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PBS Offers Mailer on Mailer

October 4, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ If anyone can swagger while propelling himself across a room with the aid of two canes, it’s Norman Mailer.

Maybe it’s the unshakable memory of Mailer, the brash young writer, that gives the illusion this 77-year-old version remains invulnerable. But if his body is hobbled by arthritis and age, his eloquence and intricate turns of thought are not.

That, coupled with his honesty, is what made the producers of ``American Masters″ decide to offer an unprecedented episode in which Mailer alone _ without a Greek chorus of admirers or critics _ explains himself, his work and his view of America.

His fascinating torrent of words is accompanied by readings from his works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning ``The Executioner’s Song″ and his breakthrough World War II novel, ``The Naked and the Dead.″

The 90-minute film, ``American Masters: Mailer on Mailer,″ airs 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday on PBS stations (check local listings).

``There are no other interviews in the program. His interview is so interesting,″ said Susan Lacy, series executive producer. ``He’s very honest about his whole life and every aspect of it. He talks about rage, about depression, about stabbing his ex-wife.

``But it’s also very interesting politically because he goes through decade by decade, talking about his view of American political history,″ Lacy said, which is why PBS decided to air the film in proximity to the presidential debates.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Mailer proved charmingly blunt about himself and others. Time has eroded his writing skills, he said, but he’s developed other strengths. And he’s working on a new book (the subject is a secret), but it won’t be the great American novel.

Q: In ``American Masters,″ you describe your relationship with America as a marriage that is shaped by the person who is president. How did you perceive the marriage during the Clinton years?

A: I feel he was very slack in fighting all the things that were bad. From my point of view, one of the bad things is corporate welfare. It’s a disgrace to cut down on the welfare to the poor, the ignorant, the uneducated, the helpless, and make them go out and get jobs and keep giving welfare to the rich. I think that’s odious. If he wanted to end welfare _ and there’s a great argument for ending welfare, which is it’s no good for anyone, really _ let’s end it for the rich as well. They can also use a little striving through the difficulties of things. He skimmed the cream politically and it’s hard to forgive him for that. He took the easy route, he did not bite the bullet ... how do you like my cliches?

Q: What would America be like under a George W. Bush or Al Gore presidency?

A: I don’t know. They change once they become president, for one thing. The man you vote for is not the man you get. Sometimes you’re surprised favorably, often unfavorably. Technically, I’d probably have to vote for Gore because of the Supreme Court. I think the court’s getting more interesting. With the exception of a couple of people on the right who are predictable, the rest of the court is not. So I’m not so sure a Bush presidency would wreck the court _ wreck the court in the sense of stack it. I’m not so sure that Gore, who’s a political animal through and through and through, wouldn’t put in some right-wingers on the court to show the Republicans he’s really a good guy.

Q: How would you describe yourself politically? As a liberal?

A: No. Never. I’m a left-conservative. People ask me to explain that and it takes up the entire interview. What I’m getting at is I think there’s a great deal in the conservative traditions that are extraordinary and they’re deep. And the trouble is that most right-wingers don’t have a clue as to what real conservatism is. The average right-winger would cut down a stand of the finest trees if he could make a profit off it, and that’s not conservatism. Conservatism is the notion that the world is larger and more mysterious than you think it is, therefore you have to respect all sorts of irrational prejudices that people have about protecting elements in nature.

Q: In the ``American Masters″ film and in interviews, you describe America as having violent roots, and we are considered a violent society. Is there any hope of this becoming a more peaceful country?

A: I think we are an immensely peaceful country with savagery at the edges but very far away from most people. I think the average person in America may never see a violent occasion in life. They might go to a prizefight, or they might watch wrestling on television but they won’t have it in their own lives. But the fear of violence is immense, and part of it is the media. You can hardly blame the media, in a way, because violence is always interesting to write about and read about and see. But it has this odd effect (that) the country is much more aware of violence than it is present in daily life. And that’s one of the odd little contradictions in American life. ... There are two things I love about America: One is the freedom of expression. The other is you can’t understand it in a hurry.

Q: Writers are known for getting involved in tiffs (among Mailer’s famous clashes was one with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett’s talk show). What’s the nature of the beast that causes writers to get embroiled in these public brawls, verbal or otherwise?

A: People think it’s so wonderful to be a writer and live that kind of cultivated life. They tend to see writers as being nicer than other people. Well, if you’re much nicer than other people, you’re usually not a very good writer to begin with because there’s a lot of things you just don’t understand. The other thing is that writers are immensely competitive. They’re as competitive as top athletes. That’s an element that’s rarely understood. ... If I’m reading another novelist who’s very good, I’m reading them competitively. I read something, I feel a stab in the heart: ‘My God, I can’t equal that.’ A little later, ‘Oh, ho, ho, I know what they’re hiding here. They’re not that good.’ ... In that sense, the reason the spats occur is the reason they occur between athletes. It’s the intense competitiveness of it.

Q: You’ve said you rely more on wisdom and less on writing prowess as you age.

A: I can’t pretend my command of language is what it was. I’m hoping it won’t matter. You can write a major novel in more ways than one. You can write it for sheer beauty and wit and surprise in the language. And the other way is a structure that’s deep enough so that people are pulled in.

Q: Is the idea of a ‘great American novel’ a silly conceit?

A: By now it’s an impossible conceit. The country’s too developed in its corners. ... If you want to write a panoramic novel like John Dos Passos did, you’d have to live for 200 years to get it all together. If you’re going to write the great American novel you really have to get an idea of what all American society is like. You’ve got to know how a gang leader in the ghetto speaks. You have to know how a corporate executive who’s really sensational does it. How can you do all that? It can’t be done. You can fake it, which is what bestsellers do.

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On the Net:

``American Masters″ Web site: http//pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/index_basic.html

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Elsewhere in television...

TEST TIME: ``History IQ,″ a new quiz show, gives viewers the chance to match wits with history buffs from around the country. The History Channel series, which began airing at 7:30 p.m. EDT daily this week, tests contestants on famous events, people and structures for a $25,000 grand prize. The audience can play along on-line at www.HistoryChannel.com, with the names of high-scoring Internet players announced on the TV show.

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Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber``at``ap.org

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