Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment.
Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It’s a superb novel about unrest within and without.
Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States.
The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first?
Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I’d been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don’t think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché.
Now it’s 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it’s inarguably the work of a different person. I’m married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven’t lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so.
When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it.
As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That’s another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it’s like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that’s blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you’re asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It’s not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person’s time. That doesn’t mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good.
And when I talk about necessary books, I’ll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d’être, just burns on every page.
TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page?
IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator’s voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that’s never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma’s presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March’s voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn’t like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence.
I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country’s political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it’s important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions.
Emma’s voice is the main engine of the book. It’s a woman’s voice, of course, yet I’ve never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she’s direct. She doesn’t say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn’t say, occupy the book’s white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn’t use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She’s laconic and sensitive at once. That’s why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It’s a great poem, “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century.” It’s filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it’s told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that’s how Emma also thinks and talks.
TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off.
IM: I certainly won’t tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you’re right: it’s not what’s expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman’s voice, but I don’t. It was a voice—Emma’s voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I’m aware of recent controversy regarding writers’ appropriations of others’ cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn’t absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others’ lives for the sake of a text. There’s lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you’re going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it’s not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success.
As for my day job, I’m a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It’s ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer’s day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country’s culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I’m grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it’s a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can’t help but seem somewhat curious.
When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: “The future belongs to crowds.” You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It’s the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates.
TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not?
On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions?
IM: I like your alternative definition for “foreign service officer.” Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil’s national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat’s wife.
To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we’re not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don’t think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there’s more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco’s killing; perhaps it’s ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn’t. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas.
That’s all a way of saying that your questions aren’t naive at all, but they also aren’t straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo’s line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don’t mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma’s husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn’t something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they’re known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn’t feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma’s story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we’re only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It’s the background hum of the novel. I don’t need to say more about that here; there’s plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it.
TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere.
Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days?
IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can’t think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He’s named in the book, too. I suppose that’s to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve.
One of the finest recent novels I’ve read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending.
Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It’s a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I’m working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now.
Don’t you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can’t avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it’s fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love.
So I’ll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion.
TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace “out of fear…not devotion.” She judges this purported “happy ending” harshly: “their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult.” But there seems to me, in the book’s final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book?
IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn’t gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma’s, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
Among the many attractive qualities of the late James Salter—his powers of evocation; his famously ungross writing about sex; his apprehension of and about mid-century masculinity—is that he didn’t overestimate his chosen profession. He wore it lightly, the way ace pilots he knew wore their heroic qualities lightly. That writing had been a choice for him, before it was anything else, was paramount.
Salter chose to resign his commission from the Air Force in 1957, after a grueling education at West Point and 12 years of service that saw him fly over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. Leaving the military to become a novelist “was the most difficult act of my life,” he writes in the first of the essays collected in this new volume of nonfiction, Don’t Save Anything. Difficult not because writing was dangerous or glorious (“I had seen what I took to be real glory”), but because there was no way, with his background, to avoid imagining as marks of personal weakness the potential humiliation, financial risk, and egotism that writing invites. West Point trained him for the opposite of those things; naturally, he ended up avoiding all three in a career that yielded six novels, two books of short stories, plays, screenplays, a brilliant memoir, and the journalism gathered here. He wrote with a new lease on life, under the name James Salter rather than his birth name James Horowitz. “Call it a delusion if you like,” he writes, “but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.”
Having gotten a late start, Salter wasted no time and no words; from The Hunters (1956) to All That Is (2013), every sentence feels measured and without ornament, the emotions precisely located before their conveyance. Paragraphs resolve with a pronounced matter-of-factness, often along a chain of clipped, plainly wrought details marshalled by a style that’s always subtle, never self-amused, and capable of devastating poignancy. Salter practiced the indulgence of writing with a kind of operational humility, even on topics like war and sex that other male writers of his generation could crow about ad nauseam. “Don’t save anything” was his advice to other writers, his widow Kay Eldredge Salter explains in the preface to this book. Saving “phrases or names or incidents” for some better, future composition was a luxury unsuited to someone so familiar with mortal risk, or at least someone who really knew how to savor the moment.
