Interviews

James Salter, The Art of Fiction No. 133

Interviewed by Edward Hirsch

James Salter is a consummate storyteller. His manners are precise and elegant; he has a splendid New York accent; he runs his hands through his gray hair and laughs boyishly. At sixty-seven he has the fitness of an ex-military man. He tells anecdotes easily, dramatically, but he also carries an aura of reserve about him. There is a privacy one doesn’t breach.

Salter was born in 1925 and raised in New York City. He graduated from West Point in 1945 and was commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Force as a pilot. He served for twelve years in the Pacific, the United States, Europe, and Korea, where he flew over one hundred combat missions as a fighter pilot. He resigned from the Air Force after his first novel came out in 1957, and settled in Grandview on the Hudson, just north of New York City. He has earned his living as a writer ever since. He has three grown children, a son and two daughters, by a previous marriage. He lives with the writer Kay Eldredge and their eight-year-old son, Theo. They divide their time between Aspen, Colorado and Bridgehampton, Long Island.

Salter has published five novels: The Hunters (1957), The Arm of Flesh (1961), A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Light Years (1975), and Solo Faces (1979). He received an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982. Five of his stories have appeared in O. Henry collections and one in the Best American Short Stories. His collection Dusk & Other Stories (1988) received the PEN/Faulkner Award.

It rained continuously during the four days I visited Bridgehampton in August of 1992, but I scarcely noticed the weather, so content was I to sit at the dining room table asking questions and listening to Salter’s carefully considered answers. Even on gray days the traditional, cedar-shingled two-floor house with its many French doors and windows seemed bathed in light. We drank ice tea by day, and one exquisitely made martini each night (Salter at one point estimated that he has had eighty-seven hundred martinis in his life). Afterward, company came for dinner; many bottles of wine were consumed; the interviewer wandered off to examine the framed menus on the wall, the etching of two bathers by André de Segonzac, the miniature painting by Sheridan Lord of the landscape near the house.

Salter writes in a study on the second floor, a small, airy room with a peaked ceiling and a half-moon window. His desk is a large wooden country-trestle table made of old pine. Everywhere there are telltale signs of the memoir he has been working on for the past years—envelopes that have been scrawled on, scraps of paper that have been entirely covered with his minute handwriting. On the morning that I was left alone in the study I found well-thumbed copies of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa resting on a map of France with places circled and marked. I discovered an aeronautical chart, a sheaf of twelve extremely detailed pages of notes in red, blue, and black ink, a journal from 1955 with the sentence written across the front: “Every year seems the most terrible.” On the small wooden table next to the desk lay a group of cahiers, little soft-covered gray-numbered notebooks, each containing a possible chapter of the memoir. These homemade workbooks are dense with notes—the author’s instructions to himself, quotations from other writers, entries that have been color-coded for the place where they might be used. “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything,” Salter has written, and to read through these notes is to reconfirm what one knew all along: how meticulously each of his pages is written, how scrupulously each of his chapters constructed. Everything is checked and rechecked, written and revised and then revised again until the prose shimmers, radiant and indestructible.

Coming down the stairs past the photograph of Isaac Babel I grew once more wildly excited about Salter’s work-in-progress. He demurs: “Hope but not enthusiasm is the proper state for the writer.”

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you actually write?

JAMES SALTER

I write in longhand. I am accustomed to that proximity, that feel of writing. Then I sit down and type. And then I retype, correct, retype, and keep going until it’s finished. It’s been demonstrated to me many times that there is some inefficiency in this, but I find that the ease of moving a paragraph is not really what I need. I need the opportunity to write this sentence again, to say it to myself again, to look at the paragraph once more, and actually to go through the whole text, line by line, very carefully, writing it out. There may be even some kind of mimetic impulse here where I am trying to write like myself, so to speak.

INTERVIEWER

So it is crucially a process of revision?

SALTER

I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise as you go?

SALTER

It depends, but normally, no. I write big sections and then let them sit. It’s dangerous not to let things age, and if something is really good, you should put it away for a month.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of the sentence or the paragraph as an organizing unit?

SALTER

Normally I just go a sentence at a time. I find the most difficult part of writing is to get it down initially because what you have written is usually so terrible that it’s disheartening, you don’t want to go on. That’s what I think is hard—the discouragement that comes from seeing what you have done. This is all you could manage?

INTERVIEWER

You give a lot of attention to the weight and character of individual words.

SALTER

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

INTERVIEWER

I find your prose style wholly distinctive, beautiful and implacable. How did you hit upon it?

SALTER

I like to write. I’m moved by writing. One can’t analyze it beyond that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write every day?

SALTER

No, I’m incapable of that for various reasons. It’s either because of the press of affairs or I just haven’t brought myself to a position where I’m ready to write anything down.

INTERVIEWER

Do you need a lot of solitude to write?

SALTER

Complete solitude. Although I’ve made notes for things and even written synopses sitting in trains or on park benches, for the complete composition of things I need absolute solitude, preferably an empty house.

INTERVIEWER

In those circumstances, does writing come easily?

SALTER

Important novelists often say that writing a novel is hard. I think Anthony Powell said it was like conducting foreign policy—that you have to be prepared to go and do it every day no matter how you feel. But in general, I am unhappy writing something I am not terrifically interested in. Waiting for that interest to be there probably slows down writing a bit. And also my life, which I like, has a lot of travel. It usually takes a while to go somewhere, get organized, sit down, start working.

INTERVIEWER

Does the travel help your writing?

SALTER

It’s essential for me. There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.

I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural. Furthermore, many men of ancient times died on the road, and the image is a strong one. Kings of Arabia, when they are buried, are not given great tombs. They are buried on the side of the road beneath ordinary stones. One thing I saw in England long ago struck me and has always stayed with me. I was going to visit someone in a little village, walking from the railway station across the fields, and I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that the word fiction is a crude word. Why?

SALTER

The notion that anything can be invented wholly and that these invented things are classified as fiction and that other writing, presumably not made up, is called nonfiction strikes me as a very arbitrary separation of things. We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them. I sometimes say that I don’t make up anything—obviously, that’s not true. But I am usually uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination. I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling me the story of his life, which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially.

INTERVIEWER

You’re saying it’s always drawn from life?

SALTER

Almost always. Writing is not a science, and of course there are exceptions, but every writer I know and admire has essentially drawn either from his own life or his knowledge of things in life. Great dialogue, for instance, is very difficult to invent. Almost all great books have actual people in them.

INTERVIEWER

Would you describe your prose style as impressionistic?

