Excerpt from 'The Spooky Art'

bw030424spooky_art.jpgThe Spooky Art

By Norman Mailer

Random House

Copyright © 2003 Norman Mailer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1588362868

Chapter One


I am tempted to call this section Economics, for it concerns the loss
and gain (economically, psychically, physically) of living as a writer.
Let’s settle, however, for a term that may be closer to the everyday
reality: Lit Biz. Spend your working life as a writer and depend on
it–your income, your spirit, and your liver are all on close terms with
Lit Biz.

In 1963, Steve Marcus did an interview with me for The Paris Review, and
I have taken the liberty of separating his careful and elegantly
structured questions into several parts in order to give a quick shape
to my first years as a writer. For those who are more interested in what
I have to say about writing in general than about myself in particular,
you are invited to skip over these autobiographical details and move on
to a few comments on my first two books, The Naked and the Dead and
Barbary Shore. Or, if you are in search of directly useful nitty-gritty,
move even further, to “The Last Draft of The Deer Park.”

steven marcus: Do you need any particular environment in which to write?

norman mailer: I like a room with a view, preferably a long view. I like
looking at the sea, or ships, or anything which has a vista to it. Oddly
enough, I’ve never worked in the mountains.

sm: When did you first think of becoming a writer?

nm: That’s hard to answer. I did a lot of writing when I was young.

sm: How young?

nm: Seven.

sm: A real novel?

nm: Well, it was a science fiction novel about people on Earth taking a
rocket ship to Mars. The hero had a name which sounded like Buck Rogers.
His assistant was called Dr. Hoor.

sm: Doctor . . . ?

nm: Dr. Hoor. Whore, pronounced h-o-o-r. That’s the way we used to
pronounce whore in Brooklyn. He was patterned directly after Dr. Huer in
Buck Rogers, who was then appearing on radio. This novel filled two and
a half paper notebooks. You know the type, about seven inches by ten.
They had soft, shiny blue covers and they were, oh, only ten cents in
those days, or a nickel. They ran to about a hundred pages each and I
used to write on both sides. My writing was remarkable for the way I
hyphenated words. I loved hyphenating, and so I would hyphenate “the”
and make it “th-e” if it came at the end of the line. Or “they” would
become “the-y.” Then I didn’t write again for a long time. I didn’t even
try out for the high school literary magazine. I had friends who wrote
short stories, and their short stories were far better than the ones I
would write for assignments in high school English and I felt no desire
to write. When I got to college, I started again. The jump from Boys’
High School in Brooklyn to Harvard came as a shock. I started reading
some decent novels for the first time.

sm: You mentioned in Advertisements for Myself that reading Studs
Lonigan made you want to be a writer.

nm: Yes. It was the first truly literary experience I had, because the
background of Studs was similar to mine. I grew up in Brooklyn, not
Chicago, but the atmosphere had the same flatness of affect. Until then
I had never considered my life or the life of the people around me as
even remotely worthy of–well, I didn’t believe they could be treated as
subjects for fiction. It never occurred to me. Suddenly I realized you
could write about your own life.

sm: When did you feel that you were started as a writer?

nm: When I first began to write again at Harvard. I wasn’t very good. I
was doing short stories all the time, but I wasn’t good. If there were
fifty people in the class, let’s say I was somewhere in the top ten. My
teachers thought I was fair, but I don’t believe they ever thought for a
moment I was really talented. Then in the middle of my sophomore year I
started getting better. I got on The Harvard Advocate and that gave me
confidence, and about this time I did a couple of fairly good short
stories for English A-1, one of which won Story magazine’s college
contest for that year.

sm: Was that the story about Al Groot?

nm: Yes. And when I found out it had won–which was at the beginning of
the summer after my sophomore year [1941]–well, that fortified me, and I
sat down and wrote a novel. It was a very bad novel. I wrote it in two
months. It was called No Percentage. It was just terrible. But I never
questioned any longer whether I was started as a writer.

sm: What do you think were some of the early influences in your life?
What reading, as a boy, do you recall as important?

nm: The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway were glorious works. So
was Captain Blood. I think I read every one of Jeffrey Farnol’s books,
and there must have been twenty of them. And every one of Rafael

sm: Did you ever read any of them again?

nm: No, now I have no real idea of their merit. But I never enjoyed a
novel more than Captain Blood. Nor a movie. Do you remember Errol Flynn
as Captain Blood? Some years ago I was asked by a magazine what were the
ten most important books in my development. The book I listed first was
Captain Blood. Then came Das Kapital. Then The Amateur Gentleman.

sm: You wouldn’t say that Das Kapital was boyhood reading?

nm: Oh no, I read that many years later. But it had its mild influence.

sm: It’s been said often that novelists are largely nostalgic for their
boyhood, and in fact most novelists draw on their youthful experiences a
great deal. In your novels, however, the evocation of scenes from
boyhood is rare or almost absent.

nm: It’s difficult to write about childhood. I never felt I understood
it in any novel way. I never felt other authors did either. Not
particularly. I think the portrait of childhood which is given by most
writers is rarely true to anything more than the logic of their novel.
Childhood is so protean.

sm: What about Twain, or Hemingway–who drew on their boyhoods

nm: I must admit they created some of the psychological reality of my
own childhood. I wanted, for instance, to be like Tom Sawyer.

sm: Not Huck Finn?

nm: The magic of Huck Finn seems to have passed me by, I don’t know
quite why. Tom Sawyer was the book of Twain’s I always preferred. I
remember when I got to college I was startled to find that Huckleberry
was the classic. Of course, I haven’t looked at either novel in
thirty years.


Excerpted from The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer Copyright © 2003 by Norman Mailer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.