In his own moderate way, Salter did live a sort of bon vivant American literary life, whose familiar locales (New York, Paris, Rome, Aspen, Iowa City) provide the backdrops to some of these essays. He met glamour with curiosity and discernment—never taken in, exactly, but entering on his own terms. His friendship with the young Robert Redford, for example, is described in one of this collection’s fuller pieces, about his experiences in screenwriting. (In New York, “when I went into restaurants with Redford, eyes turned to watch as we crossed the room—the glory seemed to be yours as well.”) Ultimately, though, the movie business failed to move him: “Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actors as heroes, and no intimacy with any of them has changed this,” he writes. “Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.” He might have said the same about writers. Glory belonged not to the individual but to the endeavor, like in the military. ”The thing that is marvelous is literature,” he says in another essay, “which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore.”
Don’t Save Anything is an odds-and-ends collection of pieces mostly written for magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Outside and European Travel and Life. A few of them cover topics and rehearse memories more richly developed in his superb collection of travel writing, There & Then (2005), and the memoir Burning the Days (1997), which may be his masterpiece. Still, with a biography of Salter yet to appear (his papers at the University of Texas lie in waiting), Don’t Save Anything does more than any publication since the memoir to show us who he was, to “reveal some of the breadth and depth of Jim’s endless interest in the world,” as Kay Eldredge Salter puts it. That’s all very welcome, and reading Salter on French restaurants or the history of Aspen is preferable to reading just about anyone else on those subjects, but it’s when Salter reveals more than merely his interests that the prose really flickers, as it does throughout Burning the Days. On catching a glimpse of Redford at a premier years after their friendship had waned, he writes:
There was a virtual rain of light as flashbulbs went off everywhere, and, amid a small group moving down the aisle, the blond head of the star could be seen. I was far off —years, fact—but felt a certain sickening pull. There came to me the part about Falstaff and the coronation. I shall be sent for in private, I thought, consoling myself. I shall be sent for soon at night.
He was, at last, when The Paris Review awarded him its lifetime-achievement Hadada Prize in 2011, with Redford as the presenter. (“This is my Stockholm,” Salter told the gala.)
Predictably, these essays illustrate how at ease Salter felt in the world of derring-do—not bloodsports, but auto racing, skiing, and climbing. His fluency in the often unspoken codes of male camaraderie and competition was a transferrable skill, and he mined those pursuits for literary productions like the novel Solo Faces (1979) and the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), in which Redford starred and which Robert Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Like Jon Krakauer after him, Salter could hang: profiling the legendary climber Royal Robbins, Salter clings to the crag right with him (“Almost from the first moment, certainly from the time you are eight or ten feet off the ground, there is the feeling of being in another element, as distinct as diving into the sea”).
About authors Salter is courteous here, a powerful swimmer hailing others further out. For a very different editorial staff of People, he interviewed Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Antonia Fraser, and Han Suyin. For The Paris Review, which published many of his short stories, he wrote a gorgeously rendered but myopic essay-in-vignettes about the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The logic here is that only so many writers have ever also been fighter pilots, and d’Annunzio is more interesting than Roald Dahl or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Salter’s essay, included in There & Then, about the favorite Tokyo hotel of Yukio Mishima, another reactionary whackjob, has little to say about Mishima.) In his tributes to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Isaac Babel, and the editor Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., his style brings to mind that of another consummate “writer’s writer,” the reporter Murray Kempton. Like Kempton, Salter could write about his subjects with a sense of history and deep continuity, casting them almost as actors from antiquity or myth.
