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HindustanTimes Wed,17 Sep 2014

Book Talk: James Salter breaks long silence with 'All That Is'

Reuters   May 23, 2013
First Published: 12:20 IST(23/5/2013) | Last Updated: 12:51 IST(23/5/2013)

Award-winning author James Salter, who completed his last full-length book more than 30 years ago, has released a new novel that chronicles a life drawn from many of his own experiences.


Like Salter, the main character in "All That Is" leaves the military to embark on a literary career. Unlike Salter, Philip Bowman becomes an editor after failing to find work as a writer.

Salter is considered by many one of the best postwar American novelists and short-story writers. His books include "The Hunters," "Burning the Days" and "Dusk and Other Stories," for which he won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989.

The new book spans several decades and explores Bowman's fleeting personal relationships in a bygone era of independent, clubby publishing houses.

The 87-year-old Salter spoke to Reuters about that literary world, why he wrote the book and his writing process.

How did you come up with the title and what does it signify?

It has two meanings and they're not the same meaning but they overlap. One is all that is to life, and the other is all that is in life. They're not exactly the same thing, but I think your understanding shifts between the two without recognizing that they're shifting. Maybe that is the way it is designed, and to the reader, that doesn't make any sense, but that is how it is meant.

Given how much time has passed since your last full-length novel, what made you want to finish it now?

I was writing other things ... There was no professional reason. I became interested in it through editors that I knew. In the beginning, I didn't know any editors. My first book was published without any editorial advice. Nobody said you might do this or that, or why don't we see more of this. I merely took the book and published it.

It was not until I began to write a book called "Light Years" that an editor really stepped in. The editor was Joe Fox at Random House and he wound up editing a subsequent book. I got to know him very well personally as well as professionally. And through another editor after him, Robert Gay, I became gradually more interested in their lives and that world of publishing.

They are involved in leisurely things like reading books, having lunch with writers and agents - it is all really beautiful and so I thought I would write something about all of this.

Can you describe the writing process behind this novel?

I did spend a lot of time pre-writing. I have three big notebooks as thick as your little finger filled with notes about what might be in this book - people, places, and things. It took a long time to write those and then I was paring away.

The main protagonist, Philip Bowman, has very few serious attachments, whether in material possessions or relationships. What do you hope readers learn from his character?

No lesson but I hope they read it with pleasure. The book is the journey of a life. I suppose if you search in it as you do at the end of a course in college, you can come up with several questions. Did he learn from experience? Was he emotionally stunted? Is this an example of the moral degeneration of an era?

None of these questions is that relevant. You are not going to get an answer from the book - the book is what it is. It is meant in a way to give you some idea of the life of an editor in a publishing house - in my view, a very favorable idea. I think it is an admirable and interesting life, and being an editor can be potentially deeply satisfying.

The book finishes without a definitive conclusion. How should readers think about the end of the book?

With the last female relationship, he says and thinks certain things regarding her. That, to me, seems to make plain that he anticipates they are going to be together for a long time. The book does not say that precisely but it does say that he wondered if they didn't get married, would they stay together.

Could they possibly have a life such as people have in art? In art, by that, I mean painters and sculptors' lives - that life of art that is superior to ordinary mores and behavior. There are levels of art and writing and they live on a certain level that I think we instinctually envy. That is the level that he said perhaps they would live on.

There is so much implied in this book that if you don't read it with your openness to its implications rather than to its literal text, then I think you would miss what this book is about.


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