James Salter: Writing a Novel Is Like Cutting a Path Through the Jungle

James Salter headshot

James Salter is U.Va.’s first Kapnick Distinguished Writer in Residence.

The University of Virginia English department’s Creative Writing Program established the Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program last year in the tradition of William Faulkner’s legendary residencies at the University in 1957 and ’58. The program aims to bring writers of international stature to Charlottesville for one semester to teach and engage with U.Va. students and the literary community.

The inaugural writer to hold the post, James Salter, 89, is spending the fall semester on Grounds, teaching a graduate workshop on fiction. He gave three public talks last month related to the art of fiction, and will read from his work Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. in Nau Hall, room 101, to be followed by a book signing.

Salter’s novels include “All That Is,” published last year; “The Hunters”; “The Arm of Flesh,” later renamed “Cassada”; “A Sport and a Pastime”; “Light Years”; and “Solo Faces.” He has two story collections, “Dusk and Other Stories” and “Last Night.” He also spent about 12 years writing film scripts. He published a memoir, “Burning the Days,” in 1997.

UVA Today sat down with Salter recently at the home he and his wife, Kay Eldredge, are renting in town, not far from one of the houses in which Faulkner resided when he was at U.Va. Asked a range of questions about writing, Salter gave candid, insightful and witty responses.

UVA Today: Let me ask a question about U.Va. What do you like about being here?

James Salter: I’d been to Charlottesville once before [in 1991], to the University of Virginia as part of their Rea Visiting Writer Program, where writers are invited to come for a reading and to meet with a class. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I came back. It’s been a wonderful surprise in every way. It’s quite a nice town. The weather’s been superb. People have been nice, and I just feel lucky to have been asked to come and again lucky to have said “why not?” 

UT: What does it mean for you to be the inaugural Kapnick Writer-in-Residence?

Salter: I feel honored to be the initial Kapnick Writer-in-Residence. The idea of having a writer-in-residence, initiated with William Faulkner, is a marvelous notion and a plume in the University’s cap. I don’t hold myself as being of unusual importance in what I hope will be that chain of writers, but I’m very proud to have done it, and I hope it continues in what is really an imaginative and admirable idea.

UT: How did you learn to write?

Salter: Well, I started writing. I would say it’s something like – it’s like making a table. You look at a table and you say, “I could build that, actually. It’s four legs and a thing on top,” but when you build it or try to build it, you find it’s more complicated than that. The legs aren’t exactly even. The whole thing is not worth much. You build another table and another, and finally you begin to get the idea, so you can learn by yourself. I would say you learn a little more quickly if you have a master carpenter there and you’re serving as an apprentice.

UT: Can you talk about having that passion for writing, how that has come about and changed you and your work over time?

Salter: I wanted to be a writer and it was, I would say, a secondary desire. I didn’t dream of myself as actually turning my life over to it, but then I took the time and had the idea for a novel, which was “The Hunters.” When that happened, something turned over in me a bit, and that book showed me the line that I could step over. If I stepped over it, I might have a chance to be a writer – I mean, to make a life of it. So with a lot of difficulty, I stepped over. That’s when the desire to be a writer began to assume a different strength in me, and over the years as I’ve committed myself to it longer. Everything is invested in it and there’s no other way.

I could’ve been a number of things, I feel, in life. There’re other things I’m interested in, but they’re only casual interests. Had I turned myself to them, yes, maybe I could’ve done something else, but I didn’t do that. I simply took up writing, that path and stayed on it.

UT: Can you talk a little about your writing process? Do you just let things go? Do you do a lot of rewriting?

Salter: I think I write the way almost everybody does. In my case, I usually make an outline. The outline is generally what might be covered in chapters, and then I just write it chapter by chapter if I can. If I’m not able to, I may skip a chapter and go ahead, hoping to come back. There’s a lot of rewriting, of course. Everything is rewritten. 

UT: My understanding is that you have been quite an athlete in your life. Do you find that that discipline is a good thing for your writing?

Salter: I think you have to write regularly and you have to sit down at your desk regularly. Everybody has difficulty doing this. A lot of writers are not able to start cold. They want to read a little something by somebody else, perhaps by a favorite writer, maybe a little bit out of “The Book of Common Prayer” to get a notion of purity of language.

Some writers, some mavericks, claim they love writing and love sitting down, but I don’t believe them. Everybody I have ever known has found it difficult and says it’s hard work. If your habits in life are such that you are a disciplined person, I think you’ll find it easier to write because it’s not inspiration. It’s definitely not all inspiration. 

If you’re writing a novel, I would say it’s like cutting a path through the jungle. You’ve got a machete and you don’t know exactly where you’re going except you’re heading east and the rest of it is luck each day and you get tired. You’re exhausted on this long march, which is the book, so if you don’t have some discipline, it’s going to take you a very long time. You may not finish; as a matter of fact, you may abandon it, turn back. 

I’ve led an outdoor life a lot of the time, at least for 30 or 40 of the middle years of life, including sport, but I’ve never been in training exactly. I’ve just lived a life where fortunately I was able to match sitting at a desk looking at a piece of a paper with a number of hours spent outdoors doing something else entirely, generally something athletic, maybe something as mundane as chopping wood, and I think that helps a lot. It’s like working in the city and having a house in the country. It reinvigorates you. 

UT: How do you choose what to write about? How do the characters come to you or how do you develop them?  

Salter: Well, I can’t explain that exactly. Certain things interest you. Certain ideas interest you, perhaps conflicting ideas. Certain periods interest you, and, of course, certain people interest you, though the interesting people may or may not find either their counterparts or perhaps even some replica of themselves in the fiction that you write.

