Norman Mailer speaks with longtime friend James Toback about film, onanism and the impending death of the novel
When I was a senior in high school, and then at Harvard, one dead man and one living man conspired through their work to shape my consciousness so pervasively that even now, at 59, I feel that I am in some significant sense their creation. The dead man was Dostoyevsky. The living man was Norman Mailer. In 1967, the year after my graduation, Commentary, then one of the leading journals of politics and literature in America, published an essay I wrote called “Norman Mailer Today.” The day it appeared on newsstands, I fortuitously saw Norman Mailer in the flesh on Broadway in front of the main gate at Columbia University with his daughter. I introduced myself. He said: “Oh, yeah. I just read that article you wrote in Commentary. It’s the best thing ever written about my work.” (Norman has since told me he says that to everyone who writes about him with sufficient enthusiasm.) He invited me to his house in Brooklyn Heights the next day for lunch and we became, as they say, fast friends. When my own career as a filmmaker started with the screenplay for “The Gambler,” Norman became a generous and vocal supporter, a gift he has continued to bestow on me for most of my films over the years. I remain in awe. He is the writer of his time, of our time.
JAMES TOBACK: A movie I made last year — “When Will I Be Loved” — has just come out and I think it raises the question any ambitious film or novel raises when it first appears: How important is audience response in general and critical response in particular?
NORMAN MAILER: I think you can’t keep doing work as you and I have done for many years without having a basic belief in one’s own — call it what you will — “talent,” “inner program,” “vision.” You have had your share of bad reviews. I have certainly had my share. Those of us who have been through it begin to take on a certain grim pleasure, like punched-out club fighters who still enjoy the fact that they can take a punch. There is a wonderful boxing line that goes: “I’m an old club fighter. I get mad if you miss.” It’s almost as if the anger we need to fuel all the other impulses and creative work is sharpened by unfair treatment. I have always felt that it made me work harder and better.
JT: I’ve always looked at it as a version of “Living well is the best revenge.” The nastier the nitwit, the more he or she inspires me. The prospect of surviving them — and I’ve survived a legion of them by now — is exhilarating.
NM: We all begin as spoiled darlings. We all have some excess of mother love or father love or inherited wealth or some high aptitude — professional pimping. You have to have something going for you when you start that spoils you. And then the ability to keep working is a reflection of the knowledge that you are toughening as you go. The talent may get shaved down a bit — you get older, you lose the challenge — but underneath it there is such a structure of defense and integration in one’s abilities that the level can stay the same or even improve.
JT: Which fits with your club fighter metaphor because you are working not just on your inspirational ideas …
NM: … But on your pride and your professional sense of things.
JT: Apart from such obvious technical distinctions, how would you characterize the difference between the novel and film? I always say the novel seems to me an onanistic art while film is an orgiastic art.
NM: (Laughs) Well, at the risk of being called a masturbator, I would have to agree. (Both laugh) Although my pride forces me to add that I haven’t masturbated since I was 21.
JT: An abstention which probably distinguishes you from the entire remaining male population in America.
NM: Exactly. But I do think it is odd for me to be talking about the onanistic element in novel writing when the fact that I was not physically masturbating might have had a great deal to do with making it easier to write novels. It’s because the desire to be an onanist is taken care of through the art.
JT: Whereas film is necessarily orgiastic — I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. As soon as you make it onanistic, you deprive yourself of the help you could have received from your actors and technicians, which is precisely what you must have as a director.
NM: Absolutely. And the great virtue is that you get all the credit in the end.
JT: In “When Will I Be Loved” I play a professor called Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz and I have a scene with Neve Campbell and Mike Tyson. Mike plays Buck the pimp from Minnesota. I insist that he is Mike Tyson. He says: “I’m Buck and I don’t give a fuck.”
NM: (Laughs) Is that his line?
JT: Absolutely. In fact, I said: “Why don’t you play Mike Tyson?” And he said: “I played Mike Tyson in your last movie. I want to play Buck the pimp from Minnesota.” And I said: “Why?” He said: “Because I’ve always wanted to say, ‘I’m Buck and I don’t give a fuck.’ “So he did. The scene lasts five minutes and was entirely invented by the three of us, Neve, Mike Tyson and me, and then just Neve and me. It never would have worked if it had been written. When I tried writing dialogue for myself, which I did in “Exposed” — I had a long scene with Nastassja Kinski, a teaching scene — I couldn’t learn my own lines. I needed cue cards. It was humiliating. I needed 20 takes even with the cue cards to get my own dialogue straight.
NM: I had the exact same experience in a half-hour movie that I was in. Very simple lines and I could not remember them. I needed cue cards, too. (They both laugh)
JT: I do think there is something inherently childish, even infantile, about the process of recitation. In other words, you are talking to adults as if they were 5 years old. “Stand over there. Say that.” A normal, healthy 5-year-old will rebel against you. So why would an adult actor not on some level rebel against you if what you are basically saying is: “It’s all been predetermined. What you will say and do is what I tell you to say and do. It’s on the page and I’m going to augment it by telling you in person.” I find it increasingly difficult to write scripts, which I used to do in a very professional fashion, in a conventional way. The idea that I’m engaged in a process that pretends to be predetermining everything, I find I want to subvert even as I am doing it and certainly when I start directing I am going to subvert it. Do you have any of that instinct when you are writing a novel, that you’re fulfilling a plan but at the same time that you are subverting that plan as new ideas occur to you?
