It's Her Turn
updated 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It's not often that a new novelist orders one of America's literary lions to take his paws off her book. Rarer still that he does as he's told. But Mailer's wife of 20 years—who has modeled, acted, painted and now produced her first novel—is no pushover. "So," Mailer, 77, sums up with wry resignation, "I didn't get to read it until it was printed." Even without his help, Windchill Summer, a coming-of-age saga set in the South in 1969, has garnered positive reviews. The Post called it a "wonderfully satisfying and appealing novel."
The 51-year-old author shares many qualities with her heroine, Cherry Marshall, a tall beauty with a brain who works in a pickle plant and dreams of life beyond her sleepy, Bible Belt Arkansas town. "I wanted to tell the stories of these girls and boys and what they went through in this era," says Church Mailer in a lilting drawl that decades of living in the North have not diminished. "And, maybe selfishly, I wanted to relive it."
Living and reliving have been much on her mind since she was diagnosed with cancer last March, nine months after completing the book. Chemotherapy was successful, and, during the struggle, Church Mailer vowed to commit herself to writing. "I found what I want to do for the rest of my life," she says.
It's a life worthy of fiction. Born Barbara Davis, the only child of James, 76, a retired heavy-equipment operator, and Gaynell, 81, who ran a beauty parlor from the garage of their Atkins, Ark., home, "I'd sing in the gospel group and perform in school plays," recalls Church Mailer, who won the Little Miss Arkansas title at age 3. "I always liked to be center stage."
But her first love was writing. At Atkins High she excelled in creative writing courses, and at what was then Arkansas Polytechnic College in Russellville she majored in art and English. At 20, she wed her college sweetheart Larry Norris and later gave birth to their son Matthew, now 28 and a film director. The couple divorced in 1973, when she was teaching high school art. One of her postdivorce suitors was an ambitious bachelor named Bill Clinton, on whose first congressional campaign she had volunteered to work. "It has been blown up," she says of the relationship. "But it's not, not, not a big deal. He was dating a lot, and so was I."
Not even a future President had a chance against "Stormin' Norman," who blew into town in 1975 to give a lecture. It didn't matter a lick that Mailer was 26 years older. Or that he was as renowned for booze and bombast as for his muscular tomes. "He was so funny and charming," says Church Mailer. He was also still married to his fourth wife while living with yet another woman who would briefly become his fifth wife to legitimate the child they had. "I know, I know," Church Mailer says, gazing at a painting she did of the man she slyly calls Saint Nor-man that hangs in the living room of their Provincetown, Mass., home. (They also have a brown-stone in Brooklyn Heights.) "I was in love."
In 1975 she moved to New York City to be near him and began modeling, changing her name from Barbara Norris to Norris Church. At the time, she had already written a 300-page first draft of her novel, but she didn't dare show it to him. He had once returned a love poem she'd written—"red-penciled!" she says, adding, "I knew I wasn't a poet, but he rewrote it!" (Says Mailer: "It was godawful. I'm not sentimental about writing.") She turned to painting—with nine one-woman shows—and rearing their blended family of nine kids. Their only child together, John Buffalo, 22, is an aspiring writer and actor When he went to college in 1996, she returned to writing.
These days Church Mailer and her husband spend hours daily working on their next books in adjacent rooms. They unwind by playing chess and watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. So now that he's read it, what does Norman think of her novel? "I could have made it 5 percent better," he says. His wife looks over at Saint Norman and smiles beatifically.
Natasha Stoynoff in Provincetown