Salter’s fans may wish he had written more before his death in June 2015, but seen from another vantage his reticence can look like virtue: unlike many in the nursing home of “American letters,” Salter didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every controversy under the sun. Whatever his private grumblings, he didn’t re-enlist to fight in the culture wars on behalf of Allan Bloom, the Ayatollah, or Patrick Bateman, at least not in these essays. At a time when Joyce Carol Oates brings a suicide vest to a gunfight each day on Twitter, Salter’s non-intervention comes as a relief more than anything. And since his fiction is so far from broad social portraiture, it’s no surprise that when Salter does veer into the realm of “commentary,” he sounds imprecise and ambivalent, firmly out of his lane.
Only in the last essay of the book, a transcribed lecture from 1995, do we get all the predictable hand-wringing about the state of the canon, the universities, deconstructivism, euphemistic discourse, the souring influence of television, computers, and pop culture, etc.; he locks sights and rains death from above on one straw man after another. The worth of literary texts, he insists, “is not in their provenance or their good intentions, just as their achievement is not to be gauged by their conformity to the moment’s panethnic pansexual Panglossian social or political enthusiasms.” This kind of talk came very cheap in the ’90s, of course, and represents a riskless engagement with literature. It makes Salter seem so much more common than some of us would like to think he was. But the mistake, Salter himself would surely agree, is to come expecting heroism in the first place.
Elsewhere, a 1998 “Talk of the Town” piece about Bill Clinton’s perjury seems neither here nor there. The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017. It’s not so lecherous or piggish (Salter’s own much younger wife, with whom he spent nearly 40 years before his death, was no doubt at the front of his mind through it all) as it is equivocal and even playful where neither of those things can do. On one page he praises a young heterosexual couple in words that could come from a Focus on the Family newsletter, and on the next he says something so definitive as: “The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.” Would that he concluded right there—shout it from the mountaintops—but no, it goes on. From the mouth of a character it would all be one thing, but this is cud you don’t want to see the author chew with his own mouth wide open. One really not worth saving—a sharper editor would have consigned it to the yellowing pages of the March 1992 Esquire.
In his lifetime, Salter found admirers as various as Saul Bellow, Teju Cole, Richard Ford, Roxane Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and Susan Sontag, who numbered him “among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read, whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.” While assembled with the respectful intention of not reprinting material published elsewhere, Don’t Save Anything proves that there remains an unpublished, more definitive book of Salter’s essays—one to really affirm his stature as a worker in the medium. In addition to much of what’s here, that book would cull from the travelogues of There & Then and the food writing of Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), which he wrote together with Kay Eldredge Salter. It would also include what has to be his most fully realized essay: “You Must,” about West Point, originally printed in Esquire, anthologized in Best American Essays 1993, and later modified to become a chapter in Burning the Days (which explains its absence here). A worthy successor to George Orwell’s boarding school nightmare “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “You Must” displays all the gifts that Salter could bring to the table as a writer of nonfiction (“Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point,” he says by way of introduction).
But until the collection appears that can take the whole measure of Salter’s interests—Library of America, are you listening?—we should count our lucky stars that this much more of his work is now so close at hand. It’s one more invitation to wade out into the sea where he plunged himself a full 60 years ago and to which he belongs now, a lifeguard on the horizon signaling that the water is just fine.
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
In January 2010, I wrote a piece here about sex writing – specifically, sex writing by the “representative” males of two distinct literary generations. Katie Roiphe, in a New York Times Book Review essay, had asserted that today’s young literary men have lost their belief in the power of sexuality to ignite, and to immortalize. Her observations resonated with me, and I argued in response that we should look not to Roth/Bellow/Mailer/Updike (Roiphe’s touchstones) for this lost potency, but rather to James Salter.
Of Roiphe’s Great Male Narcissists (the GMNs, as David Foster Wallace coined them), only Philip Roth is still alive, the kid among them, now 79. Jim Salter, on the other hand, turned 87 this year; and what a year (or two) it’s been: in late 2010, Salter received PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring of 2011, he was presented (by Robert Redford) with the Paris Review’s Hadada Award about which Salter said in his acceptance speech, “This is my Stockholm.” A month later, James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime – a documentary focusing both on that most well-known of his novels, as well as his lifelong love affair with France – premiered in New York City. Last summer, Salter was announced the winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story – an honor he shares with Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty… and, well, just about every modern master of the form you can think of. Last but not least, Salter was the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Malamud Award, in recognition, again (and again, in good company), of high excellence in the art of the short story.
