Interview with James Salter
Ransom Center Advisory Council Member Robert Franden recently spoke with author James Salter about his archive, his writing process, and his acclaimed book Light Years. Click on the audio icons to listen excerpts from the interview.
Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
Robert Franden: What do you think the significance of having your archive at some place like the Ransom Center is?
James Salter: Well, I mean, it’s very flattering to me. After all, you have people like... Last night I was talking to Sam Radin?
JS: Is that his name?
JS: He was a collector of Evelyn Waugh himself. I mean, you have Evelyn Waugh in the Ransom Center. That’s an astonishing thing. A significant English writer, and here’s Austin, way out of the, what can I say, great circle intellectual route. You wouldn’t expect to come to Austin to find Waugh’s stuff, and in addition, you have everybody else. I don’t have a list in front of me, but I know you have the A-list, going right up your arm. So to be in such company, it doesn’t signify anything more than that they feel that some of your manuscripts or whatever are worth preserving. It’s self-evident.
RF: I was actually asking from the standpoint of thinking, is it interesting to you that people are now going to be looking at the pieces of your life, very closely as to how you went about doing what you do so very well?
JS: Well, I think you’re assuming there’s going to be some scholarly or writerly interest in it. That may happen, I really don’t know. But I’m not making that assumption.
RF: You have, as I indicated, I have, I’m aware that you’ve been interviewed in the past, and so much has been written about you. And people refer to you quite often as a “writer’s writer,” and that’s a term you don’t like particularly—I saw at one point you made a comment. But I assume they’re talking about the state of your craft as something that writers ought to pay attention to. What do you think about that?
JS: Well, I think that writers are fabulous readers, generally. That is to say, astute, perceptive readers. And to be a writer that such readers like to read speaks for itself. I don’t dislike it because of any implication that you’re only read by writers. I don’t like it because it’s a cliché. One person wrote it and somebody read it and said, “Ah, that’s it.” And they begin calling you that ever after. I suppose it’s accurate, but I don’t like to think it’s definitive. That’s all. You know, I’ve never had a truly popular book. And lacking that is what makes me hesitant to say I belong there or I think I’m as good as so-and-so. I think, well, it’s just something that I’m not prepared to argue. I think if I ever write one [a popular book]—seems a little late, but you never can tell. I’m working on a book. The thing about writing, of course, is—it’s like Napoleon’s dictum that every soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. And as a writer, you have the same possibilities. You always have the possibility until the quill falls from your fingers of writing something good. It’s never the ninth inning, the end of the ninth, so to speak.
RF: Well, the archive that we have at the Ransom Center obviously we think is very important, and we do think people will come to study your craft because you are considered by many very, very thoughtful people to be a great craftsman. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you write. As you go through the archive, of course, people will see how you—the process and the many drafts and the many notes, and what have you, I wondered if you could describe that and maybe talk about, is it different for a novel, a short story, a screenplay? Or is the process pretty much the same?
JS: First of all, let me say that most writers, almost all, will give the same answer to this question. Most of them have difficulty and sometimes demoralization writing a first draft, but then having got the whole thing together, begin to work on it and make something of it. Beyond that, the mechanical things of—do you write on a yellow tablet, with a pencil the way William Styron wrote, or do you write on a computer the way Updike writes, or do you write on an IBM Selectric the way John Irving does, who happens to have three or four of them around the house so whenever he sits down, he’s near one, I think these things are really of relatively little importance.
RF: I wasn’t really as curious about that as I was like, for instance, the novel: Do you first outline the novel? Do you have the storyline pretty well set?
JS: Well, let me speak for myself here because here you’re going to get different answers from different writers. I, in principle, try and outline the novel before I begin so I know how it’s going to end and generally, what path it’s going to take. But, of course, having done that, I’m at perfect liberty to deviate from it. You're not going to be judged on loyalty to the original outline, but rather what you end up with. So I do make an outline—that’s for a novel, which, after all is a...I don’t want to emphasize its size, but one can get lost. One can wander around a while as if in the woods not knowing exactly which way to go. For a short story, which is more demanding in terms of how much you can digress and also is much more... You’re able to visualize the whole thing in your imagination. Virtually. You don’t have the details, but you know what the story is. You don’t really need an outline. I don’t make one. What else is there? Well, for a film—well, I haven’t written films for a long time, but I used to make an outline for those. Generally not, scene-by-scene, just a few lines to know where you were going. A good film writer named William Goldman once defined it as saying that a film was structure and that you had to have the end scene in mind when you began because your structure was leading to that. That’s not the only way of defining what a film script is, but it fits my conception of it. Generally, when I wrote the films, that was the way I did it. One difficulty with writing films is the waste. You write a lot, and only a limited amount, if you’re lucky, ever reaches the stage of being filmed or the screen itself. And sometimes your work that you think is your best work ends up unread or unused. I think that’s a very high price to pay.
