'You're in the Lap of History': As He Turns 80, Norman Mailer Talks about Writing, Aging, Reincarnation, Presidential Sex and Crossword Puzzles. Another Day at the Beach

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Byline: Malcolm Jones

"The Spooky Art," Norman Mailer's book about writing, will appear on Jan. 31, his 80th birthday. Since his debut novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), Mailer has written 31 more books. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He has directed four films and written 10 screenplays. He has been married six times and has nine children. He was once arrested for stabbing his second wife. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He helped found The Village Voice. He has arthritis in his knees and sometimes walks with two canes. His voice is roughly musical, like a man gargling marbles. With his wife, the artist and novelist Norris Church Mailer, he lives in a brick house beside the ocean in Provincetown, Mass., where he recently sat down for an interview with NEWSWEEK. He does not like interviews.

NEWSWEEK: You were once a fixture on the New York literary scene. Now you live here in Provincetown year-round?

MAILER: Yes, mainly because I can get more work done here. And I love the town. It's probably the freest place on the Eastern Seaboard. It's got a long tradition, starting with pirates and smugglers. And the Pilgrims. But there really is something easy here. Nobody gives a damn what you do. Or what you did. Nobody's that taken with your importance.

Can you say a little about the novel you're working on?

I'm not going to talk about that novel, because I'd talk it away. I won't even mention the subject. But I've got about 200 pages written on it, and it'll probably keep me busy for the rest of my writing years--at least. It's as ambitious as anything I've ever tackled. Writing novels is physically damaging. On the other hand, what I have is, you might say, more craft and less smoke.

Have there been books before that you knew better than to talk about?

No. People weren't that interested. When I was doing that book on Egypt ["Ancient Evenings"], they were saying, "Oh... how very... interesting." But this would be impossible to keep quiet about. I mean, if I were writing--which I'm obviously not--about George W. Bush's secret sex life, and I mentioned that, how could questions not follow?

The Bush amours might be a short book.

We don't know. I think it would be damned impressive if he has a secret sex life. A very intelligent woman was talking to me about Bill Clinton's troubles and said, "You know, he really was like a prisoner, 'cause every 15 seconds the Secret Service would be clocking him." If you're a convict--and he was in the finest minimum-security prison in the world--then your pride is to beat the system. So he had to do it, for his own manliness. After all, we do want a manly president, don't we? Yet look what happened, now we've got one.

So what do you make of Iraq?

Leaving aside all the usual explanations--the oil, the fact that if the people in power in this country win they will then have this commanding position in the Near East--forgetting all that, the fact is, that war could just go on and on and on. But I don't think that bothers our leaders very much. I think they kind of like the idea that if the country gets very military, then they can stop all the "frees"--free love, gay liberation, women's liberation, all the things they detest. There's no question that the level of uncertainty, the absence of absolutes, has probably never been greater. So the longer the danger goes on, the longer they have to create a new kind of society. We're in for curious times.

Do writers need things to chafe against?

Probably. Ah, we pearls.

In the new book, you argue against any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

I say that it's all fiction, yeah. Working on "The Executioner's Song," I wanted it to be as accurate as I could possibly make it. And yet when I was done, a couple of major figures in it were unhappy. I loved [Gary Gilmore's girlfriend] Nicole, for example, but I gather she thought, "That's not me. …