James Salter’s Last Interview
In Conversation with the Late, Great American Writer
I conducted the following interview with James Salter in the Fall of 2014. It was published in the University of Virginia’s literary journal Meridian several months later, and Jim died shortly thereafter, on June 19th, 2015, at the age of 90. As far as Literary Hub’s editors and I know, this was Jim’s last interview. It’s republished here in full with thanks to Meridian and Jim’s family.
When I regard James Salter’s biography, it’s difficult to imagine having dashed forward through its many eras and experiences, navigated their variety and range. The difficulty, however, is not in understanding the specific events of Salter’s life, or its quantity of years; it’s in appreciating their distillation. There is a challenging question in Salter’s work, which skirts and aims above the easy narratives or tidy chronicling of some fiction: the question of how to live.
In Salter’s case, living has included the total technological shift from piloting a fighter in a Korean War dogfight to the present epoch of Google—the mechanism into which one may now enter the author’s name, reach back in time, and read biographical details about that aerial engagement, read accounts of how Salter’s experience informed his writing, read the writing itself. The search term “James Salter” also yields articles with such superlative titles as “The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read” and “The Forgotten Hero of American Literature.” In these dispatches—whose titles acknowledge a stark discrepancy between the stylistic magnitude of Salter’s work and the size of his readership—the prevailing sentiment is not principled outrage but awe. His work may have been overlooked or underappreciated for decades, but it persists, all style intact, aglow, regardless of who’s been looking.
All this Googling is not meant to flaunt this interviewer’s very basic knowledge of navigating a search bar, by the way, but rather to illustrate one effect of Salter’s writing. His mastery of craft compels a reader to not just savor his fiction, but to also assay its real-life origins. In a similar vein, it’s likely that if you’ve read his fiction, you’ll be interested in the interview that follows. It is a mark of great writing that it compels a reader to examine the recipe for its genesis.
This past fall, James Salter was the University of Virginia’s inaugural Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, a semester-long position intended to echo the spirit of Faulkner’s tenure at UVA in the 1950s. Salter’s duties included giving a three-part lecture series and teaching the University’s MFA fiction workshop. Ten of us met with Salter each week for discussion and criticism of our work. Salter’s attitude in class was telling: high-level workshops often consist of knotty discussions, rife with intellectualized analysis and complex ideas, but they also tend to overshoot the purer, more significant aspects of literature, of the work under examination. Salter cut through these tendencies with a razor of reader’s honesty. His goal, it seemed, was to recreate in the classroom the authentic experience of an actual reader, the act of encountering each line in sequence, with genuine attention and without preconceptions. He was quick to say what in a story he liked and what he did not like. His voice was even, his arguments always rooted in the words on the page. Even so, he often said something was good but could not explain why. He often shrugged. He would occasionally announce that he did not understand a passage at hand but that it worked. I began to recognize that his admissions to the fog of literature were not only the markings of a master but the method of one. They indicate the power of intuition.
In my conversation with James Salter, below, he spoke with a similar frankness. He is the kind of conversationalist who is not afraid to pause, a quality too infrequently depicted as a kind of cerebral courage. We met in the living room of the rented house that the University of Virginia helped find for him and his wife Kay. It is a little way down the street from the house where Faulkner lived over a half-century ago. When Jim and Kay had the workshop students for dinner, after the meal was over, after several bottles of wine, a few of us wandered and weaved down the block to stand in the dark at midnight outside Faulkner’s old window. No lights were on. We looked for a while then walked away. I submit this as proof: as Salter says in the interview below, the state of literature is very healthy—in the fall of 2014, it demonstrated the power to compel a huddle of twenty-something-year-olds to wander in the dark without clear cause, on a small suburban street, in the woods of Virginia, from the door of one master to the dark glass of another.
Alexander Slotnick: Your lectures here at UVA were so much about reading in addition to writing. So, to get started, has reading been consistently important throughout your life?
James Salter: I’ve read for a long time. But I think I’ve been negligent, probably.
AS: In periods when you’re reading more, do you feel more contented?