For many years, Jim Salter has been deemed a writers’ writer – a dubious branding – but now, finally, it seems he is receiving his due respect in the broader literary community (Stockholm notwithstanding). And all this while continuing to maintain a busy speaking/travel schedule, as well as write critical essays for the New York Review of Books, an introductory essay to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves, and (drum-roll) the final draft of All That Is, his sixth novel, due out from Knopf in April 2013.
When Open Road Media contacted me about conducting a Q&A with Salter – on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces (Salter’s fifth novel, about a talented, disillusioned rock climber) in e-book format this past June – I did not hesitate to say yes. They wrote: “Our focus is on the lasting resonance of his writing.” I’d been corresponding now and again with Salter (I interviewed and wrote a profile of him in 2011, published in Tin House, and also spoke about his work in the Sport documentary), and all this talk of “lasting resonance” made me think back to that first email I received from him, shortly after my 2010 essay was posted:
Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late – apparently we’re deeper in the woods here than I thought. I was also interested in the responses [comments], especially the references to other books. I agree with the comment about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don’t like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don’t like the man. He’s a type you run into.
Women have more or less tipped the cart over — you probably don’t realize that because you’re, I assume, just a kid — and some confusion is the result. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn’t. I always liked Robert Phelps’s citation — he must have been quoting someone — first the flesh, then the spirit.
Again, with thanks. JS
Two-and-a-half years ago, being new to the literary community (my first novel was published in March of that year), an email from the likes of James Salter came as a shock. Was it really from him? I read it over a few times, and clearly it was – the impeccable manners, the gorgeous compression of idea and sentiment, the wry humor. I responded immediately, awkwardly, and a kind of unlikely correspondence began — between me, “just a kid,” and JS.
Only now has it occurred to me to wonder what made him write that first email; or, rather — with simple good manners as the obvious explanation — what that essay might have meant to him at that particular time. That a young writer (and female — many of Salter’s acolytes, I’ve noticed, are male), engaged in online literary conversation, had elevated him to an eminent place in the canon – above the writers who’d out-famed him, strictly speaking – must have spoken directly to his ambitions. Were there others like me — young women and men, and generations after that — who would continue to read, and write about, his work? he may have wondered.
The mounting evidence of the last two years would suggest a resounding yes.
Without further ado, following is a brief account, on the occasion of celebrating his work’s “lasting resonance,” of what James Salter thinks these days about literary ambition, the relationship between life and art, heroes, and contemporary literature.
The Millions: In your 1993 Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you said that if you could choose, you would want to be remembered for A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975). Open Road Media is releasing Sport and Solo Faces (1979) in e-book format, so that your work “can be introduced to new generations of readers and digital audiences.” How did they decide on those two titles, and how do you feel about the selections?
James Salter: Open Road wanted to publish A Sport and a Pastime together with Light Years in a series called or regarded as modern classics, but Light Years wasn’t available — Vintage was already publishing Light Years as an e-book — and was replaced by Solo Faces.
TM: I know Solo Faces began as a screenplay – do you have a different sort of feeling for it as a result?
JS: The novel, I think, overcame its humble beginnings and there are things in it that could not have been expressed in the dialogue and action of a script.
TM: I was struck by this description of mountain climbing in Solo Faces:
That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow.
Some might describe writing a novel in this way. Do you find writing very difficult? (If climbing isn’t the right metaphor for the difficulty, is there another one you’d employ?)
JS: There’s wide agreement that writing is difficult even for very good writers. Sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes less. In climbing the difficulty defines the achievement. In writing it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
TM: Both your stories and novels have been critically acclaimed. Other than the obvious — pace of work, for instance — are there differences in the way you approach novel-writing versus story-writing? Do you feel more at home or confident in one form or the other?
