by Sonya Chung
Among the memories and stories shared at a memorial service for James Salter held last night in New York City, a favorite of mine tells that, when he was in his sixties, his mother said to him, “You know it’s still not too late to go to law school.” Salter had by then won the PEN/Faulkner Award for his first story collection Dusk and would go on to win the PEN/Malamud ten years later.
Terry McDonell, who edited Salter at Esquire, shared that, earlier in his career, Salter had an opportunity to publish a story in the New Yorker, but had already committed the story to Esquire and thus, out of loyalty and good faith, turned down that opportunity. Salter eventually had just one story published in the New Yorker, the utterly haunting and masterful “Last Night,” in 2002 when he was 77 years old. Of course his stories were published in venerable magazines such as The Paris Review and Tin House, and in 2010 he received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story; but McDonell shared this moment in Salter’s career to highlight the fact that it was a remarkable and not insignificant decision for an ambitious writer at that time.
In story after story told by those who knew Salter both personally and professionally, it was clear how devoted Salter was to the art of writing—to every word on the page, to selecting and arranging so as to evoke beauty, desire, terror, sensuality. In Deborah Eisenberg’s words (which I’m paraphrasing), the mark of Salter’s voice, as well as his life and personality, was a rather impossible, gorgeous meld of meticulous and sensuous. Salter’s son Theo said that his father often quoted Colette: “A life is not fully lived until it is well written about.”
Listening to all the tributes, one recognized something unmistakable about the life of an artist who cares more about the work than anything: readership, recognition, money, fame, these things may come and they may not. If they do come they may arrive modestly or abundantly, usually unexpectedly, often “late.” Salter bore the branding of “writer’s writer” for most of his career—”which really just means you’re broke,” Richard Ford quipped—but it was his final novel All That Is, published when he was 87 years old, that made the New York Times bestseller list. When his editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, called to tell him the news, she said that there was a moment of silence, and then: “Well, I’m very pleased.”
A documentary on Salter’s life and work, James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime, was made by Checkerboard Films in 2011. I had the privilege of participating and speaking about what Salter’s work has meant to me. I hope more people will see the film and be inspired to read the work of this consummate artist and remarkable man.
Click here to read Sonya Chung’s piece at The Millions on James Salter’s All That Is, and here to read the first piece she wrote about Salter, in 2010. Her essay-interview “In the Light Where Art and Longing Meet: My Day With James Salter” was published in Tin House Magazine in 2011.
trailer by producer Sandy Gotham Meehan
author photo via Esquire UK