JS: I think reading is very calming. But I think it puts you in touch with—let’s call it life, humanity, in a way you may not be normally. Generally speaking, you’re holding people away from yourself—at least I am—or you become a bit disillusioned with people, but a book acts contra to all that. I think a book gives you a certain sense of worth to read it, even a sense of pride, even though you had nothing to do with its being written. I think you admire a book if you really like it, if it’s a good book. If it’s that sort of book, I think you feel some kind of camaraderie, pride, with the writer.
AS: A common understanding?
JS: Even more than understanding, it’s admiration, and it’s an admiration that, after any sense of envy passes, you recognize it for what it is. And if it’s something good, it’s good. That can’t be taken away from it. Of course, now we’re to the question of, What is good? But let’s just say, both objectively and subjectively, you think it’s good.
AS: What books have you found yourself reading again and again?
JS: The books I go into again and again, I usually don’t read them from one end to the other. I often read Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s book. I’ve never been to that part of Africa, but for some reason, that book particularly appeals to me—her voice, the things that are expressed. The dialogue is sometimes of Africans who work on her coffee plantation. Their manipulation—their lack of grammar is such that you can’t really repeat it, it’s too unique. It’s said in an absolutely wonderful way.
AS: What have you been reading lately?
JS: I was reading Under the Volcano. But it was due to go back to the library, and I didn’t buy a replacement because I have one at home, in Bridgehampton, and I’ll be there in three or four weeks.
AS: Do you ever not finish a book that you’ve begun reading?
JS: I usually don’t finish them. They just don’t seem worth finishing. Not for any important reason—I’m bored with them, or, as I said in that lecture, I don’t have to read. No one is going to say, “You mean to say you haven’t read—” whatever it is. So I only read what I think I’d like to read.
AS: Do you find that happening more frequently at this point in your career? A book not earning your attention?
JS: Do you mean that as a comment in regards to current literature?
AS: I think I mean it just in terms of a book’s uniqueness. Whether it grabs you.
JS: No. There are just so many books that you don’t get around to reading. I read slowly. Other writers have said that about themselves. I don’t mean I savor every word, but if it’s a good book, I read every word. I know people read a book a week, or a book in three days; it takes me almost a month. Three weeks or so to finish a book, if I’m really interested in it. And I don’t read a book one after another. I don’t have a book being read all the time.
AS: When you’re reading slowly, is there an element of reverse engineering? If you’re reading prose that’s especially artful, do you find yourself trying to understand how the writer arrived at those particular sentences?
JS: I think that becomes natural at a certain point. You can see more or less how it’s being written, and I think that’s interesting. But that’s not the primary thing going on. I don’t read to take it apart. If you admire it, you’re more likely to look at it carefully and try to understand—not where it came from, bur how it was done.
AS: Not so much technically where it came from, but personally, for the writer?
JS: No, not personal. And technical isn’t quite the right word. I mean artistically, let’s say.
AS: Now, to get to the writing itself. This is a bit of an unusual question—or unusually direct, at least: How would you describe your own style?
JS: My own style?
AS: Or what you aspire to with your style.
JS: Well those may not be the same thing. [Laughs.] I would say my own style tends to be fluid but succinct. Rich in metaphor and, I would say, with an alluring surface. I don’t know if that’s what I aspire to, but that’s what evolved. That’s what turned out to be the style that was able to handle those things I was writing about.
AS: So your interests preceded the style that developed.
JS: Was my style formed by my interests? Well, my interests certainly weren’t formed by the style. So it would have to be that the style was formed somewhat by the interests. But it’s also formed by the continual action of other people’s writing upon you. You’re not inventing writing yourself. You’re accumulating it, in a sense, to a point where it’s done. And you’re then writing in a certain way and things you read are not going to influence your style very much. But I think that until that point comes, there’s a certain amount of searching, or to and fro, going on. It may not even be visible to a reader, but you recognize it in yourself, I think, as the writer.
AS: Was there a point in your career, or a certain work, at which you felt that searching crystallize?
JS: Yes. I would say the period of A Sport and A Pastime.
AS: A Sport and the Pastime was a part of the evolution?
JS: No. And it wasn’t the result of it, but was the evidence. The finishing of it. Of whatever that process is. Trying to learn to write the way, in some manner, you believe you should write. You believe you’ll be able to write. I believe at that point, that book turned out the way I had meant it, the way I’d imagined it.
AS: Did you know that as you were writing it? Or when it was finished? Or when it was published?
