The great novelist had just published The Executioner’s Song—which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize—when he sat down with Legs McNeil two days after they had attended a Ramones concert at CBGB. Mailer talks about his experiences with drugs, his thoughts on the nuclear age, punk rock, the devil, head-butting Gore Vidal, his experiences in Bellevue after stabbing his wife, whether he hates women, and how corporations run everything in the US.

What Legs McNeil did not know at the time was that Norman Mailer was looking for a new audience for The Executioner’s Song, as he felt he’d used up his old one. So, after Norman and Legs met at Martha Thomases apartment in Soho, Legs invited Norman to come to the Ramones and Shrapnel “Policemen’s Bullet Proof Vest Benefit” at CBGB’s, and Norman accepted the invitation.

It was a great show, and afterwards Norman dropped by Arturo Vega’s loft to hang out with the gang and everyone got very, very drunk. Joey Ramone was exhausted after giving one of the best performances of his career, and stood off to the side, sucking down Budweisers, whispering, “Norman, go write another fucking Bible!” Then laughing hysterically. (Joey was doing a drunken imitation of a drunken Lou Reed from his Take No Prisoners album.) As the evening grew more inebriated, Norman decided that Legs was the perfect candidate to represent the new audience he’d been searching for, and invited Legs to interview him the next day.

But Legs woke up with some girl and forgot all about the interview.

Word was spread that Norman was looking for him, and everywhere Legs went, friends chastised him for blowing such a great opportunity to interview Mailer. Legs called the famous writer and told him he thought he was just talking shit the night before, but Norman assured him he wanted to talk to Legs on tape, so the interview was rescheduled for the next day.

And so, with another killer hangover, Legs showed up at Norman Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment the next day, and this is what happened…

Norman Mailer and Legs McNeil - by Victor Bockris

Norman Mailer and Legs McNeil – by Victor Bockris

LEGS: We should start off talking about masculinity because much of what we discuss in this interview will pivot around these opinions. What is masculinity and what is power?

NORMAN: Well, I think there’s two kinds of masculinity and maybe we could start with that and separate them. The women’s movement always talks about masculinity as if it’s synonymous with power. They talk about men getting power and using power and they equate that to masculinity. Well, there’s another kind of masculinity altogether. There are guys who you really do respect who have no power at all. They want freedom. And they just don’t want anyone ever to be able to fuck them over. And they live their lives that way. Sometimes they have a certain moral authority or power over their friends, and their friends will tend to do what they suggest. But they don’t have any interest in dominating people. They just don’t want, under any circumstances, to be dominated themselves by anything or anybody. And that kind of masculinity is one variety and it is an interesting variety, because it carries you into deeper and deeper games that end in your own death ultimately. It’s very hard in the modern world to have that kind of masculinity.

Now with the other kind of masculinity, we’re talking about guys who see power as being masculine, which I don’t. You have a lot of creeps who are very masculine. Half of the people who run the world are creeps. They have an awful lot of power and they know how to get power. Getting power in the world has very little to do with being masculine. In fact, very often it consists of the opposite. Apart from not letting anyone dominate you or tell you how to live, it consists of assiduously sucking up and at the right time biting the ass that’s been feeding you.

LEGS: Are you a good example of the first type of masculinity you describe?

NORMAN: I try to be but I think I’m a very poor representative of that. I mean, I’ve been dominated by about five women, six women, I’ve been married to or lived with seriously.

LEGS: But you’re free from them. I mean you still have to pay alimony and stuff like that.

NORMAN: Well, I was free until I got my economic troubles and once you owe a hell of a lot of money, you’re playing catch-up football. And I’m no freer than a team that’s playing catch-up football. I mean a team playing catch-up football is for urgency, desperation, miserable, everybody is hanging in but nobody knows how to hold the team up, to be able to hold it together before they’re routed. You know, it’s not an agreeable state. No, I’d say that first type of masculinity is my ideal but I failed often.

LEGS: Who would you consider to be in that category?

NORMAN: Well, usually the kind of guys in that category are guys that no one’s ever heard of. I could name three or four guys I’ve known over the years who are like that and they live that way and they usually are guys that nobody’s ever heard of except the people who know them. They’re often legends in a town. There are two or three guys I knew in Provincetown over the years who really were their own men. One of them is now living in Key West, but he’d be annoyed if I mentioned his name. He doesn’t want to get to the media. That’s the last thing he’d ever want.

LEGS: What do you think of gay rights and homosexuality as it relates to your theory of masculinity?

NORMAN: Well, I don’t know what my ideas would be if I were growing up now. I grew up in a part of Brooklyn where you grew up with the idea that there were certain things demanded of you, incumbent upon you, and being a ‘faggot’ was a fate worse than death. I grew up with every negative attitude you could have about homosexuals. I never was the kind of guy who believed in going on parties to find them, catch them, beat them up, you know. I never got into that sort of life and none of my friends did but even to this day I notice that with my sons and their friends, a “faggot” is still a real term of abuse. I think there’s something fundamental involved that is very difficult and tricky and I don’t know that I want to even approach answering it in an interview. Politically, I’m for gay rights just as I am for women’s rights.

LEGS: You are?

NORMAN: Yeah, I am and I am for the following reason, which is I just don’t like the idea of the government or the state dictating anything to people that isn’t absolutely necessary.
 


Half of the people who run the world are creeps.



LEGS:
You’ve had a few battles with the women’s movement and they seem to have picked you as that # 1 scapegoat for a lot of their frustrations or anxieties. How do you feel about that?

NORMAN: I’m cynical about that. I think I was selected because I’m a reasonably large target and I’m a soft one. And I’m useful symbolically, because once you get a guy in the barrel, it’s simpler to keep him there than to get a new guy in the barrel. I doubt if I’m their number one enemy. There’s nothing remarkable to me about women wanting to have independence in their lives or wanting to be able to express themselves. And, in fact, I’m even for women’s liberation in one way, because society forces us to become cowards, and we want to be brave. And I would say a woman has absolutely the same right to be brave as a man and anything that does squash them and encourage them to be cowards I think is bad. I’m really pretty far along on the road to women’s liberation. I think a lot of the women’s movement is full of shit and the part that’s full of shit as far as I’m concerned is usually the part that concerns me.

Mailer making no friends at a gathering of feminists:

LEGS: What else bothers you about the women’s movement? What they say about Norman Mailer?

NORMAN: I think they may be working in the opposite direction from the way they think they’re working. That is, they think they’re increasing the amount of liberty for all people and I think they may be advancing what may end up being the worst totalitarianism of them all which is a technological incarceration of this whole attitude to the degree that they insist there are no differences between men and women. I think they’re working to that kind of tyranny. Unconsciously, but they’re working for it. Because to the degree that we make men and women more and more alike, we’re making it easier for the machine to function. Everything in the world is narrowing down into a computer. You know by the time they get one computer that can handle everyone’s affairs on earth, they got it made. Then there’s total control. So at that point, if you have to deal with just one kind of unit, to wit a human person, how much better off the computer is if it has to deal with men and women. And that is what I think is the most dangerous element in women’s lib. They’re not saying, ‘look, we may be a profoundly different species from men, but we have the same rights and we have the right to say what our rights are and fuck you’. That’s their right, to do or say that. But when they say there’s no difference between men and women, I think they’re demented.

