James Salter on Writing, Women, and Being Not-Quite-Famous

It's March, but a zigzag of skiers still winds its way down Corkscrew, Aspen Mountain's double-black-diamond run. This is the view from Justice Snow's, an unpretentious restaurant and bar tucked into the Sheridan Opera House, where James Salter is telling me about Billy Keating. When Salter first started coming to Aspen in 1959, Keating was running Billy's, a rowdier watering hole in the basement of the Sheridan, famous "for the availability of various nonalcoholic stimulants," Salter says. "He was a small man, but he had presence. If he told someone to get out and go home, they did."

I am here with Salter ostensibly to talk about his new novel, All That Is, only the sixth of his 57-year writing career and the first since Solo Faces in 1979. But before we can get to that, he has much to say about Aspen, where he has owned a home since making that first visit a half-century ago; about the run-down Victorian houses, ghostly remnants of the 1880s silver boom, that you could buy back then for a few thousand bucks; and about the red-brick Hotel Jerome—the town's proudest landmark, named after its impresario, Macy's then-co-owner Jerome Wheeler—where locals used to gather after a day on the slopes, skiing straight from Aspen Mountain to the foot of Main Street.

Now, Salter notes, "the hotel has been refurbished, bought and sold twice by big corporations. It's a very luxurious, rather stiff, and phony place." Much like the town that surrounds it, he adds, "it's become improved, improved, and improved, and the charm has gradually been leached out of it." The original cast, he says, is long gone—characters like Keating, last seen tearing away in his silver Cadillac convertible, destination unknown. Jack Nicholson, once Salter's neighbor, recently put his house on the market, and Salter himself seems doubtful about returning much to the Rockies. He stopped skiing two seasons ago—"so what's the point?"—due to a back problem that recently required a small surgery. But in most other respects, the author belies his years. At 87, the ex-Army fighter pilot who flew more than 100 combat missions during the Korean War is sturdy and light on his feet, nimbly negotiating the melting ice on the short walk back to his home.

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.

Although Aspen doesn't appear in All That Is, the sense of time passing is ever-present. It's a panoramic book, an intimate epic that spans seven decades in the life of Philip Bowman, first seen as a Navy lieutenant sailing into Okinawa, and later as a book editor rising through the ranks of New York publishing. It's a milieu Salter knows well: lunches at the Century Club and drinks at P.J. Clarke's, winters in the Hudson River Valley (where Salter wrote Light Years, his great 1975 novel about the dissolution of a marriage) and summers in Bridgehampton (where he lives when he's not in Aspen). Along the way, there are a failed marriage, myriad affairs, and a startling act of sex-as-revenge—another world Salter has mapped as knowingly as any living American writer, the minefield of desire.

"I wanted to go from the end of the war, which was the beginning of my—I don't know what to say—'mature understanding of things'? Hardly. Not that. But the beginning of when I was an independent young man—up to the present," he says, as we settle down at a small wooden table in his kitchen, framed restaurant menus on the wall, a wood-burning stove in the corner. On a nearby TV, white smoke is issuing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. "I originally had the idea of making fair with chronology and just carrying on as I wanted to, ignoring the actual years, so that Philip Bowman, although there are 60 years spanned by the book, would only have lived about 35 of them. But as I was writing the book, it became apparent that was only confusing." So Salter opted for a more linear chronology, albeit one in which time has a fluid, Proustian way of sneaking up on you—a mood succinctly summed up in one late passage:

Age doesn't arrive slowly, it comes in a rush. One day nothing has changed, a week later, everything has. A week may be too long a time, it can happen overnight. You are the same and still the same and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appeared at the corners of your mouth.

All That Is is not strictly "about" publishing, but the setting hardly seems accidental for a writer who has long watched plaudits from critics and fellow authors (Reynolds Price, Susan Sontag, and Richard Ford among them) mount up in roughly inverse proportion to book sales. At the time of his Nabokovian 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, many noted that none of Salter's previous books had sold more than 12,000 copies—a trend Burning the Days failed to reverse. The euphemism "writer's writer" has been applied so many times that Salter visibly recoils at hearing it. ("That means nobody knows who you are," he told me the first time we met, for a 2005 LA Weekly profile.)

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