In January 2010, I wrote a piece here about sex writing – specifically, sex writing by the “representative” males of two distinct literary generations. Katie Roiphe, in a New York Times Book Review essay, had asserted that today’s young literary men have lost their belief in the power of sexuality to ignite, and to immortalize. Her observations resonated with me, and I argued in response that we should look not to Roth/Bellow/Mailer/Updike (Roiphe’s touchstones) for this lost potency, but rather to James Salter.
Of Roiphe’s Great Male Narcissists (the GMNs, as David Foster Wallace coined them), only Philip Roth is still alive, the kid among them, now 79. Jim Salter, on the other hand, turned 87 this year; and what a year (or two) it’s been: in late 2010, Salter received PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring of 2011, he was presented (by Robert Redford) with the Paris Review’s Hadada Award about which Salter said in his acceptance speech, “This is my Stockholm.” A month later, James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime – a documentary focusing both on that most well-known of his novels, as well as his lifelong love affair with France – premiered in New York City. Last summer, Salter was announced the winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story – an honor he shares with Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty… and, well, just about every modern master of the form you can think of. Last but not least, Salter was the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Malamud Award, in recognition, again (and again, in good company), of high excellence in the art of the short story.
For many years, Jim Salter has been deemed a writers’ writer – a dubious branding – but now, finally, it seems he is receiving his due respect in the broader literary community (Stockholm notwithstanding). And all this while continuing to maintain a busy speaking/travel schedule, as well as write critical essays for the New York Review of Books, an introductory essay to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves, and (drum-roll) the final draft of All That Is, his sixth novel, due out from Knopf in April 2013.
When Open Road Media contacted me about conducting a Q&A with Salter – on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces (Salter’s fifth novel, about a talented, disillusioned rock climber) in e-book format this past June – I did not hesitate to say yes. They wrote: “Our focus is on the lasting resonance of his writing.” I’d been corresponding now and again with Salter (I interviewed and wrote a profile of him in 2011, published in Tin House, and also spoke about his work in the Sport documentary), and all this talk of “lasting resonance” made me think back to that first email I received from him, shortly after my 2010 essay was posted:
Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late – apparently we’re deeper in the woods here than I thought. I was also interested in the responses [comments], especially the references to other books. I agree with the comment about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don’t like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don’t like the man. He’s a type you run into.
Women have more or less tipped the cart over — you probably don’t realize that because you’re, I assume, just a kid — and some confusion is the result. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn’t. I always liked Robert Phelps’s citation — he must have been quoting someone — first the flesh, then the spirit.
Again, with thanks. JS
Two-and-a-half years ago, being new to the literary community (my first novel was published in March of that year), an email from the likes of James Salter came as a shock. Was it really from him? I read it over a few times, and clearly it was – the impeccable manners, the gorgeous compression of idea and sentiment, the wry humor. I responded immediately, awkwardly, and a kind of unlikely correspondence began — between me, “just a kid,” and JS.
Only now has it occurred to me to wonder what made him write that first email; or, rather — with simple good manners as the obvious explanation — what that essay might have meant to him at that particular time. That a young writer (and female — many of Salter’s acolytes, I’ve noticed, are male), engaged in online literary conversation, had elevated him to an eminent place in the canon – above the writers who’d out-famed him, strictly speaking – must have spoken directly to his ambitions. Were there others like me — young women and men, and generations after that — who would continue to read, and write about, his work? he may have wondered.
The mounting evidence of the last two years would suggest a resounding yes.
Without further ado, following is a brief account, on the occasion of celebrating his work’s “lasting resonance,” of what James Salter thinks these days about literary ambition, the relationship between life and art, heroes, and contemporary literature.
The Millions: In your 1993 Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you said that if you could choose, you would want to be remembered for A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975). Open Road Media is releasing Sport and Solo Faces (1979) in e-book format, so that your work “can be introduced to new generations of readers and digital audiences.” How did they decide on those two titles, and how do you feel about the selections?
James Salter: Open Road wanted to publish A Sport and a Pastime together with Light Years in a series called or regarded as modern classics, but Light Years wasn’t available — Vintage was already publishing Light Years as an e-book — and was replaced by Solo Faces.
TM: I know Solo Faces began as a screenplay – do you have a different sort of feeling for it as a result?
