Filed Under:

Not Quite Norman: Living Up To A Literary Legacy

Play associated audio

Alex Gilvarry is the author of the forthcoming novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

Ah, the writers colony. A place where solitude is sacred, and writing is prime. Nature, peace and quiet, drinking, casual sex, a respectable meal plan — to me, this is what the very word "colony" promises. My first experience at such a place was at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass. Unlike the more established colonies — Yaddo, Macdowell — the Mailer colony offered something additionally enticing: Work where he worked. Live where he lived. Suffer how he suffered.

I was midway through my "prison novel," as I referred to it because of its setting and how it made me feel (imprisoned). A month at the Mailer colony would do me some good. I could learn how to live like a career writer, if only by Mailer's example.

I did have some reservations. Since Mailer had been called one of the "most transparently competitive writers of his generation," I was dreading any competition I would feel among the other writers at the colony. As far back as I can remember, I've hated competing. When I was a kid on Staten Island, my mother would send me off to day camp where I would train for hours in various athletics. It was there, competing, that I discovered my unwillingness to take my shirt off during "lap time" in the pool, my inability to throw a baseball on target, and my assuredness to always come in dead last.

Mailer's home was a brick three-story house with bay frontage. Adorning the walls inside were pictures of the literary giant in his various guises: a boxer leaning against the ropes; the older, somber Mailer fighting a New England gust in his windbreaker. His writing room was exactly as he left it, and it had all the signs of a top competitor. There were dents in the floor where his chair had worn down the wood from so many hours seated in battle. Dumbbells and a weight machine with pulley to train his body so that it would be in sync with his taut mind. A small bed for power naps.

I took to the school of Mailer, reading him by night, imitating his work habits by day. But as I built up some stamina for the days ahead, I suddenly found myself in a competition. Not with my fellow writers, but with the giant Mailer legacy that surrounded me.

Each morning, I wrote with the dirty little secret to leave Mailer in my dust, to be better than him, maybe for all the childhood memories where I endured defeat at the hands of children more athletically coordinated. And one night, my own ambition took me to a place that tested my limits. I was alone, and in his kitchen I made one of Mailer's signature cocktails, an equal mixture of red wine and orange juice. As I swilled the one-part shiraz and one-part OJ in my mouth, I could barely hold it down. The contrast of the beverage's two ingredients sobered me enough to take a good look at myself.

Living like him was exasperating.

I gave up the race before my time at the colony was through. I couldn't beat Mailer. Indeed, when Mailer passed, he seemed to take an entire tradition with him. That's how big a giant I was dealing with.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Introducing Capital Soundtrack, A New WAMU Music Project

What does Washington sound like? Capital Soundtrack, a new music project from WAMU 88.5, explores that question.
NPR

Evaporated Cane Juice? Puh-leeze. Just Call It Sugar, FDA Says

Companies cultivating a healthful image often list "evaporated cane juice" in their products' ingredients. But the FDA says it's really just sugar, and that's what food labels should call it.
WAMU 88.5

The Politics Hour - May 27, 2016

Congress votes to override DC's 2013 ballot initiative on budget autonomy. Virginia governor faces a federal investigation over international finance and lobbying rules. And DC, Maryland and Virginia move to create a Metro safety oversight panel.

NPR

With Shuttles Gone, Private Ventures Give Florida's Space Coast A Lift

Five years after NASA's shuttle program ended, a new Florida aerospace industry is beginning to take shape. Firms, from those making jets to tiny Internet satellites, are adding factories and jobs.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.