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If you like Norman Mailer's story, you might also like:
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Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer
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Norman Mailer Interview

Two Pulitzer Prizes

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  Norman Mailer

It's very interesting to read that you tried your hand at a science fiction story when you were very young. Could you tell us about that?

Norman Mailer: Yes. I can't remember whether I was 8 or 11. I think probably the latter age, but...

There's one detail that makes me almost certain I did a little bit of writing when I was eight years old, because at that time the one thing that interested me was hyphenation. And so, I adored being able to write "th" -- hyphen -- and put the "e" on the next line. Now, I like to think that an 11-year-old wouldn't do that, only an eight-year-old. So, I think I did a little writing when I was very young. And, then I did an awful lot when I was around 11 because my family was staying with my mother's sister's family in a house in Long Branch, New Jersey, that was a little away from the beach and town. There was not much to do, very nice relatives and a very sweet atmosphere, but not much to do. And so, I started writing, and I ended up writing a science fiction novel in a blue notebook with lined pages, and found it very exciting.

Norman Mailer Interview Photo
And then I didn't write again for years. I had friends who wanted to be writers and were writing, and I just looked upon those as, "Why weren't they out playing ball?" Then when I got to college there was a psychological shock. To go from Brooklyn to Harvard means that you're skipping six or seven or eight social steps. As we all know, you advance in society step by step. You learn what the next level demands of you before you go to the next one or the next one, and I literally jumped these five, six or seven steps because Harvard was so totally different from the Brooklyn that I knew.

And you were only 16?

Norman Mailer: 16-and-a-half, yeah. Yeah. So it was a double-triple shock in so many ways. I was immensely innocent but at the same time I had the kind of arrogance that every writer needs.

You almost can't become a serious professional writer unless there is a built-in arrogance in yourself that you have something special about yourself. It's a vanity and when the vanity is misplaced, as it usually is, it's sad, if not tragic. But, once in a while you're up to your own idea of yourself. Now, I was never up to my own idea of myself and any other activity. You know, we could get funny about this. I could say, "Well, of course, at six, one is always forgiving about one's own merits," but in any event, when it came to writing I was totally serious about it. Truly I had great good luck in my life, two ways. One was, I very early in life -- by the time I was 17 or 18 -- I knew I had a vocation. I knew there was one thing I wanted to be and that was a writer. That's a great help. Then I had the secondary luck that my parents who, being good Jewish folk, thought I should have an absolutely practical profession -- medicine, law, something like that -- but converted, because I won a college contest when I was 18. It was a nationwide college contest for short stories, and after that there was no argument in their heart. They thought, "He's going to be a writer."

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But you studied aeronautical engineering?

Norman Mailer: Yes. I studied it for the first couple of years and realized I didn't want to be an engineer and I wasn't going to be a good one. But I stayed on and got my degree in engineering. Parenthetically, Harvard didn't even give a degree in engineering. It was a Bachelor of Sciences. But I got my degree by taking the minimum of courses necessary. I took art history and advanced writing courses and stuff like that. I had a very easy time in college for which I'm paying now, because I didn't study economics and history when I was in college. I now have to plow through such books with great difficulty.

Let's go back your early childhood. What books stand out in your memory? What books did you like reading?

Norman Mailer: They were all romantic books. I loved Jeffery Farnol, who wrote The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway. I loved Sabatini, I think the name was. Yes. And, I remember Errol Flynn made a movie called Captain Blood. It was probably my favorite movie. I remember walking home on stilts I was so happy after seeing that movie. I was an enormous romantic, and when it came time to apply to Harvard and they asked what books you've read, I put down books that I knew vaguely were highly esteemed. I put down Moby Dick. I put down War and Peace and Anna Karenina and so forth, which I hadn't read. I hadn't read any of them. For me it was just a game - how do you fill out your entrance blanks? But actually, all my reading was easy, romantic. I'll say one thing, at least they weren't bestsellers. They were old best-sellers that I was reading.

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