All About Mailer

Mailer archivist and biographer, J. Michael Lennon shared insights; USF professor’s new book is on bookstore shelves; and the new Mailer Review in now available.

USF English Professor Phillip Sipiora, author of Mind of an Outlaw with guest speaker J. Michael Lennon, author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life.
photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 23, 2013) – Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer Norman Mailer authorized his friend and long-time archivist J. Michael Lennon to chronicle his life and the much anticipated result, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, has finally arrived.

On the heels of a very favorable review of the book in The New York Times, by Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, who anointed it as “a glorious biography,” the USF community enjoyed a rare opportunity to meet Lennon. The author was hosted by the USF Department of English for a discussion and book-signing yesterday in the Marshall Student Center. This event was sponsored by the English Graduate Student Association. In his talk he focused on Mailer’s relationships with Muhammad Ali and John F. Kennedy, both of whom he wrote about extensively and memorably.

Lennon was able to include USF in his multiple-city book tour because he’s in the area for The Mailer Society’s 11th International Conference Oct. 23 to 27 at the Sarasota Holiday Inn Lido Beach. He is the founding president of the society.

A good friend of Mailer’s since 1972, Lennon interviewed him many times during his last years. Writing this book has forced Lennon to relive the loss of his good friend with each editing review. And he misses him.

“Norman was a very generous guy despite public reports about him – cordial, generous, curious about people,” he said. “He was a ferocious correspondent, and a loyal one. He dictated anywhere from 80 to 100 letters a day. If he received a serious letter, he would answer it. So many young writers wrote to him and he answered them. And he was religious about getting back to people with books or information he promised. When he returned from a trip, he had dozens of pieces of paper with notes and would take care of each and every one.”

In his role as literary executor of Mailer’s estate, Lennon was granted unfettered access to his private papers and unpublished letters as well as his family members and dozens of acquaintances.

Lennon’s wide-ranging biography marks a major milestone and now Lennon moves on to edit Mailer’s correspondence for a future volume devoted to the novelist, playwright, filmmaker, essayist and journalist who left behind a prodigious body of work.

Coming in at around 325,000 words, the book was cut down from 415,000. “I had to take out a lot, some of the fights and feuds – with Lillian Hellman and Diana Trilling,” he said. But he may get around to that material eventually. Still sifting through a lot of unpublished works and the letters, which will take another year, Lennon says he might do a memoir of his own.

Already under Lennon’s belt were Critical Essays on Norman Mailer in 1986, Conversations with Norman Mailer (1988), a collection of Mailer’s essays and insights on writing, The Spooky art (2003) and Norman Mailer's Letters on an American Dream (2004). With his wife, Donna, Lennon compiled Norman Mailer: Works and Days, a bio-bibliography. Lennon also co-authored On God: An Uncommon Conversation with Mailer that was published in 2008.

After building on the foundation of his previous books, working on A Double Life was, “like working on a painting or rather a mosaic.” He had a picture of the man he knew and after conducting 150 interviews learned a lot more. “And the mosaic got richer. His kids are reading it and saying, ‘I never knew that about my father.’”

In a Publisher’s Weekly interview, Lennon said of Mailer, “He speaks to anyone interested in the nature of the American experiment and American society. He was passionate in his belief in democracy, and very worried about creeping totalitarianism. From a literary angle, he’s carrying on the tradition of putting the self out in the world – not as a detached observer, but as a committed partisan and participant, getting involved and reporting what he’s seen and done.”

Lennon is connected to USF through his involvement with The Mailer Review, as chair of the editorial board working with USF English Professor Phillip Sipiora as its editor and Professor Michael L. Shuman as deputy editor.

“We are very excited about having this distinguished author with us to discuss Mailer’s intriguing life,” said Sipiora. “You can’t get much closer to Mailer the man and the intellectual than being able to talk with someone who knows all of his work intimately and who knew Mailer for 35 years along with his widow, Norris Church. He also talked with all of Mailer’s ex-wives, his sister and all of his children. As Mailer enters the pantheon of America’s greatest writers, we really are privileged in a way that I hope everyone will appreciate.”

Sipiora has a recently released book of his own about Mailer, Mind of An Outlaw (Random House), a compilation of selected essays – among Mailer’s best. He read from it and autographed copies at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading.

Lennon teaches creative writing at Wilkes University where he is emeritus professor of English.

For more information contact Brianna Jerman, managing editor of the Mailer Review, at

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563