A Conversation with J. Michael Lennon

Q: What was your relationship with Norman Mailer, and how did you come to write a biography of him?

ML: We first met in 1972 when I was writing my doctoral thesis on his work, and got friendly.  A couple of years later, I met Robert Lucid, his first archivist and authorized biographer. Eventually, I became Bob’s understudy, and when Bob died unexpectedly in 2006, I began writing my own version of the official, or authorized biography, with Mailer’s blessing. I was almost done editing Mailer’s letters at the time, but shelved that project for the bio.

Q: The subtitle of this biography is “A Double Life” – what do you mean by that?

ML: Mailer could see reality only as a series of oppositions. Everybody and everything, all phenomena, is twinned.  All of his own identities—rifleman, novelist, filmmaker, political activist, family man, womanizer, journalist, and so on—had a double.  Doubleness was his tool for understanding people, politics, nature, the universe even. What makes it more fascinating is that each twin has a minority within. Monsters have an enclave of virtue, and the converse is true for saints.

Q: There’s been a lot written about Norman Mailer over the years.  Did you have new sources or materials to draw from when researching this biography? 

ML: Yes, I had a good deal of new material. He wrote about 45,000 letters over 70 years, and many of them are revelatory. He was quite candid in his correspondence. It took me several years to read them all, and I guess I am the only one, besides him, to have done so. I also did a score of long interviews with him in his last decade, and during his final thirty months I visited him nearly every day. My wife and I lived nearby in the same town, Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod.  His family was helpful, very helpful, and I talked with them formally and informally for years. His sister Barbara was absolutely critical. She read everything I wrote and made numerous suggestions. I also interviewed his friends, editors, lovers—over 80 people.  Larry Schiller, his most important collaborator, was also generous with his insights and access to his archive.

Q: Who are some of the people you interviewed from Mailer’s life?

ML: Besides his nine children, his nephew, his sister, his wife Norris Church and her living predecessors (he was married six times), I interviewed a number of writers who knew him: Don DeLillo, William Kennedy, Gay Talese, Barbara Probst Solomon, Dotson Rader, Dick and Doris Kearns Goodwin; several of his editors: Jason Epstein, David Ebershoff, Veronica Windholz, Tina Brown, Harry Evans, Walter Anderson; and quite a few of his close friends—Mickey Knox, Richard Stratton, Jim Toback, Bill Majeski, Ivan Fisher, Jeff Michelson, Sal Cetrano, many more. I was also fortunate enough to be able to interview two women with whom he had long affairs: Lois Mayfield Wilson and Eileen Fredrickson.

Q: Did Mailer share anything with you about his writing process?

ML: He talked about it all the time. It was one of his favorite subjects, and I devote quite a few pages to how it changed over the years. He had all sorts of routines and superstitions about the work process. I helped him put together a book on the topic, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing.

Q: How did real life experiences impact Mailer’s writing?  

ML: Profoundly. He called experience “the church of one’s acquired knowledge.” For him, the most valuable kind of experience was that which was unexpected, experience that is thrust upon you—for example, his 25 months as a rifleman in the Philippine campaign during WWII.  He kept a list of 161 soldiers he had served with, with notes on each.  He was endlessly curious, right to the end.

Q: What would you say is the lasting legacy of Mailer’s work on American literature?

ML: Three things: 1) He was the key innovator in the New Journalism movement, the wave of participatory journalism that took place from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.  The Armies of the Night, his 1968 Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the anti-Vietnam War movement is one of the finest achievements of this movement; 2) Along with Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Mailer was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years. There is no one like him these days; 3) Mailer was to the latter half of the twentieth century what John Dos Passos was to the first half: the most important chronicler and commentator on major events and figures in American Life: Marilyn Monroe, Hemingway, JFK, Nixon, Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, many more. He also created some wonderful fictional characters, Elena in The Deer Park, and Rojack in An American Dream, for example.

Q: Mailer knew many of the most famous writers of his generation, from Joan Didion to Tom Wolfe.  How did he fit in with the literary crowd of his times?

ML: In the 1950s, he was very close with William Styron, James Jones and James Baldwin. These friendships collapsed or waned, and he did not go around with writers as much afterwards, although he was friendly with Gay Talese, Robert Lowell, Joan Didion and William Buckley for decades.  Later, he had warm relationships with Bill Kennedy and Don DeLillo, and a lot of younger writers. He never liked the idea of being out of touch with ordinary citizens, and had many close friends who were not literary.

Q: What was unique about Mailer’s contributions to journalism?

ML: He put the writer on the stage of the story, and was adept at using a variety of fictional techniques. But he also knew when to shroud himself, as he did in The Executioner’s Song. He won his second Pulitzer for it.

Q: Despite being married six times, Mailer was a devoted family man with nine children.  You saw his family interactions yourself – what was he like at home, in private?

ML: Like the rest of us, he had a variety of moods, but he was usually quite lively, full of beans. He relished a good debate on the issues of the day, loved jokes, anecdotes, banter.  And he was curious, as I have said.  Sitting around his dinner table was never dull; everyone was required to get in the conversation, perform a bit.  Always fun, lots of laughter.  He generally had a twinkle in his eye.

Q: What else might readers be surprised to learn about Mailer’s personal life?

ML: His incredible work ethic.  He turned out a new book, on average, every 18 months, over 60 years, and had at least one best seller in each decade from the 1940s to the 2000s. Another is his 60-year affair with Lois Wilson, who was an amazing person. One last thing: his ambition.  Everyone knows he had a lot of it, but the fact that he measured himself not just by the achievements of Hemingway and Bellow, but also Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and did so beginning in his 20s, will surprise many people. His faith in his genius was unshakable, even during some dark days in the early 1950s.

Q: Mailer had close ties to many public figures – from politicians to Hollywood stars and pro athletes.  Why do you think he was drawn to celebrities?

ML: He felt he understood them, had an insight into the two things at the root of their motivation: ambition and identity.  Novelists, he believed, understood these matters better than anyone else.

Q: Did Mailer ever discuss his work as a filmmaker with you?  What first got him interested in exploring that medium?

ML: He spent a lot of his youth in the movie palaces of the Depression, and got hooked.  He believed that lively people acting without detailed scripts could deliver incredible performances. In a couple of his experimental films, they did.  He also felt that film was challenging fiction for narrative supremacy in the 1960s, and wanted to play a role.

Q: Mailer is best known as a writer, but he was also a public intellectual and activist – what are some of the issues he was most passionate about?

ML: You name it. It would be easier to list issues he did not write about.  Two of the issues he was most worried about were the encroachments of technology, and the fragility of democracy.  He seems quite prescient these days.

Q: Why was it important to Mailer to get involved in the 1969 mayoral race in New York City?

ML: He wrote a piece about JFK’s 1960 campaign, “Superman Come to the Supermarket,” and believed that it helped get him elected.  After that, he wanted, as he put it, to get his hand on the rump of history, gain political power and change the given. Running for mayor of New York seemed like a real possibility to him, and he did run a marvelous, quixotic campaign. But he fared poorly (4th out of five candidates in the primary), and went back to writing.

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