'More Craft, Less Smoke'

"The Spooky Art," Norman Mailer's book about writing, appears on Jan. 31, his 80th birthday. Since his debut novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), Mailer has written 31 more books. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He has directed four films and written 10 screenplays. He has been married six times and has nine children. He was once arrested for stabbing his second wife. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He has arthritis in his knees and sometimes walks with two canes. With his wife, the artist and novelist Norris Church Mailer, he lives in a brick house beside the ocean in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he recently sat down for an interview with NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones. He does not like interviews. Excerpts:

JONES: Can you say a little about the novel you're working on?

MAILER: I'm not going to talk about that novel, because I'd talk it away. I won't even mention the subject. But I've got about 200 pages written on it, and it'll probably keep me busy for the rest of my writing years--at least. It's as ambitious as anything I've ever tackled. Writing novels is physically damaging. On the other hand, what I have is, you might say, more craft and less smoke.

Have there been books before that you knew better than to talk about?

No. People weren't that interested. When I was doing that book on Egypt ["Ancient Evenings"], they were saying, "Oh... how very... interesting." But this would be impossible to keep quiet about. I mean, if I were writing--which I'm obviously not--about George W. Bush's secret sex life, and I mentioned that, how could questions not follow?

The Bush amours might be a short book.

We don't know. I think it would be damned impressive if he has a secret sex life. A very intelligent woman was talking to me about Bill Clinton's troubles and said, "You know, he really was like a prisoner, 'cause every 15 seconds the Secret Service would be clocking him." If you're a convict--and he was in the finest minimum-security prison in the world--then your pride is to beat the system. So he had to do it, for his own manliness. After all, we do want a manly president, don't we? Yet look what happened, now we've got one.

So what do you make of Iraq?

Leaving aside all the usual explanations--the oil, the fact that if the people in power in this country win they will then have this commanding position in the Near East--forgetting all that, the fact is, that war could just go on and on and on. But I don't think that bothers our leaders very much. I think they kind of like the idea that if the country gets very military, then they can stop all the "frees"--free love, gay liberation, women's liberation, all the things they detest. There's no question that the level of uncertainty, the absence of absolutes, has probably never been greater. So the longer the danger goes on, the longer they have to create a new kind of society. We're in for curious times.

How's your health?

My knees are no good. But I really think the key thing as you get older is that you learn to cleanse yourself of self-pity. And, of course, I have certain religious beliefs that make it easier. I don't have this liberal, rational certainty, thank God, that once you die you die, and that's the end of it. On the contrary, I believe in a form of karma, I believe in reincarnation--not for everyone! I think reincarnation is a reward of a sort. Where we go is another matter.

Another great thing about getting older--'cause it isn't all great--is that you get much more efficient and economical in terms of what you want to do. You no longer want to be president of the United States or have everyone in the world say you're the greatest writer who's ever lived. You know it's nonsense now. You're in the lap of history. You could easily be forgotten in 20, 30, 40 years. There's no telling and it's not important, since you will not be there.

In the new book, you say that the things you've hated most in your life have all triumphed.

I listed plastic, superhighways, high-rise architecture, which is an abomination of everything. Those are the three. And the platitudes of politicians have only gotten worse. I've been saying for a while--and it drives most American patriots mad with rage--that the country has gotten more loutish. And maybe the whole world has been getting that way, because we've been exporting that loutishness. It's one of our great cultural commodities: crap.

Has anything gotten better?

I think journalism has gotten better--the writing has. There's no doubt in my mind that The New York Times is better written today than it was 40 years ago.

The novel has not exactly gotten better. The novel has been dwindling since the end of the 19th century, because of one inescapable fact, which is that it is no longer as essential to people's cultural lives as it used to be. The movies replaced it, certainly, and television. Novelists have lost the sense that we make a difference.