James Salter – Smock Alley Theatre – 6pm – Wednesday, 22nd May 2013
Liam Browne the Programme Director of the Dublin Writers Festival introduced the event, and highlighted what an honour it was for him to welcome James Salter to Dublin, a beloved writer whom he never thought he would have the opportunity to meet. To be honest, before reading through the festival programme, I had not even heard of James Salter. For shame. I admitted this to his publisher at the book signing afterwards, and she asked “And now?” Well, now I can’t decide whether to pick up All That Is or The Hunters first to bury my head in immediately.
The event was chaired by Stephen Matterson, Professor of English in Trinity College Dublin. He gave a highly complementary introduction, also emphasising the sense of occasion about the night in having such a distinguished writer in our midst. He then gave a brief biography and listed some of the accolades Salter has achieved in his time. James Salter was a pilot in the US Airforce when his first novels were published; Salter himself describes these novels as “juvenilia”, and says his 1967 publication, A Sport and A Pastime, should be considered his first real book. On his writing, he has said that “I’ve written only about the essential things…the world as it is, at least for me.”
James Salter then took to the podium to read from his new novel, All That Is, explaining that it is the story of a life, and the many characters in it. The section he read was not about the main character, Bowman, but a book editor colleague of his, Edmonds. He said he would limit the reading to ten minutes – “In America, readings are longer, 20-25 minutes, but I was told if I read for that long that the audience would disappear.” Somehow, I think he may have been misinformed; he is a fantastic reader and every person in the sold out theatre was hanging on his every word. I was certainly awoken from some small reverie when he suddenly finished reading.
The Q&A session followed and they began discussing the novel. The book traces Bowman through from his time in the Navy up to his career in the book publishing industry. The novel stems from the late 1940s up to the 1970s in a particular time of publishing when, as Matterson put it, “people seemed to publish books they liked.” As someone who works in book publishing now, I might have to take slight issue with that and hope that it is still the case. Salter agreed that it was a “golden age” in publishing, when houses were smaller and owned by partners, before big companies took over, combined, and people got lost. Matterson mentioned how people often see this time as an important era for literature and the novel; Salter replied that it felt like regular life, but perhaps it turned out to be important. He said that everyone knew that Hemingway had something, though, and that he has endured. So did Hemingway influence him? Salter laughed – “Well, you can’t avoid him.” He agreed that Hemingway is influential and he is everywhere, but that he is not particularly influenced by him. That perhaps in the beginning, but that he has done everything he can to cut the tie – “He’s gone his way and I’ve gone mine.”
The ever present question about publishing in the modern age then arose – do books have a future? Salter said while some eminent novelists say that they don’t think so, and seem to be certain about it; he feels that there is a huge swell of writing happening, not only novels but online – blogs (yay!), articles, and so on. That publishers are publishing books madly, so the book can’t be dead and he laughed – “I don’t know – show me the body!”
With his first new novel in over 30 years, and now at the age of 87, he says he feels very much his age, but that “you can carry youth with you in your heart, and that is how I felt.” The event closed with some final beautiful words from James Salter – “Your memories start to be not so distinct, so many of them, it starts to become dreamlike…People take history with them and all that is left is prose. That prose is worth enduring.”
Honestly, I loved this event, and I was surprised by how entertained and engaged I was throughout, particularly having never heard of James Salter before last week. I could have gushed on for far more words than a blog should allow, more about his life and his writing and his thoughts on writing, after listening to him read and speak for just an hour. The event was followed by a signing across the road in The Gutter Bookshop, which went on for another hour. People queued around the shop and out the door to get to meet him. I stood beside him for the majority of the 60+ people queuing, many of whom had multiple books signed, and he engaged with every single one. A great writer, a beautiful reader, a wonderful speaker and a truly lovely man.
Written by Caelen Dwane.
Photos by David Mannion.