LEGS: Did you always want to be a great writer?

NORMAN: Yes, when I was young. Now I just want to go 15 rounds.

LEGS: But when you started off, you had a romanticized vision… You wanted to KO Hemingway.

NORMAN: Yeah, you don’t remember when Hemingway wanted to KO Tolstoy. He gave an interview many years ago where he said, I forget how he put it, it was roughly ‘I went 15 rounds with the best, and I took so and so, and I took so and so, and five years ago I beat Charles Dickens’ and so on. He said ‘now, I’m going after Tolstoy’. Something of that sort. I think he did the interview with Lillian Ross in the New Yorker. It got him into an awful lot of trouble because he sounded like an asshole. And I have had my days when I’ve had my large ambitions, but as you get older you get this very special sense that that is all to the side. That the size of your ambition and the top of your head have very little meaning. It’s not how big your ambition is at the place where you can recognize it, it’s how big that ambition is in your guts. Because the last place the ambition dies is in the guts and so you can think your ambition is dead but still be stirring the guts. In other words, at a certain point, it may be too much of a luxury to keep the ambition alive in your head. As long as it’s functioning in your guts and you’re doing your work, then maybe the ambition still exists at the level permitted to you. You know we all go around and we fuck our brains out and we drink our eyes out and you know by the time we’re ready, by the time we learned enough to write great books, our fingers are arthritic and our will is gone. And that’s everybody’s sad story.

So, you’re hoping that you kept as much as you can. In other words, you kept enough intact to be able to do the big stuff at the end. You find out whether you can do it or not. Cus D’Amato knows as much about prizefighting as anybody I know. He managed Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, and he always said that the real difficulty in getting a fighter into top shape to fight is that if the guy’s in top shape and loses, he’s got no excuses. So a guy likes to come in at 90%, 85% of his top form. Then if he loses, he’s got his bullshit copout… But if he’s in top shape and he’s licked, there’s no out for him. And that’s the nightmare, that you just can’t get these guys to go into a ring fully prepared for a fight. The same is true of writers, only more so because they’re not used to getting in shape to begin with. But as long as a writer is fucking his brains out or drinking his eyes out, he’s got his excuse. I wasn’t enough of a man to lick drink. Bullshit, I wasn’t enough of a man to write a big book, that’s what it was. So I don’t know what my ambition is. It isn’t in my head every day these days.

LEGS: Well, is there one big book that you’re going for?

NORMAN: Yeah, I’ve got 800 pages done on a manuscript and it finally will be about 3,000 or 4,000 pages if I ever finish it.

LEGS: Who are you going to lick if you finish it?

NORMAN: Myself.

LEGS: You’re not looking to KO anyone else?

NORMAN: When you get older, you stop thinking about ‘I’ve got to do so and so or so and so is better than me’. It doesn’t really matter. These days, when I hear some guy who is around my age has written a very good book, my feeling is ‘hey, all right, okay’. Because I know what it means by now. There are writers I haven’t spoken to in 20 years, I feel more brotherhood for them now than I felt 20 years ago when we were supposed to be friends and were envious as hell of each other. Because I know what it means to write a good book. So if they can do it, maybe there’s more hope for me.

Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali

Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali

LEGS: Is writing romantic?

NORMAN: No.

LEGS: Not at all?

NORMAN: Not at all. Not in the act. It’s romantic before and after. It’s romantic that it makes you more romantic. Women look at you more romantically, yes. You can feel romantic about yourself when a book is done. Or the best part of writing a book is when you’re thinking about the book. The ideas begin to come. But the daily grind is deadly. It’s killing. It’s why people don’t write. There’s something about going in every day and facing that empty page. The amount of character you need over the years to do it. I know by now if I sit down, I’ll be writing for the next four or five months. I know my weight is going to balloon up. My health is going to go. Maybe I’ll start coming down with gout and arthritis, which I do every time. It’s like the act of thinking that many hours a day produces poisons in my system that hit my joints and bones. You live in tension. You live the same kind of harried life a businessman does. He’s got 18 things in his head. He’s got to worry the whole day, he can’t put his work to sleep. He can’t quit his job at five o’clock. He stays with it all the time. You’re hard to get along with. All that. And then you go in every morning and every morning you got to get yourself in shape to face that page.

LEGS: How do you overcome the mental obstacles?

NORMAN: I do it because I’m a pro. The one thing I can say is I’m a professional. You give me a job and tell me how long I have to do it and I’ll do it.

LEGS: How do you pick your subjects? Do you feel your reputation is at stake because you picked subjects like Marilyn Monroe and Gary Gilmore?

NORMAN: A lot of it is economic. I’ve been riding in debt — writing and riding. My economic vehicle has been riding in debt for ten years now. And every year I’ve been getting deeper into debt. And so each year has been sort of one crisis situation after another. Each year a book has come along that offers temporary alleviation to that crisis. The Marilyn Monroe story came about when I was invited to do a preface for a book of photographs about Marilyn Monroe and I was going to get 50 grand for the preface. And I thought ‘this is the best thing that was offered to me in a long time’. I always loved Marilyn Monroe and I always thought about her. I never thought about writing about her, but I always loved her and the thought of sitting down and studying all her movies and then writing a preface and getting 50 grand for 10 or 15 or 20,000 words struck me as terrific. So, of course what happened is I followed the subject and I read a very good book about her by a guy named [Nicki] Giles called Norma Jean and took off from his book to write a biography of her. And I wrote this biography of Marilyn Monroe which is based on Giles’ biography. And I have a hunch it’s one of the three or four books I’ll be remembered by. But it all happened by accident. I didn’t sit down and say my aesthetic purpose now is to write about Marilyn Monroe. The Gilmore book [The Executioner’s Song], people may end up saying it’s my best book, I don’t know. The Gilmore book started in the same way. It looked like an awful lot of money for a short work. I was going to get a lot of money for 100,000 words and 300 pages or so, and it ended up being 1,700 pages and 400,000 words and it got me deeper in debt. So, the only thing I’ve worked on as far as working toward what I want to do, is the novel that I’m working on.

LEGS: What is that novel about?

NORMAN: Well, it’s three parts. The first part takes place in Egypt. And, oh did I shed a tear when that Tut exhibit came out and where was my book? But I’ve got 800 pages written about Egypt right now. The 20th dynasty of Ramses IX, which is about 1140 BC. And the second part of the book is going to take place in a spaceship in the future. The third part of the book is going to be contemporary, about New York right now.

LEGS: Writing about Egypt is a switch for you. You usually write about very American…

NORMAN: I just wanted to get away from America. I don’t know why. The best kind of writing usually is when you don’t know why you’re doing it.

[…]

NORMAN: I thought Superman was an awful movie.

LEGS: You did? I haven’t seen it.

NORMAN: I thought it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen for the money spent. There were five different movies. It was a movie that was made in five different style of camp and the styles didn’t mix. It was as disagreeable as playing with a card deck that’s been put together out of five different card decks, not only all different colors on the backs but different sizes and shapes. So every time you deal the thing you know some of the cards are clean, some are greasy, sticky, it’s a pain in the ass. You just can’t have a card game. Well you can’t have a movie that’s got five styles in it. So that was one thing I hated about it.

