We meet up later for dinner at the Italian bistro Campo de Fiori, where we are joined by Salter's wife, Kay, a tall, long-necked beauty 20-odd years his junior. They met in the early '70s, she tells me, when she was working on the crew of a documentary about Salter produced for PBS's Artists in America series. "I had never met any man like him," she says a touch bashfully as we commandeer a table in the noisy bar. Uncertain about how best to make her approach, she casually discarded a bracelet in the bushes outside Salter's home, then returned to look for the "lost" item. "I found it," he says with gruff affection. (Living together since 1976, they married, in Paris, in 1998.)

In public like this, Salter is even more averse than usual to talking about himself or his work. Instead, he raves about the fashion documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor, which he and Kay saw recently, and about an interview he read with the critic and novelist William Gass, his contemporary, which captured many of Salter's own feelings about the writing process. "He says something like, 'I hope very much not to be disgusted by what I've written the day before.' Which is always the case. You don't want to get completely demoralized every damn day. It depends what you're trying to achieve. Most writers of what we consider interesting or good books have a similar rhythm in their daily lives.

James Salter
Matt Nager
James Salter
As an Air Force pilot, Salter flew more than 100 missions.
Courtesy openroadmedia.com
As an Air Force pilot, Salter flew more than 100 missions.

"Painters are happy at the end of the day," adds Salter, who in 1963, with the documentary filmmaker Lane Slate, made a portrait film of Andy Warhol (then still relatively unknown), Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, et al., extracts from which were shown as part of last year's Armory Show. "They can see what they've done, and if it's no good they can just paint it out the next day, and they get drunk in the evening, and it's a great life. People buy their 'books,' so to speak, their work, for $200,000. They may make five of them in a year, 20 of them in a year. It's a different art entirely."

The agony of novel-writing isn't the only thing that accounts for Salter's limited output. In between, there were screenplays (Solo Faces began as one, for Robert Redford, for whom he'd written Downhill Racer), short stories, teaching gigs, and travel essays (the best of which have been collected as There and Then, which reads like a novel), plus the everyday demands of family life (he fathered four children with his first wife, Ann, and has one son, Theo, with Kay). He even directed an acclaimed but little-seen feature film, Three (1969), with early appearances by Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston, before fully setting his Hollywood aspirations behind him, one double-black-diamond he could not conquer.

When Salter was given The Paris Review's prestigious Hadada Prize in 2011 for lifetime achievement, however, Redford showed up to give the award. And there was a parallel outpouring of appreciation on the Paris Review website (by Geoff Dyer and Jhumpa Lahiri, among others), suggesting a burgeoning Salter cult. Salter allows that the tribute was flattering, if a bit embarrassing. "It's satisfying when everybody . . . you know, when you're a figure for a night. That's naturally gratifying," he says. "I mean, you write for recognition, you write for fame, but it takes various forms. It's better to be unknown in your own town. I think you want to be yourself, be treated like anybody else, have an unselfconscious life."

It's now the next morning and we're back in Salter's kitchen, his arms crossed in the defensive posture he assumes whenever we are on the record. We are talking about Philip Roth, whose retirement, together with the deaths of Bellow and Updike, leaves Salter looking like the last exponent of a particular strain of 20th-century American fiction, deeply informed by the aspirations of postwar America; consumed by the triumphs and failings of middle-class life; navigating the tidal shift into postmodernism. Can he imagine retiring, I ask?

"Can people expect me to keep writing?" he exclaims. "I'd love to write another book, but that's like saying I'd like to ski Corkscrew again. You know, a book's a big project. It's like starting your way through some forest somewhere. It's going to be a big trip in itself, and on top of that there are going to be unforeseen problems of maybe health, accident, weather, who knows what."


In his long and varied life, Salter has always been—perhaps this is the natural disposition of all great writers—something of an outsider: a Jew at West Point, a cult enthusiasm in the company of best-sellers, a New Yorker on the periphery of the Hollywood inner circle. But now he stands poised for a victory lap. He is even about to be canonized with a profile in The New Yorker, a magazine where Salter was conspicuous in his absence (having had multiple stories rejected) for most of his career.

"What has your life been like? What are the things that have mattered?" a woman at a dinner party asks Philip Bowman in All That Is. "Well," he responds, "if I really examine it, the things that have most influenced my life, I would have to say the Navy and the war."

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