- When great fiction can be personalized by the reader it crosses an emotional barrier that turns it from the remarkable to the profound. I first encountered the writing of James Salter
when a dear friend handed me the author's "A Sport and a Pastime." She said to me, "I know you; his words will leave you breathless." Her further elaboration upon a similarity between me and one of the characters in the book will remain private, but she was indeed right, his words and his style of writing left me breathless as a reader. As a fellow writer, I was nothing short of envious.
Late this summer, all these years later, I finally got the opportunity to sit down with Salter at his summer home in Bridgehampton for a literary interview, of which I have done many. This one, however, was one of those rare interviews that made me nervous. Not nervous because of the man himself, but because I was in awe of the art that he created.
Born in New Jersey and raised in NYC as James Horowitz, at his father's passive insistence Salter entered West Point after attending the Horace Mann School where he was an underclassman of Jack Kerouac
, "He wasn't what I would call a regular student, he was a football scholar. He came in as a post high school graduate for one year." Salter's father himself had attended the Point, graduating first in his class.
Upon graduation from West Point Salter joined the Army Air Corps and served as an officer and eventual squadron commander, flying over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. I asked Salter, considering West Point wasn't his first choice for college, why he remained in the military for 12 years, "That is easy to explain, but hard to understand or maybe the reverse, hard to understand and easy to explain. First, you do have the four years of a commission to fulfill, that is a given. During those four years a lot of things happened, we went all over the world. To the Philippines, Manila in ruins, to Okinawa to Tokyo, then I was stationed in Hawaii for two years. I had been trained as a multi-engine pilot, but I flew my first fighter and it touched something in me. I stayed on into my fifth year and joined a fighter group. The feeling of it, the glory of it built up in me and I just stayed. The longer you stay, you keep advancing."
James Salter on the porch of his Bridgehampton home.
During his time in the service he wrote his first book, "The Hunters" which he published under the name of James Salter in 1956 to keep his two worlds of military officer and novelist separate. Within a year Salter resigned his commission to devote himself to writing full time. I asked him why he did not stay in the military for the 20 year pension, having already done 12 years, "I published a book. There is nothing like the thrill of holding a book in your hands with your name on it. I remember I was on leave in New York when I received the first copy of it. I remember I was on a bus, the Madison Avenue bus; I was sitting in the rear seat. I had the book in my hand and I turned to a woman sitting next to me and I said, 'Look at this, I love this.'"
Salter went on to admit, "It wasn't an easy decision, as I had two children at the time. So I left it all behind. It certainly was the hardest decision of my life. I knew I had a career in the Air Force, I knew what I was giving up. It hurt."
Two years after its publication, "The Hunters" was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum
. Salter's 1961 second published novel "The Arm of Flesh" once again drew on his experiences flying fighters, this time with the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, between 1954 and 1957. A reputation for being very self-critical, Salter's comment on his second novel was short and simple, "That book wasn't any good." An extensively revised version of the novel was re-issued in 2000 as "Cassada."
Widely recognized as his masterpiece, "A Sport and a Pastime" was published to critical acclaim in 1967. Diametrically different in both genre and writing style, the leap from military to erotic novel was amazing, at least to me, and I wondered if Salter had been struck by a moment of literary epiphany, "This happens to writers, they write for a while and then they realize they need to write in a different way or want to write in a different way. I am not really sure at all. I had been reading and writing from 1957 on and I had been less than satisfied with what I had produced up to that point. Then suddenly you wake up one morning and feel you can sing. Hard to say why that is, I am sure we could investigate and find out how, but I can't help you."
Salter did allude to the influences of European writers that "Shifted my course just a little bit, not in terms of what I observed or thought, but in the way
I could write it. I no longer feel I have that influence in the same way anymore, but I might guess that had something to do with the shift." For whatever reason, "A Sport and a Pastime" is a novel that has the distinctive, profound and original quality that makes it more than just an exceptional novel, but elevates it to a piece of timeless literature. Written in an ambivalent, almost imaginary third-person narration, it gives the reader the opportunity to experience the two protagonists, an American university student and a young blue-collar French woman, in the individuality of their own self-realization and interpretation of the complex, sexually charged relationship of the characters that evolves on the pages of this extraordinary novel.
When I asked him about his detached narrative style he responded, "I have never written a book in the first person that I can think of and I think that is a rich field of opportunity for writers. Philip Roth
is an example; it is too late for me to start. It is not that I can't do it, I never felt impelled to do it. Speaking of it as a gauge of temperament, I suppose I tend towards the cool side and perhaps my writing tends to the cool side as well. I do not mean anything judgmental by that. I think the writing is tempered with not what I call a pitiless eye, but an eye that is not clouded with sentiment."
