Norman Mailer’s Lessons on Writing and Manhood

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


Question: What was it like growing up as Norman Mailer’s son?

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

There is one moment that actually comes to mind when you think of the kind of crystallizing factor.  You know I kind of lived a utopian existence until I was about 20, 21 when my mom got sick with cancer and it was bad.  It was very scary and at the time I was doing my first screenplay and I was on deadline and was alone with my father in Massachusetts.  She was recovering in the hospital.  We were going back and forth and she wasn’t going to be able to come home for a few days, but we knew about the longer road ahead and the chemo and the radiation and all of that and at a certain point I said to my dad.  I said, “Pop, you know, I don’t how I’m going to work. I don’t know how I can get this done. You know, I got to hand this script in and I can’t think about anything but Mom.”  He said, “Well, you know, now is the time when you’re going to learn what it means to compartmentalize.”  And those words really had an impact on me and have enabled me through the last 10 years of more surgeries than I care to remember and more scary times than I wish my mother had ever had to go through.  Those words enabled me to actually continue to do my job and to get my work done, which is so important if you… I mean for all those who have kind of helped someone heal through a sickness you know it’s just so important to be able bring exciting news to the table and to be able to get their minds off of the fact that they’re sick and to do that you got to work your ass off and have some successes and bring in some things, so those words I mean I could pick a million different instances with my dad, but that one moment when he you know he didn’t say, “I understand.”  “Go lay down and cry.”  “Go do this.”  He said, “No, be a man.”  “Stand up, compartmentalize.”  “Get your work done.”  And that is really what it means to be a man is to take on all the emotional pain and work through what you got to work through with the people you love while at the same time getting your business done. And it’s tough. I think that most children when they grow up they kind of realize that the things they didn’t like about their parents or didn’t understand about them they get now and that you know every year you get more responsibilities.  You get more overhead.  You get more things you got to take care off.  It’s hard to keep a chipper, open, happy attitude about it all the time and you shouldn’t because part of it is preparing your kids for when they’re going to take over the reins and do it, so I was just incredibly thankful of that particular moment. 

Question: What did your father teach you about writing?

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

Work ethic is one of the biggest things he taught me.  That man worked like every day, every day, 9 to 5, well 9 to 9 in his case, but he would treat it as if it was a 9 to 5 job.  He would clock in.  He would put in his hours.  That is how you can write those you know incredibly long books that unfortunately there is not much market for anymore, but that is also how you can explore an idea on a deeper level than we get in our media surface these days.  It’s tough. 

I mean, just on a little side note with that one of the reasons I’m so happy to be doing this show is because one of the virtues of the Internet is that now for those who want it you can get into something that is deeper than what you have in 35 seconds or a minute on whichever pundit show you’re doing, which are essentially designed to reinforce what people already think and not make them question anything.   Noam Chomsky is, in some ways, a victim of this new millennium we live in because you can’t pull a sound bite from that guy and understand what he is talking about.  You have to hear the whole paragraph.  You have to hear the whole page.  You’ve got to hear the whole conversation if you really want to understand it and that could change your life.  But it’s almost as though we’ve been duped into believing we don’t have 25 minutes to have something change our life.  We don’t have 2.  You know, we’re tweeting.  We’re running around.  We’re 15 words or less.  You know that to me I don’t think there is any conspiracy or master plan behind it, but it does echo "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and you combine that with you know the amount of medications that doctors are prescribing for people and suddenly we’re in "Brave New World" and it’s this bizarre combination of events that I don’t think was planned.  I don’t think is any kind of plot on anyone’s part.  It’s just that our system is gearing us this way and we need to address that.  We need to address that publicly in a way that is productive, in a way that actually gives people tangible things they can do to stop the insanity of being available every moment, things like that.

Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen