JACKI LYDEN, host:
Normal Mailer's first novel in a decade is an intersection of good and evil, heaven and hell, man and wife, father and daughter. It's an inferno of elements, and we do mean inferno, since the narrator of "The Castle in the Forest" is none other than a devil posing as one of Adolf Hitler's S.S. intelligence officers. The narrator writes years later about how he guided the early life of the young Adolf Hitler - from his conception to early adolescence. Mailer's devil narrator is smart, elegant and ironic. And there is something of Norman Mailer himself in that devil, since the narrator rarely meets a boundary he doesn't break. Norman Mailer joins us now to talk about his new book in the context of a long career. Welcome, Norman Mailer.
Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Author): Well, thank you. Thank you for calling me a cousin of someone who's elegant.
LYDEN: Perhaps a first degree relation.
Mr. MAILER: It's not the word usually applied to me.
LYDEN: May I put this on the table? The first 75 pages of this book are sex, incest, more sex, more incest, scatological references, couplings - yet you do keep the architecture of the historical Hitler family. I would like to ask you why the emphasis and obsession with incest? You even come with a new noun to describe its result.
Mr. MAILER: I think that we really are in need of special explanations for Adolf Hitler. I got started on all this all over again because I've been obsessed with Hitler all my life. You can't be Jewish without thinking a great deal about Adolf Hitler all the time. But in any event I got - my energies came into high focus on it when I read a book by Ron Rosenbaum called "Explaining Hitler." He interviewed about 15 people on their explanation of Hitler. They'd done work on him, they'd written about him. Every one of the explanations was different to an extent. None of them, for my money, could explain Hitler. I was immensely stimulated by the book, but by the end of it I thought, explanations of Hitler had to be exceptional. And that was how I came up with the notion, yes, absolutely; he had to be the progeny of the devil. In fact, I go so far as to believe that just as Gabriel was present at the conception of Jesus Christ, there as an agent of God - so was the devil present at the conception of Adolf Hitler.
LYDEN: And in virtually every historical suggestion that incest or something untoward may have been possible in the Hitler lineage, you take fictional fancy with that.
Mr. MAILER: I take the fictional liberty of assuming, yes, he was an incestuous product. There's a great deal of historical likelihood of this incest at various levels of intensity. At the least, his mother used to call his father Uncle Alois. She called him uncle all through their marriage. This is all immensely complicated. And believe me, in the book I try to do it in a few pages rather than in a few words like now.
LYDEN: Let me ask you this, you write that Heinrich Himmler subscribed to the theory that the best human possibilities lie close to the worst.
Mr. MAILER: Yes.
LYDEN: Is that something you believe yourself?
Mr. MAILER: Now that's not historically true; there's no record of Himmler ever saying that. It's a notion I've had for many years. And, you know, when you're writing about people, if you want to be a good novelist, you've got to be ready to ascribe some of your own ideas to monsters. You know, you can't say, oh I can't give my thought to this monster, that would make me a monster. You see. I've often had this notion the best lie close to the worst. And I chose to give it to Heinrich Himmler when he gives his large speech at the beginning of the book about incest.
LYDEN: In which he's basically saying that it can be terrible or Hitler somehow survived its worst ravages and became this demonic product.
Mr. MAILER: Well I think what Himmler's saying - now that I think, I know what Himmler's saying in my book - is that the propinquity of the genes, if you will, in incest creates a possibility for a great person or a monster because they tend -certain tendencies are reinforced by the similarity of the genes. This is Himmler's argument. So then he goes on into a peroration about the greatness of Adolf Hitler because he went through all the dangers of incest and came out this historic genius. Now this is - these are Himmler's words, of course, not mine.
LYDEN: You say that you've been fascinated with Adolf Hitler since you were a child, that you can't grow up Jewish without being obsessed with Hitler. Why did it take you so long then, until your 80s, to write this novel of his imagined childhood, "The Castle in the Forest"?
Mr. MAILER: I know a working author lives with more than one book at a time. There's the book you're working on, there's the book you're thinking that you may do next, and then there are generally three or four books that are very much like interesting but distant relatives who sit around the periphery of your mind. So by the same token, the thought of doing a book about Hitler was a large notion, but pretty much out on the periphery of my intentions until, as I say, I read Ron Rosenbaum's book and then it came into high focus very quickly. I wanted to do the book. And I realized suddenly that I thought I'd be able to do the book. You know, it's one thing to want to do a book. It's another to think as a professional, yes, this is within my range.
