When J. Michael Lennon, Emeritus Vice President for Academic Affairs and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, became Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer in 2006, he must have felt like a fighter preparing for the bout of his life. Yes, Lennon had known and worked with Mailer for decades. True, in addition to being chair of the editorial board of The Mailer Review, he had written or edited several books about and with Mailer. Sure, he was the past president of the Norman Mailer Society. But none of that diminished the task before him.
Over a career that spanned more than six decades, Norman Mailer became the most famous author and the leading public intellectual of his generation. Driven by enormous intellect, and equally enormous ego and ambition, Mailer was one of a handful of serious American writers who became known beyond the usual confines of the literary world. A national celebrity at the age of twenty-five with his huge bestseller, his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, Mailer went on to write ten more bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction. Two of them (The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song) won the Pulitzer Prize.
In landmark essays like “The White Negro” and “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer engaged with the major cultural and political currents of the postwar era, from the rise of the hipster and the Beat Generation in the 1950s to the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, as well as the women’s movement of the 1970s. A vastly influential journalist as well as a novelist, he was also a pioneer of the “New Journalism” and a co-founder of the trend-setting New York weekly The Village Voice.
Lennon had complete access to all of Mailer’s papers, library, and massive correspondence. In Mailer’s final years (he died in 2007 at the age of 84), Lennon conducted more than twenty extensive interviews with him, and over the last thirty months of Mailer’s life, Lennon visited him daily in his longtime home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The result of this epic research is Norman Mailer: A Double Life, published in October of 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Nearly 800 pages long (not including the notes), Lennon’s biography has been widely praised for the quality of the research and the writing. Renowned biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin called A Double Life “ . . . one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.” In his review of A Double Life for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter writes, “There’s not a paragraph in this enormous book that doesn’t contain a nugget of something you should have known or wish you had known. Lennon has it all, and he has it down.”
In the arena of biographers, J. Michael Lennon has emerged a champion. Recently, we asked him some questions about his subject and his process.
Nicholas Garnett: In writing A DOUBLE LIFE, you had access to a trove of new sources and material, the cooperation of Mailer himself, the Mailer family, plus a three-decade long personal and professional relationship with your subject from which to draw—all of which sounds like a biographer’s dream. But how did you manage to organize, rather than sink under, the sheer volume of material?
J. Michael Lennon: I have been waiting for someone to ask me that question because organization is a sine qua non for a biographer. My Mailer archive included reviews of his 44 books, hundreds of interviews and profiles of him, 3500 of his letters, my interviews with friends and family, and so forth. Before I wrote a chapter (each chapter covered 5-10 years of his life), I put together a chronological document consisting of excerpts from all of these documents, especially from his letters and my interviews with him. If I needed a brief profile of someone who entered his life during the chapter—Muhammad Ali or JFK or a Provincetown friend—I added that profile. Ditto for events that occurred—the Beatles coming to the U.S., anti-war rallies, the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In short, I assembled a 20,000 to 25,000 word document, and then connected the dots, wrote the connective tissue. It was more complex than that, of course; sometimes I had to take a day and read chunks of books—a bio of Gore Vidal, for example—or research the vote totals in a presidential election, or the boxing record of Jose Torres. A biography is like an iceberg: the final pages are above the water, but there is a lot beneath, 90%, in fact.
NG: One of the responsibilities of the biographer is to present the facts. But we also depend on them to help us make sense of their subject’s life, to provide context. How did you determine when it was time to step in?
JML: Instinct, mainly. If I could delineate a complex event, or explain Mailer’s motives as I construed them, or point out why and how an event would be significant later on in his life (the benefit of hindsight), I jumped in. But sparingly. It is best to let the story roll, and not be intrusive. When I was overdoing it, my editor, Bob Bender of Simon & Schuster, or Mailer’s sister Barbara, or my wife, among others, would point out my error. Sometimes, I would realize that I had not said enough. It is a balancing act. Say too little and the story becomes occluded; say too much and the reader gets annoyed. Reading over every chapter a dozen times, and adding a sentence here, dropping one there, was a necessity.
NG: Over the course of writing the book, did you have any personal revelations regarding Mailer?
JML: There were no gigantic revelations. I knew the shape of his life, and many of the crannies of it, pretty well. But there were empty places in the mosaic, and researching and writing allowed me to fill in the missing tiles, tessellation is the technical term, I think. But there were surprises: he was more depressed and depleted in the early 1950s than I had thought, and actually thought about giving up writing and trying something else. And he had love affairs that I discovered. There was a lady in Chicago that I had not known of, Eileen Fredrickson. She had a 12-13 year affair with him that I learned about after I had begun. She was a dear and shared her memories and letters. I also got a better idea of his finances—he had the IRS nipping at his rear for many years, and until the mid-1980s had trouble paying for the expenses of a large family—nine children and five ex-wives.
