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Literary Experts Look Back on the Dynamic Life of Author Norman Mailer

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer, best known for his controversial novels during the Vietnam War, died on Saturday at the age of 84. Two authors examine Mailer's life and works.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And finally tonight, that man, Mailer. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Norman Mailer burst onto the literary scene in 1948, as a 25-year-old veteran of World War II, with his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead." Earlier this year, he described his literary start this way to PBS's Charlie Rose.

  • NORMAN MAILER, Author:

    I thought I'd been shot out of a cannon. I'd lost all sense of my own identity. I didn't know who I was anymore. I didn't know if I was destined to be a major writer, a great writer, or whether I was just a flash in the pan, all of that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mailer would write more than 30 books, both novels and non-fiction, including "Advertisements for Myself" in 1959; "The Armies of the Night," an account of an antiwar march against the Pentagon, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968; "The Executioner's Song" in 1979, about the life and death of killer Gary Gilmore, which won mailer a second Pulitzer; "Ancient Evenings" in 1983; and "Harlot's Ghost" in 1991.

    For nearly six decades, in fact, Mailer was rarely off center-stage. When he wasn't writing, it seems, he was making himself a public figure, the writer as man of action, known for his combative and outspoken style.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    We're supporting the federal government. Get that straight.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1969 and talked about the tough issues facing the city with Robert MacNeil in 1975.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    In other words, the people of this city have been giving the federal government something like three or four or five dollars for every dollar that comes back to the city.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He loved sports, boxing especially.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    I will strike him with my jab. Boom, boom, boom.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … and traveled to Africa in 1974 to write about Muhammad Ali's epic championship fight with George Foreman.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    No one ever hit it the way Foreman did. At the end of 15 minutes of pounding the heavy bag, there'd be a hole in the heavy bag.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He also served as president of PEN American Center, the writers' organization, and spoke out in 1989 on behalf of writer Salman Rushdie.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    But now the Ayatollah Khomeini has offered us an opportunity to regain our frail religion, which happens to be faith in the power of words and our willingness to suffer for them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mailer's health had declined in the '90s, but he continued to write. His last novel, "The Castle in the Forest," an imagined life of Hitler as narrated by the devil, came out just this year. Speaking of that book, Mailer told Charlie Rose how he distinguishes the novelist's role from the historian's.

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    The novelist creates a structure, an imaginary structure.

  • CHARLIE ROSE, PBS Host:

    An imaginary…

  • NORMAN MAILER:

    And he doesn't even have to or she doesn't have to obey the facts. What they have to do is come up with an imaginative structure that says to the reader, "This is what life is like. This need never have happened. It doesn't have to happen."

    "I'm saying," says the writer, "this is how it could have happened." And the way in which it could have happened will tell us more about the relations between human beings and their lives than trying to find out what the facts are.