Interviewed by Vicki Mayk
J. Michael Lennon’s literary identity has been intertwined with that of legendary writer Norman Mailer for more than a half century. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s authorized biographer and archivist, Lennon has written more about Mailer than anyone. The author of the biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life, published by Simon & Schuster in 2013, Lennon’s writing also has included essays, interviews, and literary criticism about many of Mailer’s contemporaries. In his new book, Mailer’s Last Days: New and Selected Remembrances of a Literary Life, Lennon makes his first foray into memoir.
Lennon is no stranger to the genre: As the co-founder of the Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University, where he is professor emeritus of English, Lennon has mentored many students writing memoir for their creative thesis. His new book marks the first time he has written his own memoir, tackling a braided form that includes examining the two fathers in his life – his biological father and Norman Mailer, who became another father figure during their long relationship.
Vicki Mayk: The title of your new book is “Mailer’s Last Days.” You’ve already written a great deal about Norman Mailer as his biographer. What is new and different in this book?
J. Michael Lennon: When I was writing as a biographer, I was obligated to remain outside the frame (although I violated this by including myself, described in the third person, on a few occasions when my involvement in Mailer’s life as his archivist and editor required a few self-cameos). Almost all of my personal relations with Mailer and his family, as well as my wife Donna’s interactions with them, had no place in the biography. I wasn’t able to write about these for a long time, partly out of reticence, and partly because I was unsure how to do it. I feared falling into the unsavory butler-tells-all kind of mode. So I waited, letting things settle, and also letting buried stuff float up.
In the new memoir, I emphasize two things: first, what I felt at the time about what Mailer said and did; second, how these memories later affected me…. Of course, memoir and biography operate to some extent on common ground, and some of the events depicted in the new book are repeats from the 2013 biography, but in the memoir pieces they are not so much reported as remembered. Felt life.
The other large difference is that I write about my family in the memoir. My father’s death in 1975—he was an alcoholic—coincides with the beginning of my relationship with Mailer, who supplanted my father in important ways (at least in my head), although the recognition of this grew slowly. Another big piece is the secret story of my grandfather Lennon, the family disgrace, which I helped uncover.
VM: That theme — your relationship with your father and your emerging awareness that Mailer was a father figure in your life: Writers often talk about needing distance to write about topics like this. I take it you have that distance
JML: Yes, finally. It took a long while, decades. I should add that my father never met Mailer, but he replaced him in my unconscious. This transfer is explored in what is probably the book’s key essay, “Fathers and Sons.”
VM: The book’s subtitle – New and Selected Remembrances of a Life in Literature – reflects that it isn’t confined to a single genre: it combines memoir with an anthology of criticism, reviews and articles. How did you decide on this format?
JML: There was no format, not for a long while. I had four or five unpublished memoir pieces, all written after Mailer died, and about 50 published essays and reviews. They are about great writers: James Jones, Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Bishop, Joan Didion. And they are all very American writers; they walk the same walk as Mailer, and most are contemporaries. Their works illumine Mailer’s and vice versa.
Initially, I didn’t see the two kinds of writing as partnering in one volume. But some of the essays and reviews contained personal memories of Mailer, and some of the memoir pieces contained literary insights and anecdotes. I began to sense a slender bridge between them. Some books by friends accelerated the process. A collection of literary essays and a memoir, by my friend Bob Begiebing, and a collection of essays and memoir narratives by another friend, Phil Brady (a Wilkes creative writing faculty member and executive director of Etruscan Press), gave me a sense of how a braided collection might be assembled.
Brady offered to publish the collection, but said he wanted to see more memoir pieces. Bob Mooney (Etruscan executive editor and another Wilkes faculty member), who became my editor, was even more insistent. “More Lennon,” they both said. Mooney encouraged me to write several new memoir pieces, and most important, a memoirish prologue. Many of the literary essays and reviews were dropped, and those remaining all had a tangible connection to Mailer, including the review of Brady’s collection. I wrote headnotes to all the literary pieces underlining the Mailer connections
VM: Some of my favorite pieces in this book are “The Archivist’s Apprentice” and “Meeting Mailer.” Those chapters are so rich in detail! I love your description of the miscellaneous items in the archive – such as Mailer’s dog tags and his beloved standard poodle’s collar. Were those chapters written expressly for this book?
