JAMES SALTER: novelist, traditionalist, seeker of clarity

James Salter
James Salter // Wa Liu

At 88, novelist James Salter has written five novels, sixteen screenplays, two short story collections, and a memoir—and as of this week, has received one of the best-funded awards in the literay world, something he likens to a lifetime recognition plaudit. Salter’s Windham-Campbell prize citation states that his “elegantly natural prose has a precision and clarity which make ordinary words swing wide open.” WEEKEND caught up with Salter on Thursday about the award, his writing methods and how many people (hint: none) he’ll show work to before he’s done with it.

 

Q. Have you enjoyed all of the events surrounding the prize?

A. Well, reading can be pleasant. The audiences were receptive here, and that made it a pleasure.

 

Q. What has this prize meant to you? What about it have you appreciated?

A. The money is fantastic. The award is new, so you don’t know what it means in terms of prestige, but it is certainly already well known. And it is an odd award, since it seeks out writers at the beginning of their careers, almost debutante writers, as well as any other writer in English, so it’s a rather uneven selection of candidates. And you don’t know — in one sense, it’s like the MacArthur or Guggenheim because it helps people along early in their careers, and in my sense, in my case, it’s not like that. It comes at the end of the career. It’s more like an award for lifetime achievement. So it’s a bit hard to categorize, but I think it’s going to become very well known, and very much envied.

 

Q. At your Master’s Tea on Wednesday, you talked about an early manuscript you wrote that was “much too obscure” and “pretentious.” When you write, do you think about accessibility, and do you think about who you write for?

A. I think about both of them. But you don’t think about them every moment,  the way a religious person might have God in their heart every moment. It depends what your ambition is. Do you want to be little known and highly regarded by arcane readers? I think generally speaking the ordinary ambition is to be available to readers — perhaps a certain level of reader in some cases, but, anyway, available. I think you want to be open to readers, deeply. That’s a conventional ambition. Do I have particular readers in mind? Well, it happens that I do. I usually think of a couple of people that I think might like this, might appreciate it.

 

Q. Do you show anyone your writings before you’re done writing?

A. Not my editor. Actually, no one. Well, I let my wife [the playwright Kay Eldredge] read completed manuscripts, not pages. Not chapters. So I’m untampered with, unhindered in the writing. And she’s the first one who reads it. She’s a writer and I value her opinion highly. It causes temporary hatred, but it goes away. From a critic, it’s senseless to have friends or your wife or girlfriend, or husband as the case may be, read it and praise it. When you want a reader, you want to know what their response to it is. So it hurts a bit when it comes from somebody who presumably likes you and then says this about it, that stings, but other criticism is useless. Praise is useless.

 

Q. You said Wednesday that “writing is drawn from everything you know, and the act of ‘making up’ is drawing —”

A. Well, I said “making up” assuming that it was understood that you don’t just make things up. Creating, or god-like assembling, would be more like it. There are some things you make up, I suppose, but the percentage of made-up, chemical additives, so to speak, to the real story, to the real material, is small.

 

Q. Do you think of yourself as having an authorial voice that’s distinct or consistent? Or does it depend on what you’re writing?

A. I would say rather than that, generally speaking, when you read a couple of paragraphs, you know who wrote them. In my case. I don’t know what that is. I suppose in part it’s vocabulary. In part it’s rhythm. In part it’s pace, which is a little different than rhythm. In part it’s stance. In part it’s point of view. In part it’s structural things. All those may be not be present in any one paragraph, but they’re all elements that might be, what can I say, flickering there that, as a reader — if you’ve read the same writer, in this case me, before — you’re able to say, “I know who wrote that.” If you choose to call that voice, okay. But I’m not sure that voice covers the whole thing.

 

Q. Another thing you said yesterday is that you think of “A Sport and a Pastime” as a sort of long prose poem. I’m wondering what you think the place of what some people might call poetry, or poetic language, is in a prose form or in something like a novel.

A. Well, there are a lot of poems that are only prose that has been broken into lines, fancy lines. I heard Harold Bloom lecture yesterday on Walt Whitman, and as you’re reading Whitman, it sounds […] rather prose-like, rather straightforward in several sections. Beautiful prose. So I don’t know where this line that separates the two is. When I said that “A Sport and a Pastime” is rather a prose poem, I meant that it’s rather rhapsodic without being sweet, without being sentimental, and it has its ecstasies without being insane. And all together, it is somewhat compressed. It is a succinct book. […] I said “prose poem” not really for accuracy but to show the sector of writing that it more or less lay in. Accurately, it is a short novel, of some intensity.

 

Q. What do you think of the word — a word that I think gets used a lot critically, in reviews, usually positively, to describe prose writing — “lyrical”?

A. I think there are lyrical and there are narrative writers, and I’m probably a little over on the lyrical side. I don’t like the word because it has a certain fancy suggestion. I’m actually a masculine writer. In fact I’m often faulted for having a somewhat retro masculine view of things.

 

Q. Is that a criticism that bothers you?

A. Well, you can’t do anything about it. As I say I’m past changing or improving myself, or correcting and reforming myself. So it’s odd to find sort of opposing descriptive adjectives — “lyrical,” “masculine” — what is this? A dancing football player is what it sounds like. But I’m not either of them. They’re just words. Somebody said, “That’s what I think is a useful word here.”