RF: And you no longer do screenplays, as I—
JS: I haven’t done it for a long time—
RF: By choice, as I—
JS: By choice. Well, I couldn’t be hired now anyway, but that has nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t be if I could be. But often you’ll find, I think, that movie writers become demoralized over time. Cynical. And in part, I think it’s due to what I’ve just said. And another part, of course, is due to what they’re paid. There’s a disconnect between them and other writers, except for the very top bestsellers. Most writers work for relatively little. It’s not a thing you go into to make money. But there’s a big disconnect—a screenwriter can do very, very well. And we’re living in an age of tremendous disconnect anyway.
RF: Let’s get back to how you write, you mentioned how you outline. I looked at the makeup board, if you will, for Life is Meals, a large cardboard [piece] with stickies and colored dots and what have you, and it was amazingly well-organized.
JS: Well, remember, that was a particular—
RF: I do understand that, but I wondered if I could extrapolate from you that you are a fairly organized person when it comes to putting your work together.
JS: In my wife’s view, I am very organized. In my own, I would say there are some gaps.
RF: In the process, then, you know, you get organized and you start writing, and the question always that arises, what is the pivotal structure? Is it the sentence, the paragraph, you know, the chapter, what have you? How do you view that?
JS: Well, I try and finish chapters. You’d be a fool to be excited by a sentence, and a paragraph is really not that much better, although sometimes you feel a certain sense of warmth, having written a paragraph that seems to be close to what you had hoped.
RF: Well, don’t you also, I mean I sometimes feel when I read your work—and somebody else who you admire, and that is Nabokov. Speak, Memory, for instance, which is a book in addition to Light Years that I give as gifts because I can delight in a sentence in both your work and his. And I know you wrote one time that the sentence has to be in the service of the greater product, something like that. But is it not okay to delight in that sentence? And say, “Boy, that is good!”
JS: I think that’s a little like looking in the mirror as you pass the entrance hall. Don’t waste your time.
RF: [laughs] No, but I mean for the reader, is it not okay?
JS: Well, for the reader, it’s okay. But remember that sentence is in the service of something larger. And so I don’t count that as being a particular strength or virtue. I think it’s the opposite. I had a tendency—I’m trying to work past it—I had a tendency to try and write such sentences. But I no longer want to do that. I’d rather—
RF: Is that a retreat from lyricism or something?
JS: Well, I think that’s very apt. Yes, I'd like to back off from that.
RF: So, in looking back, do you consider Light Years too lyrical?
JS: Well, it’s very lyrical. And it was damned for that when it came out. In fact, it was killed at birth for that very reason. It was said that the lyricism was unearned. I mean, you know, you really shouldn’t ask me that question. But on the other hand, I’ve reread parts of it not long ago because Richard Ford wrote a recent introduction—not here, it’s in Penguin Classics in England, and I read his introduction a couple of times, really a terrific piece of work. And then I read parts of the book and said to myself, “Yes, it’s lyrical, but I love to read this.” I don’t know, it’s too early for me to decide. I leave that up to the reader. I think it’s been forgiven, in a certain sense, by people who have some critical judgement. “Forgiven” is not the right word. I think its lyricism has been accepted and understood in the context of the book. It won the Fadiman Prize about three or four years ago, which is a prize given for novels 15 years old or more that deserve a renewed attention. And Penguin Classics, which rarely, only in a couple of cases, publishes the works of living writers, took it as one of theirs just a month ago or two months ago. So, I’d say that’s been a very contentious... A point that has been criticized and unaccepted by certain readers. On the other hand, I know there are a number who feel that that’s the glory of the book.
RF: Well, that leads then to another question that I wanted to ask you. How does one handle criticism? Like you indicated, there were a couple of writers, I know, when Light Years first came out, that did not review it well. And then also the concomitance of that perhaps might be the rejection, when you get rejected. How do you handle those? How does that affect James Salter?
JS: Well, just the way you would feelgetting your nose bloodied in court. I mean, it’s certainly not pleasant. And you say, “Does this mean that I’m no good really?” or “Is it just one of those things that happens?”
RF: The reason I ask that—
JS: The writer is as human as anybody else. And probably a little more sensitive because he or she has spent so long preparing this and hoping that it’s going to be good. And then to have somebody slap you in the face is, you know, not pleasant.
RF: Well, I had something else I was curious about. After, you know, the product is completed and what have you, and you now have put the final period there, how involved do you become in the stylization of what you’re doing: the print, the size of the book—
JS: You’re speaking of the book itself.
RF: Yeah, the dust jacket. I mean, how—
JS: Well, it depends on your editor, your relationship with the editor, your importance as a writer, and a number of other things. I’ve had a variety of experiences, depending on the book and the publisher. Sometimes if the publisher is particularly cordial and likes you, Jack Shoemaker, for instance, who ran North Point Press for about 10 years, it was probably the most eminent of the small, independent houses. Apart from New Directions. And Jack would say, “What do you think? How should we do this?” or “What should be on the jacket?” You don’t do the design of the book, of course. It would be a rare writer who had the know-how to say, “This is how many pieces of lead should be between the lines—”
RF: No, no no.
