An Interview with James Salter
April 11, 2011 | by Kate Petersen
Our Spring Revel is tomorrow, April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. Here is Salter himself, discussing his new novel and reflecting on his work as a writer and a teacher.
Tell me about your new novel.
I’ve been working on it for some years. I’d had the idea for a long time, but I was unconsciously waiting for a line from Christopher Hitchens. He wrote somewhere that “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” That struck me, and I began with that.
I haven’t followed it through. Poverty doesn’t play much of a part. Betrayal does, and it’s a book that has a little more plot than other books of mine. It’s about an editor, a book editor, it’s the story of his life.
In your Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you describe this image of your friend Robert Phelps going through his books, taking down the ones that didn’t measure up and leaving them in the hall. Reading your work, one gets the sense that there is a similar process at work—that everything unnecessary or plain has been taken away.
Yes, that’s probably a fault of the writing.
I think I’d like to write a little less intensely.
For your sake or for your readers’?
How do you come to your characters’ names?
I once asked some students in a workshop how they invented dialogue. We went around, and most of them said they just tried to imagine what people would say. Then I came to a particularly good writer from the South who had it down perfectly and he said: “Well, I usually just go to a barbershop and sit behind a newspaper.”
You hear people say things you couldn’t have invented. The same for names. People have names that for some reason you cannot invent. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get an approximation of that name for the person you’re writing about, sometimes you simply have to name them yourself. But I would say it’s like dialogue: if you are lucky, it’s a found thing.
There are writers for whom names mean nothing; everybody could be called John and Elizabeth and the writing would be just as good. A name, of course is like a piece of clothing, isn’t it? It gives you an impression right away.
I think Roth is particularly good at finding the names for his people. Bellow, on the other hand: sometimes he has the right name, sometimes I don’t think so. And of course, with some writers you don’t even notice whether they have the right name or not. It’s like having beautiful hair. If you have it, fine. If you don’t, you know, wear a hat.
What are you reading now?
Well, I don’t read much for pleasure. But I am reading a book now, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal. It’s wonderful to pick up a book finally and feel: I can’t put this down.
It’s possible of course, especially when you’re young, to read a book and take it to your heart. And you don’t need to speak to anybody about it, it’s so important to you: You have found it.
I think later on, you are unable to recapture that feeling, exactly, and the societal nature of books—what they mean to other people—enters into it.
I think I could read Gogol’s Dead Souls every week from now on, and never tire of it. I can’t think of an American writer today who, for me, has that kind of power.
Gogol only wrote one book. He wrote some short stories, but only one novel, and he never finished that. But it’s fantastic. There are lines in it—it’s not because of their poetry, it’s not the same kind of thing at all—where you simply have to put the book down for a minute and give yourself a chance to restore yourself a little and go on.
I have my own work, that’s the main thing. When I’m writing I find it hard to read on the side. Even though I have my own thinking, I can lose track of it, in the midst of something else. You don’t know what you’re really thinking in the middle of a concert, where the crowd is going mad, the performer is going mad, and everything is Dionysian: I don’t believe you’re your own self. And as a writer, I’m not tremendously imaginative. So I want to have my feet on the ground.
What does one learn from one book to the next? Does each one start from zero or is there an accrued understanding of where you’re going and how to get there?
Well, of course you learn things. If you write enough, you begin to learn to do things. But in a way you do start from zero each time. You know something, but you more or less forget what you know, and as you go on you may remember a little, unless you’re a writer like Trollope who simply has the ability to sit down to a page and write and write and write, and there is nothing between you and the page but the time it takes to describe and explain. I’m not that kind of writer. I tend to start from zero.
How should a writer be educated?
Oh, I have no idea, they all come to it in different ways. Normally I think of a writer as someone who has read a lot and learned from reading, but I can imagine writers who have never read a thing: a voice from the crowd, from somebody who has only heard songs, or listened to talk on the street, or at work, or in bars, and who can say remarkable things, who is in touch with something true, either in themselves or outside themselves, I can see them writing, and writing very well. You don’t have to have read everything to write.
Given that, then, there’s no real education for a writer. The writing workshops and programs that are everywhere have encouraged writing. And if that produces more writing, it’s also producing more readers of an elevated level. So all in all, a good thing.
Vonnegut used to say that he couldn’t teach anybody to write, but like an old golf pro, he could go around the course with you and maybe take a few strokes off your game. That seemed to me very accurate.
But I’ve changed my mind. I think you can be taught to write. You can’t be taught to be a good writer. For that you have to bring something to it, yourself, something that can’t be given to you.
War is in the headlines these days. You once wrote that war is the furnace of the individual, and in The Hunters you show how in a war without a unanimous moral urgency—Korea—a soldier can be obsessed with of making a place in history, as if the war itself might not warrant one. Do you still believe that to be true?
When you think back to the war, to history and your life, you have quite a different perspective than when you were there looking ahead. Because now you know what happened, and you are free of any apprehension about it, any anguish or angst. You remember that perhaps you were a little frightened.
But that’s not the way it was at the time. At the time it was all uncertainty -- you were with a lot of people you didn’t know, you didn’t know where you were going exactly, you had no idea what was going to happen to you, there was every chance that it might be something not good.
When you read about a war, it’s exciting or maybe terribly depressing, depending on who the writer is. If you are reading about the most awful part of Vietnam, you feel depressed as a human, depressed for your country.
On the other hand, you can read about war and not feel that at all. If you read about Waterloo in Victor Hugo, or at the beginning of Stendhal, or even in Tolstoy, the bullets are whistling merrily, people fall off horses and are killed, but there’s none of the sickening butchery. The immolation of war, the full terror of it, only appears in certain books.
As a boy, I was fascinated by soldiers and the First World War. Of course I’m not the only kid who had toy soldiers. Maybe part of it is cultural, imbibed, but I think it’s more than that. We’re still reading Homer, and when you read Christopher Logue’s translation of The Iliad, it is so immediate, so staggering. It would be going over the top if I said it changes your life, but for a moment it changes who you are and what you might be, which a terrific piece of writing can do.
I didn’t know The Iliad when I was a boy, didn’t have the classical education in which one was taught Greek or Latin and could read it as a child. So I don’t even know The Iliad in its full power.
Like books you will never have the chance to read, there are languages you do not know, and you’re not going to get a chance to learn, so you’ll never really know what was written, only the approximation.