JML: The second was written at the behest of Bob Mooney. The first one was written earlier in homage to Bob Lucid, the original Mailer archivist. When he died in 2006, I was his understudy, and took over as Mailer’s authorized biographer. But “The Archivist’s Apprentice” was expanded when the book was accepted. Readers relish the particulars of literary lore. I always have: lost manuscripts, favorite drinks, feuds, pets and lovers, restaurants—Elaine’s in New York, for example—nasty reviews, editors, blurbs, the whole shebang.
VM: You included excerpts from a journal you kept when you were living near Mailer and his wife Norris in Provincetown, up to and including his death. Many writers feel compelled to re-write the material from journals before including it in a book. Your journal entries give such a feeling of immediacy to the events they cover. Why did you choose to share actual entries?
JML: I have to admit that I did clean up the journal, but no major surgery. Just repairing broken sentences, adding book titles and publication dates, dropping repetitions. There is nothing like a found letter or journal, un-edited, raw, revealing, head-long. I tried to keep the spontaneous, contemporaneous nature of my “Mailer Log” intact.
VM: You’ve focused your career on biography and literary criticism. With this book, you’ve written memoir. What led you to take the leap into that genre at this point in your writing life?
JML: It was difficult at first. I was always suspicious of memoirs. But there are few pleasures superior to overcoming a long-standing distaste. My work with a lot of memoirists at Wilkes University’s Maslow Graduate Creative Writing Program helped me vault the fence into memoir. The world of memoir is much different, more carnal, immediate, personal, than the biographical, Ph.D. world of detachment and balanced inquiry. I made the leap.
VM: Why do you say you were suspicious of memoir – and what changed?
JML: Well, number one, I always thought that memoirs were very self-involved. They were self-advancing, self-promoting. How can you be objective about yourself? It’s much easier to be objective and fair minded about someone else. When you are a biographer, you are relentless. You go after every fact. You are what you know, so I had to get over that. I had to see memoir as more of a cousin to biography than an advertisement for myself. And that took me a while. And that’s why it took me a long time to write these pieces. I thought about them for years. Of course, I knew that there were a lot of good memoirs, and ones that I had enjoyed.
VM: The memoir pieces in the book combine several narrative threads. What makes a braided narrative effective in memoir – and is there one that you admire?
JML: I’ve worked with so many people who have written memoirs in the Wilkes University creative writing program over the last 18 years. The primary criticism that always comes back from their outside readers is that they write about different parts of their life, but they don’t hold it together in any way. There’s no string for the pearls. You need some kind of through line that’s going to hold it together.
The string for the pearls for me was fathers and sons. I had Mailer and his father. I had me and my father. I had my father and his father. I had all of those fathers and sons. And the fact that I had two fathers, Mailer and my own father, became the thing that brought it together. That’s why it was so important that I had to write about my own father and about his father. So you need a string for your pearls: You can have a variety of things that don’t have anything in common, but they all have to speak to each other in a certain way. One of the keys to a braided narrative is that you have to make your readers partners in seeing the connections.
I always tell people to read is H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It’s a great book with several narrative threads: It’s not only about her attempt to deal with her own depression about the death of her father, but also about the end of a love affair, and taming a hawk. She also brings in T.H. White as another thread. White, who wrote the book The Once and Future King, which became the basis for Camelot, also took up falconry. She was able to put together all of those things in a way that spoke to readers.
VM: I want to end by talking about the closing essay in the book, “Fathers and Sons,” and your search for your Grandfather Lennon, because it combines memoir with the biographer’s research skills. It’s fascinating. It started with your landlady when you were a college student and ended with you finding a photograph. Tell me about that.
JML: A lot of that story started coming together starting in 1963 when I first met Mrs. Loud, the landlady who told me that she knew a man named Hugh Lennon and met him at the racetrack. That photograph turned up years later in a pile of photographs that my sister had. It was my grandfather, the one who deserted the family. That’s the first time I ever saw his face. And I could see he was a handsome man – it was very clear that he looked like a heartbreaker….And there he was, standing behind the counter: He was the manager of an A&P store.
It was on a postcard: You could do that in those days; you could take a photograph and it put I on a postcard. He had sent it to his future wife’s sister. He didn’t marry my grandmother until maybe four years later….And I immediately thought, ‘Well, I wonder if that’s how he met her.’ So I had that postcard, I had the date of the postcard and I had the fact that I knew he worked in an A&P store. And I knew he got fired there for embezzling the money. And he was a gambler. So that was a great breakthrough for me. My sister said, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of interesting.’ I said, ’What do you mean, it’s kind of interesting? It’s incredible!’ All the pieces came together when I found that photo. I knew the story, but it came out very slowly over, you know, basically a half a century.