The first thing that strikes you as you walk into Norman Mailer's home is the fantastic view of the bay. An enormous window faces southwards from the lounge and beside it a door leads outside to a large area of decking, perfect for catching the purples and pale blues of the sunset over the water. Depending on the tide, the water can be only a few steps from this decking and when I arrived at the house the first thing I did was to roll up my trousers and run into the bay, sending seagulls wheeling and screeching in all directions.
I quickly ran back out again. The water of Cape Cod is not the most hospitable water in November and will quickly turn your feet blue, if you keep them in there for any length of time.
Half an hour earlier we had flown low over the water, in what may have been the same plane that pitched Indiana Jones out into the jungles of India in The Temple of Doom. Amongst the five passengers of our plane there had been no men in fedoras, however the pilot was quick to inform us that if we did crash, it would be game over.
'The water's freezing this time of year and the size of this plane? No one's gonna find us down there.'
'Down there' being Massachusetts' Cape Cod, at the tip of which lies Provincetown and Norman Mailer's former home. As Mailer himself put it, Provincetown is the fist at the end of the Cape's arm.
The pilot continued,
'The great whites should be gone by now, following the seals south to warmer seas.' Well, at least that was one last thing we probably wouldn't have to worry about if this rickety little plane did take a dive into the ocean.
Like the sharks, the population of Provincetown mostly migrates to warmer climes during winter. By the time November comes around tourist attractions have closed down, there are no more whale watching trips and the ferry to Boston is closed for the winter (hence the tiny plane). Those who do remain for the winter, when the population shrinks back down to around fifteen hundred, are the stalwart artists, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers and writers who have made P-town their home, following in the footsteps of such legendary former residents as John Dos Passos, Kurt Vonnegut and of course, Norman Mailer.
The reason I had flown from England over (probably) shark infested waters to stay in Norman Mailer's former home was simple, after Mailer's death in 2007 the Mailer Center was set up to encourage and nurture new writers. Since 2009 the Mailer Center has been running a writer's colony in Norman's old house offering writing seminars and tuition as well as awarding annual prizes to the writers they feel deserving. Three years ago British GQ became involved and offered a prize for British student writing, which is where I unexpectedly came in.
Finding out I had won the GQ Norman Mailer Award 2012 had been a gigantic surprise and as I explored Mailer's huge and empty old house on that first day, the scope of the prize was only just sinking in. I had won a month at Norman's home with all expenses paid. A month in which I didn't have to worry about paying the rent in some tiny East London flat, or finding another internship. It was a month in which all I had to do was write.
The award itself provides a huge boost to young writers, letting you know that during all those years of writing alone in your bedroom, you were doing something right. It's nothing if not encouraging. However, the opportunity to have free time to write is the part that will perhaps make the most difference to a recent graduate beginning the hunt for a real job.
Now, two weeks into my month away, I have finished a novel and have begun editing a second. Often I get up when the sun wakes me and cycle around the sand dunes before returning to the house and setting up shop at Norman's bar overlooking the bay. Once established there with a cup of green tea I attempt to work for four or five hours and sometimes I manage to be productive. Other times my mind wanders and I stare out over the bay, looking for sharks.