John Buffalo Mailer, the youngest of nine children, grew up in a household that honored the power of the written word.
His father, as you might guess by the name, is Norman Mailer, the two-time Pulitzer-prize-winning American literary giant. His mother, Norris Church Mailer, is an accomplished novelist, painter, and model, who is coming out with her memoirs this April through Random House. The title of Mrs. Mailer's memoir is "A Ticket To The Circus."
"Writing was religion in our family," Mailer told me in a recent conversation. "My dad was very free with his children. He never pushed us to pursue his trade."
In his short 31 years, John Buffalo Mailer has assembled an impressive body of work as an author, magazine editor, playwright and actor (he appears in Oliver Stone's Wall Street 2, which will probably debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is scheduled for general release September 24).
This week, he published a new ebook titled, Music, Food, and Death - The State Of New Orleans Through The Eyes Of The Strippers. The story paints a vivid and compassionate picture of strippers and service workers trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The 7,500-word story was originally commissioned by Playboy Magazine, who paid Mailer to travel to New Orleans to research and write the piece. After editing and approving the story, Playboy never published it due to an editorial reorganization and a steep drop in advertising revenue.
The rights to the story recently reverted back to Mailer. Faced with no outlet for what he considers the best piece he's written to date, he decided to independently self-publish it as an ebook at Smashwords (the company I founded).
In this two-part exclusive interview with the gifted son of Norman Mailer, I ask John Buffalo a wide range of questions about his life, work and the future of book publishing.
[Mark Coker] - What was your inspiration behind Music, Food, and Death? Why did you want to tell this story through the lens of strippers?
[John Buffalo Mailer] - I first went to New Orleans when I was eighteen years old. It was my first road trip with a buddy and we set out from New York at midnight, drove through the night, and found ourselves in New Orleans by 10pm. It might as well have been 6:30. The streets were alive with music and drink and incredible food. The whole city seemed like a walking party to our eighteen year old sensibilities. It did not take me more than a couple of days to realize that New Orleans held for me the best of original American culture. After Katrina, as I like so many others watched the devastation and disastrous recovery efforts by the government, I felt a responsibility to do something that would bring awareness to what the city needed. As we are now seeing with Haiti, the media and the public's attention do not stay on a tragedy for longer than will keep eyeballs glued to the screen. I have a good relationship with Playboy and appreciated the freedom they give a writer to explore a piece the way they want to. For obvious reasons, a sexual angle is always best for Playboy, but as someone who has worked in the service industry as a busboy, waiter, and bartender, I knew that those are the people who could give me the most accurate assessment of how the city is doing and what it needs to get back to where it was before the storm. In a town like New Orleans, the strippers are as much a part of the service industry as the bartenders and doormen. It is one big family on the strip and they were more than enthusiastic about telling me their story.
[MC] - After reading the piece, I was struck by a sense that the dark underbelly of New Orleans you describe is an essential part of the city's soul, and possibly America's soul, as if you cannot divorce the darkness from the light.
[JBM] - There is no light without the dark. From Ying Yang to the Torah you can see this essential balance throughout every aspect of our religions and indeed our lives. A world without darkness would be bland and boring. A world without light would be punishing and brutal beyond our abilities to adapt. New Orleans blurs the line between the two like no other place I have ever encountered. You can be walking down the tourist glitz of Bourbon street with a Hurricane cocktail in your hand one moment, take a turn and suddenly feel spooked in ways you did not imagine were possible. If you are the type that believes in ghosts, you can feel them everywhere, in every nook and old building. You get the sense that New Orleans is special in its relation to the afterworld, as if the spirits that passed on there have no interest in going anywhere else. This is not surprising, as I spoke to one person after another who had wandered into New Orleans for a fun weekend getaway and now found themselves working whatever job they could get to stay there. Like New York, once you get NOLA into your blood, you simply must return, no matter the cost.
[MC] - What was your most surprising discovery while researching this story?
[JBM] - I was struck most by how far it has already come back. Based on the media reports I was getting, I was expecting something slightly better than a war zone. Instead (the parts that are going to come back) were in full swing. What was missing was the numbers. Not enough tourists for the time of year I was down there. In many ways, my piece is about showing people that New Orleans is back, but will not be able to sustain unless we as a country make a concerted effort to get there and put some money back into the town. It is a town that gets the vast majority of its income through the tourism business and many corporate retreats and large tourist packages are simply scared to go there due to the statistics of crime and murder that are getting reported and broadcast. Yes, there are certainly some spots in the city that are truly dangerous. But if you have a slight sense of how to handle to yourself and where not to go (you can always ask a local and they will be more than happy to tell you which streets to avoid), then you are as safe in New Orleans as you are anywhere and eating much better food, to boot.
[MC] - Your father, along with Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolf, Truman Capote and others, was one of the pioneers of New Journalism, where authors insert themselves into their stories. You use this technique with great effect in Music, Food, and Death. As a journalist, how did the technique help you tell the story more effectively?
