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Remembering Curtis Mayfield.

Curtis Mayfield, the great soul singer and songwriter, died yesterday at the age of 57. We'll remember him with a 1993 interview. (3/23/1993)


Other segments from the episode on December 27, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 1999: Interview with Norman Mailer, Interview with Fran Lebowitz; Obituary for Curtis Mayfield.


Date: DECEMBER 27, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122702NP.217
Head: Interview with Fran Lebowitz
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:31

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This is Writers' Week on FRESH AIR.

After two best-selling books, "Metropolitan Life" in 1978 and "Social Studies" in 1981, Fran Lebowitz was hailed as one of the wittiest writers of her generation. But soon after that second best seller, she became famous for her writer's block, which lasted over a decade.

She says she's not blocked any more, just very slow. For the past few years she's been working on a novel called "Exterior Signs of Wealth." In 1995, after she'd started writing again, we invited her to talk about writing -- and not writing. We started with a reading from an essay featuring variations on the theme of not writing, the topic that she says preoccupies most writers.


FRAN LEBOWITZ: "Variation on this theme number one. You can't write. You call another writer. He can't write either. This is terrific. You can now talk about not writing for two hours and then go out to dinner with each other until 4:00 in the morning.

"Variation on this theme number two. You can't write. You call another writer. He is writing. This is a great tragedy. He will talk to you only as long as it takes for him to impress upon you the fact that not only is he writing, but he thinks that what he is writing is quite possibly the best thing he's ever written.

"Your only alternative to suicide in this situation is to call a rock musician. This makes you feel smart again, and you can get on with the business of not writing.

"Variation on this theme number three. You are writing. Another writer calls you to talk about not writing. You announce that you are. Masochistically, he inquires as to what it is that you are writing. You inform him modestly that it's just a little something vaguely reminiscent of, say, "An Ideal Husband," perhaps a bit funnier.

"Your behavior at his funeral the following day is marked by enormous dignity and grace."

GROSS: Fran, when did you write that?

LEBOWITZ: I think I was in my 20s. I'm in my 40s now.

GROSS: Are the feelings expressed in that reading still feelings that you have?

LEBOWITZ: Actually not, in the sense that I don't think about other writers at all any more, which I guess I did then. I -- if my life was more collegial at that time, by which I mean I hung out in bars all the time, and so that I think I had more contact with other people in that way, you know, perhaps more competitive, in the sense of, Were they getting work done?

Now I just assume everyone is getting more work done than I am, and I go from there.

GROSS: It's interesting, because you have -- you know, you became famous for your writing, and then you became famous for not writing. In a way, it's really quite a racket. I mean, (laughs) you're very famous for not doing something. Can you make a living not writing?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I did, barely. I mean, I -- you don't do very well, let's put it that way. No, I didn't make a living not writing, but I managed to make a living even though I wasn't writing.

GROSS: Doing what?

LEBOWITZ: Talking. Mostly what I did during the several thousand years that I wasn't working was, I did a seriously inordinate number of college lecture dates, by which I mean almost nonstop. And so I just talked. I read from my old books, which were getting older and older.

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: And then I would, you know, answer questions from the audience in an entertaining fashion. And I did that, I went from college to college. I was the Willy Loman of literature. It was a very depressing period of my life.

GROSS: So you -- we're talking about this in the past tense. It's ended?

LEBOWITZ: Yes, it's been ended for about two and a half years.

GROSS: And you're writing what?

LEBOWITZ: I'm writing a novel.

GROSS: Called...

LEBOWITZ: "Exterior Signs of Wealth."

GROSS: Now, that's the novel you said you were writing in the early '80s. (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: Yes, that's the novel that I was -- that's the novel that I was supposed to be writing when I finished "Social Studies." The idea was that I would now write this novel called "Exterior Signs of Wealth." But then I stopped writing.

So when I started writing again about two and a half years ago, it was the same title, and in certain respects the same novel, although, of course, not at all the novel I would have written then.

GROSS: What changed that made you able to write again?

LEBOWITZ: You know, I really don't know. I mean, just as I don't really know exactly why I couldn't write. But perhaps in some way, my fear of writing became eclipsed by my fear of not writing. You know, 10 years, that's serious. You know, you begin to say, Well, this is serious.