NM: No, because I am not programmatic about novel writing. To use an analogy, if you were having 10 affairs and I were to ask you: “Did you always fuck the same way?” The answer would be no. Each relation presents its own particular pleasures and difficulties so you become a different person each time. Every novel has its own rights and its own perversities, if you will. In other words, certain parts of any given novel are much easier to do than others depending on your own mix of stuff. So the one thing I think is true as I get older, like the aging athlete, I work to give my best remaining qualities a real chance. For instance, I used to pride myself on the white heat of my first drafts. I would be very pleased when I could use a first draft, change a word or two and that was it. Now it’s not like that at all. My first drafts are much below the final product because I work them over, I work them over in return for losing that early speed and smoke and flash and dash.The moment a sentence disappoints me slightly I start looking at what’s wrong with it. So my editing works the stuff up. If I were to show you my first drafts and my last drafts you would be amazed at the difference.
JT: Do you think in terms of a legacy? (Orson) Welles — rather speciously, I think — once said that he’d never given a thought to how he would be remembered. He implied that such a concern would be vulgar and embarrassing. I can’t imagine he wasn’t toying with the interviewer or just posturing to amuse himself. It’s a subtle, inverted vanity.
NM: I’m sure it was that. But I give a somewhat similar answer these days, which is, I say I no longer believe it’s all that important that I decide what my future place in history is going to be because I have no control over it. History will determine whether I am considered a major writer or a footnote. Just think, for example: There must have been some very, very good Russian novelists around 1910 who were considered royalists. Have you ever heard of even one of them?
NM: So if America should go through some very dark, bad years and fundamentalism takes over and some low-grade fascism, what chance does my work have in that situation?
JT: Well, of course. If one wants to cast it in the absolute extreme, if there were a Taliban takeover of the entire planet you wouldn’t even be a footnote.
NM: That’s right. You wouldn’t even have an existence.
JT: That’s right.
NM: Even in lesser cases you could say, “You go out of fashion, you come back and so forth and so on.” But history could go around other large turns. For example, the technological world might get people so dehumanized on the one side and so intensified on the other that novels become impossible to read. So in that sense I don’t think about it that much. My feeling is I do the best work I can do and don’t look back.
JT: And probably the net result of that is more productivity and better work.
NM: Yeah. I have so few years left that I really want to get the most out of them.
JT: And it has the additional virtue, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, of being true.
NM: You got that from me.
JT: No, I used that in “Black and White.”
NM: Well, I know, but I have been saying that for years.
JT: Have you really? Then maybe I did get it from you.
NM: I think you must have.
JT: I must have. Oh my God.
NM: My favorite remark by Kissinger.
JT: Well, Claudia Schiffer, in “Black and White,” in the paper she’s writing for her class at Columbia, says that all racial categories are anthropologically bogus, that Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid are simply gradations. And then she says: “To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it has the additional virtue of being true.” I didn’t know that I was having Claudia Schiffer paraphrasing you paraphrasing Henry Kissinger. (Mailer laughs) That makes two things I’ve stolen from you regularly, because I also use your Voltaire: “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.”
NM: It’s Voltaire’s but you’re welcome to it. On the Kissinger line, I was interviewing him over a period of time and we found an understanding. We didn’t agree on much but each could recognize the other’s strengths, put it that way. He is at his best when he gets slightly wicked, with a wicked grin, and he is telling you that he said something to somebody and then adds: “You know, Mailer, it had the additional virtue of being true.”
JT: (Laughs) Here’s a more specific point I want to make. It seems to me that the lines separating different forms of communication — television, movies, the novel, cable television, videogames — have been blurred to the point of erasure and that the social lines have also been erased. For example, racially, none of the prohibitions that existed 10 years ago exists today. “Black and White” explores this phenomenon, this whole hip-hop revolution, which has made interracial sex common to the point where it is corny to make any big deal about it among teenagers.Culturally, we’re in a schizophrenic state. The official political culture argues about phony issues like school prayer and gay marriage when what’s really going on is not only an erasure of cultural lines within America but an erasure of lines country to country. Reaching out is so much faster and deeper than it has ever been. It’s as if hip-hop spawned a universal language. If you do what Steven Spielberg does, it’s not going to be revolutionary no matter how many people you reach. He’s not trying to be revolutionary. He’s trying to get a general consensus, which is the opposite of a revolutionary impulse. But if you have a revolutionary impulse, I feel that the effect can be much stronger than it has ever been because of the available technology.
NM: I just don’t know the answer anymore. It seems to me that you could also vitiate every revolutionary concept by having too much. There is too much communication now.
JT: Well, that’s why the second part of my idea is that you are blended into nonexistence even as you make your mark. You’re simultaneously a giant and an insect.
NM: Yup. There are so many options that you say: “I don’t want to eat today.”