JS: As I was writing it. You can get falsely excited, but in this case, it turned out to be not false.
AS: How did your process change after that point? Was there a new confidence?
JS: Well, it didn’t change. As I’ve said before, your confidence vanishes between pages, practically. Confidence is an odd word to apply here. You know you can write, you know you can write a book, but you don’t know if you can write this book, that you’re beginning or in the middle of. So confidence, I don’t know. You have enough commitment, I would say, to go ahead. Confidence is really not that important. The question is, Will you do it?
AS: When you started writing, was style something you were consciously striving to cultivate?
JS: I didn’t pick one writer particularly but was influenced by every writer I read, for a time. Books I read in school. Well, I wasn’t influenced by Hawthorne. I wasn’t influenced by Thornton Wilder. I was influenced, actually, more by magazine writers. In those days, a magazine that published stories was The Saturday Evening Post. There was another one called Collier’s, its rival. And the writers wrote for them. Faulkner published stories in The Saturday Evening Post. So did Fitzgerald, so did Marquand. Many. They paid quite well. It was a, you know, glossy magazine, high-quality magazine. Wide circulation. So reading stories in there, some of them I thought were wonderful. I thought, how could anybody write such a story. It may seem silly now, but it was inconceivable to me as a boy how anybody could put all this together. How they knew it, how they knew what to say. It was bewildering. So I read chose with admiration.
AS: How often were these magazines published? At the time, did the stories inside them feel particularly contemporary or fresh?
JS: I think The Saturday Evening Post must have been bi-weekly—I can’t believe it came out every week. I used to sell it. They were sold on the street—you know, you’d have a cloth sack with the name of the magazine on it. And no, they weren’t about being contemporary. They were more story stories. Well, I mean, they weren’t stories of chivalry. A series I particularly liked was about the Scottish captain of a freighter called the SS Inchcliffe Castle. I forget the captain’s name, but he drank freely of something called Duggan’s Dew, of Kilmarnock County. He appeared three times, four times a year. Marquand’s stories, I believe, were the Mr. Moto stories, about a Japanese, inscrutable but coolly clever, detective. The same with them, they appeared episodically. You knew Mr. Moto, you knew what the story would be like. But as I say, for a kid, even for grownups—it was a magazine for grownups—they were cleverly written.
AS: So it was a pleasure reading them, just for the stories themselves.
JS: You would like them. You might be a little old for them, but you would like them.
AS: Here’s a strange question: What is your relationship with time? Do you consider yourself disciplined? Have you had a schedule that you’ve kept for a long time?
JS: I’ve been spendthrift with time, I would say.
JS: Oh, I don’t remember. Well, look, in my prior life, time was an important consideration in every way, and I had a rather disciplined life. And I guess when I started writing, my difficulties—I think I outlined them in the lecture—I didn’t think I could quite believe in the authenticity of what I was doing. So it was difficult for me to sit down regularly and do it. But I would say that by the time I reached the second or third book, I was able to work regularly, and more or less methodically. And I think that lasted for a long period. I wouldn’t want to—I don’t want to put myself at the bottom of the group, but I would say I was never the most disciplined writer.
AS: Did you find it torturous when you would hear about writers who did have that distinction?
JS: Well, I would imagine them all the time. They probably don’t exist, but I kept thinking about them, sitting down at seven-thirty or eight o’clock and all that.
AS: Do you have any particular ways in which you procrastinate or waste time?
JS: Let’s go back to your original question: Are you disciplined? I am constantly thinking about what I’m supposed to be writing. So procrastination. It’s not complete procrastination. When you sit down somewhere else, or even when you’re reading something else, you’re really reading it with a portion of your mind open to what you’re doing, what you’re supposed to be doing. So I would say, when you pick a book off your desk that has been there, that you keep there—you stop working, and you pick this book up, and you start reading—I don’t know if that’s truly not working. Because you’re still in the mode, really, of working, although you’re not attentive to the exact task at hand. You’re not watching the television—which I wouldn’t do under any circumstances. But I might read the newspaper, which is—you’re not supposed to be doing that. Better to stay at your desk. So there are degrees of not working or working steadily. And I think, like other writers, I often find something of real value while I’m not expecting it, while I’m doing something a little off. Which might be as simple as walking somewhere, or some task that’s not demanding, like washing dishes. You’re not concentrating on the dish, really. You’re thinking about something else entirely while you’re washing. And if you’re writing, you’re probably thinking about that.