SALTER

To be technical, impressionism means outdoor subjects with a lot of color and a breaking away from classicism, isn’t that it? Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.

INTERVIEWER

Your work seems unique in the way it brings together a set of apparently masculine concerns, ordeals, initiations, with an exquisite prose style. Is that how you see it?

SALTER

I’ve made an effort to nurture the feminine in myself. I don’t mean overtly, but in terms of response to things. Perhaps that’s what we’re talking about. I am happy with my gender, but pure masculinity, which I have been exposed to a lot in life, is tedious and inadequate. It’s great to listen to men talk about sports or fights or war or even hunting sometimes, but the presence of the other, the presence of art and beauty, which crude masculinity seems to discount, is essential. Real civilization and real manhood seem to me to include those.

INTERVIEWER

Some readers complain that your work is too male oriented, yet you have said that women are the real heroes. Why?

SALTER

I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.

INTERVIEWER

In “A Single Daring Act” someone says, “You’re going to hit the glory road here.” There are still heroes in your work.

SALTER

I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism. I presume we’re talking of this in the broadest sense and not merely in the sense of goal-line stands or Silver Stars. There is everyday heroism. I think of Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” about a black woman walking miles to town on the railroad track to get some medicine for her grandchild. I think real devotion is heroic.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean when you say that there’s a right way to live? Do you mean to be discovered by each of us?

SALTER

No, I don’t think it can be invented by every one; that would be too chaotic. I’m referring to the classical, to the ancient, the cultural agreement that there are certain virtues and that these virtues are untarnishable.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of your stories are about people being tested—They’re men mostly—but I’m also thinking of the ordeal of Jane Vare in “Twenty Minutes.” Does the drama reside in the ordeal?

SALTER

Well, life is an ordeal, isn’t it? You’re continually being tested. It doesn’t seem unusual to me to pick an apex or a dramatic instant of this testing. It’s a conventional device of storytelling. And, of course, courage is in there sometimes.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your sensibility is French?

SALTER

Not particularly. Ned Rorem said that it is. I like France, and I like the French, but no.

INTERVIEWER

Is Colette a figure who has meant anything to you?

SALTER

Oh, yes. I don’t remember when I first came upon her. Probably through Robert Phelps, although I must have read scraps here and there. Phelps was a great Colette scholar who published half a dozen books about her in America, including a book I think is sublime, Earthly Paradise. It’s a wonderful book. I had a copy of it that he inscribed to me. My oldest daughter died in an accident, and I buried it with her because she loved it too.

Colette is a writer one should know something about. I admire the French for their lack of sentimentality, and she, in particular, is admirable in that way. She has warmth; she is not a cold writer, but she is also not sentimental. Somebody said that one should have the same amount of sentiment in writing that God has in considering the earth. She evidences that. There’s one story of hers I’ve read at least a dozen times, “The Little Bouilloux Girl” in My Mother’s House. It’s about the most beautiful girl in the village who is so much more beautiful than any of her classmates, so much more sophisticated, and who quickly gets a job at a dressmaker’s shop in town. Everyone envies her and wants to be like her. Colette asks her mother, Can I have a dress like Nana Bouilloux? The mother says, No, you can’t have a dress. If you take the dress, you have to take everything that goes with it, which is to say an illegitimate child, and so forth—in short, the whole life of this other girl. The beautiful girl never marries because there is never anyone adequate for her. The high point of the story, which is marvelous because it is such a minor note, comes one summer when two Parisians in white suits happen to come to the village fair. They’re staying nearby in a big house, and one of them dances with her. That is the climax of the story in a way. Nothing else ever happens to her. Years later, Colette is coming back to the village. She’s thirty-eight now. Driving through town she catches sight of a woman exactly her own age crossing the street in front of her. She recognizes and describes in two or three absolutely staggering sentences the appearance of this once most beautiful girl in the school, “the little Bouilloux girl,” still good-looking though aging now, still waiting for the ravisher who never came.

INTERVIEWER

When did you get to know Robert Phelps?

SALTER

It must have been in the early 1970s. A letter arrived, a singular letter; one recognized immediately that it was from an interesting writer, the voice; and though he refrained from identifying himself, I later saw that he had hidden in the lines of the letter the titles of several of the books he had written. It was a letter of admiration, the most reliable form of initial communication and, as a consequence, we met in New York a few months later when I happened to be there. He was, I discovered, a kind of angel, and he let me know, not immediately, but over a period of time, that I might belong, if not to the highest company, at least to the broad realm of books and names—more was entirely up to me.

Phelps introduced me to the French in a serious way, to Paul Léautaud, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, and others. His life in some respects was like Léautaud’s—it was simple. It was unluxurious and pure. Léautaud lived a life of obscurity and only at the very end was rescued from it by appearing on a radio program that overnight brought him to public attention—this quirky, cranky, immensely prejudiced, and educated voice of a theater critic and sometime book writer and diarist who had unmercifully viewed life in the theater for some fifty years and lived in a run-down house with dozens of cats and other animals and, in addition to all this, carried on passionate love affairs, one for years with a woman that he identified in his diaries as The Scourge. Phelps had some of that. He lived a very pure life. Books that did not measure up to his standards he simply moved out into the hall and either let people pick up or the trashman take away. He did this periodically. He went through the shelves. So on his shelves you found only the very best things. He believed in writing. Despite every evidence to the contrary in the modern world, he believed in it until the very end. Phelps died about three years ago. I said I thought of him as an angel. I now think of him as a saint.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as if André Gide was a major influence on you at one time.

SALTER

He was, but I cannot remember exactly why. I read his diaries when I first started writing in earnest, and then I read, and was very impressed by, Strait Is the Gate. I had an editor at Harper Brothers, Evan Thomas, who asked me what I was interested in, and I told him I was interested in Gide. A look of bewilderment or dismay crossed his face, as if I’d said Epictetus, and he said, Well, what book of his are you reading? I said, Strait Is the Gate. It’s simply a terrific book. Have you read it? He said, No. I could tell from his tone that it was not the sort of thing he read or that he approved of my reading. My impression of Gide, looking back, is of an unsentimental and meticulous writer. I would say my attentions were not drawn to the wrong person.

INTERVIEWER

Are there other French writers who particularly influenced you?

SALTER

I’ve read a lot of them. Among those who are probably not widely read I would say Henry de Montherlant is particularly interesting. Céline is a dazzling writer. Here we have a disturbing case. Certain savage works of his have been stricken from the list. We know his views. The French almost executed him themselves. So we are talking about a dubious personage who is now deemed, I think correctly, as one of the two great writers of the century in France. It’s a perfectly valid nomination. Even his last book, Castle to Castle is tremendous. It must have been written in the most trying circumstances imaginable. When you read something good, the idea of looking at television, going to a movie, or even reading a newspaper is not interesting to you. What you are reading is more seductive than all that. Céline has that quality.

