''I gotta warn you,'' Norman Mailer snaps into the phone. ''I'm a little on the deaf side. You're going to have to bite your words.'' Yes, sir, and how fitting: Mailer has long been known for his taste for language with teeth. Since the 1948 publication of his first novel, ''The Naked and the Dead,'' he has established himself as a preeminent novelist, a master provocateur, and, to quote his new book, a ''dependable pain in the ass.'' ''The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing'' (Random House, $24.95), published on Jan. 31, his 80th birthday, gathers... uh, did he say spooky? ''There's something odd about writing,'' Mailer confirms. ''This creates all sorts of tension, uneasiness, fear. Even dread at times.''
But for a writer who regards his work as an existential struggle, Mailer likes to have a good time. For instance, the pleasure of assembling ''The Spooky Art'' was in splicing together new material and five decades' worth of essays and interviews dug up by his archivist and editor, J. Michael Lennon. ''Then the fun began! It was like editing a movie, but with bits of prose: Three lines. Forty-two lines. Five pages.''
Perhaps ''The Spooky Art'' is most striking for Mailer's recounting of his own follies. He is entrancingly frank on topics from his titanic ego of yore (''I thought I had books in me that no one else did.... Kind of grandiose'') to the proper approach, when forced by money trouble, to write a novel in 60 days (''First person is always more hospitable''). ''Candor may be my strong point,'' he says. ''And you've got to work with your strengths. Also, it's just great fun to be candid 'cause so many people are afraid of that, and I'm in a privileged position, after all. I'm 80 years old. I can afford to be candid. They're not going to come and pull me out and shoot me.''