Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.

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Episode V: "You have to risk execration in order to be great"

Published 6/13/16
In this installment, Andrew O'Hagan talks about the influence of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer.

Today I’m with Andrew O’Hagan, a Scottish writer and author of many books (and two-time Man Booker Prize shortlist-er). His most recent novel was The Illuminations, which came out in 2015 and was widely heralded. The New York times Book Review called it “a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness,” and it also garnered acclaim from The Guardian, The Telegraph, and more. Norman Mailer, the topic of conversation today (or at least one of his books: The Executioner’s Song), said of your writing, “As if it is not enough that Andrew O’Hagan can write like an angel, one has to add that he does it in the style of an intelligent angel.” I’m sure you’ll volley back a few kind words yourself during the course of this interview, but let’s start with how you first came upon Mailer’s work.

I was an avid reader of Mailer from a young age. I actually first discovered him with his book about Marilyn Monroe. I was like 12 years old, and loved the brave, muscular style he had, and the sheer velocity of his impressions and ideas was totalising to a 12-year-old who wanted to be a writer. I remember in that book he called Marilyn 'every man's love affair with America'. What a line. What a thing to consider. 

To a boy not yet a man, I can understand how Mailer can be appealing, and a revelation of sorts. Did he affect you past the point of the pen?

Thankfully not! Or not yet! He had a messy life, but his prose was never messy. I think it's one of the things you come to know as a reader, and even more so, over the years, as a writer, if you happen to be one—life and work are intertwined, but you might actually be better at your desk than you are at everything else in life. A great writer might be a bad man, though I don't happen to feel Norman was a bad man. He was an intemperate one, perhaps. But he had the courage to fully investigate his own capacity for badness, and few writers have that degree of engagement. If I can be allowed to say so: too many writers now are interested in acclaim and reassurance. Mailer reminds us that you have to risk execration in order to be great. 

I want to zoom in to The Executioner's Song, but first I want to expand on what you're saying about his capacity for badness, and how rare that is—especially today. In some way, it seems that Mailer (and writers of a certain ilk—Henry Miller comes to mind), would be sore for work today. How much of the rarity that Mailer achieved came from the times he flourished in, do you think?

Great question, and very necessary I believe. In the immediate years after World War II, American novelists came out of their corner punching. They wanted to change the society that had won that war. They wanted to remake the moral interior, challenge every piety, interrogate business, sex, marriage...If you look at that one group of writers in America—you mention Henry Miller; let's add Mary McCarthy, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin—all of them replenished the moral depth of their times and played into their society in ways that would be quite impossible now.

The common reader, as she used to be called, is barely in existence now, and the relationship between High Culture and Politics—that Lionel Trilling and the New York critics could take for granted, and which blessed all those writers I mentioned—does not exist now.

I mean, forgive my prejudice, but it's my moment in the Influenced spot...But Donald Trump would be a major figure in a dozen major essays by first-rate writers by now, if he'd appeared in the 1960s. Complacency is the new disease, and I can't believe there aren't a dozen brilliant writers out there still—I know there are—but the culture surrounding them has become slightly sleepy and they have grown sleepy to in response.

The 60s was a shot in the arm to writers like Mailer or Susan Sontag. Just like the intellectual lights had been turned on for the first time, with a generation screaming for news from the new places inside. 

Please, please invoke all of your prejudice. Trump is being written about now, but—and excuse my own prejudice—the difference in how he's being written about deeply reflects, in some way, the underpinnings of that absence of the link between High Culture and Politics. Writers today remove themselves from the society that is a part of his rise, and talk about it from the outside. Sontag, Mailer, Didion, Kerouac—these are writers who wrote from the inside. Is that the essential difference (problem) in today's writers and those that thrived alongside Mailer?

You're right, I'm afraid. These late writers we are talking about had an audience, and they felt that audience wasn't just the people who read Partisan Review or the books pages of the New York Times. It was the averagely intelligent American who had access to journals and books. 

I feel it is that link that has gone. Too many writers are addressing the college fraternity or other writers. I believe you have hit on it: where is the intimate portrait of Trump, someone not writing editorial, but watching his manners, his past, his money, his taste, his moral life, his ancestors, his meaning, his drive—if any one writer today could write a 20,000 word profile of Trump like Mailer did in 1960 of John F Kennedy, you'd need to tell me who they are. Cause I'd commission that writer tonight. But I think the conditions for such writing have changed dramatically. We want a 400 word blog to tell us everything. The Old Expansiveness is what I miss. 

And when expansiveness does exist, usually commissioned by The New Yorker or their ilk, we have an article with a cause: don't vote for the man. The word I think you're circling there is 'empathy', and perhaps we don't need to be empathetic of Trump, but those lines are needed to understand him and, in turn, the populace that supports him.