INTERVIEWER

What about Ford Madox Ford? I see a tonal similarity between The Good Soldier, which has been called “the best French novel in English,” and A Sport and a Pastime.

SALTER

I admire Ford Madox Ford and probably never admired him more than when Hemingway thought he was cutting him to ribbons in A Moveable Feast. I don’t know the details of his life. I do know that when he was a little boy he was counseled by an uncle, Fordy, always help a lame dog over a stile. Ford behaved that way during his life. I just admire him greatly. He must have been in his late thirties when the First World War broke out and he volunteered and went and served. Along about that time, either just before or after—he had already written a number of books—he sat down to write The Good Soldier. He said it was time to sit down and show what he could do. I think that’s wonderful and, of course, the book itself is not bad.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about Hemingway?

SALTER

I feel about Hemingway the way most people feel about Céline. He’s a powerful writer, but personally, I find his character distasteful. I know a lot of people who met him—they all say he was wonderful. I don’t think so. A nice thing about life is that you can rearrange the pantheon and demote certain figures you are dissatisfied with. It doesn’t hurt anybody. So I’ve moved him down; he’s gathering dust in the basement.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever think of what you’re doing as revising or rethinking a Hemingway ethos?

SALTER

I don’t . . . I’ve never considered that. Of course, you never know what you’re really doing, do you? Like a spider, you are in the middle of your own web. People have pointed out to me certain ideas and themes of Hemingway’s in my writing. Each time I thought I was coming to it for the first time. There’s a terrible temptation—I confess to it—that sometimes when you’re sitting, trying to write something, you think, how would someone else do it? In the beginning I hadn’t reached a point where I’d completely eliminated Hemingway from such consideration. You say, How would Yukio Mishima or John Berryman have written this, for instance? What kind of phrase would they use to describe such a thing? It opens the door to different approaches that might not be close at hand though you probably don’t want to use them once you’ve thought of them. It’s a weakness that arises when you are hesitant, when you cannot go on. Your mind wanders to these things.

INTERVIEWER

What about Henry Miller?

SALTER

Glorious writer. I would be very disappointed in a future, which is going to tell us which things are worth something and which aren’t, that didn’t treat him considerately. I find him irresistible. There are no distractions when you are reading Miller for the first time. I don’t think you should read all his books—many are repetitious. Once you’re in the thickets of Sexus, Plexus, Nexus and Black Spring you’re staggering around as if people are beating you with newspapers, like a dog. But when you read Tropic of Cancer, you’re reading a wonderful book. There’s life, irreverence, esprit in it. I don’t write anything like him. I can’t. You’d have to be Miller, that’s what’s magnificent about it. It seems to me that when you read, what you are really listening for is the voice of the writer. That’s more important than anything else. And it’s Miller’s voice, of course, which is the thing that makes you linger at his elbow until long past closing time, and you absolutely want to go home with him and keep talking, even though you know better.

INTERVIEWER

In “Winter of the Lion” you said that Irwin Shaw was the first writer of distinction you ever met—a father figure, a friend, an enormous voice. He seems an unlikely Virgil to your Dante.

SALTER

What I admired in him was he seemed to know how to behave. He was courageous. He embodied a lot of things that I respect, but perhaps hadn’t explicitly put a name to before. I met him in the early 1960s, I believe. We rarely talked about books or writing, principally because he was overly generous, I thought, in his estimation of writers. He would frequently praise writers who might merely be good fellows or that he thought were decent. He was very prickly about his own work.

INTERVIEWER

His first Paris Review interview is one of the most pugnacious interviews I’ve ever read.

SALTER

He was that way, discussing his own things. You quickly learned that. We were sitting somewhere in Paris, which was where I first met him, and I questioned something about a story of his. Experience had not yet taught me whether to do this or not. Immediately his tone and general demeanor changed, and he said, Well, they’re all good stories, something to that effect. He said some people liked some of his stories and some liked others and that there had been stories that he thought were not particularly good that had gone on and won prizes, so how did one know? You said to yourself, Let’s skip this.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as though you took from him not so much a model of how to write, but how to live as a writer.

SALTER

The income. The income.

INTERVIEWER

What did he talk about?

SALTER

He would drift into the past sometimes. I remember one night particularly when he was talking about the great moments of his life. He said something like the greatest moments of his life were being called onto the stage the night that Bury the Dead opened and the audience was shouting, Author, author! Another was the liberation of Paris. The third was catching a pass in a football game when he was playing for Brooklyn College years ago. There were some other things. Marian, his wife, was there, and I think his son, Adam. They probably felt a bit slighted, though they must have been used to it by that time. But I liked his categorization of things that were great.

INTERVIEWER

What did you mean when you said that he saw in you the arrogance of failure?

SALTER

He probably saw in me what one sees in any unrecognized but ambitious person.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of Shaw’s designation that you were a lyric and he was a narrative writer?

SALTER

Rather accurate. I’ve tried to rely less on lyricism because, having been stung by comment that it was unearned, I’ve come to the conclusion that I should pare down a bit, perhaps distill a bit more. That does have the effect of giving lyric things greater power.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever think of yourself as an expatriate writer?

SALTER

No. I have lived in Europe, the longest period when I was in the Air Force and stationed there, but we were visitors essentially. The other long period was living in Magagnosc, a little village down near Grasse. I went over because Harvey Swados suggested it. He was a charming man, very handsome, with a luxurious beard, a full head of hair, a wise face with generosity and intelligence shining from it. In a moment of candor, he once remarked that he possessed every quality of genius except talent. He had talent, but he didn’t feel it was of the highest level. He had a sabbatical from Sarah Lawrence and was going to France for the year with his family. He said, Why don’t you come along, and in essence we said, Why not? The village was one that Auguste Renoir had lived and worked in for a while, and the house was an old stone farmhouse that had been occupied the previous year by Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark. I’d written and asked about the house and she wrote back and described it in some detail—the views of the sea, the goat that came with the house, the eucalyptus trees. The description was perfect and she concluded by saying, You will have the most wonderful year of your life if you don’t freeze to death. There was no heat in the place. And so we went to France for a year and a half, but with no intention of remaining there. John Collier had a house in the vicinity, and we became friends too. Expatriate is too serious a word.

INTERVIEWER

There are American writers who go abroad to Europe and become more entrenched as Americans, like Hawthorne and Twain, and those who long to fit in and become more European. How do you see yourself?