AS: Can you remember any significant moments when an idea came to you in such a way?
JS: Oh, all the time. Constantly. You stop and write them down. Are they any good? This is a hard question. You don’t think of it that way, because you’re amassing so much. You’re just looking for what is good, not the percentage of things that are good.
AS: Have you ever had an entire story form in such a way?
JS: Yes, sure. “Last Night” came as a complete story. Well, most of them come fairly complete. For myself, I don’t begin writing hoping it’ll lead me somewhere and that it will turn out. I usually have the story pretty much in mind before I begin. But how to tell it and whether telling it amounts to anything in the end, those are the things that are in play, so to speak.
AS: So those writers who claim they’re exploring or that they don’t know what’s going to happen next, that’s something that’s foreign to your process?
JS: I believe them. I believe them when they say, “When I start writing, that tells me what I want to write.” But I can’t say that.
AS: Both Sebald and Nabokov, writers I’ve heard you discuss, dealt largely with memory. Are there any particularities to how you believe your memory functions? Certain senses that you think you find especially vibrant in your memory?
JS: I’ve often thought about memory and what it is. It’s mercurial—even defining it, even understanding yourself, what your memory is, it’s slipping through your fingers, constantly. I.e., I remember in images. I remember in some actions. I definitely remember in words and text. I don’t mean pages, but it’s alphabetical memory. Those things are not sequential, and how they happen simultaneously, it seems, I simply cannot figure out. I can’t explain it. In short, I don’t know how I remember things. I do know it’s going on, because, if you say, “What happened yesterday?” I can tell you. Or even any other day, or what I’ve read, or any such thing. But exactly how, or what that looks like, so to speak, or what that feels like, I have never been able to satisfactorily grasp. I don’t know how I remember. Do you know how you remember?
AS: No. But it’s something I’ve started thinking about more, as I’ve written more.
JS: If I said “San Francisco,” where you’ve lived, what do you begin thinking about or remembering, and how do you do it?
AS: A series of images. Flashes. Similar to what you’ve described. I don’t think my memory is very good, but I’ve recently started to understand its value, versus imagination or invention. Reading your work, something like Light Years, so rich and authentic, it seems like memory must be an active resource that you consult, all the time.
JS: Well, I would say I have a good memory, in lay terms, in non-scientific terms. I do remember a lot of things. And I probably could—I don’t want to undertake it now, when my whole structure is decaying, but maybe twenty years ago—I could probably do well on one of those tests where you remember how many numbers are in sequence, and all that business. I would say technically, I have a good memory. I think Nabokov, for example, had a better memory. And he had a different sort of memory. I believe memories have different zones, bands, width. Not specialties but particularities. People say, “I never forget a face.” I can’t say that any longer. I could perhaps say it at one time. Or they say, “When I smell something, a flower, or a spice, or a person, I never forget that.” Those seem very particular to me. I think my own memory is more generalized. Although images—I’m particularly strong, I think, on images.
AS: Is it something you can access at will? If, say, in the writing you’re seeing and describing a setting, a room, a meal, is it something you go back and remember and then write?
JS: No. I think if you relied on memory to describe the room completely, I think that would be a long process. I think you would have to, so to speak, excavate a bit, and find out what you really remember about the room, by looking at other rooms by comparison. Because your recall is not going to be as strong as your observation. Well, I guess I’m talking about myself. Recall would not be as strong as direct observation. If you had made a few notes about it, just enough to do the job, then that’d be an entirely different degree of work required to do it.
AS: Was the development of your aesthetics and taste parallel with your development of craft? Or did they happen separately? In your lectures you spoke of style as being what you look for in your reading and writing.
JS: I don’t know. I used to say, nobody is born with taste. But I think my wife corrected me, and now I can’t remember which is right. Certain people, I don’t know if they’re born with it, are more aesthetically attuned, more naturally, or more readily. More sensitive, pick up on that, or have a talent. Or a lower threshold of discomfort if things are unaesthetic. But it’s hard to know when exactly that develops. It’s hard to believe that starts with an infant lying in a hospital. Or even when you’re a year old, or two years old. It seems to me, it’s one of those any number of things we don’t understand about human development, how people become what they are. Through what influences, what influences are really empowered here. At least in this house, we agree that there is no understanding of that.
