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Top tips for writers from J.D. Salinger – advice from beyond the grave


By Noel Young, Correspondent

January 26, 2012 | 8 min read

In a career spanning sixty years, author J.D. Salinger gave very few interviews. Now another interview has been discovered, 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 in a hotel bar the man who would go on to write The Catcher in the Rye .

In 60 years of fame, J.D. Salinger famously gave very few interviews. One, given to a teenage schoolgirl in New Hampshire in the 1950s for her school magazine, was copied by newspapers around the world - and forced Salinger, already very reclusive, into deeper seclusion.Some 15 years later, in 1974, he gave another interview by telephone to the New York Times - the reason for that interview was his anger over people whom he accused of ripping off his work.Now another interview has emerged, two years after his death at age 91 on January 27, 2010. Just 1200 words long, it was written by an 18-year-old journalism student after she met the soon-to-be great man in the bar of a New York hotel. He was 21, and had just had his first short story published. His masterwork The Catcher in the Rye was 10 years in the future - but nonetheless Shirley Ardman found him “rather full of himself.”She sets the tone for the piece in the first paragraph: "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 task that had been set Shirley by her tutor at Columbia University in New York was to “interview a published author.” A classmate of Shirley’s, Lamont Buchanan, who knew Salinger, offered to introduce them, and so the meeting was arranged.Later, Shirley was to suggest that Lamont was at least in part the model for Holden Caulfield, the central figure in The Catcher in the Rye. Whether he was or not, the piece itself was not published at the time. Why would it be? After all, who was J.D. Salinger?It wasn’t until 1962 - by which time Salinger had made his name - that Shirley, clearing out a cupboard in her home in Pennsylvania, found the long-forgotten manuscript.She decided to try to market it. Letter after letter went off to publishers, from her and an agent, over 5 years, and unanimously they declined to publish. One editor wrote that it was “rather ancient.”The nearest Shirley ever got to print was when a professor in North Carolina , James Bryan, a recognised Salinger expert, offered to include it in his Ph. D dissertation for the University of Virginia.Bryan devotes 22 lines to Shirley’s scoop, identifying her as Louise Brown. (Brown was her maiden name and she later started calling herself Shirley) Bryan says Shirley’s piece underlines Salinger’s determination to “write seriously.” She describes how he rails at “slick; authors who pander to public tastes. Salinger talks of his attempts to elevate his work above the formulations of ‘slick’ fiction.”Shirley remembers Salinger's “superbly handsome face and the brief intense emotions that flickered over it as he talked.” Salinger told Shirley, Bryan records, that he “tried acting for a while . . . but I stopped because my writing is more important.”Shirley is now 90. She lives in an assisted living facility in Swampscott, Massachusetts, near the home of her son Blair, an oncologist at a local hospital. It was when she was moving there that her Blair, cleaning out her home, rediscovered the manuscript - together with the file of rejection letters.Together, he and I went to Swampscott to visit his mother, who had been, as she put it, “an aspiring journalist” 72 years earlier. Shirley, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, remembered little of the actual interview but she scorned our use of the name “J.D. Salinger.” “We called him Jerry,” she insisted.She seemed to remember Lamont Buchanan much better, correcting my Scottish way of pronouncing his first name.She listened intently, with occasional chuckles, as Blair read out the article to her. “You mean, I wrote that?” she asked. Shirley was in fact rather proud of her scoop, as her 1967 note to Reader’s Digest makes clear, “The enigma that is J.D. Salinger may never be explained, but the accompanying interview, done early in his career, may shed some light on this recessive subject.” The editor of Saturday Review Norman Cousins wrote in a personally-signed note that the interview added “very little to our understanding of Salinger” but he added, “I must admit the temptation to publish anything on the elusive JDS is great.” He said it missed “by only a narrow margin.” Still. It missed. The managing editor of Playboy Jack Kessie said the story was “a little too ancient,” but offered, “If you can get us an up-to-date interview with J.D. Salinger, it’s worth $2000 cash on the barrelhead.” More recently the interview has landed on editorial desks at the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and earlier this month, Newsweek. None of these great publishing powerhouses has taken it up.Shirley, whose family was in the clothing business, did not go into journalism after all. Jerry Salinger did rather more with his writing. But The Catcher in the Rye remained his only published novel.On his death at his home in New Hampshire, there were said to be a number of manuscripts in the house, unpublished like Shirley’s short manuscript of 72 years ago. Today, Shirley’s interview is finally published by The Drum. Who knows what we will see from Jerry Salinger in the future?Here, The Drum's Katie McQuater presents a few snippets from the interview, which gives an insight into the life led by the young Salinger, arguably already wise beyond his years. They also provide inspiring tips for aspiring writers, and have a surprising resonance even today, 72 years after the interview. The Drum has published the full interview here.Don’t over-write. Salinger speaks of his dismay at what he calls “slick fiction” and how it captures the imagination of the mainstream public by putting “every human emotion down in black and white.” He seems to argue that writing should make people think and formulate their own responses to it. He says: “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.”It’s good to keep this in mind in advertising. Less is more.Try to take some time away from Twitter. Salinger reveals he must work without distractions to produce the best writing. “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.” In the always-connected modern world of social networks and smartphones, time out is important to creative output. A simple message, but one that’s often lost in today’s busy creative industries. Ideas are only the beginning. Salinger says it’s about more than just the initial inspiration. “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.”Know your work inside out. This one may sound obvious, but Salinger iterates how important it is to devise characters before the story begins:“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.”Know what you’re doing well in advance. Keep ahead of the game.Do things because you want to.“I write because I want to, and the way I want to and because I like it.”If you’re not enjoying what you do, then is there really any point?* Shirley's original interview has never appeared in print , in the US or elsewhere. If you are interested in being the first, email me :


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