Not Quite Norman: Living Up To A Literary Legacy | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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/.

NPR

Infiltrating 'The Dark Net', Where Criminals, Trolls And Extremists Reign

Jamie Bartlett exposes an encrypted underworld to the Internet in his book The Dark Net: "Anybody with something to hide, whether it's for good reasons or for ill, finds a very natural home there."
NPR

Drought May Cost California's Farmers Almost $3 Billion In 2015

The state's farmers could be out $2.7 billion dollars and more than 18,000 jobs, with 564,000 acres fallowed by the end of 2015, researchers at UC Davis write in a new report.
NPR

Introducing The First Non-Medical Intern's Union In The U.S.

At the American Teachers Federation, the union's interns are putting their foot down. After about a year of negotiating, they have voted to form their own union.
NPR

Detroit Hopes To Drive Tech Startups Away From Silicon Valley

It doesn't have a lot of high-tech companies, but the city is interested in attracting young tech entrepreneurs. Detroit's rents are far more affordable, but then there are the brutally cold winters.

Leave a Comment

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