Norman Mailer’s Lessons on Writing and Manhood

Question: What was it\r\nlike growing up as Norman Mailer’s son?


John Buffalo Mailer:\r\nIt’s always an interesting question of what was it like as Norman \r\nMailer’s son\r\nbecause I could easily turn it back and say what’s it like not to.  I don’t really have a comparison aside\r\nfrom friends of mine and discussions, but I think I do have a gauge of \r\nsome of\r\nthe differences that it would be, because I didn’t always realize my dad\r\n was\r\nNorman Mailer.  I always knew he\r\nwas Dad, and then I forget the exact age when it dawned on me that, you \r\nknow,\r\nhe is actually someone who affects the public consciousness of the time.  It was amazing.  I mean he was a\r\n rock star and brilliant\r\nand kind and funny and generous and scary when he needed to be and, you \r\nknow,\r\nhard as a father.  I mean he\r\nexpected a lot from us and he really pushed us and you know one of his \r\nfavorite\r\nlines was, “If you think I’m being hard on you, wait until life hits you\r\nbecause life is a hell of a lot tougher than I am.”  And\r\n I took everything he said to heart.  He taught me\r\n how to write, which was\r\nscary and intimidating and hard, but ultimately one of the biggest gifts\r\n I\r\ncould have ever asked for. 


There is one moment that actually comes to mind \r\nwhen you\r\nthink of the kind of crystallizing factor.  You \r\nknow I kind of lived a utopian existence until I was\r\nabout 20, 21 when my mom got sick with cancer and it was bad.  It was very scary and at the time I was\r\ndoing my first screenplay and I was on deadline and was alone with my \r\nfather in\r\nMassachusetts.  She was recovering\r\nin the hospital.  We were going\r\nback and forth and she wasn’t going to be able to come home for a few \r\ndays, but\r\nwe knew about the longer road ahead and the chemo and the radiation and \r\nall of\r\nthat and at a certain point I said to my dad.  I \r\nsaid, “Pop, you know, I don’t how I’m going to work. I\r\ndon’t know how I can get this done. You know, I got to hand this script \r\nin and\r\nI can’t think about anything but Mom.” \r\nHe said, “Well, you know, now is the time when you’re going to \r\nlearn what\r\nit means to compartmentalize.”  And\r\nthose words really had an impact on me and have enabled me through the \r\nlast 10\r\nyears of more surgeries than I care to remember and more scary times \r\nthan I\r\nwish my mother had ever had to go through.  Those \r\nwords enabled me to actually continue to do my job and\r\nto get my work done, which is so important if you… I mean for all those \r\nwho\r\nhave kind of helped someone heal through a sickness you know it’s just \r\nso\r\nimportant to be able bring exciting news to the table and to be able to \r\nget\r\ntheir minds off of the fact that they’re sick and to do that you got to \r\nwork\r\nyour ass off and have some successes and bring in some things, so those \r\nwords I\r\nmean I could pick a million different instances with my dad, but that \r\none\r\nmoment when he you know he didn’t say, “I understand.”  “Go\r\n lay down and cry.”  “Go do this.” \r\n He said, “No, be a man.”  “Stand up, \r\ncompartmentalize.”  “Get your work done.” \r\nAnd that is really what it means to be a man is to take on all \r\nthe\r\nemotional pain and work through what you got to work through with the \r\npeople\r\nyou love while at the same time getting your business done. And it’s \r\ntough. I\r\nthink that most children when they grow up they kind of realize that the\r\n things\r\nthey didn’t like about their parents or didn’t understand about them \r\nthey get\r\nnow and that you know every year you get more responsibilities.  You get more overhead.  You get \r\nmore things you got to take\r\ncare off.  It’s hard to keep a\r\nchipper, open, happy attitude about it all the time and you shouldn’t \r\nbecause\r\npart of it is preparing your kids for when they’re going to take over \r\nthe reins\r\nand do it, so I was just incredibly thankful of that particular moment. 


Question: What did your\r\nfather teach you about writing?


