I happened to be in San Francisco two weekends ago, so was able to do the podcast interview with Ed Champion in person. (I was out there to interview Willie Nelson, who was playing a bunch of nights at the Filmore. This prompted my father to say — and you have to read this in an extremely thick Italian accent — “Didn’t he sing that song, ‘All the Girlfriends are the Wives of Somebody Else Now’? He meant ‘To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,’ but I think inadvertently wrote the best song title of all time.)
Anyway, I mentioned to Ed that I’d recently done two literary interviews myself, for Rolling Stone. First was Norman Mailer, who remains, unsurprisingly, a great talker. Here’s the intro I wrote, before I realized none of the Q&A’s were going to have intros:
Norman Mailer dedicated his 1966 collection Cannibals and Christians to Lyndon B. Johnson, “whose name inspired young men to cheer for me in public.” Indeed, by the latter half of the Sixties, Mailer — who had published his first book, the World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, to great critical and commercial acclaim — had become a prophetic elder statesman to the burgeoning counterculture, having already dissected the American hipster in “The White Negro” and cofounded The Village Voice. The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s book about the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, at which he was arrested, won the Pulitzer Prize, and remains a seminal document of the era. (And, stylistically, something to marvel at, particularly the first half of the book, written entirely in the third person, to alternately obnoxious and hilarious effect, e.g. “Actually, Mailer had not been that drunk.”) In the ensuing decades, Mailer wrote about Watergate, Jimmy Carter, Mohammad Ali, the history of the C.I.A., New York City graffiti artists, Hitler, Madonna, the space program, Lee Harvey Oswald, sex and, in his sprawling true crime masterpiece The Executioner’s Song, the killer Gary Gilmore. At the same time, Mailer’s violent personal life often threatened to overshadow his work, his indiscretions including (but not limited to) head-butting Gore Vidal before a taping of The Dick Cavett Show, challenging Vietnam-era national security advisor McGeorge Bundy to a fistfight at a party and stabbing his second wife with a pen knife during a drunken argument.
Now Mailer is 84. He normally walks with the assistance of a pair of canes, though on a recent visit to his Provincetown, Massachusetts, home, he emerged from his study with two free hands and made his way slowly across the room, hunched and crabwise, frozen in a permanent wrestler’s pose. His handshake remains tight as a vise. He sits in a round-backed rattan chair in front of a vast picture window overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He’s a bit hard of hearing, and has allowed his white hair and eyebrows to go wild and unruly, creating an air of mad science. The glint in his light blue eyes remains piercing, still the look of one prepared (maybe hoping) to throw a punch.
The Q&A should be on newstands now. I think only audio clips are on the RS website. In general, I’m not a fanatic for Mailer’s work, but The Executioner’s Song is one of my favorite nonfiction books. I’ve always wondered why the style of that book — incredibly spare — is so different from his others. So I asked him. Here’s his response, which didn’t make the final cut of the Q&A:
"Well, I had a huge amount of material, for one thing, and it was people out in Utah who speak very simply, most of them, and so the interviews themselves suggested the style. I started the book with a fancier style and I wrote about two chapters and then gave it up, because I could see it was the wrong way to go about it. And then there was a certain vanity involved. At that point, there were a lot of people talking about the virtues of a simple style, and my whole thing is, let’s cut out all the horseshit. There is nothing easier than a simple style. I wanted to show there is nothing to writing a simple style. Try a baroque style, you little sons of bitches."
I love that he wrote a thousand-page book as basically a fuck-you to Raymond Carver et al.
About a month later, I interviewed DeLillo, which was incredibly intimidating. That hasn’t run yet. But interestingly, when I asked him about influences, the first person he cited was Mailer. Not someone I would’ve guessed.
One final non sequitur: I happened to reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while flying back from SF. (Pretty disappointing, I thought. I’m a huge fan of Blood Meridian, and this just felt incredibly thin. Though I’m still delighted by the thought of his audience with Oprah.) Anyway, as I was reading, I glanced up and noticed that the in-flight movie was that Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness. (Why do they spell happiness that way in the title, does anyone know?? God, that’s awful.) I haven’t seen the movie, but the concept is Will Smith and his son (played in the movie by his real-life son) are homeless, until Will Smith eventually works his way into becoming, like, the head of a Fortune 500 company. Something like that. Anyway, looking up from the McCarthy and seeing Will Smith and his son living on the streets prompted a fantasy about them starring in the movie version of The Road, trudging through post-apocalypic ash, stumbling across spit-roasted babies, etc. For some reason I found this very amusing.
Thanks again. This was fun.