And also, I think that what happened was, it became harder work not to write than to write. And so I went with the easier thing.

GROSS: Well, what do you like and what do you hate about writing?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I used to say that I like nothing about writing, that what I liked about writing was having written. But now, in my middle years, I actually find writing to be, if not really pleasurable, at least more interesting than the rest of life. This probably is a function of my age. I mean, life is more interesting than writing when you're young and life is newer.

Now I think it's more entertaining, at least to me, to reflect upon it than actually to have to live it.

GROSS: I'm interested in your writing habits. You know how some writers have, like, a couple hours every day where they sit down and write, and they're very disciplined about it?

LEBOWITZ: Yes, I've read about them.

GROSS: Have you ever tried that? Has that ever worked for you?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I've always -- that's the thing I really envy. For instance, they sent me all at once every "Paris Review" ever printed, and what did I do? I sat in my apartment for a month, read every single one. But what I was really interested in in reading the Writers at Work series, were things like how many hours a day did other writers write, and how much writing did they get done?

GROSS: You mean, how much is enough for a day.

LEBOWITZ: And I'm always -- you know, I actually don't have that many friends who are writers. And when I meet writers, that's the only thing I want to ask them. I mean, the fact is that if I met Proust, I would say, So, how many words do you get a day?

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: You know? And do you write in the morning, or at night? And do you think if you write in the daytime, you have more chance of getting more work? That would be my only interest.

So that I -- when I was living in Princeton, I was really getting work done, I worked in kind of two periods, you know, during the course of the day. I never, ever sat at a desk before 3:00 in the afternoon in my life. I mean, not since there was algebra homework on that desk, you know, not since I was a child.

And then I would write from, like, 3 to, like, 7, and then starting again maybe about 10 to 4 or 5 in the morning.

I always have had a habit of writing at night. When I was in Princeton, I tried also to write in the afternoons, since I realized that there was no point in just sitting around all day waiting for night to come, which is what I'd done most of my life.

And it gave me -- it gives you a second chance so you don't feel so depressed if you don't anything done the first time around.

You know, but I've always found it easier to write at night, I suppose because I'm more alert, first of all. And it just seems quieter.

GROSS: You know, I think in every writer there's the writer and the editor. And sometimes the editor can choke the writer, because you pick a -- you know, you start writing, you go, Oop, not good enough, start over again. Oop, not good enough.

LEBOWITZ: I don't think there's a difference, the writer and the editor. I mean, writing is editing.

GROSS: But, but -- I mean, is there a part of you that you have to turn off in order to write, in order to, like, get out the sentence, and then you kind of summon back the editor to groom the sentence afterwards?

LEBOWITZ: I've never been able to do that. I mean, you know, inside of me is a Nazi general.

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: You know, I mean, there -- and that's why, you know, I write a sentence a day. No, the editor is not only present in me but omniscient. We don't go on to the next syllable till that previous syllable is perfect. So that I'm sure that I would write more if I was less critical of myself.

But I am -- you know, I am just as critical of myself as I am of others. So that's pretty harsh.

GROSS: Is that one of the things that makes it so hard to write?

LEBOWITZ: It's one of the things that makes it so hard for me to write.


LEBOWITZ: Yes. But I think you should make it hard for yourself to write so that you're easier to read. If you're easy on yourself when you write, you're going to be hard to read.

GROSS: So it wouldn't work for you to just sit down and, you know, let it flow, just write, not worry about how it reads, and then come back again another day and be really critical and edit it and rewrite it and so on?

LEBOWITZ: Well, you know, I think that -- I don't write in drafts, and I think that partially that's just a habit. You know, it's like saying I write with a pen as opposed to a pencil or -- But part of it is that, you know, one of your chief concerns, if not your chief concern, is style, it's really impossible to do that. Writing in drafts is for people who have either information to extend to the reader, which I don't, or emotion. You know, I don't know, that must be the reason people do it.

I would just be -- I'm simply unable to do that. You know, it's not that I think this is a better way to write, you know, or a worse way to write, it just -- I would be unable to do that. I mean, I -- part -- my concern for -- First of all, when you're writing things that have the intent to be humorous, you have very few tools at your disposal.