 

Q. Is there a way that “masculine” does resonate with you, apart from the criticism, in your writing?

A. Well, I’m usually writing from a masculine point of view. I mean all writing is solipsistic. You only know what you know. You can’t be expected to know more than that. And what I know is reflected in my biography. A reader doesn’t necessarily know my biography — a reader knows nothing, merely opens the book. But I think my biography explains, in a way, some of the aspects of the tone of my writing and the point of view of it. Am I sensitive to it? No, because there’s no point being sensitive to who you are. Well, you can be ashamed of who you are, but I haven’t reached that point yet.

 

Q. Are you thinking particularly about the Air Force and your time there?

A. Well, that’s part of it but not all of it. I am a figure of the past. That is to say, I grew up in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. So you can’t expect me to be “with it.” You can only expect me to be a good writer, or to be a writer that you would like to read, but as for being contemporary, that’s asking too much. I don’t want to put that too strongly. It’s not as if Rip van Winkle came and got a prize here. I was listening to Tom McCarthy talk today. He’s a different kind of writer coming from a different conception of writing. I would say my view of writing is traditional. It [my writing] is narrative, it is not nonsensical, it is definitely not postmodernist, for instance. That’s really the best way to describe it. I’m really a modernist writer. I’m not a postmodernist writer, although I recognize what’s going on. I’m not blind to it, but I don’t write that way. It’s non self-referential, it’s not jokey, it’s not intricate, it’s not cynical, it’s not highly ironical, it’s not intensely self-involved. It’s none of those things. What is it? I would say, essentially out of the modernist tradition.

 

Q. Do you feel like you’ve changed as a writer over time? Is there anything that you feel age has brought you in terms of your craft, your art?

A. No, I don’t think age informs you in terms of your ability to write in any way. I’d say age is maybe a big help in having learned a lot of things. But the great energy, the desire and the newness usually come early. Not to say great works aren’t written late. Thomas Mann wrote late, Picasso painted late. There are a lot of late achievements. But the real heart of the order is right in the 20s, 30s, 40s, maybe 50s.

 

Q. I hesitate to ask you because I know you’ve been asked before, but what do you think of the conventional designation of being a “writers’ writer”?

A. I’ve complained about that enough and let it go. But it implies writing too good for your own good. Well, I don’t think that’s so. It further implies a certain wastefulness, that you’re just writing for other writers. Well, I’m not doing that. So I’ve stopped addressing it. People are going to continue to say that as long as they continue to read other people’s reviews, and they say, “Huh, let’s see who this is. Oh, all right, famed as a writers’ writer.”

 

Q. How about being a “great writer of sentences”? Do you think, structurally, on the level of the sentence when you write?

A. No. We talked about this this morning, with three sections of [Introduction to] Creative Writing — [John] Crowley, Richard Deming and Lanny Hammer — they wanted to talk about the sentence. So I merely described the way I normally write, on a piece of paper. I don’t normally pay that much attention to sentences. I try to get down what I’m thinking about. [When I’m revising,] I’m looking at sentences. Do they sound right to me? Would I be ashamed at writing such a rotten sentence? Grammatically, is it okay, and if not, am I entitled to disregard grammar here? Is there any rhythm to this? Are they short and long? […] How much do you polish them? Not too much, or they’re going to be distracting. You don’t want to write sentences that are going to be too good for the paragraph, or too fine for the page. I think they should be good enough for what they’re supposed to be doing and where they are. Do I mind being told that I write great sentences? It’s like being told you’re a writers’ writer, [as if] what you have to say has nothing to do with it.

 

Q. For young writers in particular, do you think that the process of finding out what you’re trying to say is not necessarily an act of writing?

A. It’s not necessarily writing. I don’t mean experience. No, no. I don’t mean knowing things. There is a problem when you’re very young: You feel you don’t know anything. Who is going to listen to this, and how can this be interesting? There are prescriptions for this. I can give you examples of things written about nothing that are fantastic. There’s a story by Isaak Babel and it’s about him sitting in his grandmother’s house one afternoon while she’s making tea. That’s all. You can’t stop reading. And it doesn’t have that much in it, but it’s all there. It digresses a little bit. It’s wonderful. You read that, and you say, “I have all that. I could have written that — if I were a writer. If I were Isaak Babel. I’m not, but I see that there are a lot of things lying around.” To finally learn what you’re really looking for, and how to make use of it — you can’t do that immediately. Advice won’t help you. Prescriptions won’t help you. Reading, you may discover a way to do that. You can’t write if you don’t read. You can, I suppose, if you’re that solitary genius from Texas who doesn’t even know how to read, but he can tell you stories all day long — maybe. But what we think of as literature comes out of people who’ve read things and then go on and write things.

 

Q. Do you think that the common advice of going out and collecting experience, travel, whatever, is deleterious, is misguided? I know you’ve been a traveler yourself and an advocate of travel as a worthy pursuit for a writer.

A. I think it’s great. It frees you, liberates you. You’re not in your own country. You see things that you really marvel at one way or another. Your language is not being spoken around you, and in a way becomes [something] you’re more intensely aware of when you sit down to write. […] But you don’t have to travel. You can stay at home if you like.

 

Q. At your grandmother’s table.

A. Yes, I think you can do that. I think you’re missing a lot, but you can do that.

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