Early one morning, J.R. (Jack) Salamanca and his wife, Mimi, were sleeping in the bedroom of their suburban Maryland townhouse when a spark traveled from the basement fireplace--where a visitor had made a late-evening fire--and set the cedar-chip shingle roof ablaze. The couple fled outside to safety. Moments later, says Salamanca, the roof collapsed. As flames consumed their home, a firefighter walked up to the 77-year-old author and said, "I think you will want these," holding out a handful of Bantam paperback editions of Lilith, Salamanca's bestselling novel of the early 1960s.
Salamanca lost most of his possessions that night, including the only copy of the almost complete manuscript of his sixth and latest novel, That Summer's Trance, out from Welcome Rain. The book, his first in 14 years, has won starred notices in Kirkus and PW ("introspective, detail-rich and haunting"), and Welcome Rain has simultaneously reissued Lilith in trade paper.
Suddenly, J.R. Salamanca is back in print. What's more, late in his eighth decade, he appears fit and energetic, and is most certainly working, having just finished yet another novel--"a kind of sad romance"--that he wrote evenings in the small study of his rebuilt townhouse.
"I'm very glad to have a book out--I wasn't sure I would ever do another one," he says. "And, of course, I am pleased to have Lilith in print. I think it has a chance of enduring."
PW joins the author at a table on his backyard deck overlooking a wooded area lit by late spring afternoon sunlight that gradually brightens the clouded sky. Several decks down the way, a woman talks on a cell phone while a young boy blows bubbles into the air. Salamanca, his long gray hair touching the collar of a striped shirt and sport jacket, brings coffee and expresses concern about the setting. Will PW be comfortable here?
He has graciously set the stage. For many years, Salamanca was an actor. In the next few hours with PW, he will recite long passages of Shakespeare from memory, read a short story by Jorge Luis Borges ("Everything and Nothing") aloud and pace the deck with gusto in imitation of the headless character in a favorite French Canadian theater troupe. "I miss the theater terribly," he says. "The rewards are so immediate and exciting. There's nothing lonelier than writing--sitting smoking in a musty room. Actually, I hate writing. But it's the only worthwhile thing I do."
In That Summer's Trance, Salamanca writes about the world of the theater, telling the rich and complex story of Ben Oakshaw, a promising British-trained American actor who sells out and abandons his career to make a fortune in advertising in Washington, D.C. Besides knowing his characters, Salamanca is intimately familiar with the places in the book: he studied acting on the G.I. Bill at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Royal Academy of Music in England, and has lived and worked in the D.C. area for many years. "Ben invents a persona that is a betrayal of himself," says Salamanca. "He is like many Americans who feel they have to adopt a persona that is respectable and admired. I have wanted very much to write about such a person, especially a creative person, who betrays himself."
After the original manuscript was destroyed in the townhouse fire, Salamanca rewrote the novel and gave it to his longtime agent, Elizabeth McKee of the Harold Matson Agency, who offered it first to Knopf (where Bob Gottlieb had published several of the author's novels), then to other major houses. All declined to publish unless Salamanca made changes; he refused. Then his agent died. Salamanca d s not elaborate, but it must have been a discouraging time. "For several months, I was too depressed to work," he says.
Finally, John White, a Connecticut agent, showed the novel to publisher John Weber at Welcome Rain. Formerly publisher at Marlowe and Company, Weber founded Welcome Rain three years ago and d s a mix of trade titles. His current list includes The Lost Masters, a British account of the Nazi looting of European art; next spring he will publish Guilty ofDancing the Cha Cha Cha, a collection of stories by the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and a book about race, A More Perfect Union by Jesse L. Jackson Jr.
"Weber's very dedicated--he loves books, has a fine list, and has been very solicitous of me," says Salamanca. "He wants to reissue some of my books." All have been out of print.
"Actually, we plan to bring back as much Salamanca as we can, beginning next spring with his first novel, The Lost Country," says Welcome Rain editor Chuck Kim. "We think all his books should be in print."
For a writer who fairly burst upon the literary scene 40 years ago, these have been quiet times for Salamanca. He taught creative writing and Latin American literature for many years at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he is a professor emeritus of English (and continues to give one course). And he has kept writing, producing stylish, old-fashioned novels with wonderfully developed characters, like Embarkation (1973), which Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called "a novel that engages the reader, as the best fiction d s, in the lives it unfolds."
In the early 1950s, Salamanca and his wife were both acting at the Olney Theater, in Olney, Md., where they met. Their director was Tony Randall. "We were young, we lived above the theater, didn't have to pay for housing and were always on call for rehearsals," says Salamanca. The couple went to London, where Salamanca studied acting and Mimi worked at the American embassy. Salamanca immersed himself in theater: directing a production of James Joyce's only play, Exiles; acting in a BBC broadcast of John Brown's Body; and enjoying the "animated and witty and wonderful" company of theater people. He keeps in touch with friends of those days--Joan Collins, Rosemary Harris and Tony Award-winning director Michael Blakemore. "Of course, acting is a difficult life, and some of the best actors I have ever known I have never heard of since. You have to be very lucky. If I had stayed in the theater, I think I would be dead--from all the living and drinking."
