An officer and a gentleman

Elegant 80-year-old fiction writer and ex-military pilot James Salter talks about writing sex scenes, meeting the "charming" John Updike, and being rejected by the New Yorker.

Published June 17, 2005 5:39PM (EDT)

I waited until it was dark in the Hamptons before I drove to James Salter's place intending to steal his garbage. I knew where he lived. I had interviewed the renowned novelist and short story writer that morning at his beach house. I noted the three cans standing neatly by the road. As for the contents of his rubbish, James Salter types and retypes his prose on a typewriter. What if he threw his earlier drafts away with his French newspapers and caviar tins and Tanqueray bottles?

I didn't care about that later garbage, of course. It's Salter's prose that is priceless. What I could learn from Salter's discards, his edits! Salter is a "frotteur" -- French for someone who "rubs words in his hand" so he can find the best phrase. In America, Salter has always been under-appreciated (outside of the rarefied air of the late George Plimpton's Paris Review, which, despite its name, was published from uptown Manhattan). In Paris itself, Salter is considered an American treasure. French journalists assume Americans feel even stronger about the man. Salter's wife, playwright Kay Eldredge, has forbade her husband from correcting their impression.

Salter was born in 1925, and raised in New York City; he spent World War II at West Point. He then flew fighter jets in the Korean War. Out of the service, he tried to sell swimming pools, and later worked off and on in the film industry as a writer and director. In 1967 he wrote a book called "A Sport and a Pastime." It was and still is an erotic masterpiece about a young American Yale dropout named Dean and a French shopgirl he has a sexual tempest with. Although the summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love, the book was ignored. "Doubleday [my publisher] didn't know what to do with it," Salter remembers. "Nobody wanted to review it. It was too sexual. It had a certain language in it that is in no way obscene, but was unacceptable at the dinner table at that time. Now, in an era where even anal sex is discussed on prime-time TV, the book is completely inoffensive." He pauses. "Although the book lost that aspect of its strength, it still retains everything else. It's just as good a book as when it was written."

Eight years passed before Salter's next novel, "Light Years" (1975) -- an anecdotal description of a failed bourgeois marriage set in the Hamptons before the Hamptons became the Hamptons. Salter's wonderfully limpid descriptions of autumnal Long Island landscapes -- "The day is white as paper"; "In the morning, the light came in silence"; "The river was a brilliant gray, the sunlight looked like scales" -- cause the novel to transcend its yuppie milieu. Salter knows all Chekhov's tricks.

Four years later, Salter turned an unproduced script about mountaineering into an underappreciated novel, "Solo Faces" (1979). "A Sport and a Pastime" and "Light Years" continued to sell in various paperback editions because of word of mouth. In the 1980s, a rumor took hold that Salter had written two books before "A Sport and a Pastime." Remember, the Internet wasn't around, so such information was difficult to confirm. The story went further: Salter had hired someone to physically drive a station wagon through backwater used bookstores and buy up any copies of those early books and then burn them. Is this true? "I can't deny all these stories," Salter laughs. "I'll be left with nothing."

The truth is that Salter wrote two autobiographical novels about the Air Force in 1957 and 1961, respectively, "The Hunters" and "The Arm of Flesh." Both were published by Harper Brothers. "The Hunters" sold quite well for a first novel, but his sophomore effort was a flop. Salter recently rewrote both for republication. He has also published a short story collection, "Dusk and Other Stories" (1998), a memoir "Burning the Days" in 1997, and now a second short story collection, "Last Night." The new book is as elegant as anything Salter has written and his similes are to die for. In the first story alone, "Comet," a man so admires his new wife that "he could have licked her palms like a calf does salt." This man is also "mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu."

In person, Salter is also "mannerly and elegant," but he talks to you as if you were a patient whom he is coaxing to describe your symptoms. He asks as many questions about the interviewer as the interviewer asks about him. Salter himself only appears middle-aged, yet he is 80 years old. I suppose that makes him an "old man." Yet his vibe of vitality is so strong you still believe that his best work is yet to come.

Incidentally, when I drove to Salter's street my dignity kicked in. I turned around. I'd just wait for Salter's next book like everybody else.

Are you comfortable with your identity as a "writer's writer."

[Gives a dry chuckle.] Writers are the best readers. That's what that "writer's writer" means to me.

One of the features of a writer's writer is that he is brilliant sentence by sentence.

Sentences should not cause you to stop and admire them. They should be in the service of the page.

Ah. "You have to kill your darlings."

I think that was what I was trying to say -- if the sentence is standing up to be admired.

