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James Salter: effortlessly cool

The towering American novelist who went to school with Jack Kerouac speaks of all that is

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

We don’t want to go overboard on the sycophancy here, but there is no getting around James Salter’s pretty solid status as one of the truly greatest, most effortlessly cool, most actually brave and indeed most handsome American novelists currently breathing. Now 87, Salter has lived variously and gallantly – he went to the same Bronx high school as Jack Kerouac; piloted early jet fighter planes in dogfights in the Korean war; risked his life pursuing a passion for solo rock-climbing; worked in the movies; sold swimming pools; and worked steadily and slowly to create a slim back catalogue of books that are, quite simply, life-changingly good. In 2013, after a 34-year break from the form, Salter has made an entirely triumphant return to the novel with All That Is. We were honoured to talk to him this summer in London.

Dazed Digital: So is the book-promotion whirlgig something you enjoy doing?

James Salter: Well, this time it’s more than I’ve ever been asked to do, so...

DD: The act of talking about the book with a total stranger is very different to the solitary act of composing a novel, isn't it?

James Salter: The thing is, in this case you’re talking to educated strangers who want to talk about something you know about. My experience here has been that the interviewers have all been writers, and are quite interesting on their own. So I would say that part of it is easy. The travel and the pace are the only demanding things.

DD: All That Is is very much a swansong for the disappearing world of old publishing. How do you feel about publishing's new world?

James Salter: It’s gonna stay afloat. It’s gonna do alright.

DD: People can get quite doomy about it all, can't they?

James Salter: Yes, they can – Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth; a lot of people have pronounced it all over. I’m not going to say that.

It all comes from Brooklyn, San Francisco – I don’t know where they’re writing it, but they seem impassioned to me. 

DD: How about e-readers and electronic publishing and all that?

James Salter: I don’t know. I don’t think anybody really quite knows yet. People I know who read on the Kindle – including my wife, who reads books as well – say it’s a wonderful thing. No problem at all. She likes it. Other people do too. So I’m convinced. And I’ve used it myself. Of course I haven’t used it enough. But I’m not discouraged. There’s a flood of new writing, that’s my impression. I’m not much on the internet – I read the newspaper. But occasionally I go to the Paris Review blog, or one blog or another. Lots of it is intelligent discussion – I mean literary discussion! So it seems that it’s flourishing. Although it doesn’t flourish in the old places. Maybe people who say it’s all finished know what they’re talking about, or maybe they just haven’t taken enough notice of this stuff because it’s all youthful. It all comes from Brooklyn, San Francisco – I don’t know where they’re writing it, but they seem impassioned to me. 

DD: That's a nice way of looking at it. All That Is has that epigraph about how only the things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real. Does writing preserved on the internet still count?

James Salter: That’s a very real question. It’s all out there on the servers that these tremendously rich corporations run, and will it always be on the server? I don’t know. Will it go from server to server? Will it be preserved by an official body: a government or a literary superagency, like a UN for literary preservation? It’s so hard to deal with, to imagine. We know that books have been printed and reprinted and reprinted and reprinted, and the old ones are in museums and libraries. I don’t know if we can do it all digitally. And of course, whether they do or not is very important in this question. It can’t be called ‘written down’ if it’s an email that only exists in the Google server and they have to hack your computer to get it. I don’t know what to call that. It is written, but not really.

They use ‘u’ for ‘you’ and all that stuff, but they are writing. And that is a language, even though it may be scorned.

DD: One upshot is that young people write a lot more in their day-to-day lives than they would have done when you were growing up...

James Salter: Well, they have to, because they’re on the internet. They use ‘u’ for ‘you’ and all that stuff, but they are writing. And that is a language, even though it may be scorned. It is communication. And they’re sending messages. I would think the average young person, staying up with their friends, must type out maybe 30 messages a day, maybe 50. So there is a lot of variety. You never wrote 50 letters a day in the old days. You might write three letters in the morning or something. You know this geography better than I do, but whenever I’ve read anywhere publicly, it’s not just an old audience with nothing else to do – there seem to be a lot of young writers in the audience. There are always four or five that come up, and often with a message from other young writers, saying, ‘My friend so-and-so just loves your work, would you sign this for her ­– she’s in Florida.’ And they’ve all written books. I mean, it’s going somewhere.

DD: Do you enjoy doing readings then?

James Salter: No, not any more.

DD: But you have done at other points in your life?

James Salter: Yes, it’s fun when you want adulation, and you want to get the feeling that, you know, you wanna be in with a crowd.

DD: So you don't particularly enjoy being onstage?

James Salter: When you say, ‘Ready? That’s your cue,’ I can enjoy that, but I don’t enjoy thinking about it, and I’m doing less of it. I’ve gotten more shy with age. It’s perfectly understandable. ‘I’ll just stay here for the moment,’ that kind of thing.

DD: Have you got a go-to part of All That Is that you're doing at readings at the moment?

James Salter: Well I’ve brought three parts over, two of which I have read. One once and the other about four or five times. I usually get bored though, reading the same piece again and again. An actor can do that, but I don’t think I want to do that. So I brought a spare one. I like the character Dena, the wife of Eddings. I mean, I like her life – she appeals to me. So I brought that section. I almost hesitate to read it because there’s sex in it, not much, but...

DD: The blowjob, you mean?

James Salter: Yeah, but I mean, it’s nothing. But I feel embarrassed reading it myself.

Relations between men and women are probably fundamentally better now. I think things have improved. The world has improved.

DD: You've seen a whole world at war, you've seen combat in Korea - you've lived a pretty varied life. Do you feel like the world now is a better place than in your youth?

James Salter: Yes. We’re talking about western life: English and American life, western European life and so forth. Yes, it’s better. It’s hard to balance all this out, it’s hard to prove it. I mean, there was the depression when I was a kid. It was a pretty serious thing, more than this recession now. There were these wars, there was the rise of Soviet Russia. A pretty brutal evolution. There was the rise of fascist Germany. There’s no question about the Germans’ aggression, their wanting to right the wrongs of the first war, and the appearance of this charismatic and absolutely fatal – for us – leader. All that was going on, and we don’t really have anything like that now. I think human life – quotidian life, things like medicine, just living – is better. Relations between men and women are probably fundamentally better now. I think things have improved. The world has improved.

DD: Some have suggested that you are overly nostalgic for a bygone period. But that doesn't seem to be the case, from talking to you today.

James Salter: Well, you love things that happened. You love your life ­– you’re the authority of it, the author of it. So naturally the episodes you know – which couldn’t occur now – yeah, I think you feel sentimental about them. I did like the big (ocean) liners. They’re in the book, at the end. It’s a very romantic era. There were no crowds. I mean, if you were in Florence, you could stroll across the Ponte Vecchio and nobody would be there. The crowds – that’s one of the big differences. Not the good differences.

DD: There are too many people on earth...

James Salter: And not only that – there are crowds.

All That Is is out now, published by Picador