On this Memorial Day, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with James Salter, author of The Hunters, a novel about fighter pilots in Korea.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: James Salter's new novel "Cassada" tells a story of fate and courage in the squadron of American fighter pilots in Cold War Europe. It's a world James Salter knew well. He graduated from West Point in 1945 and became a fighter pilot himself. He's also the author of five other novels, short stories, screenplays, and a memoir "Burning the Days." He won the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction in 1988. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Salter.
JAMES SALTER: Well, a great pleasure, Elizabeth. I'm one of your many admirers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I find Robert Cassada to be a haunting figure. He kept me awake several nights running. Tell us about him, please, where he comes from in your imagination and what you wanted to accomplish with this story about him.
JAMES SALTER: Well, he doesn't come from my imagination entirely, of course. He comes from... He comes from life. I'm not a writer who invents people. I draw from life, as most writers do. He's a composite, naturally. But he's based on one... One figure more than others. This is A... You know, I write about... I've written about appetite, desire, the life of the senses, the life that I think is the true life, the great life. But this is not such a book. This is an early book. This belongs to a period when I was first learning to write really, and this is a novel about youth and daring, and the great desire to belong, a desire, I think, that never goes away. You want to be... You want to be like the others, you want to be as good as the others. Or to put it in more classical terms, you want to be highly regarded by the man and admired by the women. And this is the story of a great desire by a young man.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said it's an early novel. It's very unusual in that you actually completely rewrote an early novel to produce this book, right? And that novel was published, that early one?
JAMES SALTER: Yes, that was called... Well, it had a rather pretentious title. It was called "the Arm of Flesh." I wouldn't... I mean, it hasn't been in print for years, and I didn't want it to be. I didn't think it was worth being in print. Jack Shoemaker, the editor in chief at Counterpoint, convinced me that I was wrong, that it was worthy, and that it should be republished. But I felt that it had to be rewritten completely if it was going to be republished. And so I sat down to do it. I must say that it would have been impossible to do without the earlier book. That younger writer that I was then supplied all the details that made the story true, and I suppose in a sense the passion also that makes it true. I couldn't have done that now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's been quite successful, whereas your earlier novel wasn't so successful. What do you think changed? Was it something in you?
JAMES SALTER: Well, I think it was something on the page. I mean, I hope.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But something in you made that possible, the years of experience, years of life?
JAMES SALTER: Well, I would put it another way. I think it was Phil Silvers once said, he picked up a trumpet during a break in the show or something and started playing it. Everybody was amazed, and he said, "well, you know, you hang around long enough and you learn some things."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So would you read from this book, please? And set the scene for us. Tell people a little bit of the story.
JAMES SALTER: Well, this is the flying story. As I say, it's not... It's not a technical story -- although there are things in it that make it real. It's a story about ambition, and Cassada is the central figure in it, although there's another very important figure, the operation officer in the squadron; Captain Isbell is his name. He's described as being... As having every quality that one would want in such a figure. He had only one flaw: He was an idealist. And he sees something in Cassada that I wouldn't say the others don't see, but that is more or less ignored or put aside by the others. One day he flies with Cassada. These are fighter planes. Of course, these are jet fighters; you fly alone in them. And they go up together. This is toward the end of a routine flight on a very beautiful unextraordinary in every respect except for weather day. So here they are coming back. "They had spoken hardly a word. The earth lay immense and small beneath them -- the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine, the strings and barges smaller than stitches. And then a city glistening, struck by the first sun, Stuttgart, the thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare. 'What a day Cassada,' said when they landed. Isbell agreed. His body felt empty, his mind was washed clean. 'Ingle Stat,'.. Cassada said. 'Have you ever noticed Ingle Stat passing over?' I look down and think how I'd like to be there. 'You know what I mean? Have you ever been there?' 'A couple of times,' Isbell said. 'It's not as great as it was this morning.' Cassada was looking around, taking things in with his sea- blue eyes. 'You could say that about every place,' he commented."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said in an interview once, "I believe there's a right way to live and to die. The people who do that are interesting to me. I haven't dismissed heroes or heroism." And of course, that's all very clear in this book, which is about that very subject. Is this something that comes inevitably from your experience at West Point, in your own experience as a fighter pilot, or does this interest in that sort of thing predate that?
JAMES SALTER: I was a kid when World War II broke out. And I was formed not only by those years and everything that happened in them and the language of them and the spirit of them, but also by the years that preceded them, which were the years between the wars. And so naturally my reference, my-- what can I say-- my way of seeing the world was powerfully formed by all that. And perhaps that's... and also, I don't know, I guess I like Wagner more than I like Schubert.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You actually saw battle over Korea. And you were quite a long time a fighter pilot. You didn't leave until 1957, and you graduated from West Point in 1945. How did your desire to become a writer manifest itself and when?
JAMES SALTER: Well, I mean, I was a writer as a schoolboy. I was a schoolboy poet, of course; most schoolboys who write are. And I was interested in writing all along. I mean, I read. But you know, you get in the service, the service is not an intellectual occupation. It's the life of... It's the life of action, of course -- action and boredom, I should say. And I was always interested in writing. I wrote a little when I was an officer, but I didn't have time for it. And then after Korea, I... about two years after, everything that had happened there, I kept a journal. I've always thought it was not in-depth, it was merely a record of missions and some notes about people, various things, anecdotes occasionally. And I kept thinking I could make... something should be made out of this. I hate to see all this vanish. This was, in a sense, the great voyage of my life. And I decided I would like to write a book about it, but I couldn't think of what to write. And then one day, as sometimes happens, the idea for it came to me whole and complete, about two years after I had gotten back. And that was the book called "The Hunters," of course. And I just sat down and wrote it. I don't remember whether it was hard or easy to write. I only remember that it seemed to... It seemed to be all there, just waiting for me to pull it in. And when I had done that, I felt, well, perhaps... Well, of course, I thought I was a writer, but this was confirmed by the fact that Harper Brothers said, "yes, we like this book very much, we'd like to publish it." And then it went on and it got quite good reviews. And I thought, "well, I wasn't wrong. And underneath all this, latent in me, I am a writer." And so I decided that's what I would try and be.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, James Salter, thanks so much for talking with us.
JAMES SALTER: Thank you, Elizabeth.