SALTER

Completely American. But I admire European ways.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a late bloomer?

SALTER

More or less. I’m hoping that a few green sprigs are still going to appear.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as if your experiences in the military totally propelled your first two books, The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh.

SALTER

The first two books, yes. Things that have come afterward, not much. There’s only one short story that has anything to do with the military, and now this memoir that I’m writing has chapters about the military. I was in for twelve years, thirteen if you count being recalled, and a lot of things happened in that time.

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn anything from flying that helped you in writing?

SALTER

The time flying, that didn’t count. It’s like the famous eight or ten working in the shoe store. You deduct that from your literary career.

INTERVIEWER

You began writing in your mid-thirties. That’s a late start, isn’t it?

SALTER

Well, I began publishing in my mid-thirties. I was writing before that.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start?

SALTER

I wrote as a schoolboy. I was able to devote a little time to it when I was in the Air Force. In 1946 and 1947 I wrote a novel, and it was terrible. I didn’t realize that then. Harper Brothers turned it down, but said they would be interested in seeing anything else I wrote. That was enough encouragement. I wanted to write another book anyway, and when I did, I submitted it to them, and they accepted it. That was The Hunters, the first thing I had published.

INTERVIEWER

What was it that kicked in that got you writing that first novel?

SALTER

It was an impulse I had from the beginning. I didn’t know what made me write at the beginning, but later I understood. It’s simple: the one who writes it keeps it. I suppose I felt that, though I wouldn’t have been able to say it.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about those first two books now?

SALTER

Youth.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken about your military experiences as the great days of youth when you were mispronouncing words and believing dreams. It must have been difficult for you to resign your commission in 1957 in order to make your way as a writer.

SALTER

I’ve managed to forget how difficult it was. I do remember when I heard my resignation had been accepted. We were in Washington with a young child in a borrowed apartment that looked out over the city. It was night, and there it was spread beneath me the way Paris is spread beneath you when you see it for the first time. Everything that meant anything to me—the Pentagon, Georgetown, flying out of Andrews, everything I had done in life up to that point, I was throwing away. I felt absolutely miserable—miserable and a failure.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that you said “write or perish.”

SALTER

Yes, it was one or the other. I wanted to be a writer, but on the other hand I had given everything to this other. I wasn’t a rebellious officer. I had given everything, and I had gotten a lot in return. It was precisely like divorce. The sort of divorce where two decent people simply cannot get along with one another; it’s not a question of either of them being at fault; they just can’t continue. And if they’ve been married for a while and have children and everything else that’s involved, it’s difficult. That’s how it felt. I knew I had to get divorced, but I wasn’t happy about it. I was very apprehensive about the future, what lay beyond.

INTERVIEWER

The painter in the story “Lost Sons” is certainly an outsider, but he feels a residual nostalgia for the military life he might have had. Do you still feel that?

SALTER

Well, there are moments, as the poet said, when the blind captain dreams of the sea. When the geese fly over in the autumn you think of it, but that’s all long gone. That sawed-off limb has grown over and healed.

INTERVIEWER

“That person in the army, that wasn’t me,” John Cheever wrote after the war, but you didn’t feel that.

SALTER

No, like many prisoners, you come to love the prison and the other inmates. Cheever simply hadn’t paid enough to have that feeling.

INTERVIEWER

If you could choose to be remembered by two books of your own, which two would you choose?

SALTER

I would think A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start writing A Sport and a Pastime?

SALTER

The first notes for it, probably in 1961; I began seriously writing it in 1964 or 1965.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you?

SALTER

At that time, I had a studio in the Village. We were living in the suburbs, and I went into the city to work.

INTERVIEWER

Was it dislocating to be living in New York and writing about France?

SALTER

Not particularly. It takes a few moments perhaps to disassociate yourself from quotidian life, but afterwards you are completely with the book. In any case, my method is to go in with a lot of ammunition. I had a lot of notes.

INTERVIEWER

It’s almost as if in writing that book a cluster of notions or terms came together at once, about sensuality and eroticism, food and alcohol, the landscape and culture of France?

SALTER

I suppose so. Despite what I said earlier, the cities of Europe were my real manhood. I first saw them in 1950. Apart from New York, a bit of Washington and Honolulu, I had lived in no other cities, and Europe’s were a revelation to me. I liked living in them. I like Europe because the days don’t punish you there.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder how you came up with the title, which is taken from the Koran.

SALTER

I’ve read the Koran, but I saw the phrase in an article.

INTERVIEWER

The narrator treats “green bourgeoise France” as a secular holy land. That part seems autobiographical.

SALTER

It’s possible not to like France. I know that Kerouac, whom I knew slightly, went to Paris once and came back after a couple of days with the memorable comment that Paris “had rejected him.” But he’s an anomaly. If your eyes are open, you will see how attractive France can be.

INTERVIEWER

When A Sport and a Pastime came out you were hailed as “celebrating the rites of erotic innovation” and yet also criticized for portraying such “vigorous ‘love’ scenes.” What did you think of all that?

SALTER

The eroticism is the heart and substance of the book. That seems obvious. I meant it to be, to use a word of Lorca’s, “lubricious” but pure, to describe things that were unspeakable in one sense, but at the same time, irresistible. Having traveled, I also was aware that voyages are, in a large sense, a search for, a journey toward love. A voyage without that is rather sterile. Perhaps this is a masculine view, but I think not entirely. The idea is of a life that combines sex and architecture—I suppose that’s what the book is, but that doesn’t explain it. It’s more or less a guide to what life might be, an ideal.

INTERVIEWER

People seem to have different opinions of what the book is about.

SALTER

I listen occasionally to people explaining the book to me. Every few years there’s an inquiry from a producer who would like to make a movie of it. I’ve turned the offers down because it seems to me ridiculous to try and film it. To my mind the book is obvious. I don’t see the ambiguity, but there again, you don’t know precisely what you are writing. Besides, how can you explain your own work? It’s vanity. To me it seems you can understand the book, if there’s been any doubt, by reading the final paragraph:

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

That paragraph, the final sentence, is written in irony, but perhaps not read that way. If you don’t see the irony, then the book is naturally going to have a different meaning for you.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that Dean’s desire for Anne-Marie is also a desire for the “real” France. It’s a linked passion.

SALTER

France is beautiful, but his desire is definitely for the girl herself. Of course she is an embodiment. Even when you recognize what she is, she evokes things. But she would be desirable to him even if she didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a postmodern side to the book. The narrator indicates that he’s inventing Dean and Anne-Marie out of his own inadequacies.