LEGS: It seemed to me it was done, from what I’ve heard, as a comic book and the comic books are like that. Do you read comic books?

NORMAN: I’m not a great comic book reader but — If you’re going to make a movie out of a comic book, I can see making a fabulous movie out of a comic book, you know, I have nothing against it in principle. I don’t think they did the job. I think it was a big piece of shit. The best thing in it was, the special effects were terrific. There’s a girl, the girl who played Lois Lane was terrific. Other things were adequate. Brando was terrific. But you know it was like, when I speak of a bullfight that was very bad but interesting details. They use the word details in bullfight a lot. The whole thing never came off. There were moments. I think there’s much too much trash. I can’t even get excited about the idea that trash in and of itself is interesting. Maybe I’m a little conservative, but I think the problem is getting rid of the fuckin’ trash.
 


You know by the time they get one computer that can handle everyone’s affairs on earth, they got it made. Then there’s total control.



LEGS:
Why?

NORMAN: Well, because if you don’t get rid of the trash, you choke in it. And that’s what’s happening now. I mean you got TV going now and I think the American disease is TV. You got people watching shit six hours a day. There’s nothing lifegiving about that shit. Why the fuck do I have to have my attention interrupted by a commercial?

Norman Mailer 1948 photo Carl Van Vechten

Norman Mailer in 1948 – photo by Carl Van Vechten

NORMAN: About the time they started getting serious, they start having war games between nations, they will need one-tenth the size of the present-day armies.

LEGS: Why?

NORMAN: We’ve gotten to a point where you can’t have a major war any longer. A major war in the recognition, not in my recognition but in the recognition of the creeps who have the power who are running the world all over the place, their recognition, again not mine, but their recognition is we can’t afford to have a war because it will destroy everything.

LEGS: Right.

NORMAN: However, they keep acting as if they are going to have that major war so they have armies that are very large even though they cannot have that major war.

LEGS: Yeah, but they have small wars now.

NORMAN: Let me get to my next point. The reason they have those large armies is because as long as they have a large army, they can run the machine their way. Everything has to be run to support that large army, which becomes a third of our national economy one way or another. They are all so pious. They all say ‘well, war is horrible. We’re trying to avoid war’. As you say, there are small wars all the time. If we could agree that there’s nothing wrong with a small war. That there are worse societies than societies in which men die for their country. That’s not terrible, to die for your country. What’s terrible is if you die for your country in a time of horseshit. It’s terrible if you die for your country for the wrong reason, for a war that shouldn’t have been fought, that didn’t need to be fought, that didn’t involve the country’s destiny, but just involved various power plays by various power brokers. That’s what’s horrible about the war. From the First World War on, that’s what’s been horrible about war. The Second World War wasn’t completely horrible. There was something going on. There was a real philosophical battle of large dimensions. The kind of wars that go on where, in effect, it looked like we’re going to have a war with Russia for 20 years after the Second World War. All during that time we didn’t have any politics. All we had was anti Communist. Whatever the Communists wanted was terrible. So that served as a smokescreen for the corporations in America to expand and take over America the way they’ve never known it before. I’m willing to say that in the ten years following the Second World War, the American corporations got five times more powerful than they had been in the 30s. And by now they’re ten times more powerful than they were 40 years ago. And they run everything in this country. Now they don’t run it as a fascistic totalitarian dictatorship, in that they don’t get together and they don’t have a leader… but they have created a community of opinion that’s terribly single-minded and very dull. Very stultified. They created a kind of boredom for the center of American life that’s hideous. You look at those goddam superhighways, they’re the dullest roads in the history of Christendom. You know they create a world in which you drive on these highways at 55 miles an hour, they get cancer from fighting to keep from falling asleep. I mean does anybody ever measure that? So there are 5,000 less people killed on the highway every year because we go 55 miles an hour. And how many people die of cancer because a lot of fuckin’ cowards used to go out and get in their car and drive 80 and get their rocks off and have little self-respect. Now they can’t. They’ve got to go to 60 or they fall asleep on the highway. After they fight falling asleep, they get cancer. I’m exaggerating to make a point, but they sicken a little bit. To go out on a highway now and take a drive is to sicken a little bit.

LEGS: You’re saying everything is dull.

NORMAN: They’re taking the zip out of everything. You take the TV. What does it mean — you have this commercial to pay for the TV. What I’d say in return is if we got down to having war games… all right 10,000 of our best men fight 10,000 of their best men and they agree to abide by the winner.

LEGS: Communism is so much more boring. They’ve taken the zip out of everything. I mean you know at least in America you can go and make your own zip. You won’t make too much money off of it…

NORMAN: Yes, there’s more freedom here. I’d never say there isn’t. I don’t give a damn about the Communist countries. I’m interested in what goes on in America because this is the only country I know and I’ve lived here all my life and I think to the degree we have freedom we’re a great country. But I think that we’re having less freedom every year. And that worries me much more than the Communists taking over the world. Because I think it’s meaningless to take over the world as such. It has no meaning. We’re talking in 19th-century terms. The more the Communists take over the world, the less they’ll be able to manage it. I’ve been saying this for 20 years. The moment the Communists get power, they have to fight against themselves because they’re cannibalistic. And they’re cannibalistic because wherever you have a totalitarian vision of existence, you cannot permit the differences of opinion that a democracy can accept.
 


That’s not terrible, to die for your country. What’s terrible is if you die for your country in a time of horseshit. It’s terrible if you die for your country for the wrong reason, for a war that shouldn’t have been fought, that didn’t need to be fought, that didn’t involve the country’s destiny, but just involved various power plays by various power brokers.



LEGS:
How are we losing our freedom every year? I don’t see it…

NORMAN: Let me just finish on Communism. I just want to nail that down and we’ll go onto this. The reason I think the Communists are winning all over, as you put it, is not that they’re winning but they are able to fill a vacuum that we’re not able to fill. And the reason is that we do not have a capitalism that’s exportable. We have a degree of capitalism that works and it works well because we have had 100 years of training people to work in industry, to learn techniques. We’re a highly-skilled country. That’s the one thing you can’t export. And we’re not prepared. We do not have the kind of vision and the kind of desire in our people to go out in foreign countries and teach what we learned because what it means is not spending three years over there and teaching the natives how to work their factories, it means giving their life to it absolutely… And we’re not that kind of country anymore. We just aren’t. We may never be again. So I think that the Communists will take over the world to a great extent. I don’t think it will mean a damn thing. Because I don’t think they will ever take over this country unless this country is there to be taken over. But I don’t think the defense of this country is at a huge military system that swallows everything and affects everything we do…the last thing the Russians would ever want is to occupy us. It would be a nightmare for them. It would be the destruction of Communism forever if they would try to occupy America. They cannot take us over that way. They just simply can’t…and they never will try. So, I think that large army is a lot of horseshit. I think that atom bomb stuff is a lot of horseshit. I don’t think we need any more atom bombs. We need to defend ourselves if we’re attacked first. And beyond that it’s all horseshit.
 


