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After Long Wait, Novelist James Salter Shares 'All That Is'

May 12, 2013
Originally published on May 12, 2013 6:51 pm

On the list of great postwar American male novelists — along with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike — is James Salter.

With the publication of his first book in 1957, he won the admiration of writers and critics alike. But after 1979, his production slowed. Salter still wrote — essays, short stories, poetry — but nothing on a grander scale.

Now, that long-awaited novel has been published. All That Is sets out to give a sweeping portrait of human experience.

The novel introduces the reader right away to Philip Bowman, the main character. Bowman was born in 1925, raised as an only child, served in World War II and divorced from his first wife — all as Salter did.

Salter says the similarity is "suspicious, but it's also superficial." He tells Arun Rath, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the character is more heavily influenced by editors he's known. These real-life characters helped shape Bowman's personality, appearance and direction.


Interview Highlights

On his character's observation that the 'power of the novel in the nation's culture has weakened'

"I guess I believe it. My feelings are probably more sentimental than rational. The culture is what it is. It reforms itself, it is freshened by certain things, it is polluted by other things, and it continually revives and presents itself. So it's an unfortunate thing for a certain kind of novelist, or maybe for an older novelist. But apart from that, I don't know if it's a grave thing."

On his first novel, The Hunters, being turned into a film

"It was agony. I mean, I thought the film was a catastrophe — only because I'd written the book, and I naturally could hear dialogue from the book, I knew the people in the book, what they looked like, so forth. But in the movie, they had to make their own accommodations. ... From a practical point of view, it was a godsend. ... I wouldn't have been able to live and write for four or five years if it weren't for that."

On the possibility of being an influence for a long time to come

"I think if you have anything that's read 20 years after your death, you've accomplished something considerable. Beyond that, it's impossible to say."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Arun Rath. Coming up, the hip-hop, country, metal and soul-infused stylings of saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

But first, one of America's great post-war novelists James Salter. With the publication of his first book in 1957, he won the admiration of writers and critics alike. But after 1979, Salter's production slowed.

He still wrote - essays, short stories and poetry, nearly all of it well-regarded - but nothing on a grander scale. Now, he's published a new novel and grand it is. "All That Is" sets out to give a sweeping account of human experience in 300 beautifully written pages. James Salter joins me now from our studios in New York. Mr. Salter, welcome to the program.

JAMES SALTER: I'm very happy to be on the program.

RATH: So 34 years between novels. I mean, obviously, you've written a lot of other things in the interim, but did you think you were finished with the novel? Why this interval?

SALTER: No. I'd started the novel or a novel something like this one and laid it down, put it aside. And then after a while, it seemed to me time to pick it up again. It turned out to be not the book that I had started but very close to it.

RATH: So there was something unusual about the gestation of this novel, "All That Is?"

SALTER: I suppose so. The man I had originally as the hero was a more spiritual and, I guess, a less earthly person. And I just couldn't make him - I couldn't keep my interest in him sufficiently.

RATH: Why?

SALTER: I don't know. I don't know. He simply failed to keep my interest. You can leave them, which is what I did.

RATH: The character you ultimately developed as the center of "All That Is," your new novel, is Philip Bowman. He was born in 1925, raised as an only child, served in the war, which is a formative experience at the end of World War II, divorced his first wife. It sounds very much like you. Is it superficial, or does Philip Bowman have a more deeper, autobiographical resonance for you?

SALTER: It's suspicious, but it's also superficial. I'm really nothing like him, much more like one of several editors I know or have met that gave me an idea of what he should be like and what he should look like and where he should go and everything else.

RATH: People have talked about how you have a reverence for what they might call the masculine. And you might say this book feels written from a particularly male perspective. Do you think that's fair? And do you think maybe the female characters suffer for that?

SALTER: Well, I don't know if they suffer. It is written from the male perspective. If you'd like a book from the female perspective, you might read "Light Years" where Nedra is the principal figure in it, and her emotions, her character, her personality are all explicit or detailed. But Nedra is not the hero of this book. Now, you may say but the women in it, are they treated fairly? I would say they're not treated perhaps as deeply as Bowman is.

RATH: And it's interesting how - I don't know if this is a reflection of Bowman's own state of mind from his military background, but I notice you tend to refer to men by their last names and women by their first.

SALTER: Hmm. Well, you rarely refer to a woman by her last name. I mean, well, Hillary Clinton's not a good idea because they both have the name Clinton. But I mean, Kardashian, Kim Kardashian, well, there, you use both names. It's hard to think of any other women on the spur of the moment here, but you always refer to a woman by her first name. But men, I think, commonly, make - it's not so unusual to call somebody by their last name.

RATH: Near the end of the novel in "All That Is," Bowman observes the power of a novel in the nation's culture, in America's culture, that has weakened. Do you believe that yourself?

SALTER: Yes, I guess I believe it. My feelings are probably more sentimental than the - rational. The culture is what it is. It reforms itself, it's freshened by certain things, it is polluted by other things, and it continually revives and presents itself. So it's an unfortunate thing for a certain kind of novelist or maybe for an older novelist. But apart from that, I don't know if it's a grave thing.

RATH: Our culture - it seems that we have more staying power for movies, and you had one experience with that with your first novel. "The Hunters" was turned into a movie with Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. It was very different from the novel. What was that like to see it transformed?

SALTER: It was agony. I mean, I thought the film was a catastrophe, only because I'd written the book. And I naturally could hear dialogue from the book, I knew the people in the book, what they looked like and so forth. But in the movie, they had to make their own accommodations. Robert Mitchum was presented as a somewhat idealistic person. I mean, the idea is stupefied, and they used the wrong airplanes in battle scenes and all that. I didn't like the movie at all.

RATH: It sounds like, you know, a writer has to let go when something goes to the screen in that way, and it sounds like that was pretty painful for you to do.

SALTER: Well, from a practical point of view, it was a Godsend.

RATH: Financially?

SALTER: Yeah. I wouldn't have been able to live and write for four or five years if it weren't for that. So although I regretted it on one hand, on the other, it was a very lucky thing.

RATH: You've expressed for some time a certain type of skepticism about the staying power of your work. Now you're 87, and your books are being read and embraced. Have you begun to feel that there's possibility that you'll be an influence for a long time to come?

SALTER: It would be vanity to answer that question. I think if you have anything that's read 20 years after your death, you've accomplished something considerable. Beyond that, it's impossible to say.

RATH: That's James Salter. His new novel is called "All That Is." Mr. Salter, thanks so much for joining me.

SALTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.