Norris Church Mailer Interview: 'A Ticket to the Circus' Her Life and Times with Husband Norman Mailer
Image attributed to Norris Church Mailer
Norris Church Mailer (born Barbara Jean Davis in 1949) is the widow of novelist journalist Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923-November 10, 2007). His sixth and last wife, the Arkansas native is a former New York Wilhelmina model and art teacher turned author.
Norris Mailer has penned two novels, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds and has just recently completed her memoir A Ticket to the Circus.
“There are a whole lot of men who don’t and I appreciate that. I don’t think my first husband ever cheated.”
The autobiography paints a portrait of her life from early beginnings in a small southern town and the struggle to find her way in the world amidst strict Baptist teachings. It explores her instant attraction to Norman Mailer, after meeting him at a party in the hopes of obtaining his autograph inside Marilyn, a biography written by the controversial writer in 1973.
In A Ticket to the Circus, Mailer also tells many anecdotes about she and Norman’s 32 years together and of his notorious infidelities that shattered her trust in the man she loved so completely.
Since 1999, Mailer has had multiple treatments and surgeries for a rare gastrointestinal cancer. But, she speaks as she writes, with grace, intelligence, and an unpretentious zeal for living life to the fullest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Norris, A Ticket to the Circus is a fascinating read.
Norris Church Mailer: Oh thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think Norman’s first words would have been if he had gotten the chance to read it?
Norris Church Mailer: Gosh, I don’t know what he would have thought. I think he would be very proud of me on one hand. He had this “Henry Higgins” complex. I was always his star pupil. He loved it when I did well at things.
He may have been jealous at the reviews (laughs). But, I think he would think it was fair.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would he have changed, added, or deleted anything in the story?
Norris Church Mailer: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I can’t talk for him, obviously, but I tried to be fair.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has your first husband read the book?
Norris Church Mailer: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him since it came out. We were congenial and friendly before the book was published. I sort of bent over backwards to be fair to him, too. There was lots of stuff I could have put in there that I didn’t. But, nobody’s ever happy about the way they are portrayed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I suppose the credit goes to Marilyn Monroe for bringing you and Norman together.
Norris Church Mailer: Exactly … that and my bad memory of not sending the card back to the Book of the Month Club saying that I didn’t want the book.
There had to be a whole string of things that happened before we got together. It’s like that movie, Sliding Doors, where one set of circumstances happen if she makes the subway and another set of circumstances happen if she doesn’t.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you got together with Norman and the two of you became serious, did you ever ask him if he would be faithful to you?
Norris Church Mailer: Not head on. I don’t think I ever asked him that because he made so much of the fact that he wanted to have a monogamous relationship.
In some of the letters he talked about it. He wanted to try it – he had never done it. He’d been married since he was 20 years old and had cheated on every single wife. He just wanted to try to see how deep a relationship could get with a woman when you’re not cheating, you’re not lying, and you’re not sneaking around.
At that point, I think he was just tired of it. He had this whole string of women that he was trying to juggle and it was just wearing him out. I think he was really ready to stop it all at that point. That really went on for several years.
I think for about 8 years he was more or less true to me. Then he was more or less not. That’s why I got rolled into thinking that it was just me. People ask, “How did you not know?” Well, first of all, as Norman said, “It’s not hard to fool somebody who loves and trusts you.” Secondly, he had been true to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did he ever tell you why he couldn’t be faithful to one woman?
Norris Church Mailer: No, that was just the way he was.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You state in the book that most all men will cheat given the chance.
Norris Church Mailer: Well, I don’t think a hundred percent of men will, no. I think a large percentage of them will, given the right circumstances and the right woman. But, I don’t think my dad ever cheated on my mom. One always puts one’s dad up on a pedestal.
There are a whole lot of men who don’t and I appreciate that. I don’t think my first husband ever cheated.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you get past the infidelities?
Norris Church Mailer: You don’t ever really get past it. You just remake your relationship. You have a different one. Not that it’s a bad relationship; it’s just a different one. You’ll never have that same dewy-eyed love that you had in the beginning but you don’t have that forever anyway.
We got through the bad part and we had 17 pretty good years afterward. They weren’t like they would have been probably if none of that had happened, but they were good years. We had good times.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was forgiveness automatic or did that take time?
Norris Church Mailer: No, you never really forgive. My little metaphor I used to use was that I took a step away from him in my heart and I never quite got back. But, I never took another step away either.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did the two of you discuss Carole Mallory, a woman he was seeing while you were married?
Norris Church Mailer: We did nothing but talk about that for years after I found out. He would try to explain, he would … I mean, it was … we fought for a long time over that one.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She came out with her book, Loving Mailer, in March.
Norris Church Mailer: Oh yeah … my pub date, by the way. What a coincidence. But, anyway, I don’t want to talk about her. She’s not in my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your Baptist upbringing was rather strict.
Norris Church Mailer: Well, it was so hard because they get up there and preach that you can’t do this and you can’t do that or you’ll go to Hell. It’s just Hell, Hell, Hell, all of the time.
It’s just such an ugly thing to do to kids especially. Little ones are terrified. I was terrified the whole time I was a child because of all of those Hell sermons. I was just afraid to do anything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a very religious person now?