And the primary tool that you have, other than what is -- is what you're saying funny, is the rhythm of it, so that mostly what I'm doing when I'm writing is counting syllables so that the rhythm of the sentence is right. So if I replace a word, I have to replace it with a word of the same number of syllables. This, I realize, sounds probably totally insane to people who are listening. But a lot of the time when I'm writing, that's what I'm doing.

GROSS: That makes sense.

LEBOWITZ: So that -- and I constantly read aloud to myself, you know, while I'm writing. So it's just not really possible for me to write in drafts like that, although I'm sure I would get more work done.


GROSS: We'll hear more of our 1995 interview with Fran Lebowitz after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 1995 interview with writer and social satirist Fran Lebowitz.


GROSS: You know, let me say something that I've never quite understood about you. On the one hand, when I hear you talk, I always think of you as somebody who could probably live a solitary life just fine, and doesn't really care what anybody thinks.

And on the other hand, when I read about you, it's often in the context of some kind of scene, you know, being at a party, or your views on the nightlife or something. Never been able to reconcile the part of you that's gone to so many parties with the part of you that seems to me to exist as this kind of, like, solitary person, not caring what others think, so...

LEBOWITZ: I am both. I mean, I'm alternately unusually and even gratuitously gregarious. On the other hand, I'm really very solitary. I've lived alone my entire life. I wouldn't -- my entire adult life. I've lived alone since I was 17. I would never consider living with another human being. It'd be out of the question.

And when I'm not at a party or out in that way, I'm by myself, reading. But I like both things. I mean, both things are important to me. At this point in my life, I would prefer to spend more time by myself. And especially when I'm really working on my novel, which I haven't been since I've been selling books as opposed to writing them.

I rented a house in Princeton and I stayed there for 14 months, and I very rarely came to New York. And I very rarely saw anyone at all. And I find it a very pleasurable experience.

GROSS: When you say you wouldn't ever live with anybody, not even a lover?

LEBOWITZ: Especially not!

GROSS: So do you find that it makes for a good relationship to not live together?

LEBOWITZ: No. It doesn't.

GROSS: That doesn't work either?

LEBOWITZ: No. No. Having the relationships in the way that you mean has not been a priority in my life.


LEBOWITZ: You know, I am not -- I am the only person in my generation who doesn't think that you get to have every single thing in the world all at once. You know, or even ever. No, I'm sure that to have a very good relationship or a very good marriage, you have to devote quite a bit of attention to it. It's out of the question that I'd be willing to do that.

GROSS: Right.

LEBOWITZ: So -- no, I don't think -- I don't think that probably is a good idea.

GROSS: If you don't know -- if you don't mind my asking, you're in your, what, early 40s now, mid-40s?


GROSS: Forty-four. Does being 44 bother you at all? Do you know what I mean? Like, if you get a gray hair, do you care? If you see wrinkles on your face, does that bother you?

LEBOWITZ: First of all, I've had gray hairs since I was about 17. So that -- we're not at all surprised. But, you know, it turns out that my gray hair was just a phase. I don't have it any more.

GROSS: (laughs) You outgrew your gray hair.

LEBOWITZ: I outgrew it. So, you know, it just came and went.

Yes, of course, I can't stand getting older. I mean, I don't know anyone who likes it, mainly because I think -- or it seems to me that I, at least at some point in my life, felt that age was immutable. In other words, I think that I thought, Well, there's all kind of people in the world, you know, young people, old people, tall people, short people, black people, white people.

And I guess I thought that I was, like, young people, old people, that I was, like, a short young white one...

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: ... and that this was going to be the case forever.

GROSS: That was your condition.

LEBOWITZ: Right. And I don't know what did I think about other people, that -- boy, they're -- boy, they're not very smart shoppers. Look at the body (inaudible) they got. I got this 20-year-old body, they got that 40-year-old body.

So that I think I was astonished to discover that it wasn't going to stay that way. And, you know, I can't say that I've welcomed it. I can't say that -- from a physical point of view, no one likes getting older. I actually noticed since I've been on this book tour for about 80 weeks that I actually -- a lot of people notice they start to look like their mothers, for instance. I just skipped that phase. I look just like my grandmother now.

I went from...

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: ... I just skipped that. I went from looking just like myself to looking like Lily Splaber (ph) in one fell swoop. And then I had dinner with my cousin in Chicago and I said, "I look like Grandma now, don't I?" And she said, "Yes, you do."