In the ten years following the Second World War, the American corporations got five times more powerful than they had been in the 30s. And by now they’re ten times more powerful than they were 40 years ago. And they run everything in this country.



LEGS:
It seems to me our culture is our best weapon and you know if we played rock & roll, we could take over China.

NORMAN: Rock & roll is a good weapon. In fifty years, we’d certainly put a dent in them with our music. Yeah, our music and our painting have had a huge influence on the world. The only things that have. But you asked me what I think is killing things in the American life?

LEGS: Right.

NORMAN: I think that television is destroying everything. You know when I was a kid, we had these bad movies. We had them on Saturday and you’d see a bad movie on Saturday and it would poison your head a little. You’d get a lot of false, stupid values and you’re always a little miserable for the rest of your life because you couldn’t get the most beautiful girl in class, that was bad enough. But you know, one of my ideas is that bad aesthetics creates bad governments and bad people, you know. The artist has a huge responsibility because every time the artist does something that’s cheap or shitty, it affects a lot of people adversely. Art doesn’t just improve people, it also deteriorates them. And what we have on TV is the world’s worst art. The worst art in the history of civilization. It’s being given out on television every night. And you ask ‘why is it bad?’ It’s bad for a variety of reasons. It’s bad because the corporations don’t want anything good on TV if they can help it. It’s bad because it’s hit by commercials constantly. These interruptions are terrible.

LEGS: The commercials are great. I sit around with kids and they look at one commercial and everyone just shakes their head and goes ‘no, not that one’. But then when the Charlie commercial comes on, everyone’s jumping up and down…people who know good television watch stuff like Green Acres, which is so much better than Ionesco, so much more absurd than Ionesco could ever be.

NORMAN: Look at what you’re saying, though. You’re saying people are sitting around all evening, sitting around for two or three hours to wait for that one good commercial. Boy, that’s a hell of a way to spend a night. When I was a kid that age I used to sit on the stoop and wait for a girl with beautiful knockers to walk down the street. We’d spend hours all night waiting for that one girl with beautiful knockers to walk down the street. She’d walk by and they’d jiggle and we’d all go ‘wow’. I submit that as a better way to waste three hours than watching a TV set for the one commercial to come on.

I mean if you get something that’s popular that’s really good, I think it’s fantastic, Sid Caesar was fabulous. Did you ever see Sid Caesar. Mork and Mindy is fine but I don’t think it compares to Sid Caesar or the old Ernie Kovacs or even the old Steve Allen. That stuff was so much better than the stuff they have now. It was really flavorful and subtle the way this stuff isn’t. Anyway, that’s my opinion. I got a kid who’s 13 and watching TV all the time and he does just what you’re talking about. I mean he’ll go ‘wow’ and he’ll get up and do a little dance… But you know he’s a very bright kid who can’t think nearly as well as he would like to and I would like him to think, because he’s used to being interrupted. It’s very hard for him to keep his mind on something for more than 10 or 12 minutes. Every ten or 12 minutes, he’s got to get up and do a little war dance.

LEGS: But that’s good though.

NORMAN: No, that’s bad. It’s good if you have an instinct not to spend too much time on the wrong subject, to know when to get up and move to something else. But it’s bad if you can’t spend time on the right subject. What if there comes a time in your life where you’ve got to spend 42 hours in a row regarding the same subject? Because a lot of other people depend on that you be able to do it. These kids are being raised to be physiologically incapable of doing it. I mean there’s no reason why you couldn’t have all the commercials on one fuckin’ show and people who love commercials could watch it. They wouldn’t have to be bothered through a sitcom in order to see the commercials.

[…]

LEGS: Richard Seaver, William Burroughs’ publisher, once remarked the battle for writers in the ‘50s and ‘60s was against censorship. Today, it’s against crass commercialism. What is your opinion? Do you fight against crass commercialism?

NORMAN: Well, I don’t have to fight against crass commercialism myself, I have to fight against something that’s far subtler, which is insidious commercialism in myself.
 


Rock & roll is a good weapon.



LEGS:
I don’t understand…

NORMAN: Nobody’s ever going to hire me to do the life and times of Elvis Presley. And if they ever did, he would expect a halfway serious book to come out of it. So, let’s take that as an example and say I will do a biography of Elvis Presley. I would just assume, I say this without arrogance, I would assume that it would be far and away the best book on Presley that’s ever been done. It would be the least I could do. It would be the least I should do. But there might still be a kind of insidious commercialism which is ‘should I really be doing a book about Presley in the first place?’ That is the sort of thing that I worry about. Am I really doing a book that I should be doing?

LEGS: Would you if someone asked?

NORMAN: I’m so much in debt that if someone said here’s a half a million and ready or not we’ll take the book in six months, it would be very hard for me to say no. Don’t forget when I say I owe money, I owe money to good friends, I owe money to my mother, for example, who has given me all her money. She has no money now…

Maybe I’m writing five times as much as I would otherwise. But you know I just never think of commercialism in terms of selling out. I think of it as the trading off a couple inches here and there.

LEGS: Can anyone sell out?

NORMAN: Can anyone sell out today? It’s harder to sell out today than it was years ago. Years ago, you were one thing and then you became another… Now everything washes into everything else. There’s no longer any shame whatsoever working in Hollywood. In fact, a lot of people consider it a merit badge. What good are you as a writer if you can’t write a successful screenplay? It’s really moving over to a degree.

Norman Mailer The Executioner's Song

LEGS: Are there any taboos left in American society?

NORMAN: I think it’s very difficult to be against the women’s movement in America today. A couple of other taboos. It’s very difficult to be anti-ethnic anything at all. Name any ethnic group, Jews, blacks, Italians, Irish, whatever, it’s very difficult. No there are no taboos the way there were. The problem is it’s not taboos at all, really. The problem is how to make sense of the chaos. It used to be that you had the idea my enemies were over there and my friends were over here and we’re going to meet and battle at 14th Street and 3rd Avenue on Saturday at 11 o’clock. And it was all very simple, you know, there were barricades.

LEGS: There was clarity.

NORMAN: Yeah. Then there might be arguments about who won the battle and how it took place and who’s a hero and who’s a villain and all that. But that was relative clarity. But now if there is a battle you don’t know when it’s going to take place, you don’t know who the heroes are, you don’t know who the villains are, you don’t know whether you yourself are a hero or a villain, you don’t know where the enemy might be found. You don’t know if there is such a thing as an enemy even. We’re living in a chaos. We’re living in a garbage can now…

[…]


The artist has a huge responsibility because every time the artist does something that’s cheap or shitty, it affects a lot of people adversely. Art doesn’t just improve people, it also deteriorates them.



NORMAN:
I think canned laughter on TV is offensive. You take the most innocent sitcom in the world, when that canned laughter comes on that’s offensive. I turn on the TV sometimes, my kids think I’m demented, sometimes I’ll walk in the room, they’re watching TV and suddenly I’ll go into my act. I’ll say, ‘look at those fuckin’ idiots on the screen, look at them, they’re all hysterical’. I say ‘you fuckin’ idiot kids, you sit here and you watch that shit hour after hour after hour, you know you ought to be hung up by your heels and the chains sticking out of your snot noses you know you’re insane, you’re maniacs’. You know they look at me like ‘oh God, there he goes again’. You know, ‘we can’t even watch TV in peace’. But, in fact, I find it a kind of blanket hysteria, TV…I think as an existentialist in the sense that I always feel we’re walking around in our own existence and our own existence is like the envelope of what we’re feeling. It’s as if we don’t have our own bodies but a cloud around us that includes our sensitivities, our kind of awareness of what’s going on…and things impinge on this and occasionally we notice things.

