James Salter, the renowned American writer lauded for his straightforward yet probing prose, has received the Rea Award for the Short Story, marking another milestone in his literary career while heralding new works as well. Mr. Salter, who divides his time among Bridgehampton, New York City, and Aspen, Colo., said Elizabeth Rea, the widow of the award’s founder, Michael Rea, called him on Aug. 19 to let him know that he had won the $30,000 award.
“It was a complete surprise to me,” Mr. Salter said Friday. “You don’t know you are even being considered.”
He always wanted to be a writer, he said, but “didn’t get around to it for quite a while due to one thing or another.” Asked if his deferred dream led to fodder for future stories, he paused and said, “Well, the desire certainly remained.”
One of the first short stories he wrote, “Am Strande von Tanger”(“On the Beach in Tangier”), appeared in The Paris Review in the fall of 1968. The prose alternates between stark, fragmented sentences and lyrical introspection as the story follows three wandering expatriates in Barcelona. Mr. Salter said it was “about as good a story as I wrote for the next 20 or 30 years. I had at that time a great urge toward obscure phrases and titles in general. And I had an attitude of superiority toward straightforward English.”
Mr. Salter decided to name the story after a landscape painting he had seen in Europe by Wenzel Hollard. “ ‘Am Strande von Tanger’ is a much more impressive title, but of course no one knew what it meant,” he said, laughing.
He cited his longtime literary agent and dear friend, Kenneth Littauer, as a salient element of his success; the two men had a natural affinity, as they both had been Air Force pilots. “The beginning was ‘The Hunters,’ ” a novel, “and after that I tried to write some short stories but I didn’t know much about it,” he said. “You have rejection at first, naturally. I couldn’t seem to write anything worth publishing. But Kenneth used to tell me, ‘That’s all right. They’ll see the light eventually.’ ”
Mr. Salter is now in the final throes of writing a novel. He is “three-quarters of a way through” a process that has been ongoing for nearly eight years. He should be finished by Thanksgiving. “The process is very fragmented,” he said. “I look at notes and things I wrote about this very book and I hardly recognize them, things have changed so much. But all of this just may be the natural consequence of age. You get a bit older and you just don’t have that youthful energy and focus. In my own case, I tend to write and write and not be satisfied, or it’s not quite what I had in mind.”
He said that in addition to the pending novel, the plot of which is decidedly hush-hush, he plans to write more short stories. Despite his self-deprecation on the inevitable slowness of age, he shows no signs of slowing down.
“There are a lot of stories kicking around at your feet on the floor, if you have time to pick them up and do them,” he said. “I’m honored to have [the Rea Award], but I don’t think it’s going to ruin me.”