"Color faded from the world for me the moment I heard [my dad] was really gone," recalls John Buffalo Mailer, the youngest son of Norman Mailer.
In this final installment of my two-part interview with John Buffalo Mailer, the 31-year-old progeny reveals intimate details about how his father helped shape him as a writer and a person.
"At the end of the day," says John Buffalo, "it is part of my destiny to carry on his legacy to the best of my abilities."
He also shares his thoughts on a wide range of other topics, including celebrity; his budding big-screen acting career; why he doesn't participate in social networking; and why he's concerned the age of instant publishing could threaten the future of the written word.
[Mark Coker] - Did you and your eight siblings ever feel pressure from your father to pursue literary careers?
[John Buffalo Mailer] - No, quite the opposite. My father always encouraged us to pursue whatever sparked our interests. Most of my siblings do work in the arts in different fields. I am the only one who pursues his living as a writer primarily, although just about everyone in the family has the talent level to do so. My father always encouraged us to push the boundaries of our thoughts and ideas, but never pressured us to go into any field that was not true to our nature.
[MC] - When did you decide you wanted to write?
[JBM] - I was seventeen when I started taking writing seriously as a possible career choice. But it took a while before I got up the gumption to show anything to my father and get his take on it. My mother was of course softer in her critiques, but no less bashful about giving me great notes as to how to make something tighter or get to the point faster. She is an exceptional writer in her own right, and while her style has influenced my writing less than my father's, I would not have the ear for dialogue and sense of structure I do without the influence of my mother.
As we mentioned before, writing was religion in my household and we all knew that my father would not spare our feelings when critiquing our work. As I look back on it now, this is one of my favorite qualities of his. For, while it took a few stories before he would take my notions of making a living as a writer seriously, the first time he did, I knew I could believe every word of it, and that gave me the confidence (although some would call it insanity) to accept the many pros and cons that following a similar field to my literary lion father would bring.
[MC] - Describe what was going through your mind the first time you showed your writing to your father? What response did you expect or fear, and what respond did you receive?
[JBM] - He thought the first few pieces I gave him showed promise, but was not convinced I had the stuff to make it as a writer until I showed him a piece I had written my Freshman year of college about a Mafia Don father taking his son out to a local chain restaurant in his college town. It was written as a love letter of sorts to my Father, as we used to joke about his appearance becoming more and more mafia like as he got older. Pop was so enamored with the piece that he actually read it at one of his speaking events. The audience was amused by the piece but were wondering why Norman Mailer would sit up on stage and read them work done by his son. "Because I think it's GOOD," was his response. If you knew my father, you knew that an emphatic "Good" was equivalent to most people's "Incredible!" "Awesome!" or "Mind-blowing!" as I can think of no one who held the craft to a higher standard than my father. That gave me the confidence to go for it with all guns blazing.
[MC] - What were the most important words of wisdom you learned from your father about the craft of good writing?
[JBM] - Work is a blessing. He had heard it from Elia Kazan at The Actors Studio and said he might as well have printed it above his desk (which I actually now have done). For Pop, novel writing was the nine to five of the literary field. He believed that you make an agreement with your unconscious the night before you plan to write, and no matter the state you find yourself in when you wake up, you write. If you do not because you are too hung over, or depressed, or simply just don't know if you can get it up, then the unconscious is insulted because it has spent the entire night preparing your mind for the words you are intending to deliver. Break this contract with your unconscious enough times, and it will no longer take you seriously enough to do the preparation work the night before, and your words will come out as stale.
I could write an entire book about the lessons on writing my father gave to me, so I will only mention one more that I think of everyday. However, against my selfish wishes (for what writer with this kind of unique advantage wouldn't want him to keep the trade secrets within the family!) Pop did put out a book on writing called The Spooky Art, in which he divulges the vast majority of the lessons he was generous enough to teach me as I began to come up as a writer. Now that he is gone, I am incredibly thankful for this book, as it reminds me of so many of the gems he gave to me.
