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.
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.)
On the one hand, Salter professes not to be concerned with such matters. "You know, that's all past," he says. "Anxieties and pains and even happinesses of the past, they don't continue to bother you. I don't think it's significant. I don't know what to say about it." On the other, when I mention The New York Times' stinging dismissal of Light Years, he quotes the review verbatim—"an overwritten, chi-chi, and rather silly novel." "That was a disaster," he says plainly. "That wasn't really a review. It was a dismissal of a book."
Salter himself has often discounted his first two novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1961), both drawn from his flying years, as the work of a novice. (He revised each in later years.) In his memoir, the only reference to Solo Faces states that he preferred the title to the text, "because there was nothing ecstatic about the writing." Of his novels, that leaves only Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime (1967), the two for which Salter has said he wants to be remembered. The latter was his breakthrough—the book in which he found his true voice—and one of the great under-read works of American fiction. It is the story of an intensely sexual affair between a Yale dropout ambling through postwar Europe and a shopgirl he meets in Autun, all recalled by a narrator who warns us:
Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or re-arranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change.
That could be Salter describing his own writing process—one that has yielded a memoir that reads like a novel, and now a novel that often feels like memoir. He admits that he writes with specific people in mind, but "enhanced a bit; not necessarily made more admirable, just made clearer or more appropriate to their role. You say, 'Come backstage here just for a minute. I'd like to fasten this part of your coat—it looks a little funny when you turn profile—and then you'll be ready to go.' That's about what it's like."
And the writing, when it comes, comes slowly. By Salter's estimation, All That Is represents six years of steady work, and several more of false starts and detours. "I started a couple of novels that were more or less abandoned in preparation for this one—I don't know how better to describe it. I'd written about them, made notes about them, outlined them—began them, in effect—but then they began to dissolve into this book somehow. So in a sense, they were sacrificed for this." One of the few conscious objectives he set for himself was, whenever possible, to avoid the lyrical: "I didn't want people to be underlining anything in this book, which happened in Light Years. I'm not entirely comfortable with all that."
All That Is abounds with Salter's signature vivid imagery. Soldiers at Tarawa are "slaughtered in enemy fire as dense as bees." When Bowman meets Vivian, the woman who will become his wife, he imagines himself "tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life." Later, the Vietnam War is described as "some dissolute son who cannot ever be trusted or change but must always be taken in." In a taxicab, with a lover-to-be, Bowman sees Manhattan shimmering in the distance, "a long necklace of light across the river."
And once again, there are unabashedly erotic scenes that border on the operatic—passages that may come as an outright shock to some in a culture where a cumshot on Girls can send the Twitterverse into a tailspin:
She lay face down and he knelt between her legs for what seemed a long time, then began to arrange them a little, unhurriedly, like setting up a tripod. In the early light she was without a flaw, her beautiful back, her hips' roundness. She felt him slowly enter, she reached beneath, it was there, becoming part of her. The slow, profound rhythm began, hardly varying but as time passed somehow more and more intense. Outside, the street was completely silent, in adjoining rooms people were asleep. She began to cry out. He was trying to slow himself, to prevent it and make it go on, but she was trembling like a tree about to fall, her cries were leaking beneath the door.
"Somebody quoted a line of Saul Bellow's the other day—at the end of his life, he's supposed to have said, 'It's the women,'" Salter says. "Now, I don't know what he meant by that, of course. He may have meant that it's the women who really control so much of your life and interests, or he may have meant it's the women and your times with them—and certainly sexual times with them—that you remember. I really don't know, but I like the line."
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.
"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."
When I put the same question to Salter, he dodges it at first, trying to convince me it's not an important exchange, then admits that, yes, in fact, it is.
Finally he arrives at himself. "Well, I would say that the war was a very big thing. I wasn't in the war [World War II]. Nevertheless, it remains very large. I was a youth when the war started, I became a young man during the war, and then a man—still young but a man—in the aftermath of the war, which I'm calling 1952, five or seven years later. So that period was really the heart of my life.
"Not to say I am still that person or I remain the jaunty guy with a pair of wings that I appear to be in old photographs. But you don't shed that, even though it's altered in one way or another—burnished, changed. Even though in the end there are other things of consequence that outweigh it. In Bridgehampton there are some photos of my old squadron and of an airplane crash I had, but I don't have them around here. That's not the part of my life that has really been the most significant. Writing has meant more to me over the years than all of that."
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