SALTER

That’s just camouflage.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean?

SALTER

This book would have been difficult to write in the first person—that is to say if it were Dean’s voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie’s voice, but I wouldn’t know how to attempt that. On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions. The question was how to paint this, more or less. I don’t recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don’t know who this narrator is. You could say it’s me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person. He’s a device. He’s like the figure in black that moves the furniture in a play, so to speak, essential, but not part of the action.

INTERVIEWER

He’s like a narrator on a stage.

SALTER

Exactly. He stands in front of the curtain.

INTERVIEWER

It gives an almost voyeuristic feel to the novel.

SALTER

But that’s its appeal, don’t you think? I’m speaking of voyeurism not in the sense of being satisfied to look at life and not act in it. I’m speaking in the Peeping Tom sense, which is immensely exciting. You are seeing something forbidden, something absolutely natural and unrehearsed; someone unaware of being observed. As we know from physics, observed things are not the same as unobserved things. So, I like the idea.

INTERVIEWER

Is it possible to say how much of the book is invented and how much is real?

SALTER

Well, I’ve been to France, and I’ve been to Autun, and I do know people like that. I usually write, if I can, by preparing some things in advance. I don’t like to step on the podium, as it were, with nothing. There are performers who can do that, but I can’t. So when I sit down to write a page, I like to have some things that I’ve thought up in advance. And for a book, a lot of things. I’d jotted down a lot of things before I wrote that book and some were from life; some of them were quasi life; a few were invented.

INTERVIEWER

Light Years is an epiphanic book; in a way like A Sport and a Pastime. It consists of a series of luminous moments.

SALTER

In Light Years, these moments, let’s say these scenes, are themselves the narrative. They serve as the narrative. A Sport and a Pastime has erotic moments that overshade everything else and in a way comprise the book. Perhaps it’s the same method in both.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think Light Years is truly about?

SALTER

The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train—a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by—everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes. The animals die, the house is sold, the children are grown, even the couple itself has vanished, and yet there is this poem. It was criticized as elitist, but I’m not sure this is so. The two of them are really rather unexceptional. She was beautiful, but that passed; he was devoted, but not strong enough really to hold onto life. The title was originally “Nedra and Viri”—in my books, the woman is always the stronger. If you can believe this book, and it is true, there is a dense world built on matrimony, a life enclosed, as it says, in ancient walls. It is about the sweetness of those unending days.

INTERVIEWER

One critic said that life’s imperfections or impurities are rarely illumined in your fiction. That seems patently wrong to me, although there is a struggle for perfection in the lives of the characters, but it’s a surface perfection, isn’t it?

SALTER

Well, it’s only shallow people who do not judge by appearances, as Wilde said. Frivolous, but it touches an important question of the times, which is the relation of appearance to substance, of the perceived to the true.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve read that the notion behind Light Years came from a remark by Jean Renoir.

SALTER

“The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” Yes, I like that idea. I came across it after I was working on the book. But no matter, it authenticated something I felt. I wanted to compose a book of those things that one remembers in life. That was the notion. I suppose that the plot of the book is the passage of time and what it does to people and things. Perfectly obvious again, but combining those two ideas gave me the feeling of what the book should be. That still doesn’t displease. I find it satisfying.

INTERVIEWER

Viri, in the book, seems deeply dependent on the love of a woman for his happiness. It’s the sanctuary for his feeling. Nedra, on the other hand, seems happiest when she’s apart from men.

SALTER

Women are stronger in this as well as other regards. Women can graze and be happy, but men have no object other than women.

INTERVIEWER

At one point Viri says, “There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you’re living and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, that other we long to see.”

SALTER

Isn’t this like that very small book that Poe said could never be written, “My Heart Laid Bare.” There is a socially acceptable, let us say, conventional life that we live and discuss and pretty much adhere to, and there is the other life, which is the life of thought, fantasy, and desire that is not openly discussed. I’m sure, the times being what they are, there are people who do talk about it and probably on television, but in general, in most lives, these two things are completely distinct. I am conscious of them and attempted to write a little about it.

INTERVIEWER

The cover of the North Point edition features Bonnard’s painting The Breakfast Room. That painting seems to capture the atmosphere of the novel.

SALTER

I sometimes write thinking of a certain painter, and I wrote Light Years thinking of Bonnard from the very beginning. He is a painter of intimacy and solitude, he was not part of any school, and his life was spent, generally speaking, away from the brilliance of the lights and out of the mainstream. Not only his pictures but his persona appealed to me.

INTERVIEWER

There was an enormous leap in subject matter from Light Years to Solo Faces. What happened?

SALTER

Solo Faces was not a book I thought of myself. It has a different paternity. I was asked to write it. I had written a script about the same people, not quite the same series of events or details. Robert Ginna, a very close friend and then editor in chief of Little Brown, liked the script and asked me if I wouldn’t write it as a novel. At first I was uninterested but he persuaded me to do it. That explains why it seems a bit off my beaten path.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder how it changed from script to novel?

SALTER

It had to be considerably more realized as a novel. The central figure is based on a real man, Gary Hemming, who was a climber in the 1960s, very well-known. He was one of those figures that friends and people came into contact with and never quite forgot. His background is somewhat mysterious. I did a lot of research on it, including reading his letters. He was a lone wolf and somewhat offhanded in his actions, but he handled his correspondence very carefully. I had a pretty fair idea what he was like from interviewing his friends and from reading. Major events in the book are based on events in Hemming’s life. He did lead a remarkable rescue on the Dru. He was in Paris Match; he became famous. He was dead by the time I thought of writing about him. Actually, the thing that persuaded me to do it was a piece of film that had been on French television. It was about ten minutes long, an interview with Hemming. In it he was sitting in a meadow near Chamonix in a long winter undershirt, and when I saw him I suddenly realized what everyone had been talking about. There was this quality in him that was remarkable. He was a bit like Gary Cooper, to go to the commonplace, in the honesty of his face. There was something about him that was speaking to you from the center of his being. When I saw those ten minutes I became intrigued by the idea and felt that I could write about it.

INTERVIEWER

If Hemming is a model for Rand, I wonder if you had a model for Cabot?

SALTER

Oh yes. John Harlan was the other climber, the companion and rival. We didn’t know one another, but we were pilots in Germany at the same time. He died on the Eiger.

INTERVIEWER

How fully did you rely on your own experiences of mountain climbing?

