James Salter Interview: The Most Famous Writer You've Never Heard Of

James Salter is a former fighter pilot, an epicurean, a traveler, but he is mostly known as a writer's writer - a term he despises.
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When I look over a friend's bookshelf, I look for A Sport and a Pastime, or Light Years, and when I find them there is a sort of secret handshake exchanged. It is like discovering that you have both traveled to a rare and special place--a place that can't help but haunt you. James Salter is the most famous writer that you have never heard of: his sentences are crisp and taut, his endings surprising, sometimes cruel, unforgettable. He recently won the Windham Campbell Award, and in 2012 he received the PEN/Malamud prize.

He is also a former fighter pilot, an epicurean, a traveler, but he is mostly known as a writer's writer, a term he despises.

A couple of weeks ago I met James Salter at Molyvos in New York. He was sitting in the corner booth wearing a dark suit and a dark, oxford shirt. His nails were well manicured; he had the relaxed confidence of a man who is a master of his craft. We talked briefly about his most recent novel, All That Is, some of his past work, and that hated term.

MS: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the title of this most recent book, All That Is.

JS: Yes. There is little to say about it, except it fit the book. So, it can be read with several emphasizes that are very close to one another but not exactly the same. One of them, when you say, "All that is," it's kind of an expression of the world and everything in it. All that is. Or, it is a much narrower meaning when you saying, a life, a single life, all that is for a life. Perhaps that's not so. Perhaps that is not as evident as I am trying to make it. Yes, one is all embracing, and one is somewhat fatalistic, almost.

You know you get a title. You either find it in the street, or you have it from the beginning. Titles are hard to come by if you don't have them to start out. So, I didn't have a title for a long time and I was kind of looking for one, and one day this arrived--that's all--and I recognized it immediately.

MS: In previous interviews you've described your writing as feminine.

JS: No, I said I was searching for the feminine in myself. Which after all, I was in the military for some years and went to military school, those are not civilizing influences. I was looking for a somewhat gentle and more poetic side of myself--nothing sexual.

MS: In your books we often follow a male character, but the women seem more heroic, through their devotion--

JS: Yes--

MS: and I didn't know if that was a part of that as well.

JS: Well, I've always said that I felt women are more heroic. I mean they are no different in this book. Why are they more heroic? They always have been. They have less power and more obligations. They have childbirth to go through, and following that the agonies--I don't mean physical agonies--the difficulties of being a mother and watching children leave. Supporting them, supporting men, all without the essential authority. So, I call them more courageous.

MS: For Solo Faces you spent a year climbing, learning. Had you climbed before?

JS: No, I hadn't climbed before. I climbed really just to see what climbers were like, to be able to describe things. It wasn't really different from any other research for a book.

MS: So, you do this sort of research often--

JS: That was an extreme phase, but you don't have to research. What you're writing can be wholly imaginative. I'd never been to Summit, which is town of this book [All That Is]. I knew someone who came from Summit, a writer and an editor actually, I had no idea where it was, but the name appealed to me a lot, and he has to be from somewhere. I mean, I know the area, I'm from the east, New York, and so I picked Summit. Then I went there, and spent time there. I would have been able to write a long piece on Summit, on the architecture, the streets, the history of it, the population.

It doesn't appear in the great of detail in the novel, but it is the same thing as climbing. I wanted to know what I was really writing about. I couldn't have possibly written the book without having learned to climb. You would see right through it, that it was artifice.

MS: A friend who climbs introduced the book to me. He said it was the only book that "got it."

JS: Well climbers, I often hear them say it is the only novel about climbing that captures what is to climb and what I say is, "It damn well should."

MS: A Sport in a Pastime you once said was "a series of poems to provincial France."

JS: I felt like that at the time. It's about the importance, or the description of the fundamental element of the sexual experience, which is essential to one at a certain time in life: a lot of affection for France, for small villages, and small towns. But calling it a poem, well I did that, but I didn't know what I was talking about.

MS: There is such an interesting use of narration in the book. The way he is unsure and projecting these story. For a story that is so, as you say, visceral, his attention, it's aching.

JS: Aching, you said?

MS: Yes, aching.

JS: Aching? He wouldn't be able to describe it with such fervor if he weren't aching. He says he's aching at points in the book, and at the end, he's longing. I'm speaking of the narrator...

MS: Who never has his desires fulfilled; he's living in this abstraction. I don't know if I could put my finger on what his desire is: youth, her--

JS: It's normal, normal sexual desire. There was a woman, a French woman who's divorced, Claude something, that he's interested in, but we never learn--what happens doesn't progress, it's not the center of the story. Does he ever see her again? I'm not sure that he ever does until the end of the book when he meets her in a restaurant after Dean has gone home. He sees her, or we know for sure that he sees, that it's real that he sees her.

MS: But he's always "seeing" her.

JS: Exactly. Yes of course, he's seeing her because he's describing her. But does he really see her, or is this something that he imagines, or that is told to him? We never know that. But of course I am the author, so my view of the book is entirely different. I never know if that remains on the reader's mind. I know for literal readers, the readers who are detectives, the readers for whom things must be made clear, it may be annoying to them to have this somewhat vague quality of the narration. Some of these things he saw, some he heard, some he may have imagined. I think for the normal reader you don't dwell on that. I think you accept what's happening apart from the two or three interjections in the books, that say, "Now remember, I'm making a lot of this up."

MS: So, I know that you do not like the phrase, but you've always been referred to as a writer's writer. But it seems that--

JS: That's bullshit. I mean, I don't remember who said it. They just kept repeating it.

MS: Your life often bleeds into your work--it's unavoidable I imagine--but do you intentional use aspect of your own life, or is it just something that seeps in?

JS: Well, I'm not sure what we're talking about. In this book, it's a background I know. It's New York. It's publishing. I've never edited. My own life has been long marriages. It's not autobiographical. I would say it's well known now that the New Yorker piece came out, that Light Years was not autobiographical, quite the opposite. It's not really my life. Mountain climbing is not really my life, I did it, but-- The Hunters, yes, the war books obviously are that way. Well, you write what's interesting to you, what's compelling, and of course, which you know something about. They are always saying, "Write what you know," and on the other side of the room they are saying, "No, no, no. Write what you don't know, that's how you discover." Let's not go into that.

But, writing is so solipsistic. Your parents are the parents you know best. Your brother and sister, if you have them, are the brother and sister you know best. They may not be the ones you like the best. They may not be the most interesting, but they are the closest and probably the clearest to you.

The same goes for everything else in your life. Your school experiences are the school experiences that you really know. If you read a book about school--someone else's book--you always translate it into your own school experiences. It's describing the student: he's bewildered and lost in a large crowd in a university classroom. You'll visualize that from your own experiences. So, everything you know is what you're really writing.

It's unavoidable, but it's not necessarily autobiographical. It may have nothing to do with the specific detail of your own life. You can write about other people and their ideas and life without having lived it, but even your perception of that is going to be colored by what you know and what you experience. And this is undeniable.

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