So that that's where I am now, from a physical point of view.

GROSS: So what do you do with that feeling? I mean, do you feel like, Well, I'm going to look like my grandmother with attitude, with defiance, I don't care? Or do you think, Well, I'm going to be really depressed about this? Or I will cosmetically change myself through makeup or plastic surgery? You know what I'm saying? Like, what do you do with that feeling?

LEBOWITZ: Well, here's what I do about it. I look in the mirror and I think, You look better now than you're ever going to look again.

GROSS: (laughs)

LEBOWITZ: And you're going to -- if you have a picture taken of yourself today, in five years you're going to look back and say, You look so young. You look fabulous!

However, except for the look part of it, other -- I like being older otherwise. I mean, there are advantages to it. First of all, everyone who's in charge of everything is someone you know. This is very helpful. This I like. And so I find that quite an upside. It doesn't balance it out, you know, I would rather, of course, be 20.

But you don't get that choice, so you might as well take advantage of some of the upside of things. And there's certainly less urgency in life, which I also welcome.

Now, a lot of people don't like being this age, because it's certainly less exciting. But I'm happy to have it be less exciting.

GROSS: So are you going to obsess about how you look, or are you going to not care about it?

LEBOWITZ: Well, it isn't that I don't care about it. I'm pretty vain. It's just that, what can you do about it? I mean, you mean, am I going to have a facelift and stuff like that? I don't think so, because I think it's better to look like an earthling, don't you?

GROSS: (laughs.

LEBOWITZ: You know, I mean -- you know, I mean, it's -- I have no moral opposition to facelifts. But they only work for a couple years, and then you get this kind of Neptunian quality to your face. So I don't think that -- they don't have all the kinks out yet, as far as I'm concerned.

I just don't think there's really -- there's not that much at our disposal to do that much about it, so I kind of accept it. Also, I'm a heavy smoker. You know, there's a chance -- how much further is this going to go? You know, I mean, a lot of people worry about being really old, you know, I mean, actually an old person, like a 90-year-old person, and I don't worry about this too much.


GROSS: Fran Lebowitz, recorded in 1995. She's still at work on her novel, "Exterior Signs of Wealth."

Coming up, we remember Curtis Mayfield.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Fran Lebowitz
High: Writer/Humorist Fran Lebowitz. A Washington Post critic once called her "The Funniest woman in America." In 1978, she wrote the critically acclaimed book "Metropolitan Life." She followed that with Social Studies, in 1981. Her essays are also collected in The Fran Lebowitz reader. She will talk about her work, writing, and her famous writers bloc.
Spec: Literature; Humor; Women

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Fran Lebowitz
Date: DECEMBER 27, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122701np.217
Head: Interview with Norman Mailer
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:07

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Curtis Mayfield, the great soul singer and songwriter, died yesterday at the age of 57. We'll remember him with a 1993 interview.

Also today, we begin Writers' Week, featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archives. Today we'll hear from Norman Mailer, a writer who was famous by the age of 25 with the publication of his novel "The Naked and the Dead." We'll also hear from Fran Lebowitz, a writer famous for her wit and her long-time writer's block. We'll talk about writing and not writing.

Writers' Week begins today on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This is Writers' Week on FRESH AIR, featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archives.

Norman Mailer once wrote that before he was 17, he had formed the desire to be a major writer. Well, that wish certainly came true. He was famous at the age of 25 after the publication of his war novel, "The Naked and the Dead."

He won a Pulitzer and National Book Award for "Armies of the Night," his reflection on the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon. He won a second Pulitzer for "The Executioner's Song," about Gary Gilmore.

As novelist Scott Spencer wrote, "For a writer to inspire the controversy and divisions that routinely orbit Mailer's life and career is perhaps unprecedented in American literary history."

Some of the controversies to which Spencer referred have been about Mailer's macho code, his feuds with feminists, his venture into politics -- running for New York City mayor -- and his championing of writer and convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott (ph). Now there's a new biography of Mailer written by Mary Dearborn (ph).

I spoke with Mailer in 1991, after the publication of "Harlot's Ghost," and he told me he's still very productive because he has to be.


