Life and Everything that Happened: An Interview with James Salter

[A slightly shorter version of this interview was published in the book: Conversations with James Salter. University of Mississippi Press, 2015. Edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais]

By Andrés Hax

I went to see James Salter as one goes to see the wise man of the mountain. In fact, I was going to meet him in my professional capacity as a reporter for Ñ, the weekly cultural supplement of Argentina’s largest daily newspaper, Clarín. All That Is had just been published in translation by Ediciones Salamandra, and it was they who paid my airfare to interview the writer. But my secret intent was to receive a blessing from Salter. I can’t explain this rationally, but it is what I wanted. What kind of blessing could this be? Even I didn’t know. I arrived in the Hamptons a day before the interview. I wanted to get a feel for the area and get my nerves in order. I revere Salter. His words haunt me and his fictional worlds have become a permanent part of my imagination. In my mind they are real places. As real as any place from my physical life that I can call to memory.

I was staying in a cheap but clean motel on Montauk Highway. The owner, a kind but slovenly woman, told me of a nearby private beach but asked me not to share the information. I drove there in my rented car and saw one of the most amazing sights I will ever see: an endless row of empty beachfront mansions on Gin Lane. I thought of the line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea.” I parked the car and walked to the beach. It was twilight but cloudy. I was completely alone. It looked like the beach at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Everything verged on the unreal.

The next morning at 10 a.m. sharp, I knocked on Salter’s door. There he appeared with his wife, Kay, by his side. His courtesy and friendliness were disarming. I was still nervous, but I felt at home. I must say, however, that if Salter was generous with his time and with his answers, he was also stern and demanding. He took occasional notes during our conversation. Before the formal interview took place, seated at his dining room table, classical music playing in the adjoining kitchen, he asked me tough questions in his sweet voice. For example: “Have you written books?” It was like a gut punch. “No. Just newspaper articles,” I answered. “Ah, just articles…” he said, non-judgmentally, like a doctor listening to a patient’s heart.

In the end, however, I did receive my blessing. After the digital voice recorder was turned off, I told Salter of my admiration for him. Fumblingly, I confessed to him my love of literature and how I wanted to be inside of it. “You mean, you want to be famous?” he asked, genuinely confused. No, that was not it. I explained to him that besides life itself, reading fiction—novels in particular—was the core of my life. Or rather that it was like a parallel life that I wanted to be my real life. That I wanted to be inside of literature.

He looked at me and was silent for a moment. It was a kind look. And then he said, as a blunt matter of fact: “Well. You are.”

The following interview took place in Salter’s home on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. An edited version of this interview, in Spanish translation, appeared in Revista Ñ (Issue 560) on Saturday, June 21, 2014.

Andrés Hax: In terms of process, how do the creations of The Hunters and All That Is compare? They are completely different books, but what are the continuities and differences between those two books as they stand now?

James Salter: This is not a usual question, if you’re afraid of that. Well, as it happens, there is going to be a book auction at Christie’s this December. They have selected a number of authors, I guess about twenty-five, and asked them to annotate the first edition of a number of their books. I guess they try and pick a book of some significance. I don’t know who all the other writers are; I know DeLillo is one, because he mentioned it to me. This is all a fundraising auction under the auspices of, or for the benefit of, PEN. There was an identical auction at Sotheby’s in England last year, which was a big success. The book that they selected for me was The Hunters, my first novel. And I just have finished, two days ago, three days ago, annotating it. So it’s very fresh in my mind.

AH: You annotated literally on the page?

JS: On the page. All of the authors are doing that, and then as you’ll see, some people have done an incredible job. The Hunter Thompson book—he’s dead—was annotated by Ralph Steadman, who is his illustrator. He drew a lot of original drawings on the pages.

AH: Before this, when was the last time that you had read The Hunters?

JS: Maybe eighteen years ago when I revised it for an edition that Counterpoint published. I’d been thinking that I would like to write something about all this, life and everything that happened and everything that it brought to mind for me, and things that it emphasized for me, and issues that had nothing to do with flying but were issues of relationships. Well, relationships is not the right word. Issues of personality and moral questions. Even though they are, in a sense, trivial—these are not deep, moral questions—but they were issues to me personally. And so I’d been trying to think of a way to write about them, and one day it just happened that they came to me. I wrote down quickly in the back of the only available paper I had right then what I thought the book should be. I outlined it very, very quickly. And then I sat down and wrote it chapter by chapter. I didn’t give one chapter precedence or put one aside because it was difficult to write. I think I just wrote them. As I look back over it, I see that I was very uncertain and, to my mind, very amateurish in trying to get into the book. But I am criticizing myself here. I am not going to suggest that the reader notice that immediately. When I read it again I noticed it.