Have you ever abandoned a novel?

Yes. I wrote a novel maybe five years ago. It was insufferable. Distance always helps. Somebody said, Mayakovski maybe, "After you write a poem, put it in a drawer for a least a week."

A good writer I know brags that he writes slowly sentence by sentence and never revises. The samurai method.

William Styron says the same thing. He never goes to another page until that page is satisfactory. I don't think that works for me. If the page is not satisfactory, I just go on and come back later.

What made you decide to rewrite your first two books?

Jack Shoemaker, the publisher, had wanted to reprint both titles with matching spines. He finally persuaded me to revise the text. He was very persistent. Have you ever taught writing? The first book was like a student's work. I reread it and thought it was a mess. I liked it when I wrote it, but I didn't know anything back then. [Shrugs.] People get married and change their mind.

It's strange to suddenly think of you as an ex-military man, a pilot.

They're going to call you a pilot no matter what you do, but that had so little to do with my identity. In France -- where I do all right -- they keep referring to my experiences in the [Korean] war. Years from now are they still going to refer to Paris Hilton as the "former home video sex star"? I don't know.

What if Paris Hilton suddenly revealed she possessed a secret intellect and began writing books with the razor-sharp prose of Joan Didion?

Joan Didion! Geeze. Could she? You know, I've never even seen the celebrated Paris Hilton sex film. I don't know how to get it. I'd go into one of those video stores and they'd recognize me, and then where would I be?

Your novel "Light Years" just won the Fadiman Medal (awarded by the New York Mercantile Library) 15 years after it was written.

That's gratifying. I've reread it. It's not bad. I was just thinking about the book this morning. I've only read a few books that got such overwhelmingly negative reviews as "Light Years." Anatole Broyard, writing in the daily New York Times, said the book was "insulting to our patience and our expectations." Then in the Sunday Times, Robert Towers wrote such a well-written terrible review that even the publisher using ellipses couldn't find a few words to use. [Towers called it "an overwritten, chi-chi and rather silly novel."] You don't just shrug reviews like those off. They are blows.

How did your memoir "Burning the Day" come to be written?

I wrote an autobiographical piece for Esquire called "The Captain's Wife." Joe Fox, my editor at Random House, read it and liked it, and urged me to write additional pieces that came from life. Gradually they assembled themselves into a book that can't be called autobiography. In fact, I didn't call it that. It's too damn incomplete -- the book ended 20 years or more ago. I didn't want to call it "memoir." Even then [1997] that word had a certain pretension. So I called the book a "recollection."

For the past 20 years have you felt like a short story writer?

I felt like a writer. Short stories aren't very much different than other writing. They require different structure, but you still have to sit down to write them the same way. Most writers don't specialize [between novels and short stories], although they may have their forte. John Cheever, for instance, is probably more famed as a short story writer, but he wrote novels as well. Who else do we have? Hemingway, of course. It's only occasionally that you come across someone like Alice Munro or perhaps Lorrie Moore or maybe Grace Paley who seem to specialize or write only short stories. I know Shirley Hazzard, who's just won a big prize, talks about this very thing. She started writing short stories. Her first one was accepted by the New Yorker -- by William Maxwell, famous editor and writer now gone -- and the magazine accepted every story she sent in afterwards. Hers is like a fairy tale. What can I say? That's like going to paradise.

Has the New Yorker ever turned you down?

Oh, sure. Oh, certainly. As a matter of fact I take some pride in that. My previous book of short stories ["Dusk"] won the PEN/Faulkner award [for short stories]. Nine of the 11 stories had been turned down by the New Yorker -- and the two remaining stories I hadn't bothered sending to the New Yorker because I knew they'd turn them down.

Do you get an idea for a short story on Monday and then write it on Friday? Or does it gnaw at you for a year or two?

I may get it on Monday and write it on Friday, but there could be an interval of many years between that Monday and Friday. [Pause.] That's an interesting question. Short stories, sometimes you tear them out of the beak of life, so to speak. And sometimes they simply are lying there on the ground to pick up. You may have a certain idea for a story you have to tell, but the story didn't exist before because it wasn't lived by somebody else -- you constructed it yourself. Some stories come completely assembled and ready to go. Otherwise it may be like one of those nightmare Christmas toys where they say "everything is included but the battery and assembly required." You may spend hours and hours feverishly trying to make something of it.

Have you ever sat down and a complete story just poured out?

