James Salter and the Black Cat

The south of London is beautiful today. It is nineteen degrees and only the smallest scattering of clouds is in the sky, and none of them is threatening. I am sitting with my clean washing on the small balcony adjoining the loungeroom. The long lace curtain inside the open door drifts back and forth, turning this way and that, in the breeze. There is the constant smell of freshness, tobacco pipe smoke, trellace flowers and talcum, and the thick black cat that we’ve seen darting before us in the streets has just jumped from the wall which, at this end, attaches to the wall of our apartment block and at that end, fixes to a waterproofed, flat garage roof, lined with the stuff you might see builders applying with heat on Grand Designs. The cat creeps on, its eyes fluoro yellow, and sniffs out the bricks on a terrace house wall surely too tall to climb. It walks back. On top of the wall that it stalks between here and there, bolted to the bricks, is a bar of curved pieces of metal, repeated, which seems like someone’s idea of prettied up razor wire. It looks like a collection of spring onions sliced and put in ice water until they curl, and threaded onto a wooden skewer, which have suddenly been turned to magnesium.

I am still sick today. Yesterday, after a morning in bed, I thought it would be okay to go to the literature event that I’d booked, so we got on the train in the afternoon. As soon as I was on the train, my body started to feel like I’d eaten a large amount of granular laundry detergent, and hit myself over the knees and ankles with a rubber mallot. But we carried on. I had not read or heard James Salter before, but that will change. He’s a chap of a man, or at least that’s what he looks like from row ‘O’, seats 4 & 5, with his beige slacks that, because they are the right length for walking, pull up when sitting to show a significant portion of beige socks. He wears shoes with thin, rigid laces (I could tell they weren’t droopy), an ironed shirt and a jacket, like a well turned out man in his late eighties who has not given in to the ravages of comfortable dressing. (Even I’ve done that.) Like his clothes, his manner and way of talking are neat and un-flashy, respectful to a fault. The particular fault, yesterday, was allowing his interlocutor, the head of the literature festival, direct the interview after it became quite clear that he had no interest in letting the author speak for himself.

An example – not a quote:

‘Now, I want to ask about your work in this way, and I hope this question isn’t too impertinent. But this book that you’ve written is about the emotional life of a writer, rather than the more modern style of writing about everything that happened. You leave a lot out. And I thought, when I was reading it – and I am sure you agree – that there are more peripheral characters than there is a focus on the main character [main character’s name].’

This ‘question’ would be followed, quite rightly so, with the slight uncomfortable pause for which an intelligent gentleman of Salter’s age and experience must needs… pause. You could then see him scramble for something to respond to within the statement. It was clear, at times, that he disagreed with the interviewer, but was a little too polite, and didn’t actually care enough, to put him straight. On occasion, after the interviewer would make a huge, halting, self-justified comment about what the work meant, ended with a question such as, ‘don’t you think?’ that Salter just left a slight comic pause for effect, and said, ‘Yes.’

It was at these points that the audience felt they were in league with Salter against this academic who was, having read the book, where it was a new release to most of us, not having jobs in the publishing industry, just taking an hour to tell Salter what he thought.

I took time to look at the interviewer, then. Because I don’t, usually, that much. (That’s the job of a good interviewer, at all times, let alone at an event that people have paid money for to hear a writer speak. Their job is to be insignificant in the eyes of the audience, and stay that way. Their job is not insignificant – indeed, it will determine usually the success or failure of the interview. But to seem insignificant is pretty important.) He was, in contrast with Salter and, to be honest, most of the slightly under middle aged audience, casually dressed. He wore jeans, which were the length for sitting and not exposing your socks, not standing and remaining off the ground. He had not, like most of us, had his jeans shortened and they curled and scuffed at his heel – of which we had a good view, while he slung his leg over the other knee in a lean back/lean towards style that was all about Him Interviewing Salter. At times, especially when the interview was lagging (at which times he added more words to his diatribe, defensively adding justifications to his opinions), he would lean forward to Salter and put his hand on his chin. Salter sat front on to the audience, both feet on the floor, like the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The head was wearing a tee shirt and a casual jacket, with long curly hair and glasses. When, waiting outside, he passed me, alone and with a bag just like mine slung across his torso, I saw that his converse type sneakers were patterned with delicate light blue and white lines, like the ones I saw on cups and bags in the gift shop.

At times, Salter would give opinions, and the head would disagree with him. ‘No no no,’ he would say, and tell Salter why his book was this, and not that.

When the microphone was handed around, there was the inevitable ‘question that is actually a long statement,’ which I usually only expect from the audience. But then islands of sanity appeared in the crowd – from the fellow Australians sat next to us who simply asked, ‘Who do you read?’ and the man who, generously for us, asked, ‘What is your writing process? I really have no idea.’

Salter, presented with a straight and simple question, began to unfold for the audience in slow, generous verse, the way he writes around a topic for a month or a year, with a pen and pencil – scraps and pages of ideas and thoughts – until he’s finished that part. Then, he tells himself what the piece is about (a lot different to his old way of doing things, which was plot-focussed, he would tell someone who asked later on). Then, he writes a more careful plan – after he knows the direction of the book. This all has been done on paper, with a pen.

Then, he begins to write the chapters. Still with a pen.

Then, he puts it together, and it gets typed. The whole process took about three years when he had more energy – more now.

It’s the simple most relaxing insight into the writer’s process, or a writer’s process, that I’ve heard to date. And because of the courageous asking of a straightforward question.

My favourite bit was when the head spoke about sex – there’s a bit of it in the book, apparently, but when Salter says that’s not what the book’s about, the head actually screams in protest that ‘it’s all about sex!’ – in which the head said that ALL British writers were bad at writing about sex. It’s just a thing, apparently. Love a good blanket generalisation. I wonder if that annoys anyone who’s written about sex, ever, in Britain? Perhaps, I don’t know, Shakespeare?

The idea that Salter’s book was not all about sex, and that the head thought it was, was probably highlighted with the passage he read. There was an act of sex in it. But what the head seemed to miss, what he referred to as ‘random’ stuff, was the painting around it – what Salter actually referred to as being like painting. Most of the writing about sex, these days, can be gaudy and abrupt – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, and to be beautiful rather than lurid, I think, is better. The detail of the lives of the people, the important parts, which was their meeting and how they introduced each other through the minutiae of their lives. Not the fact that they had sex. The butterfly that dances past the window. The stories about just how much the woman loved Egypt when she was a girl; the fact that she even brought it up.

A bad interviewer can ruin a thing. I was honest with myself – I can see some of my own traits, if perhaps smaller, in the interviewer on the day. But I learned a lot from him, too.

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