As for the last thing I will say on his thoughts on craft, his theory of experiences being akin to a crystal for a writer stays with me most. He said that whenever you have an experience worth writing about, you should think of it as a crystal. You do not write the crystal, as you will have used up the entire experience in one go, but rather, you shine a beam of light through the crystal that can come out in a million different ways on the other side. It is precisely this beam of light that comes out the other side that you use to write about. My father had planned to keep writing up through the end, and in fact brought a box full of books with him into the hospital for research on his sequel to The Castle In The Forest. His extraordinary work ethic is perhaps the biggest gift he gave to me as a writer. Any time I am tired and unsure of where the next wind is going to come from for me to finish my writing on time, I look up at a very stern picture I have of him above my desk in which he seems to be saying to me, "That's all very good and nice. Now get back to WORK!"
[MC] - Your last name opens doors, though I imagine it also introduces complexities. Do you care if people define you as the son of Norman Mailer, as opposed to John Buffalo Mailer, the writer?
[JBM] - Everyone who is born into celebrity and is either crazy enough or filled with that most rare of sensibilities that suggests to them there is nothing else they were meant to do more than follow the same path as their famous parent grapples with this question. I recently read an interview with Michael Douglas in Vanity Fair in which he is wise and self-reflective about his relationship with his father, the shadow of whom follows him to this day. And that's Michael Douglas! A legend in his own right. I actually had the opportunity to act with him on Wall Street 2 and he was generous as an actor and possessed with a wisdom of the craft it was obvious he had begun to learn from an extraordinarily young age. This is one of the advantages that comes along with following in your father's footsteps that is not often talked about, which is (depending on your relationship with the parent) that you get to have the conversations with them that all aspiring artists in the same field would do just about anything to have. If you have a solid, non-ego based relationship, you can put your sense of who you are outside of them away for a moment and just be grateful to soak up the wisdom it has taken them a lifetime to earn. I am incredibly fortunate in that my father was my best friend. Period. While I am blessed to have more than my fair share of truly great friends in my life, if my father and I had randomly met in a bar with no relation at all between us, I would have been his personal assistant the next day and cherished each adventure as I was lucky enough to go on with him as his son. It is hard to sit here now and write these words without getting overwhelmed by the sense of how color faded from the world for me the moment I heard he was really gone. My mother and I are extremely close and I certainly love them both equally, but once in a lifetime a man finds another man who he just understands to the core and they form a friendship of mutual love, trust, support, and the ability to keep one another honest in ways that run so deep the best term we have for it is "best friend". That was my father to me. The fact that as a writer, I was also able to appreciate that he was Norman Mailer, was just icing on the cake.
When my first Play, Hello Herman, came out in New York in late 2001, I got a taste for the first time of the downside of my last name being Mailer. My father had seen it coming and tried to warn me of what to expect when the Times review would come out, but I was young and being told by all the pre-press and people who were working on the show that it was brilliant, and so my swelled head could not anticipate the personal assault that followed in my first theater review. I do not wish to call out the reviewer, but he was then the number two or three theater reviewer at The New York Times, and quite honestly could have veiled his contempt for the fact that he was reviewing a 23 year old's play mostly because he was Norman Mailer's son. The man literally spent 20 column inches ripping apart an off-off Broadway production from top to bottom as if we were doing the show with a Broadway budget. The actors who had given their time after their day jobs to put this thing together for next to no money were sliced and diced. And as for myself, well, I could have written Waiting For Godot and he would have been no less nasty. As I read it now, it seems clear to me that he was saying: "Listen, you little shit, just because your dad is Norman Mailer and you have a decent amount of talent for a guy your age, doesn't mean you get a free ride!" Which was fair enough, I just couldn't help but wonder if he had ever considered looking at the play based on its own merits and not strictly through the lens of "This is Norman Mailer's son"? As the years have gone on, this question of whether or not people see me or see the son of Norman Mailer first has become less and less relevant. There is no distinguishing the two, for if I were not my father's son, then I would not be who I am. Now that my father is no longer here, I have to say I take even more joy when someone comes up to me and tells me how much my dad's work means to them. At the end of the day, it is part of my destiny to carry on his legacy to the best of my abilities in whatever evolving forms come to pass during my own time here. All I can say is that I hope I am worthy of the task and that years from now, when our generation is old and on the way out, that new generations, the ones who view me as the old guard by then, will be introduced to the writings of Norman Mailer because they discover that I am and always will be proud beyond words to be his son.
