'You're In The Lap Of History'

"The Spooky Art," Norman Mailer's book about writing, will appear 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 helped found The Village Voice. He has arthritis in his knees and sometimes walks with two canes. His voice is roughly musical, like a man gargling marbles. With his wife, the artist and novelist Norris Church Mailer, he lives in a brick house beside the ocean in Provincetown, Mass., where he recently sat down for an interview with NEWSWEEK. He does not like interviews.

NEWSWEEK: You were once a fixture on the New York literary scene. Now you live here in Provincetown year-round?

MAILER: Yes, mainly because I can get more work done here. And I love the town. It's probably the freest place on the Eastern Seaboard. It's got a long tradition, starting with pirates and smugglers. And the Pilgrims. But there really is something easy here. Nobody gives a damn what you do. Or what you did. Nobody's that taken with your importance.

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

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.

Do writers need things to chafe against?

Probably. Ah, we pearls.

In the new book, you argue against any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

I say that it's all fiction, yeah. Working on "The Executioner's Song," I wanted it to be as accurate as I could possibly make it. And yet when I was done, a couple of major figures in it were unhappy. I loved [Gary Gilmore's girlfriend] Nicole, for example, but I gather she thought, "That's not me." So I thought, all right, it is a novel. I think it's very good to get rid of the notion that because you've accumulated some facts, therefore you're factual.

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.

You finally come down to something that Elia Kazan said once. He said, "Everybody makes fun of us at the Actors Studio because we talk about the work, the work. Well, the work is important. In fact, work is a blessing." That stayed with me forever. The ability to work when you get old is a firm pleasure.

Reading through interviews you've done, I see why you don't like them. Most of them seem to use your past like a stick to poke at an old lion between the bars. They want you to tell about stabbing your second wife. And about helping to get the writer Jack Henry Abbott out of jail, only to have him kill someone.

Yeah, those are the two big ones. Then they go off and say nice things about you. But they can't say nice things until they've done that. Jack Henry Abbott--that was awful, but it was a costly reflection on one's innocence, not one's evil. But the stabbing was inexcusable. And since I was not punished for it in any real way--I had to do a couple of years of probation, which is onerous, but certainly no punishment--there are people who think I got off easy. And they may be right. I believe you really do pay for your f---ups, and you pay very hard after you die. There's no doubt in my mind that I will pay for that one.

I feel rueful about Jack Henry Abbott. A lot of guys stayed in prison because thereafter the parole boards were afraid to pass 'em out a year or two earlier, and for that I bear part of the responsibility. But I don't feel guilty about getting him out. What I feel guilty about is that I'd just finished "The Executioner's Song." I knew how tough it is when a man gets out of prison. And I was a good fellow, his Uncle Norman, having him over to the house for dinner. I even let a couple of my daughters go out to movies with him, because I knew he'd be totally honorable. But I also knew that he needed someone to work through the tough spots with him. And I didn't want to do it, because I wanted to do my own work, and I didn't want to take on the huge responsibility of being around a guy who was very depressed. Why was he depressed? Because they made him rat before they let him out. We didn't know that. Everyone was treating him like a hero, because of this wonderful book he'd written ["In the Belly of the Beast"]. And he was thinking, they think I'm a hero, and I'm a rat. And so he was terribly depressed, and you didn't want to be around him. So I didn't do my duty.

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. It used to be, you could get into some absolute extravagances of vanity. Like, I really believed at one point that I had been a true factor in getting JFK elected president in 1960. It took me a long time to realize that Mayor Daley had a lot more to do with it.

But there are more and more skilled novelists today. Their themes get smaller, for the most part, but their techniques and talents get more and more refined. Jonathan Franzen is the arch example. He could become a great writer, he's got the stuff. I don't know that he's willing to pay the price. Because with the talent he's got, he's like a certain kind of wealthy man: he's not going to try to become a billionaire. That describes most authors.

Do you still do the crossword puzzle every morning to get going?

Oh, yeah.

In pencil or ink?

Ink. I do that and a solitaire game. My wife naturally began to look on all this and wonder, Who am I married to? If there's anything that distresses women, it's habits they do not pursue themselves. So I looked at her, and I said, "You have to understand, this is how I comb my brain every morning."

Actually, I'm not that good at crossword puzzles. I can't do the Saturday puzzle in The New York Times to save my life. And I'm hurt that I'm never in one of them. And I've got a last name with three vowels. You'd think I'd be hot cakes, but I'm not.