In Norman Mailer: A Double Life, scholar J. Michael Lennon explores the inner life of the controversial author.
As a longtime friend of Mailer’s, what was it like to put yourself in the position of dispassionate biographer?
I liked and admired him, but I didn’t approve of everything about him, and didn’t like all the things he wrote. It helped that he said, “Look, I don’t care what you say, just make sure you tell it all and try to get my inner life.” He said, “They just quote what I say on stage when I’m drunk or have gotten into a feud, so get the fact that I’m wrestling with ideas and problems.”
What did his inner life look like to you?
For everything he was, there was an opposite. He was a hardworking author, but he was also lazy. He had a great relationship with his family and his children loved him, but he had a lot of them, and he had many extramarital affairs. He had a theory that we all have two people living inside us. They are twins, he said.
Given his reputation, do you hope your book will change attitudes toward Mailer?
He was a man of his times, there’s no doubt about that. But he also reinvented the role of the public intellectual and he was at the beginning of many trends in journalism, nonfiction writing, and long-form narrative. The thing about Mailer was that he wanted to be the first to try this or do that. He had breakthroughs writing about sex, about violence, using four-letter words. He wanted to go into forbidden territory, to write about orgies and incest and orgasms.
It’s clear that he had an incredible energy. Do you have any theories on where that came from?
People were telling him he was a genius since childhood; he had a tremendous sense of self. When he was 17-years-old, he knew that he would write the great novel of WWII. Even with Pearl Harbor [happening], he was planning it. He planned all along to become a great author, someone who would go down in the canon as one of the greats of the 20th century.
What does Mailer’s work have to say to contemporary readers?
He speaks to anyone interested in the nature of the American experiment and American society. He was passionate in his belief in democracy, and very worried about creeping totalitarianism. From a literary angle, he’s carrying on the tradition of putting the self out in the world—not as a detached observer, but as a committed partisan and participant, getting involved and reporting what he’s seen and done.