“A writer’s writer”—the phrase has been applied to James Salter so often that it’s lost all meaning to the writer himself.
“It’s one of those things somebody wrote once, and it got repeated,” Salter says. “It might be what you call a phony fact, like a mistaken birth date.”
The words might sound trite, but it’s true. Writers can’t resist Salter’s crisp, precise prose style. Thanks to his rich imagination, the stories he tells—of flying a fighter plane (the memoir Burning the Days), of erotic encounters (the novel A Sport and a Pastime), of ski racing (the screenplay for Downhill Racer) assume a strangely dreamlike tone of authority. Perhaps it’s his gift for expressing intimacy through small gestures, and the way his spare physical descriptions compound to make seemingly familiar places—Long Island, Paris—new and haunting.
We recently visited Salter’s modest Victorian home in Aspen, where he’s been living on and off since the late 1950s, to discuss his reading at Inprint’s 30th anniversary celebration. (Following the reading, Salter will be interviewed by author and University of Houston creative writing professor Antonya Nelson.)
Inprint’s 30th Anniversary Celebration (featuring James Salter)
May 6 at 7:30 (doors open 6:45)
Free and open to public.
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-521-2026. inprinthouston.org
After spending most of his career overshadowed by better-known contemporaries like John Updike and Philip Roth, Salter is finally getting some recognition. The author recently received two of the most prestigious awards in American literature, Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. And unlike Updike, who died in 2009, and Roth, who has announced his retirement, Salter is still writing—albeit slowly. All That Is, published in April, is Salter’s first book in seven years and his first novel since 1979. Set in the tony milieu of mid-twentieth-century New York literary society, the novel follows a book editor through a series of marriages and affairs.
“The life of an editor always interested me,” Salter says. “I liked its dignity, the sense of dedication, its privileges and social aspects, even though it had a lot of reading and solitude to it. The editors and publishers I knew led admirable lives.”
Perhaps Salter’s chief subject is the sadness that follows in the wake of our happiest memories, his lonely narrators looking back on a moment of erotic bliss or true connection. In this respect, All That Is doesn’t represent a departure. “It was an era of publishing that everybody I knew sensed was drawing to a close,” Salter says. “I sometimes have that little elegiac quality in passages.”