There it is, that little screen with the colored dots, there’s a never deep somber moment on TV. There’s never anything truly restful when you’re watching TV. There’s never aesthetic satisfaction in TV, as such. There’s always this hysteria. I’ve come to believe that the people who own TV all have this feeling they’re living in a kind of Purgatory. There’s something about people on TV that inspires guilt because it’s a hollow sensation. It’s not like you’re in a theatre and you step on stage that’s an extraordinary sensation. You never have to worry about your reason for being there when you’re on the stage of a theater. It’s animal and it’s excitement. But you get in a TV station, it’s a bit like you’re going to visit a doctor to get X-rays. It’s a tremendously hollow sensation. And everybody who’s on TV is hollow. All the entertainers are hollow people. They’re the oddest people. They can be nice people, or unpleasant people, but they’re hollow. You really feel as if you’re talking to a sort of stainless-steel cylinder that’s empty on the inside. I think it’s partly because they’re doing something that’s not life. That just, in the deepest, ethical, moral sense, is not life. Now, what it is if it’s not life is too subtle almost for us to define. I really believe they are vitiating human existence. They’re just eating it away from the inside.

LEGS: Nothing good can come from television?

NORMAN: Yes, of course, good things come from it, but the good what is good that comes from it is not the worth the price. …

LEGS: But isn’t that the way it always is? I mean there’s always a lot of shit and if you’re smart enough you can wade through the shit and do what you want to do… I mean there’s always bad stuff going around.

NORMAN: This is different though. Bad TV isn’t like bad movies or bad theater. When you go see a play and it’s bad theater, there are people next to you, there’s smells in the place, there’s a human odor to the joint, there’s a mood of the audience, there’s a reaction between actors and yourself… You can get up and you can walk out. You can learn something from the experience. But TV is alienated from existence. On top of everything else, you never even see the thing that happens. The moment TV went from live TV to canned TV, something fatal crept into it. It’s one thing if you get on TV and you’re saying something and there are 500,000 people listening or 50 million, but the moment you say it they hear it. They hear it in relation to them… But when you can it and it comes out a week later at a different hour of the day or you do it at six o’clock in the evening and that’s a nighttime show like Merv Griffin or Cavett, there’s a warp in relation to other people’s existences.
 


But you know I just never think of commercialism in terms of selling out. I think of it as the trading off a couple inches here and there



LEGS:
When you were on with Gore Vidal during that incident, that was on Dick Cavett, right? Was that live or was that a delay?

NORMAN: Oh, it was delayed.

LEGS: How long?

NORMAN: I think with the Cavett thing, it was put on a week later. And this last one about a year ago, we weren’t even in the studio at the same time.

Mailer and Vidal spar on the Dick Cavett Show:

LEGS: What happened in the incident with Vidal? I heard that you slugged him or…

NORMAN: The first time, the first show, I butted him in the head in the dressing room. That was because he had been, I don’t want to get into it, it’s an old story. But let’s say it was in payment of services and then the second time, I was at a party, years later, and all I did was throw a glass of booze in his face and I bounced the glass off his head. Then we were separated.

LEGS: You don’t like him, I take it.

NORMAN: He’d be all right if he kept his mouth shut.

LEGS: Is he your nemesis?

NORMAN: I hope not. You know one should take a certain pride in his nemesis.

LEGS: Do you think your actions court disaster? When we were talking the other day, you considered yourself a fuckup.

NORMAN: On my own terms… There are a lot of guys that are bigger fuckups than me.

LEGS: Do you feel you have the right to commit artistic suicide?  To deliberately fuck up?

NORMAN: Like what?

LEGS: Well, for instance, when Lou Reed, a singer, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him…

NORMAN: Vaguely, yeah.

LEGS: When he wanted to get out of his record contract, he released an album called Metal Machine Music. It is all just feedback from his guitar. Some people call it the greatest rock & roll album ever done, you know it was a good gesture, but he constantly had those things to tempt himself, to put himself into situations where he just completely fucks up.

NORMAN: No, that doesn’t appeal to me. You know, my parents during the Depression were very respectable middle-class people who were working very hard. My father was out of a job. Security meant a great deal to them and I was brought up with the idea that you’ve got to do a very good day’s work. That was instilled in me. So, I’m really, apart from this generation, who considers fucking things up an interesting way to express yourself, the thing I hate the most is to purposely ruin a book to get out of a contract. I consider that opening the door to that possibility terrible… I once heard about a professional football player who got very much in debt and considered throwing a game by fumbling so he could shave the points. And then he decided not to do it, not because of any loyalty to the team, because he was pretty cynical, but he figured once he fumbled on purpose he just wouldn’t know when he’d begin to start fumbling all the time. And that it might just start bad habits. I sort of feel that way… It’s hard enough to do your best all the time and it’s very hard to sustain doing your best.

LEGS: How can you consider yourself a fuckup then?

NORMAN: Oh, I think I’ve lost a couple of books over the years I could have written, but I’ve been too absorbed in myself and my problems… You know, to be an artist you’ve really got to be able to rise out and above yourself and stay above yourself longer to get the work done. And there were years when I just sort of swam in my own self-pity for too long. I think I’m a fuckup for having gotten into debt. There was no reason for that.

LEGS: Did you ever go to dry-out [for alcohol]?

NORMAN: I never was that kind of drinker. I could drink mighty amounts when I was younger, but then the next day, I never found any great need to drink the next day. I would drink for the best reason, just to get relaxed, and I would get wonderfully I relaxed. I’d bomb my head. My head would be no good for 48 hours but my body… I would just have a rosy day, not do any thinking and just idling along. I could afford to in those days… I still love the idea of drunk time… but the only time I ever drank heavily day after day was when a marriage was breaking up. And I deserved it. All men do at such times. It’s the weirdest thing, but men who almost never drank would be drinking all the time if they break up with their woman. It’s that rupture of habit that just drives you up the wall. So, no, I never came close to drying out.

LEGS: But you were committed to Bellevue Hospital [in 1960].

NORMAN: Yeah.

LEGS: What was that like?

NORMAN: Well, that was very interesting. You see, I had stabbed my wife [Adele Morales] and so I had a criminal lawyer, my regular lawyer had gotten in a great hurry. I met the guy and we shook hands and said hello, and before I knew what he was doing he was getting me assigned to Bellevue. I spoke out against it at the time, I was very upset, because my feeling was I committed a crime. All right, let me go to prison and he wanted to get me into Bellevue… I didn’t know the ropes then but that’s the way you get somebody out. You get them into Bellevue… you see, at that point no one knew if my wife was going to die or not… he was thinking as a criminal lawyer. If the wife dies, let’s save this guy’s ass, let’s have him in a mental hospital. That’s the way the mind works. So, there I was in this mental hospital. My feeling was if I don’t get out of here, I am going to go crazy because there’s no way not to if you’re in a mental hospital. If you’re sane in a mental hospital and you stay there for a year and you’re at all sensitive to your environment, as I am, you adopt what your environment is. I’m a chameleon. You know if I’m around 20 psychos I would pick up psycho mannerisms very quickly.