Norris Church Mailer: I wouldn’t say religious. I would say spiritual – there is a difference to me. I don’t hold to organize religion. I don’t think there’s a group of people that have a handle on what’s real. But, I think there is something else out there.
I think there is a God that made all of this. I don’t think all of this just happened out of nothing. Like, a big bang happened and suddenly there’s the species and the world.
I think there is another life after this one; I just don’t know what it’s going to be like. If there’s not, it doesn’t matter anyway. But, it’s a nice thing to think about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You married your first husband because you felt guilty about having pre-marital sex. Would you say you married Norman to rebel against your church because he was married?
Norris Church Mailer: I didn’t marry Norman to rebel. I did it because I fell in love with him. He was an exciting man and offered me an exciting life. But … it was rebelling I guess, looking back.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is a passage in the book where you’re talking about Larry’s mother who was in the hospital and you say, “We don’t play God when we take terminal patients off life support; we play God when we put them on it.”
Norris Church Mailer: Yes, that’s what I think.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So you think extreme measures should never be used to save someone who is dying?
Norris Church Mailer: Well, I don’t know about never. It depends on what the person wants. I don’t want extreme measures. I have a Living Will. I don’t want to have tubes and feeding tubes and all of that stuff.
I watched my father lay there for five months. I put a feeding tube in him because I couldn’t stand the thought of him starving and it just prolonged his agony. I would never do that again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Norris, what were Norman’s habits when he was writing?
Norris Church Mailer: He had a studio he’d go to every day just down the street. He didn’t have a phone; he’d just go, shut the door and write.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed reading The Naked and the Dead. The movie was quite successful also.
Norris Church Mailer: I’ve never seen that movie, but Norman hated it. He didn’t feel like it was the book at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure many authors feel that way, that films do not do justice to the original books. I read where his novel, The Castle in the Forest, won the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award.” It’s given to the author who produces the worse description of a sex scene in a novel.
Norris Church Mailer: (laughs) I didn’t know there was such a thing!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Describe your writing process.
Norris Church Mailer: I compose on the computer and don’t have an outline. I just sort of sit down and start telling the story and it comes out the ends of my fingers. That’s the best way I know how to describe it.
I have a general idea and characters in mind. When it really is successful, the characters take off and you just kind of follow them around and write down what they do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was preparing for this book different than writing the previous two novels?
Norris Church Mailer: Yes, this is much different because it was non-fiction and the story was laid out for me. Everybody thinks the other two books are my life.
When you read this book and you read the novels, you’ll find things that are similar. That’s what writers do. They take pieces of their life and they turn it into fiction. But, my characters in my novels are not me. I didn’t have those lives or do the things they did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You seemed so happy as an art teacher. Do you still paint?
Norris Church Mailer: I do. I have my easel up and I do a little painting from time to time. I haven’t had a show in many years, though. I’ve been writing and I’ve had these health problems that take up a lot of time so it’s hard to do it all. But, I do like to paint.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How is your health now?
Norris Church Mailer: Not very good. The cancer is just a struggle.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you in pain?
Norris Church Mailer: No, they have really great pain medicines. At least they don’t like you to be in pain and I try not to be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve had to endure several surgeries.
Norris Church Mailer: Yes, I think I’ve had 7 or 8 major ones and I don’t know how many little ones.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve certainly led an interesting life, meeting many celebrities. Did you have a close relationship with Bill Clinton?
Norris Church Mailer: No we didn’t. We had a summer fling. That’s what it really was. I worked in his campaign and had been divorced for about six months. He was cute, was running for Congress and I was ready to go out with a bunch of guys and he was one of them. I was one of the girls he was seeing.
That’s before I knew Hillary was on the scene. I think she was living in Washington then. We just had fun, no big romance by any stretch of the imagination … but I liked him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Attracted to the charisma?
Norris Church Mailer: Yeah, charisma junkie, I guess that’s me (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you been interested in marrying again?
Norris Church Mailer: No goodness, the last thing I want to do is get married again. What … and move some guy into my closet?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): No love interest?
Norris Church Mailer: No not at all. I like living by myself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your sons doing these days?
Norris Church Mailer: My baby son, John, is a writer and an actor. He’s got a part in Wall Street 2 that’s coming out in September. My other son, Matthew, is a movie director. He graduated from NYU Film School and is working on a horror movie right now. He also works as a caterer and they have two kids.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have several grandchildren also.
Norris Church Mailer: I have two of my own and about to have another one, so it will be 13 in all. In fact, she just went to the hospital today. Maybe she came back home, I haven’t heard (laughs). We always have a huge Christmas dinner!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be writing another book?
Norris Church Mailer: Yeah, I’m actually starting one right now. It’s another fiction, but not a sequel to the others. It just came to me out of the clear blue and I’m calling it Widow Envy. That’s a working title and may change, but I don’t want to say too much about it right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Norris, what would you like to do in your life that you haven’t accomplished yet?
Norris Church Mailer: I think at this point, just more. I’m just greedy. I love my life, my kids, and my family. I want to write another book and just keep living as long as I can.
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