James Salter returns to long-form fiction with All That Is, his first novel since the late 1970s. In it, the 87-year-old PEN/Faulkner Award–winning author details the life, loves, and losses of a naval veteran who served in WWII and who became a book editor after the war, when publishing was a more genteel pursuit.
What was the impetus for this book?
It was a period I wanted to write about—after the war. Publishing in an era that’s now past, a much more leisurely era. Business was conducted by mail. Everything was letters back and forth, so the entire pace of writing was different. It was in an era, of course, long before cell phones and faxes; the relationship between editors and writers was a little more intimate. Books were sold in bookstores. There were no big retailers. There was no Amazon. The whole scale of life was completely different. You could compare it to town life as against city life. The publishers, as I remember at the very beginning of my career, wrote letters with their fountain pens. A letter is different from a phone call or fax. It’s a different kind of intimacy. That pervaded the entire business of writing and publishing. The humanity of it was much more evident. You had writers sleeping on couches in the publishers’ offices... Faulkner was correcting his proofs on a table in the hallway. It was the family doctor as opposed to the way you encounter medicine today. Intimacy and a certain dignity. I don’t mean that’s absent now. But it’s under pressure. And the scale of publishing is different. The volume has increased.
In an interview many years ago in Paris Match you called yourself a frotteur of language—someone who rubs against words. Is it the words or the story that matter most to you?
I read books for pleasure, generally. The writing is really important in books that affect me. I read for the writing. The story is usually of less interest to me. It’s the words that break your heart. I write more haphazardly, though, than that interview would indicate. I’m not so fussy. I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I’m hoping to write. Out of that I keep trying to find exactly what I want. So when it comes to the matter of taking care with words, that’s true, but only at the very end. It’s a question of really discovering what you’re trying to say.
Certain sentences in All That Is end with very explicit language. Because the book is so otherwise elegantly written, this language is all the more shocking. Why do this?
For just that reason. You’re looking for the appropriate word and sometimes an arresting word. The word doesn’t fit exactly with everything else, but it awakens the sentence, and probably the paragraph, and maybe more than that. Readers are always telling me that in my books they underline certain sentences. I made an attempt this time to avoid that and to keep myself away from writing something that anybody would underline, because I felt the readers were being beguiled by sections of the book and I’d rather not have them do that... because I’m contrary.