When, in 2005, I first read Salter’s short story collection Last Night, I had never felt so moved by scenes on a page. His sparing prose is widely celebrated, but the depth and subtlety of the writing chilled me. I felt, somehow, that I was destined to encounter these same stories in my own lifetime, in some shape or form.
At age 88, Salter’s standing in literary history remains uncertain. While he is revered by a segment of writers and readers, his work still remains unknown to many. He has been criticized for chauvinism in his writing of male characters — for their sexual conquests, affairs, coldness. In his latest work, his women are referred to by first names, the men by last. Yet Light Years, an earlier novel, is remarkable for the treatment and depth of its female lead, a woman who abandons her husband, children, and home to pursue a truer, free life. The care Salter takes in unraveling the nature of relationships in all his work honors dimensions that exist within us all.
I interviewed Salter via email about his latest work, his characters, and his career.
HOPE REESE: All That Is encompasses a large period of one man’s life. Is this what you were aiming for in your title, or does that have another meaning?
JAMES SALTER: The title means, more or less, What Mattered to Me, or What I Know of the World. It can’t be translated or put into other words without losing the feeling one gets of passage of time, scale.
HR: It’s been over 30 years since your last novel was published, and All That Is has been deemed “an extraordinary literary event.” What do you think about this?
JS: I don’t think it’s quite as extraordinary as the publisher says, but it’s a long novel. It’s intense and complex. It has my stamp on it, in that it recapitulates themes and ideas and even gives certain characters and places a last chance to appear. The ordinary reader won’t be aware of this, only someone who for one reason or another knows other of my books.
HR: You’ve been one of your own greatest critics, and once said that A Sport and a Pastime is your only work that “lives up to your standards.” Do you still feel this way? Has your own perception of your work changed?
JS: With A Sport and a Pastime I felt I’d become a real writer. I thought it was the best I could do. It’s only after they are published that you see what’s wrong with a book. I didn’t find much that was wrong in this case.
HR: You left the Air Force in 1957, after publishing The Hunters, to pursue a career in writing. In Interview magazine you said that you regret your military education. Can you talk about that more? Do you think the experience shaped you as a writer?
JS: I was in the Air Force for 12 years. No one was talking about or reading books. I’d be willing to give up some of those years, but there’s no way of doing it, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t regret it if I did. I’m often asked what effect on my writing did being a pilot have. I was a fighter pilot and in operational flying the whole time. In a squadron, pilots are a big thing. I probably gained a sense of privilege.
HR: Bowman is an editor at a literary publishing house in the golden age when authors and publishers had more intimate relationships — they ate and drank together, wrote each other letters, traveled together. How has the business changed since you published your novel in 1957? How do you feel about the changes?
JS: Everything has changed and is still changing. Self-publishing may be what we’re headed for, the writer publishing his or her own books and somehow getting them noticed. I’m not on Facebook, so that would be difficult for me. But serious literary journals as well as book clubs and commentaries are already thick on the internet, so how you feel about it really doesn’t matter.
HR: Many of your stories include vivid sex scenes, and in 1967, when A Sport and a Pastime was released, your publisher thought it was too sexual. But by today’s standards, the scenes are no longer shocking. How has your writing about sex, and the reactions that your words have elicited, changed over the course of your career?
JS: All That Is covers 35 or 40 years during which Bowman has two long love affairs and one very brief one. In an age of sexual reordering and license this amounts to little. A few incidents are succinctly described. I don’t know anything about the reaction to them. Some feminist critics suggest that the women in the book are not given the dimension they should have, but I don’t believe this. Christine has plenty of dimension.
HR: A recurring theme in your work is the fleeting nature of relationships. Not only sexual relationships, but love. Many of your characters think they are in love, but change their mind. In All That Is, Philip Bowman has a succession of relationships with women who are married or are coming out of marriages. What draws you to this subject?
JS: Some relationships are fleeting, some are not. Fleeting means going by quickly transitory. In Light Years, Nedra and Viri are married for years. In fact the length of their marriage is the condition of Light Years. Philip and Annette are married and stay married in Comet. Eddie Fenn is married and has children in Akhnilo. And so forth. There are infidelities sometimes. Even in Last Night, the husband remains faithful until death except for a mistress. There’s morality above and beyond sexual morality.
HR: Another complicated idea in your work is the concept of happiness. In one scene, Bowman “was happy, or felt he was.” Later you write about the “sensation of happiness.” Can you expand a bit on this?
JS: Some happiness is a social construct. Some is self-deception. Some is conditional. Some is feigned. Some is real. When you say someone is happy, you may need to modify it.
HR: In a recent New Yorker podcast, Deborah Treisman calls you a “well-kept secret.” Given the amount of attention All That Is has received, is this still the case? How much do you care about your legacy?
JS: I think my books are vertical, that is, may appeal to a series of readers over time rather than to a wide front of them. This is the hard way, but going back to an earlier question, in the military I learned the hard way and that’s what I still know.