AH: You noticed that when rereading The Hunters for the Christie’s auction? And also when reading the novel for the Counterpoint edition?

JS: Well, I wrote that in the annotation of The Hunters for the auction. That’s what I now see as a writer.

AH: You were hard on yourself.

JS: Well, I tend to be hard on myself. Did I know that at the time I was writing the novel? As I read it, I seemed to remember that I really didn’t feel I was into the book yet. I had some difficulty getting into it, but I wrote it anyway. At a certain point—maybe chapter three—the book began to assume its own life, began to tell itself. I don’t feel that anymore. Let’s go forward now to All That Is. I started many times on the book, but I didn’t really start. I was writing down proposals to myself of certain people and writing, not outlines, but putting together what I thought a book might be. I was obviously interested in writing about an individual, and I couldn’t settle on who that individual was or how the novel was going to take form. I began by writing about failed individuals and then about what became of certain people after the war. I did this over a number of years. For some reason it wasn’t urgent to me, but it was present in my thoughts and I never could come to any real decision about it. I’ve often been asked: why was it thirty years between one novel and the other novel? It wasn’t a question of working for thirty years; it was a question of waiting. And for about twenty-odd years until I was satisfied, to some extent, with what I was going to do. When I finally reached that point, I reached it because of intermediate things I had written. I wrote a chapter for All That Is before I ever wrote the book. You probably know what chapter it is.

AH: I don’t, I’m sorry.

JS: Well, it’s the one called “Virginia.” I was working on that without being sure where it was going. And I reached a point where I finally decided I was going to write about an editor in a publishing house. It spanned the era of the book, for me. That is to say, the era where small publishers and private publishers began to either be taken over by or to become corporate. I was old enough to have known the editors who worked for some of the publishers in that period, and I also knew the era itself. So I finally drew a chronological line, and on that I began noting what might happen to the main character, Philip Bowman. It’s a book of a personal life about men and women after the war and what became of them. But it’s essentially a book, it finally turned out, that says: if you don’t have love in this life, you’ve missed the whole point of it. After “Virginia,” I began to write the chapters successively, but some I had to put aside and go on to the next one and then come back and fill in the spaces. There are a lot of personages in the novel, some who appear again, others who never appear again. It’s a book that proceeds by appearances and interruptions.

So there’s a difference in the way those two books were done. And, of course, there’s a difference in the authority that I felt when writing them.

AH: Was The Hunters more fun to write than All That Is? Was it more exhilarating?

JS: The Hunters was more fun to write, but a lot more uncertain. I didn’t know whether it was any good or not. You know, you waver. You think you’re writing something interesting, but somebody can demolish that in a moment by looking at it and saying: What are you writing this for? By the time I was seventy-five years old, I knew I could write, but the question remained: Am I writing the right thing? You have to be devoted to it. You must be interested in it, or you can’t write well. I can’t anyway.

AH: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in terms of your complete work, there are some books that were written, in part, because editors encouraged you to do so. I was thinking of the rewriting of Cassada, Burning the Days and also Solo Faces. As opposed to others that maybe were written on spec, so to speak. Is that a fair division?

JS: Well, spec!

AH: I don’t know if I’m using that term correctly…

JS: Well, you’re right.

AH: Do you have a different affection for those two categories? Or is it the same for you?

JS: Well, that implies a certain lack of inner impulse and direction, which I accept. It’s also quite true. I would not have written Solo Faces had I not been urged to. I would never have written an autobiography, at least a partial autobiography, unless the editor had said: This will be wonderful once you write more. As for the need to revise The Arm of Flesh, I immediately was in agreement, but I didn’t know whether I wanted to take the trouble to do it. Eventually, I agreed. The editor wanted to publish it with The Hunters. I said, well if I’m going to revise The Arm of Flesh, I’d also like to revise The Hunters. I didn’t object to writing Burning the Days because the memories were fresh. Whether the suggestion that I do that rather than write something else during that time was good or not, I don’t know. I think the book was good. I think it reads like a novel.

AH: The motivation of the question was more along the lines of what you write to Robert Phelps, which appears in Memorable Days: “Don’t lose courage. Finish this book. Believe in it.”

JS: Oh, I urge him to believe in his book?

AH: I was wondering about this notion of encouragement and courage as a writer…

JS: I was referring to Heroes and Orators. It was not a very good book. And there, in that letter, because I like him very much, I’m trying to tell him all this.