NORMAN MAILER: Yes, I got myself into a situation which I'm not at all unhappy about, but it is there. I have nine children, and it's -- I think I'm (inaudible) I'm all too famous now for having been married six times. And so there's a bit of alimony to pay, and the children all going through college or have gone through. But I have to earn a lot of money just to keep going, which is fine, because I think I'm essentially lazy. And if I didn't have to do it, I wouldn't be working -- writing as much. And ultimately I'm happy I've written all these books, although I do groan and gripe all the while I'm working on them.

GROSS: I think you were one of the first great American writers to also be a media personality, and to have that personality be, in a way, a part of your art. Do you think of yourself, or at least your public self, as being one of your greatest characters?

MAILER: No, I'm amused by it, because people have such an outlandish idea of me. And I'm always intrigued with it. They really are so surprised when they meet me. You know, if I've heard one remark a thousand times in my life, it's that, Oh, you know, you're not the least bit the way I thought you'd be.

I'm a measure of how bad and inaccurate the newspapers are. Most -- after all, the sad truth is that most people who write for newspapers are mediocre writers. And so the mark of mediocrity is to look for precedent. So they'll look up the -- they'll open the files on me, and whatever's been written about me before gets written again, thereby confirming the error.

GROSS: But you did, at some point, I think, almost make a decision to cultivate a public personality, on TV, you know, on the Cavett show, on Merv, on David Susskind's show, (inaudible) saying really provocative things. I mean, you even write in "Advertisement" -- I think it was in "Advertisements for Myself" -- about how you'd kind of, like, studied TV to think about how you could best come across on it, and to most kind of accurately get across the thought or the emotion that you wanted to.

MAILER: Yes, but I've given up on that. I don't think you can communicate through TV. Some people may be able to, but I can't. It -- my ideas are too, oh...

GROSS: Complicated?

MAILER: Yes, too complicated, too full of -- I'll say it, too full of nuance. You -- when you start trying to communicate through TV, or for that matter through newspaper stories, your remarks get garbled and bizarre. I mean, whenever I read a story about myself, I generally shudder a bit. I say, Oh, what a bizarre, ugly, sort of off-balance person I appear to be in that story.

GROSS: You used to always measure yourself against other writers. In "Advertisements for Myself," you wrote, "It is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I am the fool who will pay the bill."

Do you think your assessment of your own work has changed over the years?

MAILER: I think I'm a little more relaxed about it. You know, either my work will or it won't have all that huge effect. Sometimes I hope it will, sometimes I think it absolutely won't. My real fear these days is not who's going to be the best writer of us all, but whether novel writing as such is going to continue with any health into the 20th century. I'm not sure it's going to. I think 50 years from now, novelists may be looked upon as -- the way most people regard poets, which is, Oh, they do a very special kind of work, it doesn't have much relevance to my own life. I read a poem once in a while, people say.

So I think in 50 years, they could say, You know what? I think I'm going to read another novel this year. You know, it'll be a most special and peculiar activity, almost, because I think television is driving everything else out.

GROSS: But how do you size yourself up now when you compare yourself to the other major writers of your generation?

MAILER: Oh, I think -- I'm not going to name them, I think about three or four of us who may last, and I would say I'm one of them.

GROSS: To many younger writers, you've become a father figure, and I wonder what that's brought out in you different from the competitive instinct that you always had toward writers of your own generation.

MAILER: Well, I'm not competitive any more, because I'm beginning to recognize that the -- it -- the -- what's important is that we keep writing novels, that the 20, 30, or 40 writers in America who have real talent keep working and keep doing more and more, because I think we're the only people who can define the country.

And I think we have a duty. So I think it's good when any one of us breaks through and does a good book or a rich book. We help the others. I wish we -- I wish the level of our writing was as high, let's say, as the writing in Latin and South America. I mean, they have great writers there, any number of them, four, five, six you could name.

And I'm not sure that we do any more.

GROSS: Your image has always been of the two-fisted intellectual, and you've said that you were a physical coward as a child. When did being manly and being able to fight become important to you?

MAILER: My second marriage, my then-wife's father had been a professional fighter. And whenever he came over to visit us, he used to say, "Come on, let's put on the gloves." He was about 20 years older than me, but of course he knew more about boxing than I did. So I learned quickly, and the hard way.