AS: I was struck how in your third lecture you mentioned both Michelangelo Antonioni and Francis Bacon, who represent such pronounced aesthetic views. It made me think about where those developments might come from.
JS: Well, Francis Bacon. I am so interested in Francis Bacon. I don’t even like his paintings that much. I mean, I wouldn’t like one in the house, even though I know they’re great. They’re simply too strong a statement, in color alone. In their format, their size. They’re fabulous, but, like a tiger, I’d rather regard from a position of safety, so to speak. On the other hand, Bacon, when you hear him speak—an old alcoholic, former decorator, gay, very much at ease, in a way, sense of fashion and all that—when you hear him talk, you’re very impressed. He’s very direct. He knows what he feels, what he thinks. He expresses it extremely well. He’s not putting on. And I just think he’s a terrific figure.
AS: Did you ever meet him?
JS: No, I never met him, only heard him. I go to all his shows in New York. I wouldn’t miss one. And he shows in galleries frequently. Some gallery will manage to get four or five of his pictures and invite you in. I love Bacon. He’s not the only painter, but in particular I like him. And also because of the absolute chaos of his life. He’s endlessly appealing to me, because my life is not chaotic, except in certain rooms. But his, completely.
AS: Are there any painters or filmmakers in whose style you see similarities to your own?
JS: I don’t look for that, actually. I look for the opposite. I’m trying to find in them ideas for myself. I’m not looking for reflection. I find going to the museum and looking at pictures to be renewing—I don’t know what to say—for a while you think of life in a different way, in a way that you are pleased to think of it, that you wanted to think of it. Maybe in a way you never imagined thinking, but you recognize. Pictures, and sometimes sculpture—not often, sculpture is too cold—but painting can do that. The other thing, in films—all I see in films, when somebody is really wonderful and makes something original, I think you recognize that. I think you’re excited by it, you get a jolt by it. The last thing I can remember seeing like that was, while we were in Charlottesville, was Beasts of the Southern Wild. I thought, fabulous movie. I don’t know what it is, but I understand it.
AS: Any other artists in particular?
JS: For a long time I loved Bonnard. In fact, when I wrote Light Years, I had him in mind, as kind of the emblematic painter. There’s a South African painter, William Kentridge, who is a radical political activist and painter. He’s white, but he’s extremely sympathetic to black people in South Africa. I love him, I think he’s a fabulous guy. They all teach you something. They’re suggesting things to you. What you get from them is a picture of life and a depth of life in a way that gives you perspective. It gives you scale. Not all pictures, of course, and not all painters, that goes without saying. I think Pollock is terrific. I don’t like him. I don’t like the idea of him. He runs counter to everything, to my feelings of sanctity, but I admire him tremendously. I am in awe of the paintings. And I would go back and see a Pollock again and again, even though I’ve seen it ten times. Actually, like the best pictures, you can’t memorize them. You have to be there. It’s not even good looking at a reproduction. You have to be in the presence.
AS: I’ve felt similarly about Bacon’s paintings . Something visceral when in their presence. But yes, what you said about sanctity. Something philosophically wrong.
JS: I’m unable to defend it fully. When you go there, you understand.
AS: I’d like to talk about a couple of your books for a bit. One of the most striking technical features of both A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years is the way in which you made some unconventional decisions in terms of perspective. The distance of the narrator and the narrator’s positioning in regard to the characters. What brought you to these ideas?
JS: Oh, you mean the architecture. I mean, that turned out to be a necessity. I tried writing the book . . . it was unthinkable in the first-person. In the third-person it didn’t seem to work. It seemed too much like a dossier. It seemed clinical. I don’t remember what gave me the idea of having the book more or less as told to somebody, and from that, it was a step further to have it told—not told but recounted—by a third party who is not completely reliable. We’re never sure how much is being added by the person who is telling the story.
AS: Right, the access is a question.
JS: All of that is a question. But I don’t have any problem with it. [Laughs.]
AS: Is that something you knew from the outset?
JS: Oh, no. I worked into it. That became apparent, having gone a certain way, and it was not good.