You can say, “I would like to write a book about the American Revolution. I’d like to get some characters maybe from modern day that would be interesting. What would Donald Trump be like as a general in Washington’s army?”

Well, that’s not the kind of book I’m going to write. I’m really writing books in the classical sense – about character and fate and people more real than that would be. Trump wearing a Revolutionary general’s uniform – not a bad idea, but not for me. 

In my own case, let’s take “Light Years.” It’s a contemporary novel and it’s based on a couple, a family, some of their friends, but many people who are not in their circle or even in their world. I only knew them up to a certain point in their life and I could imagine, or thought I could imagine, what might happen to them from knowing them very well, and so that’s the way the book was written.

UT: Is there something in your writing where you’re trying to get behind the surface of life?

Salter: Generally, I rely on physical descriptions of things and allow the reader to make his or her understanding and interpretations from those rather than instructing the reader in what they might think or might feel in the particular case. There usually are not long philosophical or emotional conversations in them. That kind of conversation is usually indicated more briefly in dialogue than it would be otherwise. I rely more on what can be seen, heard, touched, felt, those sensations.

UT: What can be taught in a creative writing workshop?

Salter: The questions always asked are “What are writing schools worth?” and “Do you teach people to write and can you learn to write?” All this is essentially the same question. I would say that in the schools that prove their worth in this respect: you are encouraged to write, and somebody cares what you write. So you have an experienced voice at your elbow, if you like, but in the end, it’s entirely on the student, entirely on the writer. 

The writers in class here – this is a post-graduate program – have proven they can write before they’re admitted into the program, so you’re dealing with people who want to write, and you’re in a position of perhaps helping them, if you can.

UT: Do the students ask you certain kinds of questions in the fiction-writing workshop to get help from you?

Salter: We all discuss their stories that have been submitted for that session, usually two or three, and discuss them in a critical manner. We are critiquing what’s been written. Usually the discussions are very much to the point. I participate in those to a certain extent, usually at the end.

Certain matters come up during class, brought up by the stories generally, the question of structure, the question of how the story begins, point of view, and also questions as to the style of the story, the actual vocabulary of it, the effect of it, all of these things, but not all at once.

UT: You spent a while writing movie scripts, and you’ve written novels and short stories and a memoir. Do you have a preference for which of those you like best?

Salter: All these things were written at different stages, so it wasn’t a question of simply choosing them. There were other factors involved. I became very interested in films in the beginning, specifically at the end of the 1950s when the European films came to America in a wave.

I’d written a novel, it had been optioned for the movies and a movie made of it [“The Hunters”]. From then on, I occasionally had offers to write movies, which I did. I supported myself more or less that way for well over a decade. It reached a point where I was discouraged by the amount of wasted effort. You’re writing your very best, giving your best, and most of it ends up unused for one reason or another.

By that time, I was able to make some money in journalism and writing other things – stories, yes, and a memoir – so I simply abandoned the film writing. I don’t have any hard feelings. It was fine while it lasted.

UT: You mentioned in your third public talk that you think you write for women – let’s hear a little more about that.

Salter: I do think I have a certain kind of audience. I don’t write for a certain person, but I sometimes imagine who I’m writing to and if it’s anybody, it would be a woman, possibly somebody I know, but more likely just the image of a woman, an intelligent woman. It’s often cited – he’s a male writer, meaning there’s not a lot of domesticity in the books or, not to belittle it, but issues about children and such matters.

I don’t think it’s correct to say there’s more infidelity in a book of mine than there is in life, but for some reason, I don’t believe that’s true. I suppose what I should say is, yes, there is. 

UT: In your initial talk about the art of fiction, you talked about writers developing and finding their voice. Who do you expect readers to find when they’re reading your work, when they find the voice of James Salter?

Salter: I’ve said that there’s a writer’s style and there’s a writer’s voice. You open a book and read a page and you hear the writer’s voice, but you’re also looking at the writer’s style, because his style is a part of the voice, so it’s hard to separate them, really. But they are not exactly the same thing. Your voice comes out of you and you don’t know exactly what it is. It’s coming out of you unbidden. It’s coming out of you willingly, but not a subject of your own will to do it. 

Your style is different. Your style you’ve developed because you’re trying to write in a way that you yourself admire, that you yourself would like to read, expecting that other people will feel the same, or assuming that.

I know I’ve formed my own style and I can analyze that. The voice I can’t do anything further about. I mean, it is what it is. It comes from you. Everything in you. Everything you believe. Everything you’ve known. Everything you think about, all of that. You really can’t pull it apart.

Nobody knows what somebody else thinks and nobody knows what’s really formed somebody else, despite all the analysis and discussion. 

You are a secret, in a way, to the world, and in a certain sense, parts of you are a secret to yourself. 

UT: You made a very defined life choice back in the late ’50s when you left the Air Force and decided to jump on this path to become a writer. Now at this point in your life you can reflect back. Do you feel good about making the switch to the arts world and dedicating your life to writing?

Salter: I’d served for 12 years, not counting the cadet years, in the Air Force, the fighter branch, probably 2,000 pilots or something. You begin to have a reputation. People know you, people whose command you’ve been in and people who you’ve commanded, so leaving that was leaving a lot besides the salary and opportunity. 

It was leaving a persona as well as a career behind. When I left that, I had no persona. I was nobody. I was like an empty shell, claiming that I was a writer. I had whatever talent I had, only partly developed, but I had nothing else, so leaving was an extremely difficult thing, both in a practical sense and in a psychological and emotional sense, and it took me years to get over it.

When I finally got over it, what did I think? I think I made the right choice. I was glad to have become a writer.

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