JS: The novel, I think, overcame its humble beginnings and there are things in it that could not have been expressed in the dialogue and action of a script.
TM: I was struck by this description of mountain climbing in Solo Faces:
That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow.
Some might describe writing a novel in this way. Do you find writing very difficult? (If climbing isn’t the right metaphor for the difficulty, is there another one you’d employ?)
JS: There’s wide agreement that writing is difficult even for very good writers. Sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes less. In climbing the difficulty defines the achievement. In writing it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
TM: Both your stories and novels have been critically acclaimed. Other than the obvious — pace of work, for instance — are there differences in the way you approach novel-writing versus story-writing? Do you feel more at home or confident in one form or the other?
JS: A story is an engagement although it can be protracted. A novel is a campaign. It’s easier to begin a story. I find it easier. There’s also the consideration of what is it that you’re writing? What length and depth does it deserve? It’s also harder to write a story because there’s no room for anything that doesn’t belong in it. In a novel there’s room for anything.
TM: Recently, on the New Yorker fiction podcast, you paid homage to your friend, the late Reynolds Price, thus: “He wrote numerous books, more than 20, and yet one single story in the New Yorker, and that fact appealed to me somehow.” This struck me, because I’ve been thinking lately about common, current notions of “literary success,” and how myopic and limiting those notions can be. You yourself have also had just one story published in the New Yorker. Am I projecting, or were you thinking the same thing about narrow measures of success?
JS: It wasn’t meant to reflect myself. Anyway, what is literary success in the New Yorker? Three stories, five stories, five in one year? The answer is probably whatever number gets you known as a writer published in the New Yorker. That’s a big step up, but it’s probably not going to support you.
TM: How have your own ambitions as a writer evolved over the last 50-some years from the time you first started writing seriously?
JS: They haven’t evolved. Even at the beginning my ambition was to write something that people would go on reading.
TM: Both Vernon Rand, from Solo Faces, and Viri, from Light Years, explicitly engage with/meditate on the nature of fame, as do characters in your story collection Dusk. How important are these things – notoriety, recognition – in relation to true greatness, excellence, or heroism? Do you have any feeling for how or whether they “should” be? I am thinking of Viri’s idea, which he retracts: “Greatness, like virtue, need not be spoken about in order to exist.”
JS: I think he was right to retract it. Virtue can exist without being known about but greatness can’t. If [Walter] Bonatti had climbed the southwest pillar of the Dru alone and for the first time, as he famously did, and no one ever knew, that act would lose its significance.
TM: Speaking of virtue… in speaking of other writers – both peers and forebears – you seem interested in and concerned with both the quality of the work, and the character of the man. For example you’ve spoken highly and/or affectionately of Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps, Ford Madox Ford, and Isaac Babel – along with Reynolds Price – among others, and you’ve also mentioned that you find Hemingway’s personal character distasteful. Does your estimation of a man, or woman, affect the way you view/experience the literary work?
JS: There are a lot of writers that you read without knowing anything about them. When afterwards you do know something, it doesn’t really change things that much. It’s nice to think that you’d like the writer if you liked the book, which is why you want to learn about or meet certain writers.
TM: More generally speaking, do you think there is some undeniable relation between a writer’s life and his art?
JS: Life = art.
TM: Can you say more what you mean? Is that formula an ideal, or a reality?
JS: Everything you know, nobody else knows, and everything you imagine or see belongs to you alone. What you write comes out of that, both in the trivial and deepest sense.
TM: What did you mean when you said (in Open Road’s biographical video), “I admire myself more on the page than in life”?
JS: That’s only saying I like what I’ve written more than what I am.
TM: In the Paris Review interview, you said: “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism.” Have you known/encountered many true heroes in your lifetime?
JS: You mean known personally – perhaps two.
TM: Who are they and/or what defines them as heroic to your mind?
JS: I’m talking about life and death, not just courageous struggle – Royal Robbins and James Kasler – a legendary big-wall climber, and a famed combat pilot.
TM: Are your characters generally more courageous and heroic than the real people you know/have known in life? (I’m thinking of Vernon Rand, who seems to strive for a kind of purity of soul, and maybe a little bit of Philip Dean in Sport and Chappellet from Downhill Racer; but really, nearly all your characters strive for the pure, the heroic in some way.)
