was, or what he said -- and I just filled them up with fiction and never thought not to call it a novel.

Mailer: That’s a novel.

Banks: It’s a way of thinking and a way of using details to fill the narrative, which has an allegiance to the tradition of the novel.

Mailer: I couldn’t agree more. I really think that what we do in novels is get nodes that could be so called “factual,” or they could be absolutely imaginary. But it’s almost as if they’re stations in the narrative. The real fun in writing a novel is to connect the facts.

Banks: I like what you’re saying about “nodes.” I feel the same way. I have equal access, as a fiction writer, to news accounts, to history, to other books, to my own personal life, my autobiography, dreams, fantasies, my unconscious -- it’s all in the same basic plane of reality for me to use as nodes as I build a novel. I don’t really distinguish between them.

Mailer: Yes. Fiction is really connections.

Banks: That’s interesting.

Mailer: And in history, very often, there are not connections. It’s almost as if they deal with “There were these forces, and those forces…” But I see you shaking your head, Bill.

Kennedy: No, no, I’m listening. I agree. I was just thinking…

Banks: Bill, you use history all the time.

Kennedy: I’m thinking of the idea of transforming an historical fact into the character, and when I get to the character is where the life takes over.  For instance, with Francis Phelan: I knew a couple of bums on the street, and I could emulate the realism of their lives and get it authentic, journalistically, but as soon as Francis begins to think about where he is -- at that instant, it really clicks in for me, and this guy becomes more real than those bums on the street. And suddenly he’s talking to you in a way you didn’t expect. That’s when it really gets exciting…

Banks: And when it becomes fiction writing.

Kennedy: Yes.

Banks: Because what you’re doing is what fiction writers do and historians don’t: You examine up close consciousness, and consciousness is not of particular interest to an historian, or even to a journalist.

Mailer: It’s a disaster.

Banks: Yes, it gets in the way.

Mailer: I mean, you’d get run out of town.

Banks: But it’s what novelists are obsessed with: what’s going on inside.


Mailer: The closest God ever came to me was in a Brooklyn hash house way back when my third marriage was breaking up, and I was in bad shape because I really thought this marriage might be it.


So, I was wandering around Brooklyn in these semi-slum streets, nothing terrible, just wandering around, and I go into a hash house to have a doughnut and coffee.  It’s literally ten o’clock at night and I’m sitting there and finishing.  I reach for my money and this voice says in my ear -- and the reason I think it was a godlike voice, or an angel, was that there was something so lordly about it -- and it said, “Listen, asshole, leave here without paying the bill.”


And I said, “Leave without paying the bill? I can’t do that.”


And it just says, “Get up and go.” So I got up and I left.


And I thought about it afterward for a long time because it was something so different from normal experience -- altogether different and off the wall -- and what it meant to me was always that God, or some angel, was laughing at me and saying, “So you want to change the world? You want to blow up the bastions of this and that, and yet you do not have enough gumption to cheat a restaurant on a fifteen cent bill.” 


Then I began to realize that, yes, if God exists -- and I do believe God exists -- God is full of whims and whimsies and varieties and wit -- savage wit at times -- and so forth. And that made it a comfortable God in a certain sense.

Banks: Despite what Einstein said. He didn’t believe that God was a joker.

Mailer: No, but God can be a scourge of some sort.


I’m always shifting in my seat when I start talking about God and the Devil, because I know how annoyed it gets most people. I was one of them for the first 45 or 50 years of my life. I couldn’t bear pious people and religious people, and I considered them frauds every step of the way. I’m certainly not in any way a fundamentalist.  In fact, I loathe fundamentalists and the whole notion that it was all written, and it strikes me as absolutely opposed to the nature of existence.

God is a creator, not a law-giver, you see. To me, God is existential.  God may succeed, God may fail. 


Ditto for the Devil. Why do I believe there’s a Devil? Because there are opposed forces in everything I’ve ever encountered in life, and so it almost strikes me that you can’t have a creator of our existence without having an opposed force that comes out of some other part of the cosmos.

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