James Salter Returns to the Novel After More Than Three Decades
By John Bayles
When bookstores host author readings, the actual reading is usually followed by a question and answer period. Some of the most often asked questions, by admirers of the author or by aspiring writers sitting in the front row, concern the characters in the book; from where did the characters come, what was the inspiration behind a character, how did the writer manage to make readers feel, after finishing the book, as if they had connected to and even fell in love with a character.
James Salter will read from his new novel All That Is at Bookhampton in East Hampton and Canios Books in Sag Harbor in July, and he will most likely field such questions. The author of bestselling and award-winning works, including Light Years and A Sport and a Pasttime, has for decades been hailed by literary critics for his masterful crafting of lasting characters. All That Is is his first novel since Solo Faces, published in 1979.
Every novelist will attest to having a method to the madness that is writing characters so they seem real, so they come to life and jump off the page, so the reader will love or hate them—love or hate depending on the author’s wish. And also left up to the author is whether or not to draw the characters from their own experiences; taking people from their own life, be it a person the author has known intimately or someone the author bumped into at a café in Paris, shared an espresso and conversed over the weather or the war.
Sitting in a chair in the sun room of his Bridgehampton home, seeming at peace with both his physical surroundings and where he is professionally, the 88-year-old author offered only slight insights into how or why the characters in his novels have touched so many in the literary world, from mere readers to the critics that have praised him as a master of his craft.
“I’ve been writing for 60 years,” he said. “How did I learn that? You learn to write [characters] by reading and by wanting to write.”
So how did Mr. Salter develop his skill and talent of crafting memorable characters that result in such beautiful books?
“Focus. All the time. By writing well,” he quipped.
Some novelists perform meticulous research in order to create memorable characters—spending hours in libraries, pouring through news accounts of an event that may have shaped a person into the way the character is portrayed in the book.
But for Salter, developing characters on paper that seem to transcend the notion of writing as a “form” of art and cross over into other art forms like painting and photography where the term “portrait” is more common, there seems to be no secret formula. Instead there is only a willingness to commit and to try to write well.
Sometimes, a character can be born by the author simply observing, taking note of a stranger’s mannerisms, their gait, the clothes they choose to wear or the way they interact with the people and places in a given environment during a particular moment in a particular time.
“Do I feel like I know how to write and make a character come to life, sometimes… the first book of mine, the characters were strong on the page, so I felt I knew how to do it… but I didn’t—[Hunters] was just my first book.”
Asked how he felt about the characters in his latest work, Salter modestly said he would rate it as good as any. But every writer has a favorite work, and when pressed Salter said his was A Sport and a Pastime.
“I was in France for a year and when I came home I wanted to write about it. I had been taking notes all the time I was there and working from them,” he said. Salter scribbled “details of every nature,” about the places, colors, weather, and “of course, people above all.”
“I wanted to write a certain kind of youthful love story,” he said.
So, does Mr. Salter believe that A Sport and a Pastime can be considered a portrait depicting love instead of a story about love?
“Portrait. When you say portrait, the implication, the word itself means something fixed. It is a description of a person, a depiction of a person. I’m writing a description of a person [on paper].”
Salter believes all writing, if done well, should create a portrait, meaning it should leave a visual image in the readers’ mind.
“If you describe a car crash, it becomes visual.”
In All That Is, the character that comes to life is Phillip Bowman. His story begins on a ship, sailing to Japan near the end of WWII, with Bowman, a junior officer in the Navy. The book ends several decades later and by then the reader has seen Bowman move to New York, get married, get divorced, wander through the literary world working as a book editor and wade through the grief that follows the death of family members. Unlike his other novels, All That Is does not depict a character or characters in a particular period of their lives, but instead shows one character constantly interacting with whatever life throws at him.
“What makes a character[s] unforgettable is their actions, the details, when they make their [first] appearance in the book,” said Salter. “It’s impossible to say how a character comes to life… it is through the writer’s decision, the details that are important and how to employ them.”
Salter noted that even the smallest details of a character, their name, an action, their dialogue, could form a very strong image in the reader’s mind.
“You’re going to find a trace of the writer in everything, everything is autobiographical if you go deeply enough,” Salter noted. “It’s not reportage—some of the things never happened, or happened that way. A book is not [always] true, but that doesn’t mean [the characters] are not real.”
In All That Is, it is very easy to find a “trace” of Salter in Phillip Bowman. After all, Salter was a military man, serving as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force until 1957 when Hunters was published. Salter also had a brief career writing and directing films. So Bowman seems very real on paper and off.
And in Salter’s mind, each and every one of his characters is real and they must be. “If they’re not real I would erase them myself—I would strike them out.”
For Mr. Salter, that is the formula and it is no secret. Oh, and as to being a successful and respected writer and making a very good living by putting words on a page, he had five words to offer an aspiring novelist.
“Be lucky. Writing is hard.”