James Salter: with biographer Jeffrey Meyers

James Salter

James Salter is the best American writer you’ve probably never read.

He was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, flying more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre.

He wrote Hollywood screenplays, one of which was made into a film starring Robert Redford.

Three of his books — the novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, and a memoir called Burning the Days — place him among the greatest postwar American novelists despite bad reviews and poor sales on publication.

Salter’s prose was widely respected by other writers. Richard Ford said he “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today”, but he didn’t get the recognition he deserved until he’d reached his eighties.

I’d come across his name many times over the years. I knew he was someone I should read, but it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Light Years from a used bookshop in February that I realized what I was missing.

The first page completely blew me away. His sentences were fractured jewels. The details were closely observed, the imagery poetic. Every page contained an observation that I wanted to write down. By the time I’d gotten 30 pages in, I was emailing my best bookish friend to tell him he must read it.

Of course I set out to track down every Salter book I could find — and that’s when I stumbled across a brand new study by one of our greatest literary biographers.

Jeffrey Meyers is the author of an astonishing 55 books of biography and literary criticism, including works on Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston. His work has been translated into fourteen languages and published on six continents. And he is one of twelve Americans in the Royal Society of Literature.

His newest book, James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist, is available now.

We spoke about Salter’s remarkable prose style, his core themes of love and loss, and why this giant of American fiction isn’t more widely read today.

These are the books we mentioned in the podcast:

We also mentioned:

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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