And then after that, I got interested in it, and did more and more boxing. Then I became friends with a couple of professional fighters. And finally, I've had a great friendship with Jose Torres over the years, boxed with him a great deal. He was -- at one time he was the light-heavyweight champion of the world.

Now, of course, boxing with someone who's as good as that is relatively safe, because, you know, he can handle you with no pain, and therefore he's not -- he has no particular interest in hurting you. So -- but I did learn an awful lot about defense while boxing with him, because he -- if -- he'd tap me once, and then if I didn't make the proper move the next time, he'd tap me a little harder. So after a while, he put a great many instinctive defensive moves into me.

GROSS: But getting back to that image of the two-fisted intellectual, why was that important to you, to -- you know, to not just be a bookish intellectual?

MAILER: Well, I can answer you by saying, Why not? What's so wonderful about being a bookish intellectual? You know, if you're just bookish, there's a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical. And my feeling always, always, from the beginning, was, if I want to be a novelist, I've got to be a novelist who can encompass all kinds of experience. My ambition was always, Don't, you know, don't ever narrow down the horizons of what you want to write about, try for as much as you possibly can try for, learn more all the time.

It's stultifying to be a novelist unless you keep opening up your -- working with larger and larger -- not necessarily larger and larger canvases, but either larger canvases or more powerful themes.

GROSS: You went from Harvard into the Army. I think you fought in the Philippines during World War Two.


GROSS: Was that the first time that physical strength counted more than intellectual ability in your life?

MAILER: I would say so, yes. In fact, I went through -- well, I mean, I grew up in Brooklyn, and, you know, we didn't ignore strength in Brooklyn, but it wasn't -- I grew up in a reasonable neighborhood, reasonable middle-class neighborhood.

But I do think that the -- what counted for more than strength or the lack of it was the fact that I went from Brooklyn to Harvard to the Army, so I went through two major transitions in five years. And the shock of that -- and then a couple -- few years later, "The Naked and the Dead" was written and came out. So in a space of about eight years, I went through three major transitions, the third being that I went from being an unknown young man to -- who'd just recently gotten out of the Army, to being a young celebrity. And that was the largest transition of them all. In fact, it was extraordinary.

GROSS: How did who you saw yourself as being compare when you were in Harvard and when you were in the Army?

MAILER: Well, I just had a totally different view of myself. You know, young people in Harvard -- Harvard was a wonderful place in those days, and you were coddled a bit. You know, we were treated as gentlemen, we were treated as young people who were going to be -- without ever saying it, the assumption was that we were going to play a reasonably interesting role in life. And everybody cultivated everyone else's opinion.

I remember it as an incredibly polite place, and very nice, and even if you were discriminated against, you never knew it, it was all done so subtly. (laughs) Whereas the Army, of course, was rough as a corncob. And so that was a huge transition.

And then I wasn't very good in the Army. I wasn't a good soldier. And I'd gone from having a rather elevated opinion of myself to a poor opinion of myself. So my ego was on the elevator in those days.

GROSS: In what way weren't you a good soldier?

MAILER: Oh, I mean, I just resented close-order drill completely. I don't think I ever learned to march properly or present arms or any of that stuff. And, I don't know, I just wasn't a particularly good soldier. If you had 12 soldiers in a platoon, I'd be the third or the fourth from the bottom.

GROSS: Was it important to you as a writer to be in the army and meet men who weren't like you, who weren't from the same background or the same region?

MAILER: Oh, I think it turned me into an altogether different kind of writer. If I'd never gone into the Army, I believe I would have written novels that probably would have been a little bit like the works of Iris Murdoch, maybe not as good. But I would have had intricate philosophical novels with characters who, to say the least, would be somewhat extreme and distorted and intense.

And going into the Army, talking in quick terms, made me much more of a naturalist.

GROSS: Was your ego intact after the military, when you started to write?

MAILER: No, I went through the -- my ego was battered. And I went through the war very much with the attitude of, When I get out, I'm going to write a book about it, expose this damn army. Now, everybody I knew in the Army was saying the same thing. But I used to think, Yeah, they're saying it, but I'm going to do it. And I hated the Army.

Now, looking back on it, I'd say that the Army was -- the two years I spent in the Army were the worst experience of my life, and the most valuable.

