For decades, mere mention of the name James Salter has been a kind of secret literary handshake. He is one of the most highly respected contemporary American stylists but also a writer “who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure,” as Susan Sontag wrote. A graduate of West Point, Salter served in the U.S. Air Force and flew more than one hundred combat missions during the Korean War, the subject for his first novel, The Hunters, published in 1956. After his second novel, The Arm of Flesh (revised in 2000 as Cassada), Salter left the military to write full-time. The novels that followed—A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, and Solo Faces—are among those that Salter considers his best. He is also the author of the short-story collections Dusk and Last Night, as well as a book of travel writing, There and Then, and a memoir, Burning the Days. In 2000, Salter was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I interviewed James Salter in New Orleans on November 9, 2010.
KR: In Burning the Days, you write about beginning your literary life while still in the air force and later on, when you were recalled: “I had three lives, one during the day, one at night, and the last in a drawer in my room in a small book of notes.” You’ve said that writing felt like a “queer thing to be doing” at that time but that something kept you going. What did you hope to achieve with The Hunters?
JS: I hoped that it would be published. And I hoped it would be well known but that the writer of it would be unknown. I had some ideal of anonymity at the time. Beyond that, I knew the novel was accurate and there was nothing written quite like it.
KR: What were you learning about craft, about the novel as a form during the writing of that first novel?
JS: The book speaks for itself. I hadn’t written a novel before, and looking back it seems that it was easy to write because there it is, all on the page. People talk. Events and situations are described. But if you’ve never written before, you simply don’t know how to go about it. When you sit down as a young person or an untried person and you think, “Here’s the paper. Now begin,” then what happens? It’s more complicated than you would think. I can’t reconstruct it for you because now I know how to go about it, and it’s hard to find that ignorance again, that innocence, that heightened state of being confounded. You would say, probably, that sounds a little disingenuous because, after all, when you read a book, there it is. Once you know how to put it together, the puzzle loses its power. You’ve already taken it apart. You know how to put it back together again. It may take you a little time to do it, but you know it can be done.
KR: How did having written The Hunters prepare you for writing your second novel, The Arm of Flesh?
JS: It didn’t prepare me.
KR: How so?
JS: I had written The Hunters with parental pride, and also it was praised by critics and the publisher was very pleased. It sold copies. Then the publisher said, “Now let’s have another one.” And I had no idea what to do. I was very impressed with As I Lay Dying, and I had the idea that if I wrote a book like that nobody would notice that it was really modelled on Faulkner’s novel. The difference, of course, is that Faulkner’s novel is fabulous, and I wasn’t able to ever get mine to really do its job. I think it’s a poor book. It’s self-involved, self-indulgent. In the end, I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to have it reprinted later on. So I rewrote it to try to correct it, and maybe that did some good.
KR: What was that process like—rewriting The Arm of Flesh as Cassada?
JS: It was like getting a novel from a writing student. You can see immediately that there was a lot wrong with it, and you start just making red marks on the paper.
KR: What wasn’t working?
JS: There were too many characters. They were not well defined. The impudence of thinking that you could merely write in technical terms, that is to say flying, and people would understand it or be fascinated enough to attempt to understand it: that was something that was ill thought out. Also, things had to be added to make the characters more interesting. They were simply too briefly and too lightly sketched.
KR: You also revised The Hunters around a similar time.
JS: I only fiddled with it.
KR: Between those first books and your third, A Sport and a Pastime, there is a huge shift in voice and subject matter. What kind of risk was A Sport and a Pastime for you?
JS: This was about four or five years after I had written a first book. By this time, I had been reading a little, and I had grown up a little, you might say. I didn’t think of it as a risk. I thought that finally I was doing the right thing. You’re attempting to find, in some way at the beginning, an unmediated voice, to be able to write down what you really want to write down. Somehow with that novel, I crossed that line, I think, and was able to write that way. Also, I had a subject that was compelling for me. It was about France. I had been there before. I always liked it, and this time I spent about ten or eleven months there. I was stationed in Chaumont, in small-town France, and I had an opportunity to really observe and see the detail of life, which is what makes the book. Well, a number of things make the book. It’s sexual, but it’s also a series of poems to provincial France. I had read Henry Miller by then. It’s hard to remember that his books had to be smuggled into the United States. Tropic of Cancer was a legendary book, but you couldn’t get it. College girls used to pack it in their underwear to bring it through customs. I am nothing like Henry Miller either as a person or a writer, but I admired very much his really fabulous freedom and iconoclasm, his poetic sense. I took a cue from that. I listened to that note and said, “I could probably sing in that key if I tried.” And I had the subject for it. That was really the story of the book. For myself, I feel it’s the first real book I wrote.
KR: Do you remember the initial spark for A Sport and a Pastime?
JS: Of course. It’s patterned after real people and, naturally, a girl I knew. I had a lot of notes that I liked to read. That was the spark of it. I thought I would like them probably even more if they were given their full shape, and that’s what happened. There is a certain amount of calculation in writing a book, maybe not if you’re an impassioned, wild person, but otherwise there’s construction in it. The book is a contraption, and you’re making it work.
KR: In Burning the Days, you write about Miller’s voice, noting that, as a reader, you want to “linger at his elbow until long past closing time.” The voice of A Sport and a Pastime is markedly different from your first two novels. How did you hit on that voice?
JS: It was a question of getting rid of any mediation, of throwing off any inhibition of writing.
KR: Is there anything typical about the way your books or stories begin?
JS: They tend to begin in different ways. I don’t have a formula. If I did, I would have written more books.
KR: Did A Sport and a Pastime begin with the girl?
JS: Yes, of course. That was central to the book. When they talk about A Sport and a Pastime, they’re always talking about the narrator, the unreliable narrator, the curiosity of this person. As is often the case, what you intended, what you thought you were doing, is not what you have at the end. When I started thinking about writing it, I made some preliminary attempts. I wrote some pages, and they seemed offensive to me. I didn’t like the tone. It seemed smutty. I thought, This is not going to work, and for some reason, I can remember when it happened, I hit on this idea for the narrator. I was with a friend, and I said to him, “What would you think of a book where the story is described by a narrator who is not offhanded about it, but he stands back from the story in a way and says that he’s really making it all up and not to believe all of it?” The friend showed very little interest in the idea, but that didn’t bother me. I then tried writing from the point of view of someone in the book—not me, not the writer—but someone who disclaims complete truthfulness so as to put the whole story one step removed from realism. And I wrote some of that and said, “Yes. I think that’s it.”
KR: What technical problems did A Sport and a Pastime present that you hadn’t encountered in the previous novels?
JS: I think in the quality of the writing, if you can call that a technical problem. I wanted to be able to write more admirably than I had before.
Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire, a novel, and co-editor of Conversations with James Salter, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.