Norman Mailer, a writer once known for his towering ego, enjoyed the release of an equally over-sized book last Friday. Fans of Mailer gathered in the sleek reading room of the Taschen bookstore in Soho to commemorate the posthumous release, "Moonfire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11," a massive coffee table book based on his extensive coverage of the Moon landing for Life Magazine in 1969. Mailer's last wife, Norris Mailer; the director of the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony, Lawrence Schiller; and a fellow writer, Colum McCann, discussed and read from the book that could barely fit on the lectern.
The Life piece was a defining piece of long form journalism. At 115,000 words long it spanned three issues, and was the longest piece of nonfiction the magazine ever published. Mailer took readers into life at NASA, told intimate stories of the astronaut's lives, and revealed the grueling preparations behind the Apollo launch. The piece is reprinted in most of its entirety along with hundreds of rich photos of the launch and landing. There are 1969 copies in print.
Schiller, a long time friend and collaborator of Mailer's, lifted the hefty tome from the lectern and posed the question, "How does this come about?" Towards the end of his life, Schiller explained, Mailer often wondered what his legacy would be. He wanted his words to be kept relevant, and they used to talk about ways to keep future releases of his work fresh and interesting.
"When a writer passes on, his books can just sit or stay in a library," Schiller said, "or they can be introduced to a new generation."
The book's large size and stress on visual presentation certainly reinvent the original work. Schiller attributes the book's success to the publishing house behind it, Taschen Books, who specialize in large art books. They will continue to republish Mailer, releasing a new version of his 1973 work, "Marilyn" next year.
One of Mailer's requests regarding a book of his Apollo piece was that it should have an introduction penned by a writer who had been too young to witness the actual launch, as to create perspective. The writer chosen for the task was Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award. He read his lengthy introduction to the audience, and in it, described Mailer's reporting process:
"He shouldered his way in amongst the scientists, the bureaucrats, and the astronauts themselves. He went looking for the story. Used his Harvard background in engineering to understand the mechanical dynamics. Hoisted his way into the heads of the computer geeks. Laid a hang on the bedspreads of the NASA wives. Listened to the evasions of the corporate clowns. Probed the little dusty corners for details that nobody else would find."
Mailer's last wife, Norris, had little to add, explaining that she met Mailer after he'd written the original piece. She read the ending to, "Of a Fire on the Moon," the book he would later write about the moon landing. After the event, when asked whether Mailer would have kept a copy of "Moonfire" on his coffee table she said, "that's where I keep my copy now."