JT: (Laughs) That’s right.
NM: There is one thing that I want to reply to. I don’t think Bush could have gotten away with his crap 30 years ago.
NM: Even 10 years ago. He gets away with it because people are so confused now. There are so many sources of information coming in. There is so much overstimulation that half the population in America wants one truth. They don’t want to hold two truths. It’s much too much and to hold five or six possibilities is absolutely outrageous for them. A very small minority of very talented people are exploring every direction, but the majority of people are saying, on the contrary, “Let’s keep it simple.” And so they prefer to believe Bush rather than enter that labyrinth of possibilities. But these media do all mix. Maybe one genius will come along and do something utterly incredible that will change it all. For instance, at a certain point in watching a film maybe the actors ought to appear onstage, maybe you go back into the film and suddenly you are in a videogame, where the audience has to go out and play with maybe 10 video machines out there and unless they succeed with the videogame they can’t see the rest of the movie.
JT: You would have to take the show on the road, but it’s a great idea. It’s analogous to the cosmological notion of having one explanation of the universe, which everybody since Einstein has been trying to discover and yet no one has come up with yet: one underlying formula or theory. But in the meantime, we are existing in a realm of such uncertainty and chaos that one can only do what one can control.
NM: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’m getting more and more efficient at writing a novel than I have ever been and yet I am incapable of doing anything else. If I turn on the TV set and press the wrong button and the set goes kaput, I have to call up my wife, who comes in in a rage: “You can’t figure out how to fix this?”
JT: I have to call in my 5-year-old son.
NM: So what I am getting at is that everything falls to the side. I am truly worried about the future of art. What’s most likely is that we are going to have to deal with disasters of a dimension we have never contemplated.
JT: I don’t mind ending on a note of pure blackness because I think that the only way to face it is to be honest about it. It is not a question of “whether,” it is a question of “when.” It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “how.” Even with the best of intentions, which clearly is never going to be the case, we’re fucked because there’s still Chernobyl. Chernobyl is the metaphor for our era because that was an unintentional catastrophe and yet it has made a huge chunk of the planet permanently uninhabitable. Once you get into the realm of malice and stupidity with the weapons available the prospect for destruction is boundless. One watches “Richard II” and looks at battles fought with bows and arrows during the War of the Roses. Human personality wasn’t different then, weaponry was different. A few people got shot with an arrow and the planet survived.
NM: Yeah. Weaponry is different but human personality is different, too. You could see into the eyes of the man you were killing. It’s an enormous difference.
JT: You have that great passage in “The Deer Park” when Sergius O’Shaughnessy talks about his removal from the people he was bombing. In fact, he admits to finding beauty in the annihilation.
NM: Also, in “An American Dream” where Rojack sees each of the four people he kills at the beginning of the book, which I felt was the other kind of war. Actually, if you looked at it cynically it is a very sentimental piece of writing. How often has a soldier in modern times, say from the Second World War on, ever seen anyone he was killing? No, if I’m going to end on a note it would be that one of the reasons we have to do what we can do and not even wonder or worry about the larger aspects of what we are doing is that this is the first century in history, this one now, where there is no guarantee that we are going to come to the end of it. In the 20th century there were great worries that we wouldn’t come to the end of the 20th century but now there is a real possibility that we won’t come to the end of the 21st century. It doesn’t have to be necessarily from nuclear war. Could be a combination of dirty bombs, diseases, this and that. It could be that humanity is reduced to nothing by the end of the century. And, of course, the great irony is that as we go into worse and worse times we have fewer and fewer heroes, heroes on the stature of Roosevelt or Churchill.
NM: Where is the politician today who says, “I have nothing to offer you but blood, sweat, toil and tears?”
JT: He has been exiled permanently before he even got started.
NM: Mediocrity has prevailed. And all these new forms of communication often depress me rather than excite me. One reason is that I am too old to get into them. So part of it is spite. Annoyance that I’m off the board.
JT: I feel that to a degree myself. What I do as a defense against this sense of imminent doom is to accept it — assume that there is going to be an all-encompassing, apocalytically destructive catastrophe. Assume that the end of the planet and the species is inevitable in the next 20, 30, 50, 60 years and that just as individual life has a youth, middle age, senescence and death, so, too, do the species and the planet. In fact, I think there is something to be said for being alive — if you’ll forgive the paradox — at the end to watch and share in the end, instead of having lived at the beginning or the middle. Something exciting, something tragic, that life itself is inherently tragic and that as a species we have brought about, as all tragic heroes do, as a species, our own destruction through our own hubris. It is a classic case of overweening ambition leading to self-destruction.
NM: Let me finish with a joke. An American and a Frenchman are looking down on the docks at Marseilles where Pierre and Marius are fighting, an incomparable, bloody fight. The American turns to the Frenchman and asks why they’re fighting. “Oh, you know the French,” the Frenchman says. “They’re fighting because they agree.” And the American asks: “But why would they be fighting if they agree?” And the Frenchman answers: “Because Pierre said to Marius: ‘My wife is the best lay in Marseilles,’ and Marius said: ‘I agree.’ ”
JT: What a good last note to hit before extinction!