Behind the Pen: Norman Mailer on the influences of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner

Norman Mailer

Remarkably, Dwayne Raymond’s Mornings with Mailer (Harper Perennial) has sat untouched on my bookshelf for four years. Or rather it had done until I randomly picked it up on Friday and began reading it. This tender and intimate memoir, which recalls the spring of 2003 to November 2007 when the author suddenly and quite unexpectedly found himself working as Norman Mailer’s personal assistant in the Cape Cod town where they both lived, is a peach of a book and I highly recommended it. There are few titles which grab me from the very first paragraph but Mornings with Mailer certainly did.

Now, if you’re thinking that I’m specifically featuring Mornings with Mailer in this edition of Behind the Pen, then you’d be wrong. Rather, the book acted as a catalyst, and I wanted to let you know this in my lead in.

You see, when I embark on reading any memoir or biography relating to an author, I always like to flesh out the detail with research (trust me, when I read biographies on writers it’s a perfect example of the ‘slow reading movement’ in action), and so I spent much of the weekend not only virtually strolling around the streets of Provincetown on Google Street View, but also dredging through old interviews with the iconic author.

One of these interviews, conducted by the Academy of Achievement in 2004, focuses on the literary life. Transcribed and presented in part in video, this interview with Mailer touches on many wonderful aspects of the writerly life, but of particular interest to me (what with me being a huge fan, of course) was what Mailer had to say on the influences of not only Ernest Hemingway, but of William Faulkner too. As always this is extraordinarily erudite and insightful from Mailer – a real golden nugget – and I couldn’t resist sharing it:

I got a sense of the power of restraint from Hemingway, which is the smallest way to put it because I got much more than that from him. I learned the power of simple language in English. He showed what a powerful instrument English is if you keep the language simple, if you don’t use too many Latinate words. And, from Faulkner I learned the exact opposite, that excess can be thrilling, that, “Don’t hold yourself in. Don’t rein yourself in. Go all the way. Go over the top. Overdo it.” And between the two, it’s almost as if you’ve now been given your parameters. This is the best of one extreme and this is the best of another and, somewhere between the two you may be able to find your style in time to come. But, it does open you, if you love both Hemingway and Faulkner as I did, it opens you to experimentation.

What about that, eh? And if you would like to hear these exact words pouring from Mailer’s mouth then you can do (third video). And while you’re at it *do* also make sure that you take in the rest of the interview too, because it truly is unmissable.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).