Salman Rushdie awarded Lifetime Achievement Prize from Norman Mailer Center
Last Thursday night at Pratt Institute’s Memorial Hall, renowned author Salman Rushdie was presented with the Norman Mailer Center Lifetime Achievement Prize. He was joined by Laurie Anderson, who presented the award, among other guests of honor.
Past recipients of the prestigious award include Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ellie Wiesel, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo, who was present at the event. The prize celebrates those whose ongoing achievements span their lives, but the event also suggested the importance of relationships between established writers and those just starting out. It was appropriate that it was held at an institute of the arts in Brooklyn, where Mailer lived as a young man.
The event was emceed by Gay Talese, who wore a hand-stitched suit and canary-yellow tie. He told many memorable anecdotes, including one about when he met Norman Mailer for the first time at a boxing match in 1967. Talese also recalled Mailer’s accessibility to young people, saying, “Mailer was really alone in making time for people.”
The National College Poetry Award; the National High School, Two-Year and Four-Year College Awards; and the Middle and High School Teachers Writing Award were presented by Paul Tran, the award-winning Vietnamese historian and poet; Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English; and Billy Collins, former poet laureate. The presenters read excerpts from the winning submissions aloud.
When she introduced the guest of honor, Anderson asserted that although all of Rushdie’s life has been fascinating, what was really being celebrated that evening was “how he puts words together on the page.”
After the presentation, Rushdie sat in conversation with Randy Boyagoda. He reflected on his first novel, “Grimus,” published in 1975. Rushdie explained that he doesn’t like the book because it feels to him like a book by a writer “who doesn’t yet know who he is as a writer.” Still, it helped him find his way, he said, by showing him what was not his way.
Rushdie says that the day he truly became a writer was the day that he sat down to write his second novel, and the first pages of “Midnight’s Children” flowed out of him. Rushdie, who follows in Mailer’s footsteps as the president of PEN, noted that today, he uses both the work of Mailer and Talese to teach his students at Emery about what he calls the nonfiction novel. It was impossible to underestimate the presence of influence in the room.
In his closing statement, Laurence Schiller expressed his pride that the Mailer Foundation, of which he is president and co-founder, got to be a step on the road in the lives of the young writers present.
After the presentation, the Brooklyn Eagle had a few moments to speak with Schiller about the history of the Mailer Center. He told the Eagle that he met Mailer in 1971 and they became friends and collaborators, working together on five books before Mailer’s death.
“What basically we did is, I came up with ideas that he liked and helped him find some of the material, and he’d go off and write, and then we’d fight over things and get it published,” he said. “And that’s what it was all about. We were like kids again.”
After Mailer’s death, Schiller was put in charge of the estate, and was encouraged by friends of his and Mailer’s to turn the home into a writer’s colony.
The role of a writer’s colony today, he told us, is “to nurture young writers, and to give them the opportunity to write what others don’t expect them to be writing.”