JS: Yes, a little purer, I would say. But not Chappellet, who’s only ego-driven, or Dean, who’s just a figment.
TM: Is fiction-writing a way for you to reach for those heroic characters, to somehow insist on their existence?
JS: A certain kind of fatalistic figure, doomed to fail, interests me. Especially doomed to fail because of ideals or admirable flaws.
TM: Does this imply that your vision of life is somewhat tragic, i.e., idealism often dooms one to failure?
JS: I’m really referring to a ruinous sense of obligation or honor.
TM: You often employ an omniscient narrator that also has a tone of omnipotence — a voice that declares Truths. It’s a particular narrative tone, which I noticed especially when re-reading Solo Faces —
There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away.
A human face is always changing but there is a moment when it seems perfect, complete. It has earned its appearance. It is unalterable.
Did you ever hesitate to use this sort of narrative voice, or did it always come naturally to you?
JS: Seems natural.
TM: How and when did you begin to recognize what kind of writer you are/aren’t?
JS: Books were what made me want to be a writer, certain wonderful books, wonderful then, anyway. I did what everyone does, I kept trying. Gradually it began to become a little clearer. I wanted to write books of a certain kind, books that weren’t cheap. There is a lot of failure involved.
TM: Do you mean discarded drafts (failure in your own estimation)? Rejected manuscripts (failure as judged by publishers)?
JS: Failure in various ways, failure to get started, failure to go on, failure when you realize what you’ve written is no good, failure to come to that realization. All that is part of it.
TM: Did you imitate other writers before finding your own distinct relationship to language and character?
JS: I didn’t really imitate anyone at the beginning, but I didn’t have much of an idea who I was, and I didn’t know how to write, how to begin and end, what to leave out. I didn’t know any writers or readers, for that matter — a good reader or two is invaluable.
TM: When did you start having readers? Have they been the same person/people for many years?
JS: Robert Phelps was the first person whose opinion mattered to me. That was in the 1970s. Then Bill Benton and a neighbor named Peggy Clifford who is a journalist. Benton is a poet and novelist. At present, none of these, only my wife [the writer Kay Salter].
TM: You said once of Nabokov, “Of course, here’s a poet. You say to yourself, Vladimir, let’s be honest. You are a poet, and you’re just writing a lot of prose.” Your own prose is often lyrical, as inventive and surprising as poetry — could the same be said of you?
JS: That was a sophomoric thing to say.
TM: In the years since A Sport and a Pastime was published, in 1967, you seem to have taken more time (8-9 years) to finish and publish a book. Did something slow or quiet down in your process, or was it more to do with circumstances?
JS: I’ve wasted some time. Some of it was with [writing] movies.
TM: The epigraph to Light Years is a quote from Renoir: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” And you recently said, “You realize that everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end: what’s been written down.” Does this mean that, for you, the things that you remember are more in the realm of art than in the realm of life?
JS: All you have in life is what you remember. It’s the one filament connecting you to the void. It doesn’t necessarily become art.
TM: It’s been 15 years since the publication of your memoir, Burning the Days — what might be the remembered bits, the memoir fragments, from this most recent time period?
JS: The death of various people, the world without them.
TM: Do you think you have another memoir – a book or long essay – in you?
JS: One memoir is more than enough. I might write an essay.
TM: Back to Open Road’s digital releases: is there anything – good, bad, neither – that you see or notice about the way today’s readers engage with literature, especially given how much of literature is delivered digitally?
JS: I don’t think all of this is clear yet.
TM: Do you read e-books or other literary material on a computer or e-reading device?
JS: I read on the computer occasionally. I don’t have a Kindle or ipad.
TM: What, if anything, do you feel hopeful or excited about in contemporary literature?
JS: The energy in it. The virtuosity and daring.
TM: What do you feel troubled by?
JS: The threat of great crowds.
TM: Given your history in the movie business, and your once-strong sense that movies “are unquestionably the enemy of writing, and this is something that is unresolvable” — what has it been like for you to be the subject of multimedia projects – a feature-length film, videos, etc?
JS: I am retracting all bitter statements about film.
TM: What can you tell us about your new novel?
JS: All That Is, Knopf, pub. April 2, 2013. An intimate story about a life in New York publishing.
TM: Ten years or so in the making?
JS: About ten.