LEGS: I was committed too.

NORMAN: Well, you know what I’m talking about.

LEGS: What I found out, they keep everyone on drugs. As long as you don’t take any of the pills that they’ve given you, it’s kind of interesting to watch everyone.

NORMAN: I stayed off everything.

LEGS: The same with me.

NORMAN: In fact, I hadn’t been smoking when the thing started, when I got into the trouble I was about six days out of not smoking and I stayed off cigarettes all the way through. I was in Bellevue for 17 days. I wouldn’t take any Thorazine… I was walking a tightrope. But the main thing was getting out. I mean, it was fascinating because you had to be not too much of anything. I’ve never been in a situation like that in my life. You couldn’t be too friendly. And you certainly couldn’t be too aggressive. You couldn’t be cooperative. And you absolutely couldn’t be uncooperative. You couldn’t be too concerned with your case. You couldn’t be indifferent to your case…

LEGS: Why did you stab your wife?

NORMAN: Well, that I don’t like to get into. Someday maybe I’ll write on it.

LEGS: That comes back to women. I mean do you hate women?

NORMAN: No, I don’t hate women…No, I get very irritated with women in a way different than the way I get irritated with men but I don’t believe I hate women. I find that it’s the people who by their lifestyle suggest that they hate women.

Norman Mailer and his wife, Norris Church Mailer

Norman Mailer and his wife, Norris Church Mailer

LEGS: Did you, when you were younger, hate women?

NORMAN: No, no. To begin with, I was surrounded by a lot of women. I had a lot of aunts and they were my mother’s sisters and my mother, and they were all very close and they all loved one another. They were very nice ladies, my aunts. I had three aunts in particular who were really terrific women. And they had daughters. So I grew up with a lot of female relatives, very few male relatives. And I always remembered women as sweet and loving … I was spoiled the other way. I wasn’t ready for marriage in the sense that I just wasn’t ready to realize that women can be as tough, demanding and insensitive as men. I was used to women who gave you what you wanted all the time. But as far as hating women? No. I think I’m on the side of being too simple about women and assuming that they were nicer than they were and why should they be any nicer than men?

Now as far as animosity toward women, that’s another matter. I think there’s not a man alive who doesn’t have a profound animosity toward women, because women are in possession of a secret that we don’t have. Just as women have a profound animosity toward men. You can’t find a woman alive who doesn’t feel a deep animosity for a man because men are able to do certain things more easily than women are able to do. I think men have this animosity in return toward women. It’s a part of the human condition. It’s like matter and anti-matter. For every love that’s in existence there’s going to be a hatred. I think the fact that the women are closer to existence is something we never get over. It’s a fundamental shock. They’re closer to God than we are. They continue the human race through their bodies.

LEGS: I think they’re closer to the devil.

NORMAN: Well, if you were the devil, wouldn’t you get closer to anything that’s closer to God? I mean, if I’m a good hardworking devil, I’ll make it my business to get anywhere that God is..

LEGS: Do you believe in the devil?

NORMAN: Oh sure. I believe he exists.

LEGS: What does he do? How does he haunt you?

NORMAN: The devil? If I were sure, I probably wouldn’t tell you because why give him road maps? Did you ever have that feeling you told somebody something… you don’t know why…

LEGS: I don’t know, I like to throw myself into those situations sometimes…

NORMAN: I do too. I love to throw myself into situations. And when I was younger, I did an awful lot of it. And most of it when I was drunk. When I’m drunk, I have no fear of the devil.

LEGS: When you wrote “The White Negro” [an influential and controversial 9,000-word essay published in Dissent in 1957], your theory was that we’re living in an atomic age with atomic bombs hanging over us and we could die anytime. So, we should live in the present and enjoy ourselves like the Negro did… Has that changed now? Would you revise “The White Negro?” 

NORMAN: You have to revise it, because, after all, the black revolution took place in the ‘60s and blacks and whites have a vastly different attitude now than they did then. At that time, blacks and whites were still coming together. They came together and took a good look at each other and each were blown back by the other. And now they’re slowly maybe beginning to take another look at one another again. But it’s different. So in that sense you couldn’t write “The White Negro” today, because I think white kids now have a very sophisticated attitude about blacks. That is, we will take from black culture that which we can use, but the idea that one loves the black man is no longer present the way it was. Still, I think there’s an enormous sense of the present now. I don’t know much about rock and punk, but what you see is something else. It’s the apotheosis of the present. When has there ever been a music that made so much insistence on what the present instant is?

LEGS: Did you like the Shrapnel & Ramones show?

NORMAN: For me, it felt like I was an old car and I was being taken out for a ride at 100 miles an hour and I kind of liked it because I was really getting rid of a lot of rust. I don’t know if I’d like it night after night and I’m not sure it isn’t absolutely killing. You have to be superhuman to play that stuff night after night and not have your senses absolutely wiped out by it. But that it has a powerful impact and not just something going on, I got to admit. I liked it more than I thought I would.

LEGS: You did?

NORMAN: Yeah, it’s great. It was crazy. There was something going on that I had to respect.

Norman Mailer and Shrapnel

Norman Mailer and Shrapnel

LEGS: Do you know what’s going on?

NORMAN: Well, I could put it in my terms and say something that’s favorable to what I believe, which is… What I felt was that the revolution that I saw starting in the late ‘50s is still going on. It’s like a statement. Anything you people out there are doing to try to destroy us, we’re taking it, we’re eating it and we’re spitting it back out again. And so like everything is hideous and America’s popular aesthetics are swallowed up like punk and spewed out again with immense energy. It made me feel all over again there’s going to be a revolution sooner or later in this country, whether from the left or the right or up or down I don’t know. But there’s something stirring… The more totalitarianized it gets through the corporations, through conforming, through all that horseshit, the more there’s going to be that pulse beating way down in the cellar. And that’s something that’s coming right up out of the cellar because you can’t fuck with American life. You know you can squash it and distort it, but it just erupts.

LEGS: Do you think rock & roll brings it out?

NORMAN: Yeah… I think it kind of energizes them. You know they have a deep sense of rebellion while they’re hearing it. It’s them against everything else. While they’re hearing it, they’re with that and nothing else counts against them. It’s like a religion.

LEGS: Yeah, it is.

NORMAN: Listen, what’s that thing…

LEGS: That’s during “Blitzkrieg Bop”… HEY HO, LET’S GO! HEY HO, LET’S GO!

NORMAN: What’s the HEY HO mean?

LEGS: It’s just words. It’s like ‘gabba gabba hey’… it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like you know in the ‘60s, you used to hold up peace signs and…

NORMAN: Well, the thing is that the hand, you see that [he demonstrates] of course is the fascist salute. And this [demonstrates again] is the Communist salute. Here’s this thing… it’s very funny. It’s not funny. It’s in there in between the two and it has…It’s so funny, it really is. It’s as if it were trying to be a popular movement. It’s sort of like a beast with no eyes. You know that poem of Yeats? “The Second Coming”. There’s something about some rough beast is yet unborn…slouching toward Bethlehem…It is almost like this is the rough beast.
 