LYDEN: In your bibliography, which is absolutely prodigious here, it goes to around 125 other books. It cites most of the major works of Nietzsche, books on the occult roots of Nazism, Nordic myths, Milton's "Paradise Lost." For a man who's crafted his life around writing about the tough edges of society, whether it be a political convention or boxing, or assassins or criminals you're very fascinated with the mystical. And I'm wondering what it is that the occult gives you here that reality didn't, especially when it comes to telling this imagined story of Hitler's childhood.
Mr. MAILER: The occult lives in my mind like a rumor that becomes somewhat obsessive because you don't know if it's true or not. I've been fascinated with the occult because I don't have a fixed opinion on it. I don't say to myself, oh this is nonsense. And I certainly don't say to myself, this is real. I keep alternating in my attitude toward it and so I'm interested enough to keep going back and reading more about it.
LYDEN: Do you think Hitler was influenced by the occult?
Mr. MAILER: There's a lot of argument about how much he was influenced by the occult. I think he certainly dabbled at the edges of it, but I also - very often people who have magical powers, or extra powers if you will, tend to dislike the occult. They don't want to be associated with it. They're happy with the powers they have and they don't want to go near the occult. Given my notion that Hitler was guided by a demon working for the devil, the last thing he wanted was to be associated with the occult.
LYDEN: Norman Mailer, are children, do you think, born monsters or do they become monsters?
Mr. MAILER: Well, by my book, it's obvious that it's not even easy or routine to make a monster of someone. You need a devil working fulltime and worrying about all the ways in which he can make him a monster and all the perils that beset him, because in this book I began to see these two warring bureaucracies of angels and demons and the worries that they each have. I didn't want to get into the notion that the devil steps in and seizes you and that's the end of you and then you're forever devil bound for the rest of your existence. Rather as the devil in the book who's telling the story narrates it, it's a matter of very slowly and very skillfully gaining purchase by purchase, bit by bit upon what they call the client's soul. I happen to believe that there is a God, and very much there's a God who's a creative God. I don't believe in God as a law giver because God does not sit in total control of us. God learns from us as well as enriching us and as well as occasionally, perhaps, punishing us. But the whole notion of heaven and hell I find absolutely wasteful. The thought that we go through every last thing we go through in order to sit forever in Club Med or in a fiery furnace makes no sense to me whatsoever.
LYDEN: Mr. Mailer, before we finish this interview, I'd like to turn away from "The Castle in the Forest" for just a couple of minutes. You are standing on a long literary career of some 40 books. You're writing about characters who are outcasts quite often. Characters who it is difficult to have empathy with -people like Jack Henry Abbott and Gary Gilmore, criminals, assassins like Lee Harvey Oswald. It makes me wonder about your imagination and whether you have an empathy for what other people might consider to be warped.
Mr. MAILER: I was always interested in writing about people whose lives were not in the mainstream. And so I wrote about a good many celebrities as well. I even dared to write a book about Jesus Christ. I certainly wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller, Muhammad Ali - those sort of people always fascinate me. People who are larger than life and separated, to a degree, from society.
LYDEN: You spent a very long time writing this book on Hitler. Are there any contemporary figures, Norman Mailer, you might be interested in writing about?
Mr. MAILER: Not at the moment. Not at the moment. Years ago I used to think, for instance, of doing a book about Fidel Castro and didn't. That's an example of what I meant earlier when I was talking about books that sit on the periphery of your attention. No, I think Hitler is large enough for me at the moment. If I have one more book left in me, I think I'd like to do it about him.
LYDEN: Well I understand that you're thinking about writing a sequel to "The Castle in the Forest."
Mr. MAILER: Yes, but I'm not promising it for a very simple reason. At the age of 84, let's say I'm now 84, even though it's a week away, you don't know when the ball's going to roll off the table. You don't know when you're going to step out of bed and break your ankle, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You don't know, worst of all, you don't know when you might possibly have a stroke or something that disqualifies you as an intellectual. So let me just say I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but I would like to write that book.
LYDEN: We wish you happy birthday.
Mr. MAILER: Thank you.
LYDEN: Norman Mailer turns 84 next week. To read an excerpt from his new book, "The Castle in the Forest," visit our Web site at npr.org.