As it happens, Salamanca always wanted to write. His mother, Lucy Salamanca del Barco, was a writer; she published two books while working as chief of the Legislative Reference Service at the Library of Congress. His father's father, Demetrio Salamanca, had been a well-known Colombian author (Amazonia Colombiana). The family name comes from a great-grandfather who lived in the city of Salamanca in Spain, he says.
In 1956, with his G.I. Bill money at an end but still living in London, Salamanca wrote his first novel, The Lost Country (1958), about the mind of an adolescent boy, published by Simon and Schuster. The book became the Hal Wallis movie Wild in the Country, with a script by Clifford Odets and starring Elvis Presley. ("A terrible film," says Salamanca.) Then, sitting each day in a coffeehouse in Hampstead, London, he wrote Lilith (1961), the story of an enchantress who bewitches people to the point of madness; it was inspired by a woman patient he had met while working briefly in a Maryland mental institution right after World War II. The novel sold more than one million copies and in 1964 became director Robert Rossen's last film, with a cast of young actors named Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter and Gene Hackman. Even in the '60s, the movie provoked controversy, with its depiction of madness, obsession, schizophrenia and narcissism.
"It was such an auspicious beginning. I had more money than I knew what to do with, and I decided I had better stick with being a writer," says Salamanca. "I was free to travel and write, and then we came back to the States."
From the start, his editor at S&S was Bob Gottlieb, who brought Salamanca with him to Knopf and published his next three novels. Of those books, A Sea Change (1969), often optioned but never filmed, is Salamanca's favorite--"the novel in which I came closest to achieving what I wanted to do"; it tells the story of a marriage of long standing that has begun to lose its sexual interest. Embarkation (1973), about a boatbuilder obsessed with making beautiful yachts no matter what the cost to his family, inspired a Choice reviewer to write: "What is extraordinary is that Salamanca is not more widely known than he is, for his books are on a par with the best fiction being written today." Southern Light (1986) traces the remembered lives of a retired doctor and a sightless woman he meets on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay.
"Bob Gottlieb is a brilliant editor. We had a very good working relationship," says Salamanca. "For a time, we were very close. He was forever on my back about getting out more and attending literary parties. 'People don't know your name,' he would tell me. But I'm just not a gregarious person. I'd find myself in a room with a canape in one hand and a drink in the other, and all I could think of to say would be, where do you live?"
He often refused to do book tours. "I find them oppressive and unreal. I refused because I knew I would make a mess of it. I think the greatest of all human sins is vanity, and the idea of signing books is an exercise in vanity." Although he will not tour for That Summer's Trance ("Now, I am too old"), he did travel to the West Coast in late May to do Public Radio station KCRW's Bookworm show, whose host, Michael Silverblatt, declared, "It is a thrill and honor to welcome J.R. Salamanca back into print."
Salamanca dismisses literary politics and finds little to get excited about in the work of many of the most admired writers of his generation. Making note of a Linton Weeks feature in that morning's Washington Post on several contemporaries--Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike and E.L. Doctorow--he says, "Their writing, with the exception of Catch-22, has no real message for me." He prefers books "with a substantial metaphysical subtext," he says, citing work by Robert Stone and Charles Baxter ("the best writer in America today"), and by Latin Americans like Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. "Old man Knopf used to publish so many Latin American authors, and I taught their work before they became popular," says Salamanca. "Now Knopf d s those vampire novels."
In his own fiction, he is always concerned primarily with his characters. "I experience their dilemmas in a way that becomes very real to me," he says. "Unless I am able to get down a history of the character, I don't feel inside of him. I act all the characters in the book and try to speak the way they would. I act all the parts. I don't feel comfortable unless I know everything about them."
He says editors often want to cut the long, leisurely pages unraveling the background of the main characters in his novels. It happened with Bob Gottlieb, he says; the two would argue. "One of Bob's colleagues once said to me, 'Look, kid, don't make it too good. If you make it too good, you'll have nowhere to go.'" And it happened again with That Summer's Trance: each of the large houses rejecting it wanted major cuts, he says. The book remains intact. As PW's advance reviewer noted, it is "relentless, dignified, lengthy and fully realized," recalling "the triumphant realist novels of the '40s and '50s more than it d s much current work."
For his own part, Salamanca admits he is not certain what PW's reviewer means by "triumphant realist novels." He is simply trying to follow the model of an author he much admires, the 19th-century Brazilian Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who had "a genius for creating people," Salamanca says.
Perhaps Salamanca remains an actor after all. "Actors have a great facility for imitating people, as opposed to being people themselves," he says. "When I am writing, I feel like everybody in my story. I become each person for a little while. I live more in the book than I do in real life."