When has there ever been a music that made so much insistence on what the present instant is?



LEGS:
Where do you think it’s going?

NORMAN: I don’t know where anything is going to go… But what it comes down to is people in this country now sort of see through the things that other people are willing to live and work and die for. You work hard all your lives and provide for your children. There’s not much belief in that anymore.

LEGS: Do you believe in it?

NORMAN: Not the way my parents believed in it.

LEGS: Is the family still an important social structure?

NORMAN: My kids are important to me. I have nine children…well, 8 and a half. I rent him and his father owns him. They’re very important to me but the difference is my parents probably were willing to die for me, to die for me in the sense of working themselves into the ground for me. I may end up working myself into the ground for them but not because I think that’s the most important thing on earth, I just feel it’s a commitment. You know when everything else is falling apart, there’s a tendency if you’re at all pro to hold to your commitments. You figure ‘well, I know what I’m doing… but I’ll hold to it because at least I know if I hold to the commitment there is at least a certain grim satisfaction’ and there are times in your life when you say ‘well, I’ll hold things together for the grim satisfaction’. Why not? A grim satisfaction is better than no satisfaction at all.

LEGS: What about the family in society? Is it breaking down? Is it still important?

NORMAN: I think it’s breaking down. I think the whole thing is breaking down. I think, socially speaking, we’re entering a time of entropy. All the forms are breaking apart. I’d say the corporation is the great adulterator you see because they’ve been preaching — You know what an oxymoron is? An oxymoron is two things that are absolutely opposed and cannot be put together. Say a purple and yellow, that’s an oxymoron. Like, an attractive odium. But a corporation breeds oxymorons. You see, it says strive and be individual, right? At the same time, it says the only way you can do it is to work in huge organizations. What they’re doing is they are creating conditions in which people work and huge organizations get larger all the time. Yet all the time they’re selling the American affectation of freedom of enterprise. It’s the biggest single piece of bullshit since the last big piece of bullshit whatever that was.

Norman Mailer on the cover of Time 1969

Norman Mailer on the cover of Time 1969

LEGS: Has the nuclear age affected the quality of life?

NORMAN: That’s a perfect example of the kind of horror we’re in. You know somebody called me up the other day and said he signed something forbidding nuclear plants forever. I said I don’t know the answer to that… As far as I’m concerned, the nuclear people are full of the same old horseshit that all the others are full of, which they don’t really know what they’re doing. That is, so far as they can figure it out, they have prevented anything bad from ever happening and nothing bad will ever happen. They give you their statistics… and 22 nuclear plant are no worse than one dentist X-ray and they’ll have charts to show you and all that. But what they don’t know are all the things that they don’t understand in the nature of fission. Every day they discover a new sub particle in the atom. So all they can do is measure the sub particles that they’re able to measure about what happens in nuclear plants, but what about the sub particles they have not been able to measure?

And on top of that, you get that damn thing on Three Mile Island. What happened there is a chain of eight events…A valve didn’t work. The next thing was a human decision. The guy who came along and sees that valve is supposed to turn another valve to the right and he makes an error and turns it to the left. All right, they got a fail-safe built in for those two things which all of a sudden doesn’t work either. Now he’s a little bit panicked, he makes the wrong decision. In other words, what you had is the mushrooms got poisoned which meant suddenly that the dishwasher failed to start, you see. What that resulted is that the banister broke in the house two doors away. In other words, you had a string of events that are not supposed to be connected that suddenly were connected which meant that maybe something was going on. Maybe there are occult forces working in nuclear plants. How do they know? They don’t know. They are playing with very dangerous stuff. So, sure, I’d be against nuclear plants.

But what’s the alternative? Say you threw away all nuclear plants. Immediately the oil companies take one more huge gobble out of America. The Arab nations are not terribly in love with us because they’re a bunch of rich fuckups and they’re so lucky they got to be on the side of Satan. You know having to be shitting on that desert sand for 5,000 years and suddenly be rich people. …. They are going to get huge power, those fat suck-asses in Houston, you know, who got three congenital idiots, three generations back in the family and one of them went out to take a crap one day and an oil gusher hit him in the ass and now they’re the wealthiest people in River Oaks, they’re going to be controlling all the world and that means there’ll be more plastics everywhere because the oil industry now makes half its profits on plastics that come from the crap they can’t do anything else with. They make plastics out of them that our children play with. So, by stopping the nuclear plants, I’m building up the oil people. So, what do you do there? Of course, the other alternative is we build up the coal and the air will be full of smog again. And they’ll be strip mining the face of America. So we’re up against it. We’re at a point where you know if you go out and march, you’re marching right up your little hole.
 


What I felt was that the revolution that I saw starting in the late ‘50s is still going on. It’s like a statement. Anything you people out there are doing to try to destroy us, we’re taking it, we’re eating it and we’re spitting it back out again.



LEGS:
You’ve used pot and amphetamines.

NORMAN: Amphetamines I haven’t used much. Bennies a little bit. Never used amphetamines…

LEGS: And claimed it caused irreversible damage to your thought process.

NORMAN: Yeah, I think it did.

LEGS: Have you changed your mind? How do you feel about kids smoking pot now?

NORMAN: I always tell my kids, I don’t know if they listen or not, that — what I think is get their education first and then start smoking pot. At least that’s something to run downhill with. Because what I find is that pot puts things together. Pot is marvelous for getting new connections in the brain. It’s divine for that. You think associatively on pot. But the more education you have, the more you have to put together at that point, the more wonderful connections there are to see in the universe. If you don’t know much, then the connections you can put together are limited… The trouble is you have to stop and idle, your mental motor is idling because you don’t have the facts to put together at that point. So I’m always giving them this pep talk about you know get it together and then take your ride. Now, whether they listen to me is another matter… It’s a rare kid that’s going to listen to his father.

But I don’t know. I had a bad experience on pot years ago. It wasn’t just the pot, it was the Seconal mainly, plus the pot, and I was running on Seconals, which is a very bad thing to do. Maybe the Seconal did me far more damage than the pot. The Seconal, of course, was given to me by doctor’s prescription.

LEGS: What happened to you?

NORMAN: I just think my brain was half as fast thereafter. I used to have a truly fast brain, in terms of mechanical things. It’s like a guy can do 25 chews and then he gets into an accident and afterwards he can only do 10 or 15. He’d say I’m as strong as I used to be. And it’s mentally in that sense. I’m not saying I’m less wise but as far as little mental things go, like adding a column of figures, I’m half as fast. And I find it’s hard for me to keep my concentration. My mind wanders.

LEGS: Have you done cocaine and other drugs?

NORMAN: Once in a while. I don’t like it.

LEGS: Why?

NORMAN: It doesn’t do much for me. It’s very much like on a speed trip. I’ve had pure cocaine and that’s just a little less than a speed trip. It puts me in a very ugly mood. It brings out something ugly in me I don’t like.

