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"Write for readers like yourself": James Salter's Novels

By Megan Barnard

The inside cover and first page of the notebook containing the first draft of James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years."
The inside cover and first page of the notebook containing the first draft of James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years."

James Salter’s All That Is (Knopf), his first new novel since 1979, is a reflective work, a reconsideration of many of the themes he has explored in his earlier fiction. Looking back at Salter’s prior novels through his archive at the Harry Ransom Center, one can see the artist at work and better understand the sentiments that guide his craft.

Some notebooks from Salter’s archive can be seen on The Daily Beast.

Salter writes his novels by hand, covering notebook after notebook in a tidy, flowing script before typing—and retyping—his drafts. His archive is filled with these notebooks, which not only bear his earliest renderings of a story but also reveal the candid instructions and advice he pens for himself on their inside covers. For example, in the notebook of his 1979 novel Solo Faces, he writes to himself, “Don’t write something they will recognize & accept. Write something that will astonish, that is completely different from their ideas & world & will alter them.” Further down the page is his note, “Brief, lucid, mercilessly clear,” as accurate a description of Salter’s prose style as I have ever seen.

In his opening notebook for Light Years, published in 1975, Salter instructs himself, “Don’t be afraid of length… it creates intimacy, involvement.” The novel itself is an exploration of intimacy and involvement, of love and the slow unraveling of a marriage. Salter revisits many of these concepts in his newest novel. In fact, Light Years may have been a sort of precursor to All That Is. The book’s title is plucked out of the description Salter gave of Light Years in a 1993 interview for the Paris Review: “The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither.”

Prominently recorded on the inside cover of Salter’s first notebook for the 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime is an instructive quote by André Gide: “Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.” This advice must have been especially poignant for Salter. He succinctly and emphatically reinforces this sentiment within his notebook for Light Years: “SAVE NOTHING.”

Pasted inside Salter’s opening notebook for Cassada, the 2001 retelling of his 1961 novel The Arm of Flesh, is a photograph of military planes not unlike the ones flown by the book’s characters and by Salter during his 12-year career in the U. S. Air Force. In his notebook, Salter outlines a straightforward, three-part plan for writing the novel:
“SELECT
INVENT
EXPLAIN A BIT”

There are no notebooks in Salter’s archive for his first novel, The Hunters, which was published in 1957 when Salter left the military to become a professional writer. The only draft of the novel in Salter’s archive is typed and labeled, “First submitted draft, originally titled “A Patron of Tokoshi’s” by John Eden” (a pseudonym). Inserted into the draft is Salter’s typed outline of the novel, titled “Rough Re-Outline,” which is covered with the checkmarks of progress and Salter’s handwritten notes. A hallmark of Salter’s creative process, detailed outlines can be found throughout his archive for his subsequent novels.

Salter’s notebooks and outlines reveal a deliberate author at work, one who has a clear vision of both the novel he wants to create and the one he wants to avoid. One of his most illuminating instructions to himself, written and underlined on the inside cover of his notebook for Solo Faces, is the simple note: “Write for readers like yourself.”

James Salter wins 2012 PEN/Malamud Award

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.

James Salter, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, will receive the 2012 PEN/Malamud Award, which honors excellence in the art of the short story.

Salter is the author of more than a dozen books, including novels Light Years (1975), A Sport and a Pastime (1967), The Arm of Flesh (1961), and The Hunters (1957); the memoirs Gods of Tin (2004) and Burning the Days (1997); and the short story collection Dusk and Other Stories (1988), which won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award.

His latest novel, All That Is, will be published in October.

Other Ransom Center authors who have received the PEN/Malamud Award include T. C. Boyle and Andre Dubus.

Salter will be presented the award on December 7. The award was established by the family of Bernard Malamud, whose archive also resides at the Ransom Center.

To celebrate the news, the Ransom Center is giving away two signed copies of James Salter books. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Salter” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books. [Update: Winners have been drawn and notified by email.]

In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

By Christine Lee

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as ”what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

The Paris Review celebrates James Salter Month

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
James Salter is being honored later this month with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize, which is awarded annually to a “distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to literature.” The award will be presented to Salter by Robert Redford, who, in an unrelated program, will speak on a panel on campus with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein later this month about the legacy of All the President’s Men.

Previous recipients have included Ransom Center authors Norman Mailer and Peter Matthiessen.

In honor of the award, the magazine is highlighting essays about Salter’s work by such writers as Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian Crouch, Alexander Chee, Louisa Thomas, Geoff Dyer, Doree Shafrir, and Porochista Khakpour.

They’re also highlighting items from Salter’s archive at the Ransom Center, including an outline and title ideas for what would become Salter’s novel Light Years.

Need more reading to get your James Salter fix? Check out his list of recommended books from the fall 2007 issue of Ransom Edition or an audio interview with Salter from March 2007.