EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this year, EW’s Gregory Kirschling sat down with author Norman Mailer to talk about his colorful career and his recent novel The Castle in the Forest. In tribute to Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at age 84, EW.com presents the extended version of that conversation, in which Mailer was as lively and pugnacious as ever.
Norman Mailer, even at 83, is still the provocateur. Exactly 60 years ago, he began writing The Naked and the Dead, the WWII novel that not only earned him instant celebrity but also represented just about the last time everybody loved him. Since then, he’s been America’s brashest writer, unafraid of making an ugly spectacle of himself in public — huffing and puffing on TV talk shows, running for mayor of New York, even stabbing his second wife in 1960. At the same time, he was turning out astonishing prose, winning the Pulitzer twice, once in nonfiction for 1968’s The Armies of the Night, then for 1979’s ”true-life novel” The Executioner’s Song. And his first love has always been the novel; he’s never stopped trying to write one that might stand up to Tolstoy.
His latest crack at that is The Castle in the Forest (out Jan. 23). It tells the story of Adolf Hitler as a kid, and the wicked first-person narrator is, of all things, an assistant to the devil. In this extended version of an interview at his beachfront home in Provincetown, Mass., with crashing whitecaps visible through the big windows behind him, Mailer talks about God and the devil, ticking people off, and why it ticks him off that people think his journalism might outlive his fiction.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you feel Castle is your greatest book, your Big Book?
NORMAN MAILER: [Pause] I have nine kids, and you don’t want to have a favorite. My feeling is this: There’s another book I’d like to write to continue the life of Hitler. I’m going to be 84 this month, so I’m not going to promise I can do this new book. But if I can, and I bring it off, and carry it into much more of Hitler’s life, then maybe the two together might make one helluva novel.
The reason I ask: You said a couple years back that if you finished this new project — Castle — it could be the biggest thing you’ve done.
It’s impossible to tell what’s going to happen with the book. I could give you a couple possibilities. First: It could be wiped out like all the other good novels that came out this year. It’s been an extraordinary year, with more good novels out by more good novelists — Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon — than any year I can remember.
Have you read all of them?
I haven’t read any of them! I don’t read other books anymore because it’s all headaches. I get too excited when I read a good novel. When I think a novel is good, I stay away from it. I’d love to read McCarthy’s book [The Road], I’d like to read Pynchon’s [Against the Day], but I have a feeling they’ll send me flying in various directions.
But you don’t think anybody paid attention to those books this year?
No, no, they received good attention — good reviews and bad reviews, as books always do. But there’s something going on now that I don’t like in American culture: There’s very little interest in novels anymore. So my novel will come out, and it’ll receive some good reviews and some bad reviews — it’s going to receive a great many bad reviews, I can tell, but that’s another topic. And my book could disappear, or it could have a subterranean effect, or it could be a hit. I wouldn’t mind if it was a hit, but I’m not sure that’s the way it’s going to be. There are too many shibboleths that I’m tweaking, taunting, tearing apart. And it’s going to arouse a lot of resentment in certain places.
Do you really believe the devil was present at the conception of Adolf Hitler, as he is in the book?
Uh, yeah. I mean, if I say that, and you see it in print, it sounds bizarre, lunatic, unsettling. But if we can believe that God or Gabriel was present at the conception of Jesus, then it seems to me we can believe that the devil was present at the conception of Adolf Hitler.
What about the people who hear you talking about God and the devil and think, ”He’s crazy!”?
That’s the hazard, of course. You talk about God and the devil and you’re crazy! If you don’t believe in God and the devil, I wouldn’t say you’re crazy, but you’re intellectually malnourished, because I defy anyone who doesn’t believe that something created us to give an answer to how we got here.
So do you see Castle as a provocation?
One of my vanities may be that I’ve always wanted my books to be provocations.
You did once say, ”What’s the use of being a writer if you can’t irritate a great many people?”
Look, most writers who are timid are afraid of pissing people off, because they feel they’ll lose part of their audience. My feeling has always been that one mustn’t be afraid of that. It’s much better to write with the notion that if you’re good enough, you can change people’s lives. That’s one of the powerful motives of writing, to feel that you’ve enlarged other people’s consciousness. And the way you do that is you open their minds. Now that can be painful and irritating and annoying or worse for people, but you can’t look back.
NEXT PAGE: What God said to Mailer at the late-night diner