Bookforum talks with Thomas Beller

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (Icons) BY Thomas Beller. New Harvest. Hardcover, 192 pages. $20.

J.D. Salinger spent nearly the last sixty years of his life as a recluse, attempting to outrun the fame brought by his celebrated first novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). In Thomas Beller’s new biography, J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, Salinger’s life appears as a triptych, in which the entire last half of Salinger’s life—but only one story, “Hapworth 16, 1924”—is relegated to the final panel. The first panel includes Salinger’s early stories (1940-1948), and “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” which later formed the basis for Catcher. The second panel describes the height of Salinger’s fame and concludes in 1963, with his last published book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Beller is a novelist, and he writes about Salinger in the first-person, a choice that both underscores his personal feeling for the author and gives the book a novelistic tone. In early June he stopped by to talk to me about his first foray into biography.

This book isn’t your first look at J. D. Salinger. In 2001 you edited an anthology called With Love and Squalor: 13 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger. Why, thirteen years later, did you decide to write a biography?

Finishing things is difficult. By things I mean projects, and sometimes actual physical things. Even doing the anthology was a reiteration of an earlier enthusiasm. And that enthusiasm was a repetition of a kind of primal encounter that I think a lot of people have with what I call the eighth-grade canon. I wanted to have a distinct project that I would finish. Then the very issues I just brought up arose, mostly repetition—are you running around in circles or are you deepening your understanding? For writers I think this is the most perilous because there is the worry: Are you just doing what works or staying in the same territory in lieu of being more adventurous? These questions are so interesting to think about in terms of J.D. Salinger, who embodies the difficulty of finishing, the problems and rewards of being obsessive about your subject matter, about your characters. Over two separate books I’ve had the same character, and sometimes there’s this anxiety like, Come on! Salinger was an interesting person through which to think of these problems or dynamics. I thought, let’s just do it.

You structure the story as a first-person narrative, describing, for example, your experience of going to the summer camp Salinger attended, your experience going to the Princeton library to look at Salinger’s letters. How did you arrive at the precise amount of ”you” to put into the book?

The temptation to include myself was incredibly strong because almost all of my non-fiction and short stories are pretty autobiographical. But I also wanted to be respectful to the form of biography, with which I am completely unfamiliar and with which I had previously been relatively uninterested. I had been a little wary of it; I had never been a big reader of the great “adult” genres—“Only grown-ups read history, biography,” etc. I had some concern that it would supplant a more playful, interesting fiction. To begin with, I read some biographies to try and bone up, and I didn’t presume I would take this first-person tack. But the material started to freak me out, in a good way. Beyond the topographical echo—the landscape of Salinger’s life and much of the landscape of his fiction takes place in the landscape of my childhood, and what I had been writing about was also quite New York–centric. The signal event that made me give myself permission to do this was when I discovered that his father, with whom he had a very difficult relationship, sent him to Vienna to learn the family business of importing ham and cheese. Salinger was in Vienna in 1937, the same time as my father.

It takes a hell of a lot of time to think of your parents as people, and then it takes a while to be considerate of them and not just be irritated with them all the time, and then it takes a while to be curious about them, and then it takes a while to articulate the curiosity, and to actually think of the interesting questions to ask them. Point being that everyone partakes in the biographical impulse, the biographical gaze—or biographical squint, as I call it. I realized that I had been doing it more than most because I had lost my parent, and then the fact that I was following my subject, trying to fathom him, and all of a sudden found that he was on the same street as my father, whom I’d been trying to understand and make connections with—it was too crazy and serendipitous to omit from the book. It was just a question of finding the rhythm between these two fundamental modes of being a biographer and also being a writer who himself is on a kind of adventure. It was all a bit of a leap.

Three other biographies come to mind that resemble this one: Geoff Dyer on Lawrence, Nicholson Baker on Updike, and Pico Iyer on Graham Greene. These works are fairly self-revealing of their authors. Is your book in conversation with these? Do you feel that you’re working in a particular tradition?

The Dyer and the Baker, totally. Baker’s book is definitely about Updike, but it also ends up being about Don Barthelme, and the issue at hand is that Barthelme and Baker have the same editor at the New Yorker. As do I, the same guy! Roger Angell. So totally, I was aware of those and they gave me a bit of strength, as different as they are in sensibility. I love both of those books—I definitely feel in dialogue with them. I like Pico Iyer’s work, but it’s not something that has yet made me jump up and pace around the room, as Dyer and Baker’s books have done.

Though the structure of the book is chronological, many individual chapters jump around in time. In this way, the book sometimes reads like a novel.

Writing this book, because of its relative brevity both in the number of pages and the amount of time it took, was like drawing shapes out of the stars—if there’s only a finite number of stars you can connect them, if there are too many stars it’s overwhelming. So the method of one is totally the extension of the method of the other. Not consciously, I started to see in Salinger some echoes of problems that I’d been having: There’s this business of comparing yourself to your subject—you find your own issues echoed in theirs. With writing this biography there was some sense of containment, maybe of the life, or the sense that I wasn’t allowed to just go wandering off into the forest and not come back; maybe it was that there was some chronology—because we’re talking about a life—that I could return to that was grounded. My methods of writing the biography and writing fiction were quite similar, and it was actually a little terrifying because the whole thing almost sank to the bottom of the sea a few times. I don’t think it was a departure from one to the other for me, I was simply able to not drown in the biography in the way that I have in the fiction I’ve been working on.

