The Neve Interview


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In March of 2006, I got to interview Norman Mailer. It was one of those rare "If you could invite five people for dinner, living or dead, who would you choose?" kind of interviews. Mailer was one of my fantasy five dinner-party attendees, and not only because I knew he'd get drunk and cause a ruckus. So I was really excited and more than a little nervous about this interview. I didn't know what to expect, and when I finally met the man face to face in his Brooklyn Heights townhouse, I was unprepared for the toll age had taken on him — he was about five feet tall and walked very carefully with two canes. But despite his pre-emptive warning that his mind wasn't what it used to be, he was an unmatchable conversationalist, and that conversation remains my favorite interview I've ever had the privilege to do.

It's been fifty-eight years since Norman Mailer's first publishers persuaded him to change all the "fucks" in his debut novel to "fugs," and he's been verbally making up for it ever since. Beginning with the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, when he was twenty-five, the legendary author has steadily developed a reputation, true or not, as a hard-headed womanizer who picks fights with his critics. Meeting Mailer today, at eighty-three, it's hard to imagine. Dressed in sweats and an old pair of boots that appear to be duct-taped, he stands over a foot shorter than I am.

    His Brooklyn Heights apartment sits high above the piers that were the borough's economic heartbeat in the '60s, back when Mailer was pioneering a new kind of journalism that combined facts, commentary and novelistic elements. Those piers are now partially obscured by the upper deck of the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In Mailer's living room, a large flat-screen TV peers down at earth-toned antique furniture. His son, twenty-seven-year-old John Buffalo Mailer, sits next to him, leaning forward in his chair. The sensation of the future running right alongside the past is everywhere you look.


    The concept for Mailer's latest book, The Big Empty, was spearheaded by John. It's a series of transcripts from conversations they've had over the past few years, some that have previously been printed in magazines and some that they recorded themselves. It puts the perspectives of two generations (actually separated by fifty-five years) side by side on topics ranging from sex to politics to boxing, and finds that the world has only changed so much. — Will Doig

Norman: Let me warn you in advance, I used to be in possession of a reasonably good syntax. That's no longer true.

I'm also hard of hearing — particularly when I don't like a question, like a number of politicians.

Right, like Nixon. Whenever he got a question he didn't like, he'd say, "I'm glad you asked that," and then he'd change the subject.
Well, if you can't divert the incoming point of a tough question, you shouldn't be a politician.

It's Scott McClellan's specialty.
Yeah. To say something truly mean about him, and maybe even unfair, he is the fat boy who wouldn't bend over. Though I guess that's actually a positive remark.

You say in the book that of all the people in that gang, Donald Rumsfeld is the only one who seems "real" to you. What does that mean?
I'll give away a secret: my father and Rumsfeld have a certain physical resemblance. They weren't alike in other ways, but that gave me a certain sense of Rumsfeld being an interesting guy, at the very least. Not to defend him. It's just that he's the only one of those people who I think is real. Part of combat wisdom is to know who you're up against. Which enemies are you going to respect, and which are you going to despise? If you despise them broadside, then you're in the ranks of the politically correct, and in real spiritual trouble.

You both have a severe aversion to political correctness.
You could boil water with that aversion.

You're also very skeptical of technology. How about something like online personals?
Let me get this straight. They meet up on the internet? In other words, "I'm blank-blank-blank, I like blank-blank-blank . . . "

I have no experience in that direction. The nearest I ever came was about sixty years ago. [To John] I don't think I ever told you this story. About sixty years ago, I got into a correspondence with this woman. When you're an author, people can send a letter to your publisher to get it to you. So we wrote and wrote and wrote. Finally, I said, "If you're serious and you're coming to New York, take a room at this hotel, and I'll come there, and when you open the door I want you to be stark naked." And it came to pass. That's the nearest I ever came to online dating.

So I did have a few romances by mail. It's not shocking to me. In fact, I can see where it has a libidinous edge, this idea that you can start with a lack of knowledge about someone and, step by step, move into more intimacy.