AH: You had this enormously courageous life in the war, and then—I’ve heard you mention in an interview you did with the Canadian Broadcasting Company—the idea of the difficulty of getting to the writing. Actually you said, “There is a certain reluctance to sit down at the desk.” There’s this idea of courage as a writer, of the fortitude necessary to write.

JS: That’s probably laziness I was referring to more than courage. I think it takes some courage to put yourself out there, unless you’re writing something to amuse people. But even then, to put yourself forward requires a little courage. It’s stepping on the stage, and people are going to boo you. The depth of the courage depends on what you’re writing and how much you reveal and how much you tear up your life, so to speak, to write.

AH: While reading Memorable Days, I was thinking that if I were a powerful and charismatic editor and I had you under my spell, one thing I would love for you to write is a book on the practice of writing. I mean on the art of the novel, on what a writer has to do and has to be. You write about this in fragments in your works. In Light Years, for instance, you write about Nedra: “I’m going to describe her life from the inside outwards.” I feel I could put together an anthology of your philosophy of writing, but could you write that book? Do you have a firm set of values and of rules and of knowledge?

JS: Well, I mean, after a while you know some things about writing.

AH: And what are those things?

JS: [Laughs]

AH: It’s an impossible question…

JS: No, it’s not impossible. I mean, you know some technical things. How to do certain things, how to introduce things, how to link things, how close to get to things and when. I’m just speaking generally. So you know all of those aspects that are part of the craft, I suppose, of writing. Beyond that, you’re going into the deeper level of writing, which is to say, how to break through and say properly what you’re trying to say, how to find out, and what is the appropriate vehicle for saying all that. It’s not pedantic. You’re not teaching anybody anything, but you are telling them something. And why are you telling them this? What is the impulse to do this? Well, in my case the impulse is that I like to write about things that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t write about them. So, that means you have to write about these things in a certain way that makes them memorable.

AH: And you teach yourself that? Is that something that you could teach to a student?

JS: Well, some of those things you can suggest to a student or somebody who appreciates what it is to write, someone who understands how to read. You read other writers maybe with appreciation, but certainly with a sense of critique. You’re saying, Do I really like this? If I like this, what’s going on here? And if I don’t like this, why am I—like a cat—turning up my nose at it? I’m not really interested in it. I’m reading it dutifully because I’m supposed to read it.

AH: I very much enjoyed seeing online the conversation between you and Richard Ford at the 92nd Street Y. And I asked the question in that spirit because it was very nice to see what you could say to each other that someone who has not written a novel could not ask you in fairness. I’m asking you unfair questions. For example, when you spoke to him about wanting to write longer and he wanting to write shorter, or talking about the length of sentences, there was a communication between the two of you that was pure craftsmanship that you both could understand.

JS: Well, that’s what I’m speaking about now. You don’t have to really be at that level of a writer to be talking about craft. But, of course, with him it’s sort of batting the ball back and forth. The problem with that discussion was he had the topical questions. I didn’t know what he was going to say.

AH: You were ambushed.

JS: Yes.

AH: Are you as fond, or proud, or close to your short stories as you are to your longer narratives?

JS: Some of them.

AH: Was it Faulkner who said that writing short stories is more difficult than writing novels?

JS: I think he said that if you fail as a poet, you become a short story writer. And if you fail at that, you become a novelist. I don’t think he’s telling the truth. He said a lot of—well, everybody said a lot of things.

AH: Why did you write short stories? Are they truncated novels?

JS: I think there are sometimes a lot of short stories within novels. A short story may simply be conceptual, or a conception, something not big enough to write a book about. It’s more anecdotal. But it can contain a great number of things. I mean, there are short stories that could never be anything else; there are others that simply could have been a novel. Flaubert’s long story “A Simple Heart” is practically a novel. It’s long, it’s deep.

AH: Imagine if you were at a dinner party or an intimate gathering, and there was a gentleman or a woman to whom you were very drawn but who didn’t know your work, someone who was not a reader. In the course of the evening, that person says to you, genuinely: What do you write about? What is your writing about? How would you answer that question?

JS: Well, I used to answer the question formulaically by saying: What I’m essentially writing about is what it is to be a man. But I’m a little embarrassed to say that now, because men are held in such contempt and women have seized the stage, so to speak. And to say such a thing immediately labels you as a masculine or even an ultra-masculine writer. Well, I am both of those things. Not ultra, but I do write from a masculine, and probably an outmoded or now unfashionable, point of view. However, the writing is the writing and if it’s true it’s true. There are things that I think are immutable that are not subject to changes in energy, which is really what has gone on here.