Yes. There is one such story in this present book that was written in the morning. And that is "Bangkok." I had a start. I had two lines that someone had told me over the telephone -- "Weren't you going to call me back?" "Of course not." I began with those two lines and just knew the rest of it. I knew the people. I was able to write the story.

In "Burning the Days," you mention the three essential stories of Isaac Babel to read: "Guy de Maupassant," "Dante Street," and "My First Goose." [I'd never read Babel before and the first two stories have changed my reading life!] If someone were to say, "Read these three stories of Salter's." What would they be?

I can't answer that question because you mention Babel and that's completely out of my class. It's embarrassing. He is a genuinely great writer. He rewrote constantly. Revised and revised. The stories that read so effortlessly, that seem to have been written by an angel's pen, were probably struggled over for months. I'll recommend three stories in any case as long as there is no mention of Isaac Babel in the same breath. I think "American Express" in "Dusk." In "Last Night," I like "Comet." And I suppose, can I go back to the other book ["Dusk"]? I'd say, "Am Strande von Tanger." The title is pretentious, I know. I was in the phase where I thought, 'I'll floor them [the New Yorker] with this title!" It means "On the Beach in Tanger."

Are there uncollected Salter short stories from some lost magazine?

Not worth mentioning. They're just lying around. They refuse to come together. In short, broken pieces.

Is a new novel finally in the works?

I'm just starting. I don't have a purchase on it. I'm just doing preliminary stuff. If we were talking in architecture terms, I'm still excavating to lay the foundation.

Don't readers complain, "Why haven't you written more books?"

They mention that. But let's return to Shirley Hazzard for a moment. I notice that she hasn't written any more than I have. I think I'm being compared to too high a standard. [Coincidentally,] I flew down from Boston with John Updike yesterday. Here is a man who's written maybe 50 books -- quite a few of them are really superb. I hardly know what to say. But maybe I spent a little more time kicking around than he did.

Were you sitting side by side?

Yes. It was wonderful. He's absolutely charming. Unpompous. I don't want to say "self-effacing," but he is an unspoiled man who knows a lot. He has a very welcoming and habitual style, which is in no way false. He's a bit shy. He doesn't begin wheeling out titles of his work or anything. You'd like him.

Has Updike read you?

Yes. At least one. He once wrote me a postcard.

Which book did he read?

"Light Years."

Was the card favorable? Wait. What a dumb question. "Dear Mr. Salter, Anatole Broyard was right. This book sucks."

[Laughs] That would be memorable too. But that's not his style.

So in the end, do you feel that Hollywood ate up your life?

It didn't eat up my life, but it ate up those years to a large extent. I really can't complain. I wasn't drafted. I wasn't shanghaied. I was earning a living. I enjoyed it. You always live in hope. You always say, "This fellow will be a terrific director. And this will be really a good film." And so forth. Even earlier you say, "I am going to write a wonderful script for this. It will be remembered." It's not like selling stuff on the sidewalk on 14th Street. You know John Updike just wrote an introduction to a book of Hollywood stories by Daniel Fuchs ["The Golden West: Hollywood Stories"]. Fuchs is quoted saying something to the effect of "I managed to get my name on 10 films, one of which was a hit." This is in 40 years. Think of this for a moment. "I managed to get my name on 10 films." And it wasn't only his name. It might be Daniel Fuchs and Edward Barnett, or something. Whatever. And the film he cited is a movie you've never heard of. Even despite his optimism, it's pathetic. It's so pathetic you feel like turning away and saying, "For Christ's sake, Fuchs, get a grip."

You know they say, "History is written by the victors"? Well, that's wrong. History is written by writers.

And writers and former screenwriters have written most of the histories of Hollywood -- thus the prejudice that writing hasn't been accorded its due of importance. [Sighs.] Writers can go on bleating and bleating, but it's not going to change things. The film belongs to the actor -- the face you see on the screen. Everybody else is subordinate. There are some cases where the director's imprint is so powerful, if you happen to be educated you know something about the director, but for the hundreds of millions who delight in these movies, it's the actor they're interested in.

Or George Lucas special effects. [Pause.] Here is a personal question. Your writing is constantly sexual, often directly autobiographical in your nonfiction or else sideways autobiographical in your fiction. And you've said that your wife is your first reader. It must be very difficult writing about the women you knew before you met her. Doesn't that inhibit you --"What will Kay think when she reads this?"

There is a danger in that, of course. There may be some jealousy and things unexpressed, but these things still rankle her. In general, I think we can assume women do not like to hear about other previous women. I don't know what to say. If it is clearly not fiction, think it over before you write it.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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