NG: At the risk of putting you on the spot, how would you rate Mailer’s fiction versus his nonfiction?
JML: He was a two-hander, equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, like Vidal and Joan Didion. But I think his two finest books are nonfiction: THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG (1979) and THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT (1968). I am also a great admirer of his 1965 novel, AN AMERICAN DREAM, as well as HARLOT’S GHOST, his 1991 novel about the CIA. He found fiction writing to be much more difficult, if more lucrative, than nonfiction. Remember also that he was a great biographer, and biography is a hybrid, a real life story told with fictional techniques. He wrote wonderful bios of Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jesus Christ.
NG: Do you think your relationship with Mailer influenced the way you presented the material?
JML: Yes, absolutely. I spent a lot of time with him over the years, and saw him almost daily during his last three years. We talked about everything under the sun, and I know his opinions and ideas on many topics. I was, therefore, able to make some educated guesses about how he felt in certain situations. I kept a “Mailer Log” for three years, and wrote down what he said over dinner and so forth. It is 150,000 words in length, and I drew on it a great deal. I had Boswellian aspirations for many years, and wrote down a lot of what he said for decades. I liked the guy, and that comes across, I think, but this side of idolatry. It would be an exquisite torture to write a 900-page bio of someone you hated. He told me to put everything in, and I tried to accomplish that.
NG: Were there any aspects of Mailer’s life with which you were uncomfortable or reluctant to write about?
NG: What do you think the writers of this generation can learn from Norman Mailer?
JML: Mailer was a pro who knew that no matter how successful you are as a writer, you still had to sit down every day and write. Buns on the bench. His discipline was extraordinary. There were not many days that he took off because he had a hangover, or wanted to go to a movie. He believed that writers should have a pact with their unconscious. The writer promises to be at the desk in the morning, and the unconscious, in effect, promises to deliver the material. It works, I can tell you. The other thing writers can learn from him is the value of long-form narrative. It seems that nowadays novels and memoirs rarely get beyond 100,000 words. Why is that? The length of a narrative is an organic consideration; it should be as long as it has to be.
NG: What’s next for you?
JML: I’m editing Mailer’s letters for publication by Random House this fall, another big book. Mailer wrote 45,000 letters, and it took me four years to read them and make my selections. There will be 707 of his letters, written over 67 years, in my edition, which will be about 300,000 words in length.
Top 10 Norman Mailer Books
J. Michael Lennon’s top-10 list (selected from Mailer’s 44 books) isn’t only a great guide, it’s also an example of the astonishing range of Mailer’s talent, interests, and ambition.
1. The Executioner’s Song—An immense panoramic nonfiction novel with over 300 characters that recreates the last nine months of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore.
2. The Armies of the Night—Describing himself in the third person, Mailer draws on the techniques of the novelist, the journalist, and the historian to depict a divided nation. Generally considered to be one of the glories of the New Journalism, the narrative is a sharply observed account of the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War March on the Pentagon.
3. An American Dream—Written month by month for serial publication in Esquire this dread-soaked 1965 novel about a psychology professor who murders his high society wife shows Mailer at the height of his metaphoric power.
4. Advertisements for Myself—This 1959 miscellany contains samples of all Mailer’s earlier work stretching back to short stories written in college, as well as his endlessly reprinted essay about hipsters living in the New York demimonde, “The White Negro.”
5. Harlot’s Ghost—Mailer’s longest book (1310 pages) is a spy novel. Like a long freight train, his story of WASP intelligence agents in war and peace snakes through upper-class American life, international intrigues in Europe, the CIA’s attempts to poison Castro, and its failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.
6. The Naked and Dead—Set on the fictional island of Anopopei, where a Prospero-like American general attempts to defeat a stubborn Japanese force, Mailer’s novel vies with James Jones’ A Thin Red Line as the finest fictional depiction of World War II combat.
7. The Fight—The definitive account of one the most dramatic prizefights in history, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s epic championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.
8. Why Are We in Vietnam?—Set in the peaks of the Brooks Range in Alaska, Mailer’s 1967 novel of big-game hunting and communing with the wilderness is one of his briefest, a mere 200 pages.
9. Marilyn—Mailer’s first full-length biography (1973), examines one of Hollywood’s most glittering icons.
10. The Time of Our Time—TOOT, as Mailer called it, contains 130-plus excerpts from his books arrayed chronologically so as to deliver a portrait of the U.S. from World War II through the Clinton Administration.