[JBM] - I used this technique for two reasons; one was that I wanted the piece to read as though you were taking this trip with me, a partner in my crime so to speak. As I write this, I realize that the desire most likely came from my own experience the first time I went to NOLA on that road trip I mentioned before. If you have never been to the city, it is comforting to have a buddy there next to you to go through the same experiences with you. Life can get a little blurry while you're there (particularly after 10pm, when you are most likely drunk and in a swell mood). With a buddy by your side through the night, you can compare notes in the morning. Since I have the privilege of two local friends who were kind enough to guide me through the weekend, I wanted to give the reader the sense that they were part of our gang, driving right along with us.
The other reason I used this style is that given the current state of media, I am feeling more and more that you can only trust a story if you are aware of the perspective the journalist telling it is coming from. Objectivity in journalism is getting harder and harder to pull off and what used to be discussion has now been replaced by debate. Cable channels pick a side and preach to those who already agree with them (FOX News and MSNBC come to mind). Like my father, I am more of a Left Conservative than I am a far Right or Left Winger. What I care about is not pointing fingers at whom is to blame, but rather how do we work together to make this right. I felt that the only way I could make my agenda clear without being political or boring or preachy was to use this style that some people call New Journalism, so that you get a taste of my sensibilities before you have to trust what I am reporting back to you. Of late I only trust a reporter (provided they are not writing for a place where their story is vetted and an institution can be held accountable if the story should prove libelous) if they can put the words together in such a way that I don't have to guess as to where they're coming from. I don't have time to mine what their private agenda might be. Put it out on the table and let the reader decide what you are accurate on and what you are not.
[MC] - Why did you decide to publish Music, Food, and Death as an ebook?
[JBM] - After the piece reverted back to me from Playboy, I contemplated taking it to some of the other usual suspects who still remain strong in the publishing industry. However, as I take a more active role in the estate of my father with my family, I see more and more clearly that ebooks are the future of mass distribution. Of course we will always have print, as folding down a page, underlining a sentence that strikes you fondly, or getting the tangible copy of the words that have moved you signed by the author, are all experiences we are not going to give up any time soon. But given the conflagration of the environmental need to cut back on paper, the economic recession, and the freedom paperless distribution offers to an author, I thought this would be a great way for me to explore the pros and cons of ebook publishing first hand. I am admittedly a luddite, and have an almost unnatural fear of where our technological advances are taking us before we can even realize it, but as a 31 year old writer, actor, and producer, it is not a choice for me to put my head in the sand and ignore today, while thinking sweetly of the ways in which our world was more pleasant before the Technological Revolution of the 90's. So I see publishing Music, Food, and Death through Smashwords as a blessing of an education into the potentials and limitations of ebooks. I don't know if a few hundred people will read this piece as a result, or hundreds of thousands. It's the wild west of the publishing field and it is inherently American to feel the desire to explore the frontier.
[MC] - The media industry is undergoing tremendous transformation as media choices proliferate and old business models crumble. As an author, screenwriter and playwright, what do you make of changes in media and publishing, especially given your experience with Music, Food, and Death?
[JBM] - I think this is pretty much handled in the previous question, but I will add that I find Vooks (Video Enhanced Ebooks) to be the most exciting aspect to the new paradigms of publishing being invented at the moment. Selfishly for me, it combines all the fields I have been working in into one outlet. I do not think it will replace hard cover books or movies, but it is a new hybrid experience that will hopefully get more kids who are growing up in these ADD infused times to explore great works of literature that otherwise would seem too daunting given the limited time it seems everyone has to do anything these days.
[MC] - How did your father's experiences with book publishing influence your own views?
[JBM] - My Father explored blogging briefly in his last years with the Huffington Post and had a good bit of fun with it. Now, he was the guy who proudly stated time and again that he did not know how to turn on a computer, so it was never a question as to whether or not he was going to dive into the new technologies and embrace them. But he loved Arianna and this was fairly early on when she had started the Post, and so I think he just wanted to help her out. That said, I think he was intrigued by the direct contact and the ability to create sparks with only a few words. I think his problem with it, is the same as mine, which is that writing, good writing, rarely comes from the first draft. It is in the rewriting and the rewriting of that and the rewriting of that from which great literature comes about. The essence of a blog is that it is off the top of your head and not something one takes copious amounts of time to carve and craft. As it is here today, gone by the afternoon. There's nothing wrong with this as long as writers do not allow themselves to get lazy when they are doing something more formal, something for print or ebook publication, something that the writer expects people to spend their money on in order to read. Like anything, you get what you pay for. So if you're getting all your information for free, then it will most likely be of the caliber that comes when a writer writes without letting their thoughts digest. Even if their intent is to be accurate, it's a hard way to scratch at the truth. If you're willing to spend $2.00 on the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal (within reason) you can assume that the pieces you are reading are accurate, without typos, and of a level of newspaper writing that is a cut above what you will find for free on line. In general of course. There are always exceptions and there are a number of very good writers who spend their time doing blogs. I'm not trying to discount them. But I imagine they are even more frustrated than I am by the amount of slog out there one has to wade through to get to the good stuff.
I feel publishing follows the same paradigm. If people are no longer willing to pay for what it costs a publishing house to hire an author, editor, designer, printer, and distributor for books, then eventually, we will no longer have them. Which would be a shame. But it really depends on the desires of the public and I believe we will find out where their priorities lay over the course of the next ten to twenty years.
In Part II of this exclusive interview, John Buffalo Mailer tells how his father shaped him as a writer.