In the book, you both agree that women "control" men. Could you elaborate?
I think women are in control mainly because they see themselves from early girlhood as future coaches. They're in control the way a coach is in control. Coaches can handle athletes who are much more powerful than they are. You have guys who could kill you with a punch, and his little Jewish manager says, "Listen, you dumb fuck! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your right up around your ears? Do I need to tie a string to your fucking head?" And this big oaf of a guy is like, "Gee, ok boss. I'm so sorry." You could use that as a paradigm for marriage.

But surely you don't think women are in control politically or economically?
John: I don't think women are dominating the workplace. To say that women are running things is just false. But I do see more female CEOs popping up and I'm encouraged.

Norman: Well, look John, let's disagree to a degree. Men are running the economic machine, yes. No disagreement there. But the women who get the positions of power, they don't think as women, they think as corporate executives. There's no difference whether the women are running the corporation or the men.

John: Well, that's the shift I'm hoping to see, that if we have women in powerful positions, they'll lend feminine qualities to it.

Norman: Look John, being in power not only means you're able to affect the machine. It also means the machine takes you over. The arch example I can think of is astronauts. You've got astronauts who travel to the moon, and they get what they wanted: the glory of doing something with the machine that no one had ever done before. But the machine has huge effects upon them too, and I would say the same applies — on a smaller scale, of course — to a powerful woman who takes over a corporation. She will end up being more affected by the machine than she will affect the machine.

One of the reasons I love being a novelist is the only machine that changes you is the novel itself. The novel has its own logic, and that logic alters you in working on the novel. This longwinded speech is to one effect: disabuse yourself of the idea that women in power are going to make for a better society.

Is it worthwhile for young people to naively try to change this machine, even if it's impossible?
Absolutely, because the only real rule of character we can depend on is how much you can learn from your defeats. Victories are dangerous. All victories ever did was swell my ego.

Norman, in your generation, getting married was a given. In John's, marriage is quite optional. Is there any reason to get married anymore?
When I was a kid, marriage was still sacramental. Till death do you part, that sort of thing. A lot of that is gone now. When the sacramental aspects disappear, there's much less logic to marriage. Ninety percent of marriage is very mechanical. You're at breakfast and you say, "Hon, would you pour me another cup of coffee?" That's become part of the machine of interrelationship. In certain marriages, it's "Pour the fucking coffee yourself." That's not part of the machine, and no marriage can survive very long unless ninety percent of it becomes very predictable. In other words, you can't have a marriage where every time, the reaction is, "Pour your own fucking cup of coffee." There's a need in the psyche to have something that's highly predictable, and I think a great many people get married for that reason — literally, if you want to take it at its worst, for the boredom of marriage. Because at least when they're bored, they're not as full of dread as they are when they're free of boredom.

Isn't that boredom antithetical to sexual passion?
Of course. But that's also part of it. When you're driving a car that has five hundred horsepower, you need some kind of brakes. All right, that's a crude image [laughs]. All I'm getting at is that very often, highly sexed people get married in order to have an outlet. [pause] Let me see, I can say something better than that. What a way to end up, huh? You could hang yourself with a sentence like that. [long pause, throat clearing] People, whether highly sexed or not, often need a machine like a relationship, something like an accelerator and a brake. Marriage allows you to do that very well. It's the soft machine of society.

You say that during the sexual revolution, sex was "ennobling." Is that over forever? Are those of us who missed the sexual revolution doomed to ignoble sex?
John: I think STDs are the biggest difference. A guy who gets laid with a different girl every week, that's scary to a lot of women. At the same time, I think people are kinkier than they've ever been. You can look to the internet to see. The stuff out there is mindblowing. Me, I don't trust someone till I can smell them. You can feel the energy of a person, you can sniff them out. They can tell you all the right things, but in person you can still tell, "Hmm, this is a bad guy."

