Barry Leeds
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BARRY LEEDS:

From March 20, 1987

May I call you Norman?

NORMAN MAILER:

Sure, no problem.

LEEDS:

I asked you that years ago, but I didn't know if you remembered or not. I don't like just taking those liberties. One of the things that impressed me very much was when I saw you on TV with Henry Miller. You were no kid at the time, but you said, "May I call you Henry, Mr. Miller?" in an era when aluminum siding salesmen call up and say, "Hey, Barry boy, how you doin'." [laughter] . . . I was rereading The Fight just the other day, and I enjoyed yet again that scene where you're running with Ali, especially when you're coming back by yourself and the lion roars. I love that part. I've quoted that to about fifty people.

MAILER:

Yeah. I remember George Plimpton wrote about it and got it all wrong.

LEEDS:

Well, I hope you got everything right about him in The Fight. By the way, now that it's pretty well documented that Ali has been damaged by boxing, do you love the sport as much as you did?

MAILER:

Well, I don't think I love it as much as I used to. One reason is because he's out of it.

LEEDS:

Right.

MAILER:

In the beginning it's dull drunks with fight reporters, who are pretty simple-minded people, and you chew the fight to bits before it takes place, and everybody's got a theory, and of course half the theories automatically end up being wrong, and even the half that are right are usually misplaced to a degree, and then two out of three fights aren't that good, so you end up saying how many weeks do I have to do this? And you have to write about it afterward. The fight itself, a big championship fight, can still be about the most exciting spectacle in all the world. But the odds are poor. Maybe you get one out of four.

LEEDS:

One of the things that struck me the other day, for what it's worth, is something out of my own life. About a hundred years ago, when I was a sixteen-year-old merchant seaman and high school dropout, I worked under a bosun who had an interesting set of literary criteria. He said, "I read a lot of books, but not unless they got fightin' and fuckin' in them," and that seemed reasonable to me at the time. I didn't ask him if he read your books because who was I -- I couldn't spell Norman Mailer at the time. But in a sense, it's this violence and sex in your work for which it's been attacked by some critics that in a way led me back into the world of literature and education and really changed my life.

MAILER:

Well, I grew up on that: fighting and fucking was what made a good book. But you're doomed if you write about it.

LEEDS:

Yeah, but the important thing for me was that things happened in your books, yours and Hemingway's. Obviously you're not the only two authors, but you were the only two for me at the time I started growing up again in literature, and I was so grateful that people didn't just sit around eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea. And then I read this in your introduction to A Transit to Narcissus. You said, "I do not recognize the young man who wrote this book, I do not even like him very much, and yet I know that he must be me because his themes are mine, his ambition is as large for his age as my ambition would ever become, and I am not even without an odd regard for him. If I understand what he is trying to say, then he is close to saying the unsayable. The most terrible themes of my own life: the nearness of violence to creation, and the whiff of murder just beyond every embrace of love are his themes also." It occurs to me that although you're obviously evolving over these forty-odd years into a different kind of writer all the time, these thematic preoccupations really have remained constant -- not static, but constant -- and I wonder if you feel that being thus preoccupied has hurt you, in that so many critics have been shortsighted about roundly attacking your work for those reasons.

MAILER:

At the least it's made me hard to read for a number of people. They approach my books with anxiety, precisely the anxiety that street people feel when they're walking down the street and expect trouble. Most people who read books are -- tend to be, at least -- superficially gentle and reflective and civilized. They read books to avoid the street. While books about violence are exotic to such readers, they are also disturbing. And I think mine are doubly disturbing because what I'm saying is: look, I'm not asking you to read about violence so you can have a good read, I'm saying there's a lot of meaning in violence. That it's one aspect of a world-wide violence which appropriates us. You know I've been saying from the beginning, of course, there's individual violence versus the violence of the State. It takes a thousand forms. You could say that the spread of social programs is a very subtle form of violence. The scare right now about AIDS is an example of that. One thing doctors are famous for, over the centuries, is that their statistical forecasts are always off. We're being told now that a world-wide AIDS plague is coming. The statistics, oddly enough, I don't think necessarily bear it out. For one thing, the rate of AIDS in New York has not been doubling every year as they said it would. The rate of increase has been lowering each year; it's still on the increase, but it's been lowering. There's an inability of doctors to think intimately about these problems. I have a theory on AIDS for what it's worth. The question I raise is which kinds of homosexuals are decimated by AIDS? It seems to me that there are a great many homosexuals who have two practices. They're not only promiscuous in sex, but they're promiscuous in their use of antibiotics. The literature's just filled with cases of people who go to Turkish baths and make love with ten men and then go home and inject themselves with penicillin. I think they should make one simple study which is to try to find out how much in the way of antibiotics AIDS victims have taken in relation to the general population. My guess is that four or five times as much antibiotics has entered their blood streams before they got the AIDS. People have been promiscuous before and after Christ. Why does AIDS strike now? That kind of promiscuity has been going on from the birth of time with certain people, so this plague, I think, is not a reflection of promiscuity, it's a reflection of antibiotics. I would say ultimately (and this sounds mad, but it has to be taken as just an example of the way I think) if you extend your concepts far enough, antibiotics are a form of violence, a very attenuated form of social violence practiced upon people. Nobody ever asks us; nobody ever laid it out for us when it first came along. Doctors just said, "Here, take this. It's good for you. It'll cure your illness." The notion that illness might not be there to be cured by external means but was supposed to be cured from within is a desperately conservative notion. It's never been explored.

LEEDS:

Your extra-medical theories are going to have to be way out before I don't take them seriously, because in 1965 in An American Dream and in 1966 in Cannibals and Christians, when you codified your visions about cancer, I called my brother who was in medical school at the time. I read him the passage about patients firing out of the windows from cancer wards at people in the streets and the possibility of miraculous cures, and I said, "Is this way out?" And he said, "We don't know." And since then, of course, it's become less and less outlandish an idea, as you're well aware; so I take these extra-medical theories you come up with quite seriously. One other thing you said earlier that I wanted to address is that you've always felt that the institutionalized violence of the State is far more horrendous than individual acts of violence. I understand that entirely in terms of Gary Gilmore, but I wonder what you think about the Bernhard Goetz case?

MAILER:

Oh, I think like everybody else I'm mired in confusion on that one. First of all, I don't know what really happened there. I'm not sure Goetz knows what happened. It's one thing to defend yourself; it's another to take advantage of having a gun. And I think the truth there lies somewhere in between, so I've got to waffle on that one. If we could talk about an ideal approach to these matters, I'd say no one should ever have a gun, and everyone should know how to fight.

LEEDS:

Right.

MAILER:

If everyone knew how to fight, there would certainly be no more fights than there are now, probably fewer. When violent people hang out together they tend to balance each other out. It's even an aesthetic principle. Prizzi's Honor proves it; you can find an interesting love story between two killers for hire because they're equal in the same way that two gentle, civilized people are equal. That is, a love story between Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf is as interesting as a love story between Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, because they're equals.

LEEDS:

This thing about balancing out is true. Sometimes, it seems to me that you're never as safe as you are in a bad bar where nobody knows what you know or how fast you are or how bad you are: that everybody pretty much leaves each other alone.

MAILER:

Well, they know the price of violence. The most dangerous situation, always, is when you have one person who's violent among a great many people who are not. That's always an unstable situation -- that's explosive.

   

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