Saturday, November 12, 2005

James Salter on Short Stories

I bought a copy of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (edited by Vendela Vida, Believer Books, 2005) today. It contains a series of lengthy interviews "between much admired writers and the writers they admire," several which have previously appeared in the Believer magazine, others which appear in print here for the first time. Since I’m not a regular reader of Believer, they’re all new to me. A quick scan of the table of contents was all it took to convince me to snap it up. Among others, I look forward to reading Zadie Smith in conversation with Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem in conversation with Paul Auster, and Dave Eggers in conversation with Joan Didion.

But I began with Dan Pope’s interview of James Salter, since I just finished Salter’s latest collection of short stories, titled Last Night, and was dazzled by it. (I’ll post a full review of Last Night soon.) The Pope-Salter interview is marvellous, though it must have been a rather trying experience for Pope. Salter resisted nearly every question but revealed a great deal all the same. Here’s what he had to say about short stories:

No one I know of has ever been able to definitively say what a short story is or should be, what distinguishes it from an anecdote or an account -- Mishima’s “Patriotism” is an account but with a power that dismisses definitions -- or a piece of description. I like stories that keep you reading until the line that makes it a story, as in, say, Carver’s “Night School” when [the narrator’s wife] says, “That’s only writing…. Being betrayed by somebody in your own family, there’s a real nightmare for you.” Suddenly all of it, solid, with a click like steel, falls into place.

I must note here that Salter's own stories frequently contain similarly perfect and devastating lines.

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