AH: What do you mean by changes in energy? Cultural energy?

JS: Yes, I think cultural and social energy have become more feminine. Maybe not worldwide. I’m speaking of America. When I say “what it is to be a man,” I’m not speaking from a chauvinistic point of view. I’m speaking from a philosophical and physical point of view. That’s what I think that I’m writing about. Do I have a deeper subject? Well, I guess I’m writing about human desire and the physical world. And as I said previously, I’m tempted to write about things before an epitaph has to be written about them. I’m writing in lieu of an epitaph.

AH: I like the biography in the film that Open Road Media made of you. That was the first time that I saw you mention this notion, as you write in the epigraph to All That Is: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” I have this sense that part of what you write about also is that there’s a part of existence, of consciousness and of life that is dreamlike. Not only when you write does it have a chance of becoming real, but you write about the dreamlike quality of existence somehow. Is that a correct intuition?

JS: Dreamlike. You know, I don’t have any idea what my writing really looks like. It sounds funny, but I know when I have written something that I’m satisfied with. It’s hard to know what people get out of it. I believe you, I believe what you said, and there are people who say other things and I believe them. But what I think myself, well, I really don’t know. I can get lost in the writing myself. Not a dream. But it can include me. It can envelop me. Even though I wrote it, it can still do that. Does that sound like I’m fooling myself? I don’t know. But when I read it, I understand it. It convinces me. Is that what we were talking about? Am I creating a dream? In a sense. Dream is the wrong word here. That implies an unreality, and I’m really writing—generally speaking—about a palpable reality. The physical world. The world that—I said love a moment ago—but if you don’t get the world while you’re here, you’re missing it. So I don’t know if that’s what you’re talking about when you say you can reverse it.

AH: I mean that your writing is vivid and palpable, and yet these places have disappeared. The planes in The Hunters don’t exist anymore. That manner of combat will never return. Everything is slipping away and in a constant state of mutability. You fix it for a moment through writing about it. In that sense, maybe it’s not that it’s your mission as a writer, but I feel like I am entering a shared dream of existence through your work. Everyone talks about how you are a master of the sentence, but there’s a sense of your prose rhythm that is in crescendo. You have said about All That Is that you were trying to get away from the idea of “Salter is the master of the sentence…”

JS: Well, I was trying to not draw attention to my writing. I don’t know why. That seems a curious thing to do. I think it was a misconception and I’m sorry I tried to do that. I didn’t succeed. There’s a lot of writing in there that draws attention to itself.

AH: What are your ideas about prose rhythm?

JS: I’m talking from a writer’s point of view. If you don’t have a sense of that kind of music and that kind of rhythm, if you don’t respond to it, you don’t write or think that way or read that way, then forget it. This is not important for you. But if you have a feeling for it, then I think it comes into the writing without any planning. I don’t think you say: Let’s get it going, let’s have some drums here. But on the other hand, you know this intuitively. You think: This is a long section of whatever it is, let’s go to some brass here. We’ve been in the violin section—or whatever it is—for a long time. Or, we’ve gone a long way without dialogue here. Could this be better said in dialogue? Would this be more affective or would it be better reading if it were done that way? Or, let’s make it a little easier on the reader, here, more pleasurable. Because, after all, the pleasure of the reader—pleasure here is not the right word—but the entertainment, the willingness of the reader, the affection of the reader—you want to make the reader like the book. If you haven’t done that… That’s not the book I’m trying to write.

AH: Do you read your work out loud? Do you put it up on the wall and look at it? Is it the shape of the words or the sound of the words that you notice?

JS: I read it aloud to myself.

AH: In your voice?

JS: Yeah, but when I’m writing it, the look of the words matters to me, too. What is that look I’m striving for? Who knows? You’re either pleased with the way it looks, or you say: This is rather impenetrable here. Or, this has some very disagreeable words in it. Unnecessary. Or whatever fault you’re finding with it. Because, after all, you are finding fault with it all the time. This is a problem that the writer always faces because you imagine there are some superior writers who are simply writing and it’s coming out of them like a spring. And you’re not writing that way, you’re writing only confronted with difficulties, continually. The image of that writer who is writing effortlessly is always threatening you. You want to write that way, but you simply can’t do it.

AH: You have written about meeting Nabokov and doing his profile for People. In that encounter, did you go to him trying to get any wisdom for your own writing life?

JS: No, I didn’t expect to. I was merely going to see this man who wouldn’t give interviews and trying to find something human to write about him. He wasn’t going to talk about writing with me. He didn’t even know me. Why would he do that?