John Buffalo Mailer: \r\n Oh, wow.  Well he probably taught me \r\neverything I know, aside from\r\ndialogue, which I think I get from my mom a lot more.  He\r\n certainly didn’t teach me everything he knew, but you\r\nknow he has got this book out called "The Spooky Art," which is \r\nessentially an\r\nadvanced book on writing and it’s not… \r\nYou know it’s not ABC, but it’s for people who feel that bug and \r\nknow\r\nthat they’re writers and are willing to put in that time alone.  Pretty much the vast majority of what\r\nhe taught me you can find in that book. \r\nYou know some basic things of "Don’t say something twice.  Find the right way to say it.  Don’t\r\n use words you don’t need.  Don’t use adjectives \r\nto describe\r\nsomething.There is some basic\r\nstuff in there.  The nuance of a\r\ncharacter and the journey and what it means to write a novel. You know \r\nthese\r\nare deep philosophical conversations that you can’t really put a button\r\non. 

Work ethic is \r\none of the\r\nbiggest things he taught me.  That\r\nman worked like every day, every day, 9 to 5, well 9 to 9 in his case, \r\nbut he\r\nwould treat it as if it was a 9 to 5 job. \r\nHe would clock in.  He would\r\nput in his hours.  That is how you\r\ncan write those you know incredibly long books that unfortunately there \r\nis not\r\nmuch market for anymore, but that is also how you can explore an idea on\r\n a\r\ndeeper level than we get in our media surface these days. \r\n It’s tough. 


I mean, just on a little side note with that one of\r\n the\r\nreasons I’m so happy to be doing this show is because one of the virtues\r\n of the\r\nInternet is that now for those who want it you can get into something \r\nthat is\r\ndeeper than what you have in 35 seconds or a minute on whichever pundit \r\nshow\r\nyou’re doing, which are essentially designed to reinforce what people \r\nalready\r\nthink and not make them question anything.   Noam \r\nChomsky is, in some ways, a victim of this new\r\nmillennium we live in because you can’t pull a sound bite from that guy \r\nand\r\nunderstand what he is talking about. \r\nYou have to hear the whole paragraph.  You \r\nhave to hear the whole page.  You’ve got to hear \r\nthe whole conversation if you really want\r\nto understand it and that could change your life.  But it’s almost as \r\nthough\r\nwe’ve been duped into believing we don’t have 25 minutes to have \r\nsomething\r\nchange our life.  We don’t have\r\n2.  You know, we’re tweeting.  We’re\r\n running around.  We’re 15 words or less.  You know that to me I don’t think there\r\nis any conspiracy or master plan behind it, but it does echo "Nineteen\r\nEighty-Four" and you combine that with you know the amount of \r\nmedications that\r\ndoctors are prescribing for people and suddenly we’re in "Brave New \r\nWorld" and\r\nit’s this bizarre combination of events that I don’t think was planned.  I don’t think is any kind of plot on\r\nanyone’s part.  It’s just that our\r\nsystem is gearing us this way and we need to address that. \r\n We need to address that publicly in a\r\nway that is productive, in a way that actually gives people tangible \r\nthings\r\nthey can do to stop the insanity of being available every moment, things\r\n like\r\nthat.

Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

What the writer taught his son has shaped his life and helped him cope with his mother’s cancer.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Matthew Yglesias and moderator Charles Duhigg explore the idea on Big Think Live.

Big Think LIVE

Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower?

Keep reading Show less

Mars pole may be hiding salty lakes and life, find researchers

Researchers detect a large lake and several ponds deep under the ice of the Martian South Pole.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Italian scientists release findings of a large underground lake and three ponds below the South Pole of Mars.
  • The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
  • The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
Keep reading Show less

In praise of nudity: The nudist beaches of Central and Eastern Europe

"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"

Photo by Jessica D. Vega on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
They lie on towels, blankets and mattresses, without wind screens, but under umbrellas.
Keep reading Show less

Mystery anomaly weakens Earth's magnetic field, report scientists

A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.

Surprising Science
  • "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
  • The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
  • The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Keep reading Show less

Crows are self-aware just like us, says new study

Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.

Credit: Amarnath Tade/ Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Crows and the rest of the corvid family keep turning out to be smarter and smarter.
  • New research observes them thinking about what they've just seen and associating it with an appropriate response.
  • A corvid's pallium is packed with more neurons than a great ape's.
  • Keep reading Show less