Truly. If we don't seek to understand such a man, we are seeking to misunderstand our times. I don't want to read another piece telling me how hideous he is. I want to know why he's liked. I want to know what his virtues are in the minds of the faithful. Because without that knowledge we are doomed. You should—especially if you're a writer—seek to understand the hatred in the eyes of your enemy. But also one should seek to reveal what is most repugnant to ourselves, because Trump has a kind of genius for connection with some very live forces in American life. Only bad writers or self-satisfied magazine hacks will settle for the self-compliment of finding Trump beyond the pale. 

I have a feeling we're likely to volley like this for a good time, so let's stop ourselves while we can, and move on to The Executioner's Song. When did you first read it? Was it as galvanizing for you as Marilyn?

Yes indeed. I read the book when I was maybe 15. A couple of years after it came out. And I simply couldn't believe the detail. To have a book—a non-fiction novel, as it was called—that entered into the hearts and minds of the characters with that kind of Dostoyevskian brio...well, I was blown away. For those who don't know the book, it's essentially the story of a loner in a Mormon community in Utah, Gary Gilmore, who for no obvious reason separately kills two men. Gilmore is caught and convicted and sentenced to death, but, unusually, he does not want to appeal the sentence, and he campaigns for the state to carry it out. Mailer—in a surprise second half to the book—goes into the new media circus surrounding Gilmore and the story of his life. 

Altogether, we have a modern American classic of crime and punishment, made of this extremely artistic, almost impersonal novelistic voice that Mailer developed for the book. When I first read it, I felt the ground shaking under the traditions of the novel, and it made me think differently about what a 'reported' novel might be. That's its main strength: The Executioner's Song explodes the borders between fiction and non-fiction in a whole new way. 

Do you feel similarly about Capote? I only ask because it seems like those traits that only existed in Mailer (and not Capote) are what initially attracted you to the man?

I came to admire In Cold Blood, though for me it lacks the media-saturated component that, personally, feels very new to me. Capote's book is rightfully a classic, but it smacks of its derivation, as a quality piece of reporting from the New Yorker. Whereas Mailer went much further in my view. Both great American writers, though—no question. 

And so: your own writing. When you began, did you have a phase of imitation? How much of your Mailer has been infused in your books?

For sure, I've always taken for granted that reported events have a place in a novel—that reporting and the novel have much to do with each other—and that has been the case since my first book, The Missing, which is really a personal meditation on the question of missing persons through 'the eyes' of several real life cases. 

I'm writing a novel now which takes its cue from the reported novel of the Victorian era—it's a big London novel of the 'classless society'—and I think Norman was affected by that tradition, through the American practitioners of the social novel in the 30s, Farrell, Dreiser, and so on.  Imitation was never really in it, because I come from another tradition, of the small, complete Scottish novel of domestic life and small town morality. But as I get older my horizons, I guess, are further out. 

What are some names that follow in that tradition?

Tom Wolfe was plugging into that very tradition in The Bonfire of the Vanities. I have never been sold on Wolfe as a stylist, but he's a great social chronicler, and that's a giant thing. In Britain, Martin Amis took up that baton and so does John Lanchester. 

And I think Franzen still has surprises in that direction, as does Zadie Smith. 

I meant the "complete Scottish novel of domestic life and small town morality."

Oh, yes —sorry. My favourites in that game are the writer John Galt, an Ayrshire genius who painted like a Flemish master, and Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his modes.  

Muriel Spark was giant for me when I was young—The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is like pure liquid Scotland. Though I don't want to suggest that whisky is not, in itself, entirely sufficient. 

Of course. Perhaps that has been carried over to today's literary tradition more than any of those names, whiskey being the 'favorite drink' of any and all writer interested in professing their 'favorite drink'.

Yes! Let us hope that it stays that way, and the habit for drinking water—cruel stuff!—dies soon. By the way, speaking of drinking. I once went to Cape Cod to see Norman Mailer for the Paris Review, and we went out and he ordered a Red Wine and Orange Juice. I kid you not. 

That's something to add to the Mailer lore. We're nearly out of time, and so I want to thank you for yours, and ask you to make the case for Mailer to anyone today who hasn't read him—or, more likely, has actively avoided him.

Every writer should seek to make a little revolution in the consciousness of their times. It is not our job to seek awards and publicity—that will come if it comes. Your job is to dignify your readers' intelligence with new thoughts and new moral investigations and with stories from parts of the human psyche and parts of our respective societies where none has come before. Norman Mailer did that very thing for 60 years—sometimes clumsily, sometimes luminously—he wrote from the heart of his times, and tangled with the great debates. Reading him emboldens the heart and makes better writers. I salute the effort as much as the result. 

Thank you so much for this Andrew.

Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time today and for fighting the good fight.