AS: Do you think you’ve taken risks with your work?
JS: I thought that was a risk. You mean political and aesthetic risks? I think that was a technical risk. I don’t think it was an act of great courage or anything. It’s unusual and I thought people might have a problem with it, which they did. There are frequent comments about, “What’s happening here? Can somebody know this? Is this made up? Is this a dream?” I don’t know. I think it is what it is, and you see it quickly.
AS: In much of your work, but in Light Years in particular, a main concern seems to be “how to live.”
AS: At one point you ask, “How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of others?” And later, in a scene with Franca’s boyfriend Mark, he admires Nedra and Viri because they’ve “invented their life.” This idea of “how to live” seems to encapsulate your work in general. It’s illuminating to read it that way.
JS: Well, I can’t say that’s a theme, but it’s something I’ve thought about. And of course it’s one of the principal motives in Light Years. I felt that she had an idea of how to live, and he did too. By that I mean I approved their idea of how they wanted to live. But in the end they didn’t have the emotional or financial capital for it. It was impossible to live on that level. And, of course, life was being destroyed all around them, one way or another. I don’t remember the book that well. I can’t cite examples. There are friends, tragedies. Things that happen offstage, almost, to somebody else, people are dying. The actual terrors of the world begin to accumulate. And then there are all kinds of psychological and sociological questions of how long can people remain together and remain happy and remain on a certain level. Are these false premises? Are these people living in a self-indulgent and self-betraying way? I don’t know. I’d say all of that, to some extent. But mixed with all that is my admiration for this woman, and also this couple.
AS: The idea of a book dealing with “how to live,” instructing in a certain way, through example, helped reveal to me how you are able to achieve a book that is both so rich and so detached. There is no moral indictment. It just is.
JS: It doesn’t take a firm moral stand. It is certainly permissive. I think it could be criticized for the infidelity, and I don’t know whatever else there is in it. That’s about all. The book is sympathetic to itself.
AS: Were you ever in a workshop?
JS: Not as a student.
AS: Did you have mentors?
JS: I had people who read my writing, whom I respected as readers. But they didn’t go over it—just broader judgment.
AS: You mentioned Saul Bellow in your lectures.
JS: He read two books of mine. And they were already published. No, he never said anything. I learned a lot from him, but not about writing.
AS: How do you think attending a workshop as a student might have affected your development?
JS: I think it would have helped me, actually. It would have advanced things. People are reading what you’re writing, and you’re getting reactions and, I would say, some guidance as well. I think it would have been a help, definitely.
AS: Do you have a strong opinion about the role workshops have taken in literature, both for students and teachers?
JS: You know, as we said about something earlier: it is. It happened. A lot of people want to write. It’s hard to condemn that. If they want to write, and these schools have accommodated them, I don’t see how anybody can be critical of it. You might say, “They’re not learning how to hold a job.” Well, that’s their problem. That’s not the school’s problem.
AS: Are there or have there been any trends in writing that have baffled you?
JS: Well, there are always things you don’t quite understand. Mostly in poetry, I would say. Post-modernism, at first, and certain aspects of it still give me a little trouble. But there are so many brilliant postmodernists that it’s silly to take that kind of stand. Writing evolves. We know that, we see that all the time. If you think it’s taking a misstep, I think you’re mistaken. It’s taking a step. It may not turn out to be a lasting step, but it’s a step. I don’t think, as an individual, even as a critic, it makes much sense to say, this is wrong, or I disapprove of this, or this is a dead end. I wouldn’t do that.
AS: Even with the technological and financial concerns one reads about all the time, you’re optimistic about the state of literature?
JS: The state of literature seems healthy to me. Sure, there’s a lot of junk being written, that’s always been so. I saw something interesting the other day: I saw the first interactive literature I’ve ever seen. I thought it was boring, infinitely boring. This was in the guise of a game. A textual game. Not a visual game. Text comes on with various ways you can go, links, and these links are interwoven in ways, and it’s leading you through a process. You could call it a story—it is a story. And you’re sort of finding your own way. They’re predetermined, somebody has already written them, you’re not determining them. But you’re choosing them, unknowingly. And I said, Ah, so that’s what it is. I’m not very impressed. But the idea of it.