SALTER

Some. I always took a pencil and notebook with me, but I rarely made a note. I was far too occupied. What I heard being with climbers, the confessions and anecdotes, was more important to me. I climbed with Royal Robbins, who was and probably remains the most important moral force in American climbing. I went to Europe with him, and Yosemite. He was a stern, somewhat laconic figure, but very decent to me. One time we climbed something, not particularly trying for him, of course, but terrible for me. We were going up a pair of cracks and had to traverse over to another pair. The traverse was probably six or seven feet. You could almost span it with your arms. He went across—he was leading, of course—and then it came my turn. It was at the very limit of my abilities. I remember the moment well because I was looking down—height at that time was still a consideration to me—and I thought, I’m not going to make this, I’m going to fall here. That wasn’t so alarming—we were roped—but what was really causing despair was the thought that after falling I was going to have climb up and do it again anyway. That evening we were having a drink, and I told him what I had felt. I asked him if he ever felt anguish of that kind in climbing. All the time, he said. I felt he was telling me the truth.

INTERVIEWER

What do you remember most emphatically about climbing?

SALTER

That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow.

INTERVIEWER

The stories in Dusk were written over a fairly long period of time, but there are some persistent concerns and structures. What’s your idea of a short story?

SALTER

Above all, it must be compelling. You’re sitting around the campfire of literature, so to speak, and various voices speak up out of the dark and begin talking. With some, your mind wanders or you doze off, but with others you are held by every word. The first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph, all have to compel you.

Further, I think, it should be memorable. It must have significance. Merely because something has been written is not adequate justification for it. A story doesn’t have to surprise—Mishima’s “Patriotism” disdains surprise. It needn’t be dramatic—Peter Taylor’s “A Wife of Nashville” has no drama. What it must do is somehow astonish you, and what it must be is somehow complete.

INTERVIEWER

Who is your favorite short-story writer?

SALTER

I would say Isaac Babel. He has the three essentials of greatness: style, structure, and authority. There are other writers who have that, of course—Hemingway, in fact, had those three things. But Babel particularly appeals to me because of the added element of his life, which seems to me to give his work an additional poignancy. He lived in difficult times; he was murdered in the end by the state. He disappeared in the camps. We don’t know what happened to him. He was the one who said, “I wasn’t given time to finish.” I’ve always been surprised that he hasn’t had more recognition here. Of all the stories I have read, the greatest number that are near the top come from Babel and Chekhov.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you say that Babel was a hero in the world.

SALTER

He is heroic to me. My idea of writing is of unflinching and continual effort, somehow trying to find the right words until you reach a point where you can make no further progress and you either have something or you don’t. Babel was such a writer. He worked on manuscripts for a long time; there was a trunk full of them that just disappeared with work in it that he simply wasn’t ready to have printed yet. His remarks, those that have been translated—various speeches or talks at symposiums between about 1930 and 1936—give you the impression of someone who is not without confidence, but by no means arrogant or proud. He said at one point that he wished he had never taken up anything as difficult as writing but instead had become a tractor salesman like his father. At the same time you know that in the final account it’s not what he was going to do. He made a remark about Tolstoy that is very touching. He observed that Tolstoy only weighed three poods—a Russian weight measurement—but that they were three poods of pure genius.

INTERVIEWER

There’s something about Babel’s work that strikes me as similar to yours. In Babel there’s a terrific sensitivity that is shaped or meets the forge of Cossack military conduct.

SALTER

I suppose you tend to take as models and admire people you are able to feel close to in a certain way. I feel many of the things I believe he felt. I would say the difference is that Babel rode with the cossacks; I was one.

INTERVIEWER

Is Babel’s argot something that has influenced you?

SALTER

You mean the unexpected slangy word, like a knuckleball. I steer away from it because a master, Saul Bellow, has appropriated that. Perhaps that’s unfair—he may have come upon it himself, but in any case, it’s similar to Babel’s and you don’t want to be the third party.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your favorite book of Bellow’s?

SALTER

Henderson the Rain King is a book that if you make a little tick beside things worth noting, you’ll end up with page after page of them. It’s a spectacular performance. Bellow once urged me to write about the horse country in Virginia. It was when I was telling him about my wife’s family and my land-owning father-in-law. I told him I didn’t know enough about the horse country in Virginia to write anything, I’d only been there a dozen times. Then he amazed me. He said, Yes, well, I’d never been to Africa when I wrote Henderson.

INTERVIEWER

Almost all of your stories have been published in The Paris Review, Esquire, and Grand Street.

SALTER

I’ve responded in some cases to invitation. Rust Hills at Esquire has been very encouraging; Ben Sonnenberg when he edited Grand Street was a wonderful editor. And of course The Paris Review published my first three or four stories, and George Plimpton also published A Sport and a Pastime when he first started Paris Review Editions. Although I have never managed to appear on the masthead, which has innumerable people on it, I feel I am a member of the family.

INTERVIEWER

What about The New Yorker?

SALTER

I’ve never had a story in The New Yorker; everything has been rejected. At one point I came close. I had written a story called “Via Negativa,” and I had a note from Roger Angell who said, please come in to talk about it. I sat in a little gray office with him, and he told me that he liked the story very much. He said, This is really quite good, but I’m afraid we can’t take it. I was stunned. I said, Why is that? He said, At The New Yorker we have two rules we never violate. The first is that we never publish anything with obscenity in it. Second, we never publish any stories about writers or writing. I hardly knew what to say. What about the Bech stories by Updike? I asked. He said, Well, that’s another matter. A year or two later I was talking to Saul Bellow about this, and he said, I tried to get them to publish a section of The Victim, but they didn’t accept it. They said they had two rules that they never violated. One, they never published anything that had obscenity in it. Two, they never published anything about death or dying.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is your best short story?

SALTER

I like “American Express.” It’s the most recent story, and I think the most accomplished. It has a lot of levels. It is not simply what it appears. I like that aspect of it. It has a certain reach that I respond to, and I like the ending. Lastly, it’s about lawyers, which is something I wanted to write about for a long time.

INTERVIEWER

What was the first story you ever wrote?

SALTER

The first published story was “Am Strande von Tanger,” and oddly enough, that’s probably the one I like next best. What I like about that story is it seems to be very carefully observed. When one reads it, I think there is the feeling of yes, this is exactly so, this is exactly how it was. I admire that in others. 

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that figures into your fiction is money. Or maybe it is the absence of money that sometimes crushes your characters. 