GROSS: You know, you said your ego was on the elevator between Harvard and the Army. It really started to be on the elevator when you started to write. You know, "The Naked and the Dead," as you say, made you into a celebrity. But your next two books weren't reviewed as favorably, didn't sell as well.

What kind of mood swings did that create in you?

MAILER: Well, huge mood swings. But the happy end to the story is that by now I have an ego that I'm afraid is like a battleship -- just try and sink it!


GROSS: Is it good or bad for a writer to have a big ego?

MAILER: It has its advantages. Obviously you can go through a mess of bad reviews and -- You know, most of my books over the years have had more bad reviews than good reviews. I'm the only major writer in America who, you know, who has had more bad reviews than good reviews in the course of his writing life. So that gives me a certain pride. You know, I feel, well, you know, they keep taking their shot, their best shot, and they can't do a goddamn thing, and they're not going to stop me, and, you know, you can get a little vain about it that way.

But the bad part about having a tough ego is, you become less precipient. Ego is a shell, essentially. And so you start to close off experience from yourself. The ideal would be to have a light, flexible ego that's there, that can concentrate into -- in a given place to protect you when the going gets tough, but that it doesn't cut off too much.

But I -- you know, at my worst, I often feel like a turtle. I just pull my head in and let it rattle off the shell.

GROSS: Right.

MAILER: But, of course, I'm not seeing a damn thing except my own darkness at that point.


GROSS: We'll hear more of our 1991 interview with Norman Mailer after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Back to our 1991 interview with Norman Mailer.


GROSS: You know, you might be one of the few major writers of your generation who is Jewish and for whom Jewishness hasn't been a major theme in your fiction. Do you think that's true, that you're one of the few?

MAILER: Yes, and I think it hasn't been a major theme, but I think on the other hand it's informed every sentence I've written. You know, being Jewish is a state of mind, it's a way of receiving life and perceiving it and evaluating it. And it affects every one of one's judgments. It affects one's style.

Someone -- in fact, it was Norman Podhoretz -- once remarked many years ago that there were two kinds of Jews in history, he felt, if one were to speak very generally. One was the essentially Orthodox Jew who returned to tradition, was deeply enmeshed in it, and thought of himself or herself as a Jew and primarily a Jew and always a Jew. And then there was the Jew who became the mirror of the time, and aped the manners of all those people who were not Jewish, didn't copy them, literally, but became so sensitive to the manners of those who were not Jewish that he might end up knowing more about it than they did.

One example of this is, although he was not Jewish, his parents were Jewish, Disraeli is a wonderful example of that. He didn't look British, but he was more British -- he was more English than the English.

So in that sense, I think I would belong to that second category. I've always been interested in writing about things that are not Jewish precisely because I half understand them, and I want to know more about them. But I think that -- you know, I've never said to myself, Well, I'm really not Jewish, I know damn well how Jewish I am.

GROSS: I think that kind of is consonant with the image of the writer as spy, you know, the writer is always looking at the people who he's not a part of.

MAILER: Well, that's very good, by the way, you know, the writer as spy. I think in a way, writing about the CIA couldn't have been more natural for me, because I've been a spy all my life. So I can understand spies.

GROSS: The writer Blanche McCreary Boyd (ph) had an appreciation of your work recently in "The Village Voice." She wrote, "Mailer's work has demonstrated an aggressive sexism, and he has, as a consequence, become a cultural icon of offensiveness about women." Do you think you deserve to be a cultural icon of offensiveness about women?

MAILER: Well, why don't you read the rest of her (inaudible)...

GROSS: Oh, she loved your work. No, I'm just -- I just thought this was one of way of getting (laughs) to this issue. I should say here, she really loves your work, and the new novel as well, just to put this into context.

MAILER: Well, I -- you know, I just shrug when we get into that, because she started with that to show the distance that the book took her. In other words, as she read the book, as I understood her review, she was saying, in effect, I am beginning to forgive him more and more, because this book is so good. And finally at the end she was saying, It hardly matters what I think his ideas and his attitudes are toward women. I just -- I love this book because it just keeps me reading, and so forth and so forth.

Whatever, I -- it's hard for me to talk about a good review. After all, you know, a man my age who's preening is kind of silly.