You know talking about hating women, I think most guys who take cocaine steadily have a lot of animosity toward women. At least I find I feel a deep animosity toward women on cocaine.

LEGS: What about heroin?

NORMAN: Never taken it.

LEGS: Any reason?

NORMAN: Just never ran into it. I mean there was a period in my life when I was thinking about taking it just out of curiosity. I’m not sure, I think I might have been a little scared of it.

LEGS: Would you want to survive a nuclear war?

NORMAN: Probably not. You know the thought of it is beyond my imagination. You’d be a different person. It’s like saying ‘would you like to survive a deep cancer operation?’ Maybe, maybe not.

LEGS: What are your ideas on cancer?

NORMAN: Well I used to feel that it was a punishment given to those who didn’t have enough balls to live their own life going back to talking about what’s masculinity. If there was a failure in masculinity. I’m beginning to think that that was too simple. A lot of people get cancer because they were too responsible with their lives. They led lives that were more responsible than they really wanted to be. That they lived their lives for others more than for themselves. And so they denied themselves certain fundamental things, whatever they were. And I think you get cancer for any one of the 10,000 reasons that people get anything. The closest I’ve come to any understanding of it is that I ran across a statistic once… schizophrenics tend to die of cancer much less than the average population. I think the reason is that cancer is what I call a schizophrenia of the cells. I think there’s a choice at a certain point. Either the mind goes or the body goes. I think we all, when we get into the crux of our lives…Do you know what the crux is? When you’re going through the single most difficult moment in, say, mountain climbing. And if you can get through that, you probably get all the way to the top if you have enough strength left. Well, I think everybody goes through a crux in their lives. And in the course of going through that crux, we get driven very near toward this insanity of the mind and the flesh when the heat’s really on. And at that moment, certain fundamental decisions may be made. Certain people opt for letting the mind go, other people opt for letting the body go. The cancer comes with that. Cancer is a revolution of the cells…

LEGS: Should marriage be decriminalized?

NORMAN: Marriage be decriminalized? (LAUGH) What do you mean?

LEGS: It seems like if you get married and then you get divorced, you’re in court…

NORMAN: Oh, I see. Taken out of the legal system?

LEGS: Yeah.

NORMAN: You mean just having a sacrament? What happens to people if they’re not religious? They just sign a paper?

LEGS: Yeah. I mean it seems totally wrong.  Lawyers make a lot of money on divorces and it takes up so much time and so much bullshit. What do you think about this [Lee] Marvin case? And what do you think about you know marriage itself?

NORMAN: Well I think he generally did all right on it. Also, a legal precedent was established. She did get some money. So that may establish something. I don’t know. I don’t know much about it.

LEGS: Do you think we’re heading into an age of religious wars with all these cults? They had so much power and so much money and so much input in Guyana [Jonestown] if they wanted to take a midnight raid on Washington, or some other city, they certainly could have done it. Millions of dollars and machine guns and weapons.

NORMAN: Well, how can they pull off a raid on Washington? I mean they couldn’t even keep their asses clean over there.

LEGS: If  Jim Jones said “OK, now we’re going to go shoot up these people,” 800 people with machine guns could have walked in…

NORMAN: They wouldn’t come to America because the moment you get one of those groups that’s big enough you got some police spies in there.

LEGS: I think there will be religious wars soon.

NORMAN: I think as the chaos increases generally in everything and the entropy increases, the forms disappear. I think there will be more and more local sects and local armies and gangs and everything. And people will look for groups. There’s no question about it.

If you’re part of the garbage and say– I’m an orange peel, look there’s another orange peel over there. You know, us orange peels got to stick together. Yeah, I think that’ll happen. Sure. I think within every entity there’s a tendency for form to reassert itself at a local level. And so, you will have all these groups and cults. As the great religions begin to deteriorate, you know the truly great religions like Catholicism and Mohammadism perhaps, so the cults will grow and grow in strength. And they eventually have a large historic effect and maybe coup d’états. Cults fighting cults in the streets and cults taking over the seats of power in government. But not right now. Not for 10 or 20 years. 

LEGS: The Naked and the Dead is like the archetype World War II novel. If you could summarize what would be the archetype Vietnam novel?

NORMAN: I don’t know. You know, it’s funny, I never read war novels. Because I wrote mine. I just never wanted to look at it again. You know like I’ve written this book about Gary Gilmore and I know a lot about prisons, much more than I knew before I started. But I don’t know if I’ll ever want to look at a book about a prison. I’ve lived two years with it…

LEGS: If you were Mayor of New York City, if you and [Jimmy] Breslin won, how would you have changed the city?

NORMAN: There’s no telling now. Then what would have happened is I think we would have gotten into all the trouble that Lindsay got into, that [Mayor Abe] Beame got into. And everybody would have said it’s those idiot amateurs we elected. If we had a couple of real pros in there all this trouble could have been avoided.

LEGS: Why did you run?

NORMAN: I told you I’m a religious man. I believe God came down to me and he said ‘you got to work for your sins, you’re going to run for mayor of New York and you will be elected and you will never have an easy day again. You’ll work for the rest of your life.’ I really thought I was going to get elected. It was only a week before the election I realized I was not going to get elected.

LEGS: Oh yeah? Was that depressing to you?

NORMAN: Yeah.

LEGS: Would you ever go back into politics?

NORMAN: No. I don’t think so.

LEGS: Was it funny to you, the idea of you running for mayor?

NORMAN: That was the newspaper’s idea. There was nothing fun about it. It’s the hardest, most boring work I ever did in my life. First of all, you know Breslin doesn’t like to work hard any more than I do, and you know it meant getting up at six in the morning and shaking a thousand hands before breakfast, which probably is the best part of the whole job. It was the one part of the job that was good. Because you shake a thousand hands and you feel better at the end of it then when you started, and what that meant was there was more goodness than evil in the thousand hands you were shaking. I can’t give you a simple explanation of why. It was a phenomenon. Nine days out of 10 you’d shake a thousand hands and you’d feel better. The human interchange is positive rather than negative. That part was okay.

I had to make the same speech ten times a day. You get awfully bored hearing your own voice. And to this day I can smell and taste my own spit because of running for mayor ten years ago. And you get very bored with yourself. It’s terrible. You’re with your staff and you’re not out there hustling for votes. You’re shaking hands with people you normally would never shake hands with because you disapprove of them… I mean it’s boredom. At least it was for me. I really felt like a fuckin’ whore, as we used to say in Brooklyn.

LEGS: Are you glad you didn’t win?

NORMAN: No, I wanted to win. You don’t like losing. It does something funny to your ego forever. And there was a kind of, what can I say? You worked from 6 in the morning till midnight, 2 in the morning. At the end of the day, you’re stuck with your staff that you looked at every day for two months. You’re sick of looking at them and they’re sick of looking at you. It’s airless and boring and very hard work. I’d never run again unless I was ready to die for the idea. And that’s the only reason to get into politics if you’re not a pro.

LEGS: Thank you Norman….

Norman Mailer speaks in Provincetown, MA, during the annual Norman Mailer Society Conference, 2006. Photo Creative commons

Norman Mailer speaks in Provincetown, MA, during the annual Norman Mailer Society Conference, 2006. Photo Creative Commons

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