SALTER

I think the major axis of life is a sexual one. You know—the music changes but the dance is always the same. You could easily say, however, that wealth and poverty are an axis, and of course in America we have magnified that. We make no distinction between status and money. The real event of the 1980s was not the national debt or self-indulgence or any of these things; it was the emergence of great looting fortunes, the likes of which we hadn’t seen for a hundred years and which threw the moral equilibrium completely out of balance and made us revise the value of everything—not to the benefit of society, though of course society will heal itself. And with of all that money, how pathetic that none could be found for a distinguished publishing house like North Point Press, to allow it to go on as it had. Well, what can you expect? 

INTERVIEWER

It’s struck me how often the deaths or failures of artists—Gaudí, Mahler—figure in your work. 

SALTER

We were talking about the dissatisfaction of poets, their feeling that the culture, the nation, did not give them the honor or respect they deserved, though half of that comes afterwards. Ours is a culture that enshrines the ephemeral, and that leaves certain things and people out. The deepest instinct, I think, is to want to do something enduring, something worthwhile, and to be engaged by that, whether one achieves it or not . . . So perhaps that’s how artists figure in. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever written poetry? 

SALTER

I wrote it in school, and I’ve written it episodically after that. I like brevity, the power of names. 

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if poets in particular have influenced you as a writer? 

SALTER

Very much. You have to like Berryman; you have to like Lorca, Larkin, Pound. The Cantos, unfathomable, a lot of it. When I was a child in school, we were made to stand up, at the rear of the class as I recall, and recite poems we had memorized. That anthology stays with one, even though it’s largely just of verse. Like the shreds of popular songs and advertisements, they stay with you the rest of your life, you simply can’t get rid of them. Then there were poets one was taught in English class. Keats and Shelley—I never liked them, possibly because we were instructed to admire them. I liked Byron, Tennyson . . . there’s a simple sort of schoolboy poet. I remember Housman fondly. I said, Ah, now here’s a poet that strikes my nature, and I like his language. I’ve since learned that Housman is not that important but I still have an affection for him as you do for someone you knew when you were young. You realize that perhaps your feelings were impetuous. 

INTERVIEWER

Pound had the idea of structuring The Cantos around luminous moments. That doesn’t seem far from what you were after in some of the novels. 

SALTER

No, it doesn’t. 

INTERVIEWER

I wonder when Nabokov became an influence on your work. 

SALTER

Oh, I forgot to mention him. Admirable writer. One of a kind. When did he write Speak, Memory? I read chapters in The New Yorker and was struck immediately by the voice. Of course, here’s a poet. You say to yourself, Vladimir, let’s be honest. You are a poet, and you’re just writing a lot of prose. It’s quite good, but we know what you’re really interested in. Speak, Memory seems to me eminently that kind of book. I think, all in all, it’s his best. The first half of Lolita is very strong. Pale Fire, Mary McCarthy’s favorite, is quite a strong book as well. However, Speak, Memory is indelible. It can be read and reread. The notions in it, the leaps of imagination and the language are essentially poetic. When I first read him I said to myself, Well, you might as well quit. But you forget about that after a while. 

INTERVIEWER

He spoke of combining the passion of the scientist with the precision of the poet. I wonder if you feel that he has influenced you at the stylistic level?

SALTER

I don’t have his nimble kind of mind. It would be useless for me to attempt to dance by putting my feet in his chalk marks on the floor, but I find him inspirational. 

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t you interview him? 

SALTER

It happened that one of the first pieces of journalism I did was an interview with Nabokov. They said, First of all, he only gives written interviews. You must send in your questions in advance. So I sat down and wrote ten we assume penetrating questions, which I wouldn’t like to see again, and sent them to him. No response, of course. But it was arranged that if I went to Europe I would be able to meet and talk to him. I reached Europe and was in Paris, it was in the winter, and I was in one of those hotels where they still had telephones with a separate piece you held to your ear, the old French phones. I got hold of the Time man in Geneva who had arranged the meeting with Nabokov, and he gave me the distressing news that the interview was called off. Nabokov had changed his mind. I said, How can he do that? I’ve come to Europe. Well, he’s called it off. I didn’t know what to do. He said, Why don’t you call him? The idea was unthinkable. It was like somebody saying why don’t you call the Pope? There seemed to be no alternative, so I called. A voice said, Montreux Palace Hotel, and I said, Mr. Nabokov, please. The phone was ringing and, of course, I didn’t know what I was going to say. A woman answered. It was Vera Nabokov. I explained who I was and what had happened. She said, Oh no, my husband can’t do an interview. He’s not well. You must submit your questions in writing. I told her I had done that but there had been no response, and she repeated that he answered only in writing. I must tell you, she said, my husband does not ad-lib. Nevertheless, I asked if she would not, since I had come to Europe, be good enough to see if he wouldn’t give me a few moments, merely so I had a physical impression, some description to add to the answers. She put the phone down, and I pictured her just looking out the window for a moment and then picking it up again and saying, “I’m sorry, he can’t.” But she surprised me by coming back and saying, My husband will meet you at five o’clock on Sunday afternoon in the Green Bar of the Montreux Palace. She repeated he date and time to be sure it was understood.

At five o’clock on Sunday, the elevator door opened, and out stepped a tall, blazered, gray-trousered man whom I instantly recognized, and a white-haired woman in a handsome Rodier suit. It was the Nabokovs. They came to the table. I was a little nervous. I was not an accomplished journalist; I knew Nabokov did not ad-lib; I was unable to bring a tape recorder because of that, and I would be unable to take notes, I knew, for the same reason. I had as my only source of strength the—I am certain—fabrication of Truman Capote that he had spent a night drinking and talking with Marlon Brando in Tokyo and the next day had written down the entire conversation exactly. It appeared in The New Yorker. I thought if Capote could do it for an entire night while drinking I could certainly do thirty abstemious minutes with Nabokov. I summoned all my powers and said, I’m going to concentrate on everything he says, listen, and not think of being clever or what I should say; I simply want to listen to him. It turned out to be about forty-five minutes. We were getting along quite well, and finally he said, Shall we have another julep? He was referring whimsically to scotch and soda. But I was afraid that one more drink might begin to obliterate the text. So I excused myself. I had the distinct impression we could have gone on and had dinner, but I was afraid to. I apologized for having taken up so much time and immediately went to the railroad station where I wrote down everything I remembered. It wasn’t in order, of course, but it was four or five pages, and from it I constructed an interview. It was all fairly exact, I must say. I missed the train, but I cherish the memory. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you interview others as part of a journalistic career? 

SALTER

Well, a brief career. I interviewed Graham Greene, Antonia Fraser, Han Suyin. 

INTERVIEWER

How did Greene strike you? 