AH: What had you published by that time?

JS: That was 1976. I felt he should know about me.

AH: He hadn’t read A Sport and a Pastime? You didn’t take him any of your books?

JS: No, I wouldn’t do that. I was posing as a journalist there. I’d be very cautious myself about another writer.

AH: When you’re writing, do you stop and look and then write what you see, or does what you see appear as you are writing? Does it appear in the flow of the writing of the words?

JS: No, the flow. That’s what I was saying, the flow. That’s your demon. That people are writing with great flow. Occasionally you do, of course. You’re writing about something, you know just how it should be, and you try to get it down. I would say that writing generally is more construction than flow. Every good writer haunts you. You’re trying to get them out of your consciousness completely when you write. But it’s hard to destroy them. They creep back on you. Just looking at the bookshelf may cause you problems. A lot of writing is written just washing dishes or whatever you are doing because you’re thinking about things. You try to get a purchase on them, or a beginning on them. Or maybe you write a section of them in your mind, or think of a name, or an attitude. You’re turning it over all the time. Then a certain amount of time is spent writing it down. And, of course, a lot of time rewriting it. Evelyn Waugh, a writer who wrote very well and who I feel wrote with fluidity—he’s English, they all do that—said once, People have a notion that writing a novel is simply a matter of standing behind a screen somewhere and writing down what people say. He said, It’s nothing like that. It’s more like going around a vast and indescribable rubbish pile and looking for things that might be of use. Ah, here for instance, you find a dented piece—this could be a candelabra if it were polished up a little and set right. Well, I understood what he was saying.

AH: I read books and remember the inner spaces of those books as real as real memories. For example, I remember The Spouter-Inn in Moby-Dick almost as a physical presence, the same way I might remember my grandfather’s home, which does not exist anymore. Do you think in that way about books that you have written? Do the characters and spaces that you have written become real for you? Do your books mingle with Proust and Hemingway and Faulkner? Not in terms of competition, but in terms of memory?

JS: Do I think of them as a book, as a complete book? As an inviolable, printed thing? Is that what you mean?

AH: What I mean is this. If I say to you, Do you remember The Old Man and the Sea? An image comes to you, a space comes to you, an inner space. And then if I say to you: Light Years. Is it the same world? You open the door and see the same world.

JS: The same level of things.

AH: You’ve constructed a world here and that world exists in your memory in the same way as a book you have read but haven’t written.

JS: Well, when you say the name of the book, that opens it up for me. Certainly with A Sport and A Pastime. Certainly with Light Years. Certainly with All That Is. The book comes to you, but also everything pertaining to it that you know, the times, the world of the book, and the contingent world, all come to you when you mention the title.

AH: But if you say to me Ulysses, for example, I’ll think of James Joyce’s face and the way he walked…

JS: I think of things he said, his grave, which I visited, Dublin, all kinds of things. But they don’t register individually. This is a simultaneous thing that we are unable to describe.

AH: Would you ever look back and ask, “Am I a part of literature?”

JS: Part of literature? Well, I’m part of writers. I’m part of the world of writers, I would say. Literature? It depends how you describe what you mean by literature. In the broadest sense, I’m part of the world of literature. In a more narrow, and I would say in a more elevated sense—the heights of literature—I’ve never felt I had the authority to make that claim.

AH: And do you feel that that could be validated externally, for example, if you were to win the Nobel Prize?

JS: The question is unanswerable in a way because that’s not going to happen.

AH: If you are not sure, then who could be sure?

JS: That’s good of you to say, but I haven’t had the validating book. It’s been pointed out to me. I don’t mean at the dinner table. Critics have said that, and I think that’s true. But the books themselves, there are some of those books that I think are quite good. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. I always wanted fame. But when you get fame, in whatever degree, it’s immediately burdensome. You didn’t know it weighed that much when you wanted it.

AH: Because of the demands it imposes upon you to keep achieving fame? Or because of people like me who come to pester you at your home?

JS: All its aspects are bad.

AH: And also because it’s not enough? You want more?

JS: Everything you’ve mentioned. You want more. Others have more. It incites envy. It’s socially undesirable. People expect you to be something. And who is that person that they expect you to be? You’re not interested in the personage that they have conceived. Your privacy is invaded. Don’t worry, there’s no invasion here. Very few people come here. But they’re invading your privacy, really. It’s a bad thing to have. Yet you wanted it more than anything and you were right in wanting it and striving for it. In addition to wanting to say things, that’s one of the reasons you write, at least in the beginning.

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