James Salter's True Grit
Credit: David Levenson / Getty Images

James Salter has been a fighter pilot, a rogue, and a climber. He counts Robert Redford as a friend. He shot down a Russian MiG – Robert Mitchum starred in a movie based loosely on his Korean War exploits. During his Hollywood days, he had business cards that read "Mr. James Salter regrets he is far too occupied to: Write a Movie Script. Polish a Movie Script. Read a Movie Script. Take a Meeting." Oh, yeah, he has also written some of the best American novels of the past half-century.

Still, if you use sales as a barometer, Salter has worn the title of the Great American Unknown Novelist for half his life, alternately embracing and chafing at the title. (His best-known project, by far, was his script for Redford's 'Downhill Racer.') His past makes the epigraph at the beginning of Salter's 'All That Is,' his first novel in 34 years, poignant: "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real."

We were sitting at the dinner table in his Aspen cabin when I asked him what he meant. Salter just smiled and gazed at me with the icy blue eyes that used to drop skirts in postwar France. He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands up.

"It was taking a long time to write, and I was using that to fortify, to inspire myself. I knew if I got it written down maybe it would last a little while." He let out a sigh and continued in a voice that suggested he was trying to convince himself of something. "Glory has passed me by. I don't think I have any problems with that now."