SALTER

I’ve nothing but admiration for Greene. In his case I took the trouble to read all his books since I knew very little about him, and that alone made it worth it. Afterwards he wrote me a number of letters mainly distinguished by their brevity, though they were cordial, and also by his signature, a more minuscule piece of handwriting than I have ever seen since. It was as if they were signed by a mere horizontal line. He had asked me if I was a journalist, I’m not sure if it was curiosity or incredulity. I said that no, like him, I was a writer and I’d written some novels. He told me to send him one, and I sent Light Years. He wrote back and said, I found your book to be very moving, and three pages of it are absolutely masterly. He cited the pages. I went immediately to the book. I turned to those pages and, for various reasons, because of the way the lines fell, and also the flavor of the text, it turned out that all three had a faintly Graham Greeneish tone to them.

But he was kind. He wanted to know if the book had been published in England. I said that no, it had been turned down by publishers there. He said, Has it been submitted to The Bodley Head? He had a close connection to them. I believe his brother was one of the directors of the house. Yes, I said, but The Bodley had turned it down. He said, What reason did they give? I said that they felt it would not make any money if they published it. He said, That’s no reason not to publish a book. Let me inquire. He arranged for them to publish it, which they did, and they had been right—but, of course, he was also. 

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about your journalistic work as a whole? 

SALTER

It was a way to earn a living. 

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about your career as a screenwriter? 

SALTER

In the 1950s the European directors suddenly burst onto the scene—Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard. They seemed to cast a new light on the whole idea of movies. The New York Film Festival started sometime in the mid-sixties. All of it was seductive. It was like the band marching by, the flags, the beat of drums, and of course at that period of life I felt I could write anything—a sonnet, a libretto, a play. Someone came along and said, how would you like to write a movie? And it proceeded from there. 

INTERVIEWER

Your movie “Three,” based on an Irwin Shaw short story, met with a lot of success at the Cannes Film Festival. Did that surprise you? 

SALTER

It was a pleasant surprise. Finally, though, it was like everything I’ve done. It had its admirers, some of them ardent, but on the other hand, the public displayed complete indifference. It was described somewhere, or perhaps I described it, as being essentially a movie about meals and wine. That’s perhaps not true, but I now see I was somewhat inadequate as a director. I should have spent considerably more time with the actors and the psychology of what was going on. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have strong ambitions to be an auteur? 

SALTER

Yes, that’s what everybody wanted to be. 

INTERVIEWER

You spent about ten years in and out of the movie business, but seem to have a lot of disdain for it now. 

SALTER

One earns that. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you regret the time? 

SALTER

Not completely. I saw the inside of a lot of places I wouldn’t have otherwise. 

INTERVIEWER

Was it liberating to decide that you wouldn’t work with movies any longer? 

SALTER

It wasn’t abrupt. I just said I would like to do less of this. I would like to do much less. I would like to do none of it. 

INTERVIEWER

Was journalism a better alternative? 

SALTER

The wage scale is not exactly the same. Movie writers, as Lorenzo Semple and I agree, are among the most overpaid people on earth. In a certain sense you would do a movie for nothing, just for the fun of doing it. In addition to that, you are lavishly paid. 

INTERVIEWER

Is it cancer causing to write movies? 

SALTER

Movies are essentially meant to be distractions. It’s a very rare movie that has the power to console. Whether you get cancer or not is hard to say. There are figures like Graham Greene . . . I think the movies caused him no harm, and he worked in them extensively. There are people like John Sayles who are both novelists and full-time directors and who seem to survive it. But generally speaking, they come with the bill eventually. If you have been writing movies you have been accommodating other people.

A movie is a single performance, and it’s remembered as a performance. Movies are never reperformed. They are not alive. They are sometimes remade years later, but everything in them is absolutely fixed and will always be fixed. They are not like great prose, which, as one critic pointed out, seems to catch fire first in one place and then in another. I tend to talk about them disrespectfully, but no matter what is said they have assumed the paramount position in American culture. They are unquestionably the enemy of writing, and this is something that is unresolvable. That is the way it is. I talk to writing students occasionally, and naturally that’s the first thing they’re interested in. I even speak to accomplished writers and writing teachers whose dream is to write a movie. We know why they have this dream. Part of it is the money, part of it is walking into a crowded restaurant with a famous actor . . . perhaps it’s the same feeling one gets traveling with the president. The illusion is of some kind of authenticity. But by and large it all disappears, and the time you’ve spent doing that, if you are interested in writing, is wasted time. 

INTERVIEWER

Is writing a memoir the sign of coming to a certain age? 

SALTER

They say you should do it in your white-haired youth. I may have waited a bit long. 

INTERVIEWER

Is there an impulse to rethink the experiences of the past? 

SALTER

I feel the joy is in thinking about what happened and what it really meant and being able to make that come to life. There is the whole question of truth. You are perfectly entitled to invent your life and to claim that it’s true. We have had the blurring of fact and fiction already. We’ve had writers who have explained that their books are nonfiction novels, that is to say, nonfiction fictions. I subscribe to a more classic view. I believe there is such a thing as objective truth insofar as we are given to know it. Victor Hugo’s Choses vues is an example. No one can know God’s truth, but it’s not God’s truth you’re writing; it’s truth as you know it—things that you have observed. I am fallible; we all are. There may be some errors in it, but they are not errors of commission or of carelessness. They are simply errors that crept in unknown. 

INTERVIEWER

I noticed Out of Africa on your desk. What did you mean when you praised Isak Dinesen “for the courage she had in what she omitted” from that book?

SALTER

I take that book to be a model. As you know, she had a husband who gave her syphilis; she had a childhood, a marriage; she had a love affair; one senses—I haven’t read her biography—a tremendous amount happened to her. None of it is in this story, Out of Africa. Her husband is briefly mentioned, so is her father. So are many other figures. One has a very strong feeling about this woman and her life. You feel you know her. And yet she was not obliged, so to speak, to lift her skirts, display the sheets. I admire that. I thought it would be interesting to write a book that tells some important things but doesn’t bother to tell every detail. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that after you returned to domestic life you eventually stopped talking about your war days, but now you’re writing about them. 

SALTER

There was no point in talking about war days. Who was there to talk to about them? Someone at a party telling you about being over Ploesti or what he did in Vietnam usually trivializes it. You have to have the right audience. Also, when you write about it you have the opportunity to arrange it exactly the way you would like, and one presumes that the reader is going to be enthralled.

 INTERVIEWER

But why a memoir? 

SALTER

To restore those years when one says, All this is mine—these cities, women, houses, days. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is the ultimate impulse to write? 

SALTER

To write? Because all this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and poems, the books, what is written down. Man was very fortunate to have invented the book. Without it the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.