Life with Norman Mailer — and without him · 2010-04-10

Susan Salter Reynolds [Los Angeles Times]

In her memoir ‘A Ticket to the Circus,’ Norris Church Mailer recalls her Arkansas origins, her search for self-definition and the challenge of sharing a literary life with her husband.

The voice explains a lot. You think, how could any woman live with the famously moody writer Norman Mailer for 33 years, and then you hear Norris Church Mailer’s soft, authoritative, Marilyn Monroe-ish voice, with its 61-year-old Arkansas twang still intact, and you have a revelation about men and women.

It is important to remember that “A Ticket to the Circus” (Random House: 432 pp., $26) is Norris’ own memoir, not Norman’s — not even Mrs. Mailer’s. It is the story of a girl, born in Arkansas in 1949, who came of age in the 1960s and struggled to find her way of contributing to the world, which was still a man’s world. She was very tall and, by all accounts, beautiful — that made life both harder and easier (probably in equal measure).

Norris dated a few men and, at age 20, married a man who went off to Vietnam and came back distant and detached. They divorced, and she dated a few more men, including Bill Clinton. She started teaching high school and loved it. Then, she met Norman Mailer at a party in April 1975. (She had not read any of his books, but she knew, like everyone else who followed the news, that he had stabbed his first wife in the stomach.)

Norris became his sixth wife, and when they met she was one of three women firmly fixed in his life. She had to wait for him to sculpt it to one.

Norris and Mailer were together until his death in 2007. She has two sons, two stepsons, five stepdaughters, two grandchildren and, she says, “either 10 or 11” step-grandchildren. “A Ticket to the Circus” is her third book — the first two, “Windchill Summer” (2000) and “Cheap Diamonds” (2007), feature a young female character coming of age in Arkansas during the 1960s.

Reviews of the first two books tell you a lot about Norris’ life. Both are mostly about her marriage to Mailer, again a thing that must have had its pros and cons for a budding writer (and this was probably not in equal measure). In a 2005 interview with me, Mailer was furious at the suggested possibility that his wife might become a more successful novelist.

“Impossible!” he had said. “If she were a new shoemaker, could she be a better shoemaker than someone who had been doing it for 50 years?”

“Norman was competitive with everyone,” Norris now says. “He had to be the best writer in the world. I didn’t see it as a contest.”