The Escape Artist is rather short, under 200 pages. You mention that Salinger wanted to produce work that would be successful with mass-market audiences without sacrificing quality. Was this something you were thinking about when you wrote the book?

Salinger’s great self-description was “I’m a dash man, not a miler.” There’s a story of his that I mention when I visit his family’s apartment, “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.” In the construction of it there’s a jokey contextualizing of the apartment, of the situation, the mother, the father—that’s about six pages. Then there’s a confrontation between the mother and the son, mostly dialogue—another six pages. He’s very quick and contained. So to have a book that did something similar seemed just fine.

There have been several other biographies of Salinger, including Joyce Maynard’s memoir, Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher, and, most recently, David Shields’s 700-page Salinger, to name a few. What did they miss that you wanted to address?

Salinger, by being so insistent on avoiding the sensationalism of modern life and actually anticipating it rather exquisitely, ended up provoking it. And it spills over into the way he’s been written about, perhaps. I’ll only speak for myself, but I felt that tug as well. One of the big themes of the book is that there’s been a kind of misdirection of critical energies about Salinger. When we think about the last half of his adult life, when he’s up in the woods, with this notion of him as some kind of mythic recluse, not only is it not that interesting, but it also takes away from what is interesting. The mystery is not what he’s doing in his house in Cornish or in his bunker. What is interesting is why he provokes us. Why was he such a popular writer when he was first publishing?

Gay Talese said in an interview that print culture—newspaper people, magazine people—was batshit for J.D. Salinger. And the excitement was concurrent, not retrospective, it was right there in the work, something about the work provoked that reaction. I feel that the impulse to be breathless—even the way I’m talking to you right now is getting a little jumpy! It’s powerful, but probably best to be resisted. I wanted to take a different approach, in which I acknowledged the sense of unease or of not being on solid ground. At the same time, I didn’t want to approach the material like I was a detective, or Kenneth Starr investigating Bill Clinton, or the National Enquirer.

A chronological treatment of Salinger had been done, and I thought the task was now to find the echoes. For example, in Joyce Maynard’s memoir, there is a break-up scene on the beach in Daytona, Florida. And then I looked at a letter that Salinger had written on the stationary of a hotel in Daytona, Florida, about twenty-two years earlier, to his dear friend Elizabeth Murray. These serendipities don’t end with the end of the book. The key was to find the right musical beats to make these counterpoints work.

You often reflect, in the book, on the act of writing biography—you mention a sense of guilt, of stealing something. You call Salinger investigators “self-aggrandizing burglars.” How did these feelings toward biography affect your project?

Yes, a sense of being a trespasser. Do you overcome the problem or do you make the problem a part of the subject? My idea was to do the latter, because that’s part of what is interesting about J.D. Salinger. The only way to handle my cluelessness about the form was to make the problem front and center and acknowledge it. The problem with not acknowledging it is that you’re bypassing a potentially interesting predicament; if you strip away the anxiety and the tentativeness that this problem creates, you’re left with a slightly shrill voice of accusation.

Much of the book figures around the actual work of Salinger, particularly his stories, with excerpts and your analysis. Do you think putting the work alongside the life is essential to understanding Salinger?

I did feel that there’s been a terrible misappropriation of energy towards Salinger’s half a century in the woods and away from the fascinating formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s. There was supposed to be a book of all these early stories. One of the features of his career, before he got settled with Gus Lobrano and the New Yorker in 1948, was this thing that kept happening in which a young person at a magazine would go bonkers for something Salinger wrote and meet resistance upstairs. The early work I found quite interesting—like, how the hell did he get this voice? This material has been derided and called apprentice work; I read it and thought half of it is totally fascinating in the context of Salinger, and half of it is totally fascinating, period—just great. It was partly my idea to go where there wasn’t such a crowd of people commenting and partly because I just thought the work itself merited the attention.

Also, there’s a really disturbing element in the early work, but my response is not purely to say he’s a scumbag, or to say, look, “This is who he really is.” Because there was a countervailing force in those stories, and also he was developing and we all have very contradictory qualities. One of his biographers was so breathlessly enamored with the subject and glossed over all the complicated stories because they were unseemly. I wanted to try to let the unseemly coexist with everything else as opposed to championing one thing as the truth.

You describe getting into the Salinger apartment at 1133 Park Avenue as finding the “holy grail.” Why was the visit so important to you?

I feel like Salinger is an apartment writer. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that beyond the fact that he is someone who grew up in an apartment, and for whom apartments were a huge component of his work. I tried to get Edmund White to agree that Proust also fell into this category but he didn’t quite go there. (Laughs) It is my sense that apartment life—a character’s apartment life, in the many apartments that are strewn across the stories and even Catcher in the Rye—informs the writing that he’s doing. I myself grew up in an apartment in a big old building in uptown Manhattan. I didn’t think it would be informative—everything you need to know about Salinger’s apartment you can read about in his fiction. But I thought that there would be some sort of catharsis in seeing it, and there was. Turns out the news about the apartment was more about the view than about the space.

I also went to the classroom where Salinger took Whit Burnett’s class at Columbia. From the window you see just a chunk of Low Library, a dome. It’s so partial, so constricted—it’s a great place to be depressed, you know, if you’re sitting in the back smoking.