Cool eye or not, the passion created between the characters in both "A Sport and a Pastime" and the equally heralded novel that followed it, "Light Years," was white hot. I suggested that Salter could easily be considered an erotic novelist, particularly considering the novel's publication in the era of the mid-sixties, "You are absolutely right. I said cool in the sense of temperament, the writing is actually quite sensual. Erotic? Well yes, ideas of eroticism change. "Vanity Fair" was considered erotic, although not detailed. It is miles from there to the Henry Miller
books of the 1930s and I skipped right over the novels of D.H. Lawrence
. In the sixties I don't think "A Sport and a Pastime" was particularly groundbreaking, but nobody wanted to touch it for fear of, I don't know, being an unworthy person. It was published by Doubleday, actually Paris Review
/Doubleday. George Plimpton
published it and Doubleday printed and distributed it."
As Salter noted, Doubleday had a long reputation of being a proper, very conservative, very commercial publisher. "Doubleday didn't want to have anything to do with the book beyond their contractual obligation to Plimpton. So they printed the book and quickly pushed it into a corner. George wanted the book and I was very grateful, but it really should have been printed by someone else." Prior to the book's publication, Plimpton published an excerpt in the Paris Review
that Salter described as a "Particularly incendiary section that created quite a stir." Anyone who has read the novel knows exactly which chapter Salter is referring to in his remark.
Although finally satisfied with one of his novels, "So that is what it feels like," Salter followed "A Sport and a Pastime" with several years of screenplay writing resulting in four produced films with "Downhill Racer" starring Robert Redford
garnering the greatest success at the box office. Inspired to try his hand at screenwriting by the European neo-realism film noir genre of the 1960s, through a series of events Salter was actually commissioned to write his first produced screenplay, "The Appointment," which was directed by Sidney Lumet
and starred Omar Sharif
and Anouk Aimee
. Referring back to his foray into screenwriting Salter jokingly commented, "That is how you fall from grace."
Returning to the novel form of fiction, in 1975 Salter published another beautifully written piece of what I will again describe as erotic literature with "Light Years." It details and dissects the decent of what on the surface seems to be the perfect marriage of two beautiful, intelligent people that is, in reality, subtly flawed to a point beyond repair. Another novel that Salter found himself satisfied with, for many "Light Years" is the definitive Salter novel, reflecting the lyric, minimalist style of a writer who was referred to by Peter Matthiessen
as "America's greatest stylist" and is often noted as a writer's writer. Admitting he will take any flattery offered, Salter is very humble and is himself profoundly impressed by fellow American authors the likes of Saul Bellow
, John Updike
and his friend Matthiessen himself, "I like to read writers that make you say to yourself, 'I'll never be a writer.'"
"Light Years" was followed fast by Salter's last published novel "Solo Faces" in 1979. The protagonist is a legendary mountain climber, dissatisfied with the trappings of life on the ground and obsessed with a peak in the French Alps that is considered impossible to climb. Although it does not have the same erotic or sensual texture of his two previous novels, Salter creates an endearing and deftly crafted character of what can best be described as a "man's man," which perhaps is another way to describe the author himself.
One more screenplay found its way to production with "Threshold" in 1981, but after "Solo Faces" Salter turned to short form fiction. His 1988 "Dusk and Other Stories" received the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989. "Still Such," a poetry collection, was also published in 1988.
Literately quiet for almost a decade in 1997, at 72 years old, Salter published his memoir "Burning the Days" to the delight of a worldwide readership that had longed to connect the dots between the fictional characters and the author himself. It was a memoir written as much as a novel that a memoir could be written. Salter touched on the events in his life that he considered the memories worth noting, not a tell-all, expose-all, "I felt that I was out of step. It was an unusual thing for me to write non-fiction. I felt I had an obligation to tell things as accurately as I could, I realize now that I should not have done that. I probably should have been a little looser with myself and I don't mean accuracy. I went back and looked at all the letters, the notes and the places. I went to the graves of people and spoke with their families, but I probably should have spent more time talking about drinking in the bars and other things."
Salter's memoir is not a year to year recounting of his life, but an interwoven memoir of those moments that he considered important. "I think it is a wonderful book, if I can put modesty aside, but it could have been a more popular book if I had unbuttoned my jacket and kicked off my shoes. It was not a biography or an auto-biography, it was reminiscence and it spoke about things during certain periods of time in my life as well as I can tell the truth about them. Someone will, of course, say that there is no such thing as the objective truth."
Another book of short stories, "Last Night," was published in 2005. Eclectic is an understatement when it comes to Salter, as his non-fiction took yet another leap that same year with the publication of a book essays of his travel writings in 2005 and a food book called "Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days" published the following year. Salter was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000.
I finished my interview by asking Salter what he was working on and the self-critical author responded, "I am working on a novel. I have done a lot of work on it and the more work I do on it the worse it seems to get, but that is not unusual. I also have three stories I am writing and they seem worse than the novel."
If this self-deprecation is indeed the artistic process for this incredible writer, we should soon have another great piece of American literature written by James Salter. My hope is that it tends towards the erotic once again, but I will take what comes gratefully from this modern American master.