Salter speaks: A literary great in residence at UVA

The literati are swooning over UVA’s writer-in-residence James Salter, but the revered author imparts his wisdom with restraint. “You give your opinion, also, but you’re not really telling anybody to do it this way or that way,” he said. Photo by Virginia Hamrick. The literati are swooning over UVA’s writer-in-residence James Salter, but the revered author imparts his wisdom with restraint. “You give your opinion, also, but you’re not really telling anybody to do it this way or that way,” he said. Photo by Virginia Hamrick.

Last year, UVA creative writing department director Chris Tilghman was trying to convince a prospective MFA graduate student to enter his program when he dropped a quiet bomb.

“I said we were hoping to welcome James Salter as a writer-in-residence,” Tilghman recalled. “There was this long pause on the phone, and then there was this explosion, with her going, ‘I can’t believe it! I just finished reading his most recent book!’”

Salter has that effect on writers, and presumably, the candidate wasn’t disappointed when she joined the program’s annual class of 10 creative writing students. Salter is leading a weekly MFA fiction workshop this semester, part of his duties as UVA’s first-
ever Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. He’s the first author to hold such a position here since William Faulkner, who spent the springs of 1957 and 1958 at the University. Like Faulkner, he’ll also give a series of public lectures. The first is set for 6pm on Thursday, October 9 in the auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Two more follow on October 14 and 27, same time, same place.

UVA could hardly have revived the tradition with a more exalted guest. Salter is often called a writer’s writer, a master craftsman treasured for his spare, crystalline style—his dialogue uses no quotation marks and few descriptors to tell you how a character says what he says. He’s known, too, for flawless sentences dropped like diamonds into his prose, so perfectly executed and gorgeous they leave the reader agape. 

“The lines that penetrate us are slender,” he wrote in his 1975 novel Light Years, “like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers.

He is also, at 89, a blunt interview subject.

“You can’t really teach writing,” he said from across a dining room table in his temporary home on Kent Road.

That notion, that creative writing can’t be taught, is one he’s been known to trot out before. He likes to quote Vonnegut, who once compared his role as a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to that of a golf pro correcting swings here and there. But is it hard to hold onto the conviction, wedged as he is among academicians at the moment? 

“I suppose so, but they assume that the creative program is a little bizarre anyway,” Salter said. In workshop, he said, he’s more moderator than instructor. “You give your opinion, also, but you’re not really telling anybody to do it this way or that way. A good writer may not be particularly good at this kind of job. A writer who’s not so good may be excellent.”

Salter’s reputation as an author, anyway, goes so far beyond good that he’s been thrust into a literary realm occupied by few living Americans. To call him a household name would be a stretch, though. The 2013 New Yorker article “The Last Book,” which heralded the publication of All That Is, his first novel in nearly 35 years, bore the following subtitle: “James Salter is a revered writer. Can he become a famous one?”

“All of us writers of faculty age have been revering him at least since the ’70s,” said Tilghman. For him, it started with A Sport and Pastime, the 1967 novel that follows the erotic explorations of a Yale drop-out in France. More than four decades later, All That Is returned to Salter’s familiar themes of flawed men reaching for meaning, with varying degrees of success and failure, kindness and cruelty, in war and work and love. It also evokes a powerful sense of place. Before he wrote it, he spent a good deal of time knocking around Summit, New Jersey, which he ultimately made the hometown of the novel’s protagonist. 

He won’t get to know Charlottesville in the same way.

“It’s a nice town,” he said, but his time here is short. He has taken a drive out to southern Albemarle with creative writing professor John Casey to visit Estouteville, the early 19th-century estate owned by developer Ludwig Kuttner and his wife, artist Beatrix Ost. And he’s made a point of visiting the Confederate graveyard on Alderman Road, he said. Salter, who graduated from West Point and flew fighter jets in Korea, said he found the little corner of Grounds interesting.

Mostly, though, he’s writing, preparing for the three lectures he’ll give before the winter recess.

“That’s as big a part of it as anything else,” he said of the residency. That, “and, I assume, appearing on the campus in a white suit.”

The first lecture will focus on three writers, he said, and the second will be about how to write a novel. The third? “You’ll have to wait and see.”

There it is again—the idea that anyone, even a writer of Salter’s stature, can make the creative process transferable and teachable. That’s why he’s here, after all. So how do you write a novel?

“You learn from reading,” Salter said. “And then you learn from trying to write. And everybody learns the same way. I’m no different than anyone else.”

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