But as far as the -- as far as being an icon of the awful to a lot of women's liberationists, yes, it's absolutely true, but I also think it's silly. I don't think they read me. I think they proceed on a notion of me that has very little to do with what I really write about all the time. I think if they were to read what I write, they'd be startled.

On the other hand, I think the worst of the women's liberationists are incapable of reading. They're interested only in political correctness. How can they read?

GROSS: I wonder if you think that the best aspects of the women's movement, the most open and least doctrinaire, have affected your view of women or your view of yourself as a man.

MAILER: Oh, no question. You know, it's been going on now for 20 years, and it's had a huge effect, some for the good and some for the bad. I think what women are maybe beginning to face now is, as they gain equality with men, they're also going to be taking on all of men's problems. And a great many men's problems are just dreary.

And on top of that, since men have been, in effect, wrecking the world -- let's speak ecologically, look what man has done to the natural world -- the question is, are -- once women become equal to men, are they going to then begin to direct the world into better places? There's very little evidence of that so far.

One's idea of women's liberation at this point is women in trim gray business suits carrying small attache cases, working as high executives. Isn't that the general perception of what women's liberation is about these days, that at the very least, even the most hidebound corporation has to have its token woman in a high office?

GROSS: That's one narrow part of it.

I want to read something that you wrote in the 1950s in "Advertisements for Myself." You wrote, "Fitzgerald was an indifferent caretaker of his talent, and I have been a cheap gambler with mine. As I add up the accounts, I cannot like myself too much, for I was cowardly when I should have been good, and too brave on many a bad chance. And I spent my first 30 years abusing my body, and the last six in forced marches on my brain.

"And so I am more stupid today than I ought to be. My memory is half gone, and my mind is slow. From fear and vanity, I paid out too much for what I managed to learn. I may have wasted too much of myself, and if I have, what a loss!"

Can you update that for us? Do you ever feel like -- do you ever feel those kinds of emotions that you expressed when you were 36 in that passage?

MAILER: No. No, no. In the act of writing that, I was able to move away from that. You know, much of writing is -- I wouldn't call it exorcism, but it is transformation. Very occasionally it's transcendence. If you can absolutely capture a state of mind at a given moment, then you very often are freed of that state of mind.

That was written out of the deep fear -- in those years, it was written out of the deep fear that I had ruined myself.

GROSS: From...

MAILER: From these abuses, you know, pot, booze, all of that. But I think in the course of writing it, some little part of me said, Well, stop complaining so much, because actually this is rather a well-written passage.


GROSS: At the age of 68, which you are now, do you feel that you have no time for certain shenanigans that you participated in when you were younger?

MAILER: Oh, time is obsessive now. Not obsessive, that's too strong a word. But it -- it's present in almost every thought I have, put it that way. You know, I don't know how much longer I have, 10 years, 15 years at most. And there's so many things I want to get done yet.

So, no, I have no time for shenanigans. I've got to get the work out.

GROSS: So how has that changed your public life, the public Norman Mailer?

MAILER: Well, I'm much quieter now. You know, a lot of people complain secretly, they say, Well, you know, Norman's gotten so mellow he's boring.

GROSS: (laughs)

MAILER: But I'm -- no, I'm not at all the public figure that people think I am. You know, I mean, I haven't been in a fight in must be 15 years. I stopped boxing eight years ago. No, I'm a man of 68.

GROSS: Has your approach to writing and rewriting changed at all over the years?

MAILER: I probably...

GROSS: Talking about the process.

MAILER: Yes, well, I now look upon myself as having somewhat less talent than I had when I -- in the middle years. But I have much more skill and savvy, and I'm a much better editor of my own work. I'm sure that any number of reviewers would disagree, but (inaudible), that's the way I feel.

And so I feel if I can get something written that's halfway decent, by the time I get done editing it, it will be pretty good. Whereas in the old days, I used to write with more smoke and less savvy.


GROSS: Norman Mailer, recorded in 1991.

A new biography of him by Mary Dearborn has just been published.

Our Writers' Week series continues in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Norman Mailer
High: Our special week of writers begins with Norman Mailer. Mailer's books, like "The Naked and the Dead," "Armies of the Night," and "The Executioner's Song," have established him as one of America's most important authors. We'll talk about his career, and his work.
Spec: Media; Literature; Authors

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Norman Mailer
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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