[MC] - The other day you told me your father taught you writing is re-writing. In this Internet age where anyone can instantly publish an ebook, a blog or a Tweet, what will happen to the time-honored publishing traditions of careful editing, revision and editorial gate keeping?
[JBM] - That's a great question. One I believe we are all trying to answer. I have always felt that anything one can read or do that brings instant gratification, loses its benefits just as quickly. Some of my father's books are undeniably hard reads. You find yourself going back and rereading each paragraph just to understand what he is saying. Sometimes you need to go back twice to get it. But when you do, it sits with your thoughts for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. It forces you to question your beliefs and to come up with even better questions that will hopefully guide you through the rough spots and enable you to enjoy the treasures of your life. If that is what it takes for a reading experience to have the maximum impact, what can we say for the writers who do not believe they need to take to the time to live with each word and its placement in their sentences for more than is required to bang out a first draft? I fear that we are in serious danger of losing the power of the written word because the medium seems to be not allowing for the kind of time it took someone like my father to write a novel he felt was ready to be seen by the public. I have recently heard writers referred to as content providers. You can imagine how this makes my blood boil! To label a craft that is as spooky and magical, not to mention the basis for what delineates us most from the rest of the animal kingdom, as nothing more than providing content to enhance a design reminds me of the level of respect given to words found in the world of 1984. Needless to say, that is a dangerous state of affairs.
[MC] - Although you're on the leading edge of digital publishing with Music, Food, and Death, you don't participate in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Why?
[JBM] - I had a personal experience a few years ago that put me off of participating in any social networking platforms. I had had a brief fling with a girl who was less than fully hinged and one of the things she did after I broke it off with her was to create multiple personalities on Myspace and the like. Being totally ignorant to the dangers this world offers, I mistakingly added one of her personalities as a friend in my network, only to quickly learn that she had contacted everyone from my profile and was harassing them. This was actually a blessing, as it hammered home for me the pitfalls of the new age we live in. My father had a line about technology that I've always thought was spot on: "Technology offers more power and less pleasure." We now have the ability to promote our work with the click of a button, but there is no clear line on where real friendship ends and virtual friendship begins. I've always found that the Internet tends to bring out the Id in people. That sense they have of themselves that used to be the thoughts only shared with their therapist. Writing is undoubtedly therapeutic, but when you are sharing your innermost secret feelings with 500 people who are linked through your Facebook page, your intentions and feelings get muddled and taken out of context. Some people are meant to stay in your past. The fact that just about everyone can find anyone with a few clicks on their computer, and then contact them poses a set of new interesting problems. What do you do when someone you once knew vaguely contacts you from out of the blue with a friend request? Do you just let them in so you can build the power of your network? Do you reject their request, which will surely be seen as an insult and clear declaration of how you really feel about them? Great, now you've made an enemy, and probably one who is spending way too much time on line already!
I have a great many people in my life who I communicate with once a year, once every few years, or so, and I am happy with that level of their involvement in my life. I don't necessarily want them to know who I had lunch with on Friday and what I thought of the food. I don't know why they would care, quite frankly, as I imagine their own lunch should be much more important to them. People seem to be addicted to the sense that we are all connected all the time. As someone who grew up in a celebrity family, this is ridiculous. From the time I was a child people were trying to get inside info about my parents and it was understood that with celebrity comes a necessary wall of boundaries in terms of what you share outside the trusted circle. It does seem that we are living in a time when celebrity is a more cherished currency than any time we have lived in. People feel important if they are blogging to 500 people each day and getting responses. Nothing wrong with that, but where does it end? At what point do we decide that our time is more valuable than simply keeping up with every soul we have encountered along the way? My real friends and I make sure that we connect when it is necessary and when it is not, we imagine what the other person is up to. We do not feel the need to know every movement and every thought that crosses their mind. Twitter seems to be the most extreme platform for wasting time. If someone can explain their thoughts to me in fifteen words or less, they are either Mohammad Ali or I don't think I'm going to get enough out of it to make the time it takes to stay up on your tweets worth while. In this day and age we have to work five times more than we did in the 70's just to live a similar lifestyle. The last thing any of us needs is more distraction. If you are spending your time reading writers work to please them, then the contract is unfavorable to you. Just because writing can be used as therapy does not necessarily mean it is appropriate to blast that therapy out into the world. That is why I do not partake in the current craze of attempting to know the thoughts of every human alive and on line at every moment.