JS: A story is an engagement although it can be protracted. A novel is a campaign. It’s easier to begin a story. I find it easier. There’s also the consideration of what is it that you’re writing? What length and depth does it deserve? It’s also harder to write a story because there’s no room for anything that doesn’t belong in it. In a novel there’s room for anything.
TM: Recently, on the New Yorker fiction podcast, you paid homage to your friend, the late Reynolds Price, thus: “He wrote numerous books, more than 20, and yet one single story in the New Yorker, and that fact appealed to me somehow.” This struck me, because I’ve been thinking lately about common, current notions of “literary success,” and how myopic and limiting those notions can be. You yourself have also had just one story published in the New Yorker. Am I projecting, or were you thinking the same thing about narrow measures of success?
JS: It wasn’t meant to reflect myself. Anyway, what is literary success in the New Yorker? Three stories, five stories, five in one year? The answer is probably whatever number gets you known as a writer published in the New Yorker. That’s a big step up, but it’s probably not going to support you.
TM: How have your own ambitions as a writer evolved over the last 50-some years from the time you first started writing seriously?
JS: They haven’t evolved. Even at the beginning my ambition was to write something that people would go on reading.
TM: Both Vernon Rand, from Solo Faces, and Viri, from Light Years, explicitly engage with/meditate on the nature of fame, as do characters in your story collection Dusk. How important are these things – notoriety, recognition – in relation to true greatness, excellence, or heroism? Do you have any feeling for how or whether they “should” be? I am thinking of Viri’s idea, which he retracts: “Greatness, like virtue, need not be spoken about in order to exist.”
JS: I think he was right to retract it. Virtue can exist without being known about but greatness can’t. If [Walter] Bonatti had climbed the southwest pillar of the Dru alone and for the first time, as he famously did, and no one ever knew, that act would lose its significance.
TM: Speaking of virtue… in speaking of other writers – both peers and forebears – you seem interested in and concerned with both the quality of the work, and the character of the man. For example you’ve spoken highly and/or affectionately of Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps, Ford Madox Ford, and Isaac Babel – along with Reynolds Price – among others, and you’ve also mentioned that you find Hemingway’s personal character distasteful. Does your estimation of a man, or woman, affect the way you view/experience the literary work?
JS: There are a lot of writers that you read without knowing anything about them. When afterwards you do know something, it doesn’t really change things that much. It’s nice to think that you’d like the writer if you liked the book, which is why you want to learn about or meet certain writers.
TM: More generally speaking, do you think there is some undeniable relation between a writer’s life and his art?
JS: Life = art.
TM: Can you say more what you mean? Is that formula an ideal, or a reality?
JS: Everything you know, nobody else knows, and everything you imagine or see belongs to you alone. What you write comes out of that, both in the trivial and deepest sense.
TM: What did you mean when you said (in Open Road’s biographical video), “I admire myself more on the page than in life”?
JS: That’s only saying I like what I’ve written more than what I am.
TM: In the Paris Review interview, you said: “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism.” Have you known/encountered many true heroes in your lifetime?
JS: You mean known personally – perhaps two.
TM: Who are they and/or what defines them as heroic to your mind?
JS: I’m talking about life and death, not just courageous struggle – Royal Robbins and James Kasler – a legendary big-wall climber, and a famed combat pilot.
TM: Are your characters generally more courageous and heroic than the real people you know/have known in life? (I’m thinking of Vernon Rand, who seems to strive for a kind of purity of soul, and maybe a little bit of Philip Dean in Sport and Chappellet from Downhill Racer; but really, nearly all your characters strive for the pure, the heroic in some way.)
JS: Yes, a little purer, I would say. But not Chappellet, who’s only ego-driven, or Dean, who’s just a figment.
TM: Is fiction-writing a way for you to reach for those heroic characters, to somehow insist on their existence?
JS: A certain kind of fatalistic figure, doomed to fail, interests me. Especially doomed to fail because of ideals or admirable flaws.