Norman: Alright, let me demolish your thesis. Your thesis is wonderful so far as it goes, but you're leaving one crucial factor out. When you meet the person, when she walks in front of you and you want to sniff her, she's wearing deodorant. And I would argue that one of the reasons people are getting kinkier is just to get a sniff. In the old days, you could really smell your mate, and smell is the animal sense that inspires you. It got you hot.

John: I hate to argue with you, but deodorant's been around for a while. It's not a newfangled invention.

Norman: In the old days, it stank so bad that a respectful woman wouldn't wear it.

John: But the deodorant mixes with your own scent. You put the same deodorant on two people, they're not going to smell the same.

Norman: That's true, but it's a huge distortion. Look back to the court of Louis XIV. They bathed every three or four weeks, so you got the raunchiest crotch odors mixed with some very special perfumes. And of course, they were screwing in every bush, not to mention every bedroom in Versailles. I'm just saying, the kinkiness now, whatever it is — being hung upside down while getting a blowjob? The point is, it's all in search of a lost smell.

Let's go back to women and power for a moment. In the book, you say, "The desire for power in women that's revealed itself in the last thirty-five years is not attractive." I assume you mean not sexually attractive?
No, I meant politically attractive. They're not saying things we haven't heard before, not showing the way in which we could have a better world. Their critical abilities are often excellent. The worst attacks on the Democrats during the Clinton administration came from people like Mary Matalin. Women who were absolutely livid in their hatred of the Left. Hillary, once in a while when she gets sharp, is pretty damn good. Arianna Huffington is a true, almost obsessed critic. But what I'm getting at is, in terms of new political ideas, I don't see where the female Marx is lurking.

John: It hasn't been very long that women have had the opportunity to create change. Maybe we just need to give them some time.

Norman: They were making that same apology thirty years ago.

What about one of your contemporaries, Betty Friedan, who just passed away. Did you ever meet her?
Hell yeah, I met her. Knew her for many years. She did me a disservice once and I'm not going to get into it. It would just be sour grapes at this late date.

What's a topic that your opinions sharply diverge on?
John: I can't think of a major disagreement that would make me storm out of a room.

Norman: That's right. Neither one of us has ever left an argument saying, "Go fuck yourself."

Do you think that's because of your particular relationship, or because things haven't changed as much in the last sixty years as we think they have?
John: I think it has to do with our ages. There's not the same ego battle that goes on with most fathers and sons.

Norman: That's a good point, I never thought of that. The age difference is very important. Because with fathers and sons, when there's an age difference of twenty or thirty years, the son is essentially overtaking the father. The father can feel threatened by the son.

John: You mean physically?

Norman: I mean in every way. Physically, sexually — If they're both vying for the same girl, who's going to get her? I don't mean that that actually often happens in father-son relationships, I just mean there's a bit of a sexual contest going on. But by the time it gets to a two-generation gap, like with John and me, that isn't present. [To John] There isn't a girl around who would have to make a tough decision between you and me. Another thing is, I think I've really been able to be open with you. I really think this book is about as open as anything I've ever done. Your essential purpose with this book was to get me at my best, and I appreciate that.

John: My pleasure.

Norman: I don't often give you a compliment like that.

John: It's a rarity.

Norman: Yeah, well, the moment this interview is over, just rush out and put it in the bank.  

To buy The Big Empty, click here.

©2006 Will Doig and

Commentarium (3 Comments)

Mar 08 06 - 3:51pm

by a large margin, the best interview i've ever read on nerve! will doig's knowledge of mailer was obviously critical, and the questions were fantastic..."soft machine," upside-down blowjobs...classic. really fantastic interview.

and i dunno. i'm a 25-year-old woman. i might sleep with norman before john, anyway.

Mar 08 06 - 9:06pm

unbelievable interview! it is astounding that Norman can produce that density of bon mot in a few paragraphs. what a compelling old codger.

Nov 16 07 - 7:22pm

Amazing, this interview brought insight and depth to a man that continues to touch generations. Such a shame we will never get a follow-up interview to enjoy.