JS: —but when they show you a sample page or two, which they may, depending on your relationship, you may say, “The margin at the bottom, it runs too close to the bottom.” Or “These lines seem to be a little close together. They make it difficult to read.” But I don’t know. If you’re a publisher, this is going to be a pain in the ass, isn’t it? “You mean we have to talk to that person? About what the book’s going to look like? Forget it.” So, one of my closest friends was Joe Fox, who was an editor at Random House, the editor of Light Years, as a matter of fact. Fox would not dream of wasting his time consulting with you about these things. He’d say, “It’ll look great. Don’t worry about it.”
RF: Speaking of Light Years, would you talk about Light Years a little bit? Tell me how that, the idea for Light Years came about.
JS: I don’t recall exactly. There was a period in my life when we lived on the Hudson River, or close to it, upriver from New York City. About half an hour up. And we had certain friends, and it was the first civilian period of my life. I’d gotten out of the service, and it was like, I don’t know, your first years when you’re out of college, or something. It was all new. The people were different. Life was different. And we had one particular couple that we were very close to who were essentially the model for the couple in the book. And of course when I say “model,” you understand that you take liberties. You make an effort to make these people a little more—what can I say?—a little more exalted. A little more interesting than perhaps they were in life. However, I was thinking of them one day, I suppose it’d been in my mind for a while, and suddenly it began to take form. I do remember this: I sat down and started writing. I remember I thought, “I’d like to write a book, but not a Tolstoyan book about the backgrounds of people and how it all came about and what happened to them.” In short, not a carefully plotted social novel of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, of which I had read many examples and was brought up on. I thought I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to write a book that was only the things you remember from all that, that stand out from it all, that life is really composed of. Things that people said, certain moments. You don’t remember all the stuff in between. That has be invented or reconstructed anyway. And starting from that premise, which I later saw reiterated in something that Jean Renoir said, that the only things in life that matter are the things you remember. That’s self-evident in a way. If you’ve forgotten them, they can’t be very important. Unless you forgot them on purpose. You remember the things that are important. I thought I’d like to write a book with that as the pattern of it and leave out all the rest. I thought, “Now that’s an original idea.” It may not be. I really don’t know. But I was pleased with the idea, and I sat down one day, I remember, and wrote down what I thought those things should be. There were, I don’t know, about 35 or 45 of them, and those essentially became the chapters of the book and then the book itself.
RF: In that book, I think it’s Viri who says, “There’s the life people see you living, and then there’s the life you really live. And that’s the one that causes you the trouble” and what have you.
RF: And then, at the very end of the book, he’s standing there at the shore of the river, and he says, “I am ready” and what have you.
RF: And I’ve often wondered if, that “Now I am ready” “Am I ready now to”—to try, to take away that distance between the is and the are, in other words, the life that people see me living and the life that I am living. I mean, it—
JS: Well, I don’t object to that, but that’s not what I had in mind.
RF: I’m sure I—
JS: I mean, what the author has in mind, in a sense, can be irrelevant because the book is what it is. And things people think about books later—books worthy of talking about, often things people ascribe to them were not intended at all. Or the author was unaware of what he or she was writing. No, I didn’t mean it that way. I meant it, you know, I wish we had the book here, I’d like to just scan the last pages quickly, but I believe what happens is his marriage had broken up, his children are grown, I think his wife has died—his ex-wife—by this time, he’s gone abroad, he married another woman—a woman devoted to him, but very ordinary in many ways compared to the glories of this difficult woman he had—difficult, but rather marvelous, the woman he had been married to. And now he returns to the old house, for no particular reason. He’s not restoring it or anything. He happens to be wandering there. And I think he sees a turtle on the shell of which they had scratched their names years before, and here’s this tortoise. I mean, it was 20 years before, making its way through the leaves. Have you ever seen that? I’m sure you have, the way they move along, and his life has moved along, and there’s the river. People have said to me, “Did he kill himself?” Well, that’s the farthest thing from my mind. I mean, I don’t think that’s implied or signified. I think he’s saying in a metaphysical way, that he's ready to face and to acknowledge the whole thing. To be part of it, even in this third act, a part of it. I’ve always been ready, but I am really ready,” is what I think he’s saying. But as I’ve just said, you don’t have to find that. And maybe it’s not there for some readers. You know, it’s a poetic book, it’s a lyrical book, there's a poetic line at the end. If you get it the way it was intended, fine. If you don’t, well...
RF: Well, that’s the way you stated it is the way it actually reads. “I have always been ready. I am ready now—”
JS: I am ready at last.
RF: Yeah, “ready at last.” Once you read things several times, you say, “Gee, I wonder if I have that right.” So that’s why I wanted to ask you.
JS: On the other hand, I really shouldn’t have gone this far into it because when you start doing it, certain lines don’t bear that kind of inspection and examination. You have to take them whole, so to speak and accept them. Otherwise, it’s like the English class where they’re saying, “What are the motives behind Hardy’s repetition?” Then you know, you’re saying, “Let me out of this class."
RF: Well, we take it whole and accept it, and by that I mean your archive, we’re thrilled to have it.
JS: Thank you.
RF: We’re certainly thrilled to have you numbered among our authors. Thanks very much for your time this afternoon.
JS: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.