TM: Does this imply that your vision of life is somewhat tragic, i.e., idealism often dooms one to failure?
JS: I’m really referring to a ruinous sense of obligation or honor.
TM: You often employ an omniscient narrator that also has a tone of omnipotence — a voice that declares Truths. It’s a particular narrative tone, which I noticed especially when re-reading Solo Faces —
There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away.
A human face is always changing but there is a moment when it seems perfect, complete. It has earned its appearance. It is unalterable.
Did you ever hesitate to use this sort of narrative voice, or did it always come naturally to you?
JS: Seems natural.
TM: How and when did you begin to recognize what kind of writer you are/aren’t?
JS: Books were what made me want to be a writer, certain wonderful books, wonderful then, anyway. I did what everyone does, I kept trying. Gradually it began to become a little clearer. I wanted to write books of a certain kind, books that weren’t cheap. There is a lot of failure involved.
TM: Do you mean discarded drafts (failure in your own estimation)? Rejected manuscripts (failure as judged by publishers)?
JS: Failure in various ways, failure to get started, failure to go on, failure when you realize what you’ve written is no good, failure to come to that realization. All that is part of it.
TM: Did you imitate other writers before finding your own distinct relationship to language and character?
JS: I didn’t really imitate anyone at the beginning, but I didn’t have much of an idea who I was, and I didn’t know how to write, how to begin and end, what to leave out. I didn’t know any writers or readers, for that matter — a good reader or two is invaluable.
TM: When did you start having readers? Have they been the same person/people for many years?
JS: Robert Phelps was the first person whose opinion mattered to me. That was in the 1970s. Then Bill Benton and a neighbor named Peggy Clifford who is a journalist. Benton is a poet and novelist. At present, none of these, only my wife [the writer Kay Salter].
TM: You said once of Nabokov, “Of course, here’s a poet. You say to yourself, Vladimir, let’s be honest. You are a poet, and you’re just writing a lot of prose.” Your own prose is often lyrical, as inventive and surprising as poetry — could the same be said of you?
JS: That was a sophomoric thing to say.
TM: In the years since A Sport and a Pastime was published, in 1967, you seem to have taken more time (8-9 years) to finish and publish a book. Did something slow or quiet down in your process, or was it more to do with circumstances?
JS: I’ve wasted some time. Some of it was with [writing] movies.
TM: The epigraph to Light Years is a quote from Renoir: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” And you recently said, “You realize that everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end: what’s been written down.” Does this mean that, for you, the things that you remember are more in the realm of art than in the realm of life?
JS: All you have in life is what you remember. It’s the one filament connecting you to the void. It doesn’t necessarily become art.
TM: It’s been 15 years since the publication of your memoir, Burning the Days — what might be the remembered bits, the memoir fragments, from this most recent time period?
JS: The death of various people, the world without them.
TM: Do you think you have another memoir – a book or long essay – in you?
JS: One memoir is more than enough. I might write an essay.
TM: Back to Open Road’s digital releases: is there anything – good, bad, neither – that you see or notice about the way today’s readers engage with literature, especially given how much of literature is delivered digitally?
JS: I don’t think all of this is clear yet.
TM: Do you read e-books or other literary material on a computer or e-reading device?
JS: I read on the computer occasionally. I don’t have a Kindle or ipad.
TM: What, if anything, do you feel hopeful or excited about in contemporary literature?
JS: The energy in it. The virtuosity and daring.
TM: What do you feel troubled by?
JS: The threat of great crowds.
TM: Given your history in the movie business, and your once-strong sense that movies “are unquestionably the enemy of writing, and this is something that is unresolvable” — what has it been like for you to be the subject of multimedia projects – a feature-length film, videos, etc?
JS: I am retracting all bitter statements about film.
TM: What can you tell us about your new novel?
JS: All That Is, Knopf, pub. April 2, 2013. An intimate story about a life in New York publishing.
TM: Ten years or so in the making?
JS: About ten.