[MC] - In 2002, People Magazine named you one of the sexiest men alive. How did the instant celebrity affect you at the time, and now that you're almost a decade older and wiser, how to you view it now?
[JBM] - At the time I was thankful for the recognition as an actor and a playwright. I immediately drove out to LA (nearly dying on the way, but that is a story for another time) and discovered just how valuable that one page was in my business. I immediately signed with a manager and was getting sent out on the choice roles in Hollywood. I probably would have booked something eventually, but my mother (picture at left) got struck with her second bout of cancer and we were told she would only have weeks to live. I flew back to the east coast and joined my entire family as we sweated out the operation she was having in the hopes that she would be the one in a thousand who could beat this. And she did. The surgery was a success and we all breathed a brief sigh of relief. Of course, as anyone who has helped someone battle cancer will tell you, the operation is just the first step. My mother had a vicious cycle of chemo and radiation and all sorts of other alternative treatments which would go on for years and continues on to this day. I knew that I had to find my way back to New York and so started looking for any job that would get me back so that I could pull my weight in terms of taking care of both my parents (as my dad had started to become very old at the time and needed more and more help). This is how I ended up taking the job as Executive Editor for High Times magazine in 2004, when Richard Stratton was attempting to re-launch the magazine as what it had started as, essentially an outlaw Vanity Fair. Had I not had the piece come out in People Magazine, I would not have moved out to LA, and therefore would not have taken the job at High Times. I always like to trace the choices and events that have lead me to where I am standing at the moment. In some ways, that piece was life changing. In others, it mattered none. I certainly received my fair share of jokes from friends about it. People often ask me if I got laid more as a result, but I think the opposite was true. Once you are labeled as sexy by a mainstream magazine, people tend to want to prove (is it to you or to themselves?) that you are not THAT sexy. At the end of the day, it's a fun bit of silliness in my life that I am ultimately grateful for, as it did open a few doors to me, but is certainly not something that effected my estimate of myself in the least, pro or con.
[MC] You're appearing in Oliver Stone's upcoming movie, Wall Street 2. How did you get connected with this project?
