What the writer taught his son has shaped his life and helped him cope with his mother’s cancer.
Question: What was itrnlike growing up as Norman Mailer’s son?rnrn
John Buffalo Mailer:rnIt’s always an interesting question of what was it like as Norman rnMailer’s sonrnbecause I could easily turn it back and say what’s it like not to. I don’t really have a comparison asidernfrom friends of mine and discussions, but I think I do have a gauge of rnsome ofrnthe differences that it would be, because I didn’t always realize my dadrn wasrnNorman Mailer. I always knew hernwas Dad, and then I forget the exact age when it dawned on me that, you rnknow,rnhe is actually someone who affects the public consciousness of the time. It was amazing. I mean he was arn rock star and brilliantrnand kind and funny and generous and scary when he needed to be and, you rnknow,rnhard as a father. I mean hernexpected a lot from us and he really pushed us and you know one of his rnfavoriternlines was, “If you think I’m being hard on you, wait until life hits yournbecause life is a hell of a lot tougher than I am.” Andrn I took everything he said to heart. He taught mern how to write, which wasrnscary and intimidating and hard, but ultimately one of the biggest giftsrn Irncould have ever asked for.rnrn
There is one moment that actually comes to mind rnwhen yournthink of the kind of crystallizing factor. You rnknow I kind of lived a utopian existence until I wasrnabout 20, 21 when my mom got sick with cancer and it was bad. It was very scary and at the time I wasrndoing my first screenplay and I was on deadline and was alone with my rnfather inrnMassachusetts. She was recoveringrnin the hospital. We were goingrnback and forth and she wasn’t going to be able to come home for a few rndays, butrnwe knew about the longer road ahead and the chemo and the radiation and rnall ofrnthat and at a certain point I said to my dad. I rnsaid, “Pop, you know, I don’t how I’m going to work. Irndon’t know how I can get this done. You know, I got to hand this script rnin andrnI can’t think about anything but Mom.” rnHe said, “Well, you know, now is the time when you’re going to rnlearn whatrnit means to compartmentalize.” Andrnthose words really had an impact on me and have enabled me through the rnlast 10rnyears of more surgeries than I care to remember and more scary times rnthan Irnwish my mother had ever had to go through. Those rnwords enabled me to actually continue to do my job andrnto get my work done, which is so important if you… I mean for all those rnwhornhave kind of helped someone heal through a sickness you know it’s just rnsornimportant to be able bring exciting news to the table and to be able to rngetrntheir minds off of the fact that they’re sick and to do that you got to rnworkrnyour ass off and have some successes and bring in some things, so those rnwords Irnmean I could pick a million different instances with my dad, but that rnonernmoment when he you know he didn’t say, “I understand.” “Gorn lay down and cry.” “Go do this.” rn He said, “No, be a man.” “Stand up, rncompartmentalize.” “Get your work done.” rnAnd that is really what it means to be a man is to take on all rnthernemotional pain and work through what you got to work through with the rnpeoplernyou love while at the same time getting your business done. And it’s rntough. Irnthink that most children when they grow up they kind of realize that thern thingsrnthey didn’t like about their parents or didn’t understand about them rnthey getrnnow and that you know every year you get more responsibilities. You get more overhead. You get rnmore things you got to takerncare off. It’s hard to keep arnchipper, open, happy attitude about it all the time and you shouldn’t rnbecausernpart of it is preparing your kids for when they’re going to take over rnthe reinsrnand do it, so I was just incredibly thankful of that particular moment.rnrn
Question: What did yourrnfather teach you about writing?rnrn
John Buffalo Mailer: rn Oh, wow. Well he probably taught me rneverything I know, aside fromrndialogue, which I think I get from my mom a lot more. Hern certainly didn’t teach me everything he knew, but yournknow he has got this book out called "The Spooky Art," which is rnessentially anrnadvanced book on writing and it’s not… rnYou know it’s not ABC, but it’s for people who feel that bug and rnknowrnthat they’re writers and are willing to put in that time alone. Pretty much the vast majority of whatrnhe taught me you can find in that book. rnYou know some basic things of "Don’t say something twice. Find the right way to say it. Don’trn use words you don’t need. Don’t use adjectives rnto describernsomething." There is some basicrnstuff in there. The nuance of arncharacter and the journey and what it means to write a novel. You know rnthesernare deep philosophical conversations that you can’t really put a buttonrnon.
Work ethic is rnone of thernbiggest things he taught me. Thatrnman worked like every day, every day, 9 to 5, well 9 to 9 in his case, rnbut hernwould treat it as if it was a 9 to 5 job. rnHe would clock in. He wouldrnput in his hours. That is how yourncan write those you know incredibly long books that unfortunately there rnis notrnmuch market for anymore, but that is also how you can explore an idea onrn arndeeper level than we get in our media surface these days. rn It’s tough.rnrn
I mean, just on a little side note with that one ofrn thernreasons I’m so happy to be doing this show is because one of the virtuesrn of thernInternet is that now for those who want it you can get into something rnthat isrndeeper than what you have in 35 seconds or a minute on whichever pundit rnshowrnyou’re doing, which are essentially designed to reinforce what people rnalreadyrnthink and not make them question anything. Noam rnChomsky is, in some ways, a victim of this newrnmillennium we live in because you can’t pull a sound bite from that guy rnandrnunderstand what he is talking about. rnYou have to hear the whole paragraph. You rnhave to hear the whole page. You’ve got to hear rnthe whole conversation if you really wantrnto understand it and that could change your life. But it’s almost as rnthoughrnwe’ve been duped into believing we don’t have 25 minutes to have rnsomethingrnchange our life. We don’t havern2. You know, we’re tweeting. We’rern running around. We’re 15 words or less. You know that to me I don’t think therernis any conspiracy or master plan behind it, but it does echo "NineteenrnEighty-Four" and you combine that with you know the amount of rnmedications thatrndoctors are prescribing for people and suddenly we’re in "Brave New rnWorld" andrnit’s this bizarre combination of events that I don’t think was planned. I don’t think is any kind of plot onrnanyone’s part. It’s just that ourrnsystem is gearing us this way and we need to address that. rn We need to address that publicly in arnway that is productive, in a way that actually gives people tangible rnthingsrnthey can do to stop the insanity of being available every moment, thingsrn likernthat.
Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen