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The world of writing according to J.D. Salinger, as revealed in a previously unseen interview

The Drum presents a previously-unpublished interview with author J.D. Salinger, revealing surprisingly relevant advice for creativity in the modern world.

J.D. Salinger

In a career spanning sixty years, author J.D. Salinger famously gave very few interviews. Now another interview has emerged, two years after his death in January 2010. Just 1,200 words long, it was written by 18-year-old journalism student Shirley Ardman after she met the man who would go on to write The Catcher in the Rye in the bar of a New York hotel. He was only 21, and had just had his first short story published. The piece was not published at the time as Salinger had not yet made his name. After a few attempts at publication in the 1960s, the interview vanished, buried into a cupboard, until Ardman's son discovered the manuscript whilst clearing out her home. Here, The Drum publishes the interview, which gives an insight into the life led by the young Salinger, arguably already wise beyond his years. The author’s words of advice have a surprising resonance even today, 72 years after the interview. Shirley Ardman interviews J.D. Salinger 1940A Case of Youth"People are stupid," Mr. Salinger observed, glancing vacantly at the other occupants of the bar. "Certainly they’re stupid," he repeated, "or they wouldn’t read all the tripe that’s ground out for the pulp and slick magazines. Why, the hacks that write those stories are no better than the people who read them."The bitter young man spoke in a deep, cultivated voice that was obviously a result of dramatic training; training that must have gone amiss, since he was being interviewed as an author who was first tasting success. His story, "The Young Folks" had just been published by Story magazine, and another had been accepted by Harper’s Bazaar; and Story is a goal for quality fiction writers, which is what Mr. Salinger considers himself to be.Quality fiction is an infinitely higher type of literature than slick stories, such as one might read in the American or Cosmopolitan, and utterly above the pulp category, which includes the detective and love stories."The difference," Mr. Salinger says, "is this. Slick fiction writers put every human emotion down in black and white, and thrill all the Sadie Greens that go home on the Seventh Avenue every evening, with stories about impossible people in improbable situations; people and situations that would never happen to Sadie in her entire lifetime, and as far removed as Mars. It's tripe! I know it and you do, maybe, but the public doesn't.""I don't tell my reader everything. At least I leave something to the imagination. I analyze each emotion carefully, then set it down in as few words as possible. I've given them a lead, now it's up to them to feel the rest. But God! you can see how most people would accept a thing like that when Pinnochio [sic] and Snow White have met with such success... see what I mean when I say they're stupid... people, I mean.""How do I work?" he pondered, in response to my question. "Well, I usually wake about nine-thirty, have a shower and breakfast, and then start to think about my story. Just think about it, understand, since it’s so near noon that it would be senseless to start and then take time out for lunch. So by the time I really get at it, it’s three or after. I like to work five hours every day but often it’s longer and sometimes not at all. Absolute silence isn’t imperative, in fact I often have the radio going, but I must be alone. Can’t have anybody with me..... even in the next room.”The question of inspiration brought forth new speculations. "It isn't too important," he said, "this inspiration business. You know, writing isn’t the answer to a lazy man’s prayer. It's work, just as any other occupation... and it’s not done by having one stupendous idea break in your head and then grabbing a pencil or typewriter and writing the words as fast as your fingers will go. You get ideas of course, but plenty of work goes with them.”“But don’t get the idea that I don’t like it, and I’m just writing for the glory or money in it. I’m not, and if I had to write that way, I’d rather be a bum. I write because I want to, and the way I want to and because I like it. And I like the life I lead because I am an author. I tried a regular job once, stuck to it for a year, and then I was sure I wanted to write. I hate routine.”“You said you wanted to know my formula for a good story. Well, I never take a real person I know and write about him. My characters are all definite types, but usually a composite of four or five people that I know. I have to know my character thoroughly before I start, and know how he’d act in every situation. If I am writing about Mr. Tidwinkle's golf game, I must also know how he would act when drunk, or at a bachelor dinner, or in the bathtub or in bed -- and it must all be very real and ordinary. So you must write about the things you know best.”“I like to write about women.”"Because you think they’re more interesting?" I volunteered."Oh, no!" he assured me, "it's because of [sic] they’re more complex.""And remember," he continued his advice, "use ordinary people in plausible situations - and choose your characters first, not your situations.”“The story I am working on now, though, is an exception to that. I wanted to write about two people shipwrecked on a desert island, but I picked a father and daughter team instead of what you might expect. It is a far-fetched situation," he conceded, "but my characters are very real. The child is the average six-year-old and says all the childish, irrelevant things a six-year-old would say... asks hundreds of senseless questions and gives the father hell for buying the yacht in the first place, or they would never have been marooned on such a God-forsaken hole. They finally starve to death...""You see," he confessed, "I like unhappy situations." Any of the self-consciousness he might have had at the beginning of the interview was forgotten now. "I understand them and enjoy writing them. I'm terribly moody." It wasn't hard to believe, watching his superbly handsome, sensitive face, and the brief intense emotions that flickered over it as he talked. "I get very melancholy," he continued, "and for days - can’t tolerate anything - people or solitude. When I was younger, I used to wonder if I were crazy. It worried me a lot."The question of his conclusion was avoided."The people I like most, I inevitably hurt. I can't confide in them, talk to them, or treat them as one should treat friends. Strangers don't matter. I'll tell them anything because they are strangers and absolutely nothing to me. But I can't talk to my friends. I've got about two, and at times they both hate me."He ground his half-finished cigarette into violent oblivion, pensively; ordered another Ballantines [sic] for himself, and urged me to finish my cocktail."Do you want to write?" he queried. My response was rather indefinite. "Be sure to find something that you really like to do,” he continued, "I'm sure you'll do it well... you ought to fall in love!"For the first time that afternoon, there was an awkward pause.Mr. Salinger deftly changed the subject. "I tried acting for a while,” he began, “but I stopped because my writing is more important. I'm working on a play now, though, that I’d like to have produced this fall, and if it is, I want to play the lead. It's a tragedy."Getting back to the subject of fiction, Mr. Salinger stated that his story, "The Young Folks" is, in his opinion, typical of the present younger generation of college age.You see, he thinks young people particularly stupid. One cannot dispute his opinion because Mr Salinger really ought to know. He is twenty-one himself.This piece is copyrighted. To arrange to republish the interview, please contact Noel Young at noel@reportboston.com.

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Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the monthly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

Send feature pitches to katie.mcquater@thedrum.com

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