[JBM] - I met Oliver Stone through my friend and former boss, Richard Stratton. Richard had opened the door for me to send Oliver a treatment I had done about Hurricane Katrina. Oliver liked the treatment and wanted to meet with me. Simultaneously, MoveOn.org had asked my brother Michael Mailer and myself to produce a commercial for them about listening to the Iraq war veterans on what to do with the situation. Oliver graciously agreed to direct the commercial and I found myself suddenly meeting with him as a writer (which was like living in one of the best dreams you've ever had) and producing a thirty second spot for TV for one of the most notoriously wild directors on the planet (which brought me to the conclusion that Tums is one of the best drugs on the market). Over the course of that weekend Oliver and I got several chances to talk and began to get to know each other. At one point he looked at me and said, "You look like Russell Crowe." Which was more than enough to put a smile on my face, as I had been getting Jason Priestly comments from the time I was in Junior High. But then, after a devilish smile broke out on his face, Oliver followed that up with, "You could be my Russell Crowe." I did my best to nod and not start jumping up and down, as like my father, Oliver is the type of man who does not appreciate gushing, and so I replied with the most cool I could muster, "I'll be your Russell Crowe, Oliver." We finished the shoot, the commercial was received well, and I went back to New York not knowing if I would hear from him again. Several months later he called me in to audition for his latest Viet Nam film, Pinkville. My father was in the hospital at the time and with each day we came closer to the realization that he was not going to make it out of there. However, Oliver did cast me in a large role and I was able to tell my father the good news before his time came to go. We literally had his funeral on a Tuesday and I had to fly out to LA on Wednesday to start rehearsals. I cannot tell you how surreal life was at that time. The day of the funeral, I had awoken to a call from the managing editor of a magazine I was working for at the time, asking me if I had sent out a press release? "What? Do you realize that my father's funeral is today? Why on God's green earth would I be sending out a press release?" It became clear that he was under that impression because indeed a press release had been sent out by the company that was repping the magazine at the time. I spent the morning on the phone with the PR company trying to understand how something as grotesque as this could have happened, and trying not to think about what the perception of me would be from this, as I just did not have the brain space for it that morning. Who would? They apologized profusely and assured me they would do what they could to make it clear I had not authorized it, but it was also a lesson to me that when something hits the blogosphere, people are going to run with it and any corrections or retractions look conspicuously like a cover up. "Advertisements for himself" was the title of one particularly nasty piece I came across. Yikes! I certainly would have thought the same of a son of a famous man had I read that press release. I can't say that it haunts me to this day, as Liz Smith was very kind to set the record straight in her column and it pretty much disappeared after that, but wow was it not fun to have to deal with image issues when every fiber of my being was heartbroken at the loss of my father. But no time to think of that, we held the funeral in Provincetown and gathered together as the large tapestry my father had created, doing our best to laugh about all the good times we had had with him instead of cry over the loss. Our father would have preferred it that way. The next morning I was on a plane heading to LA to take on the biggest role of my life with the director who had inspired me to want to make films (Platoon and Wall Street in particular). I arrived and rehearsed, got a taste of how much fun it is to make a movie on this level with this caliber of talent, went to get my nine inoculations to go to Thailand for filming, and literally got the call just as the soreness was hitting its peak in my arm from all the shots, making it difficult to raise the phone to my ear and hear Oliver say: "Bad news. The movie is postponed indefinitely." I couldn't believe it. Was this really happening? Was this really how my week was going to end? And then, as he often does, Oliver seemed to have read my thoughts and followed up with, "I've had a bad week. But you, you've had a really bad week!" We laughed. How could we not at the insanity of it all. I managed to say, "Yeah. Can't wait to see what happens next week!" With that, we hung up and I flew back to New York and finally allowed the loss my family had just experienced to hit me fully. After several weeks of nearly being unable to drag myself from bed, I got a call from my manager at the time saying that Oliver had a part for me in his film W. I went to Louisiana and did my day on the set and was immensely thankful to Oliver for including me in it. The story of how I ended up playing Robby, Shia Labeouf's character's best friend in Wall Street 2, is an article in and of itself. I will say that I had to audition my ass off until finally I was approved and got the part. In short, acting in that movie was like going to work in your fantasy every day. As I know Oliver and my father would not approve, I will not gush here about it. But suffice it to say, it has already been one of the greatest work experiences of my life thus far.
[MC] - Theater production, playwriting, screenwriting and acting are all passions of yours. What draws you to the visual arts?
[JBM] - Telling stories. For me, the arts are all about telling a story that is entertaining and ideally of some use to the reader or viewer. I do feel we live in a day and age where one has an advantage if they are able to work in multiple mediums to tell the story they want to. I have been fortunate in the extreme to have encountered incredibly talented people in various fields of the arts who all share the common thread of wanting to collaborate. We find ourselves in scary times, and art has always been our safe place to question the issues of the day and hopefully come closer to the solutions. My wish is to be able to continue to work with the fascinating people I have and to discover new collaborators as each successive generation produces its own. There are a limitless number of stories to tell that are important to us as a people. If I have my way, I will live out my days doing just that, telling stories right up to the moment when it is my time to go on to the greatest journey, just as my father did. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts here and for asking such good questions.