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

Salter is one of the smartest men I've ever met and the most enigmatic. I spent two days with him, and it was alternately inspiring, entertaining, and frustrating. Most novelists have a 10-minute NPR spiel about their book, but that's not Salter. He is the poker player as writer. No overshares here. His 1997 memoir, 'Burning the Days,' took more than a decade to write and clocked in at 365 pages – but it quickly dispatches with the seemingly major decision to change his name from James Horowitz to James Salter. The tragic early death of his daughter in an accident is addressed in one sad, eloquent paragraph. Questions about his early life – West Point, fighter pilot in Korea, and two novels on flying – are parried away. "Flying is not work, and writing is work," Salter told me. "They're not connected."

It took some prodding to pry a detail or two out of him, namely the time he crashed his training plane into a Massachusetts house on V-E Day, in 1945. It wasn't entirely his fault – he was given the wrong wind speed and direction – but as he was running low on fuel, he had to think of what he needed to do: a man at the crossroads, a theme that pops up endlessly in his books.

"All of a sudden you're in the trees, and the landing lights banged into a tree and the wing came off, and I hit. How much of that was fear? I don't know if the word is fear. It's anguish. It lasted a long time."

Later, he admonished me, "Do not call it brave."

Salter's career survived, and he eventually flew fighter missions over Korea. But he wanted more and resigned from the Air Force, trading the endless sky on a cross-country flight for lonely days of writing.

"I told my wing commander, and he said, 'You idiot.' I thought, 'My God, what have I done?' "

But he hadn't been an idiot. He merely traded one great life for another. He wrote two novels about flying that he has since disavowed but that are still passed down from pilot to pilot. A dec­ade after leaving the Air Force, Salter published 'A Sport and a Pastime,' a hypersexualized account of American Phillip Dean's affair with a French peasant girl. If the depiction of Anne-Marie, with its multiple mentions of her bad breath, wouldn't win a feminist's endorsement, the crystalline and precise prose is still talked about by fiction writers in 1,001 MFA programs. "Of living novelists, none has produced a book I admire more than James Salter's 'A Sport and a Pastime,' " announced Reynolds Price in the 'New York Times.'

Still, the book didn't sell much. There were kids to support, four with his first wife, Ann, a fifth later with his second wife, Kay. He dabbled in Hollywood and made award-­winning documentaries to pay the bills. He published 'Light Years, a novel detailing the crack-up of a seemingly perfect Westchester marriage. Both 'A Sport and a Pastime' and 'Light Years' have become more revered with time, but there were two scathing reviews of 'Light Years' that Salter believed killed the book. (The damage remains above his desk, where Salter has written to himself a few lines of personal encouragement. He wouldn't let me quote them, but they were an endearing glimpse at the fragility of a writer, even one who has faced down Russian cannon fire at 30,000 feet.)

Over the next two decades, Salter continued to write fiction, but also dabbled in journalism, writing travel pieces about skiing the Alps and other exotic locations, while cranking out stray profiles for 'People' (a detail not mentioned in his bio). He even directed a film, 'Three,' a Salteresque tale of a love triangle starring a young Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. He was past 50 when he took up mountain climbing. One time, he found himself climbing Eldorado Canyon, in Colorado, with a cocky young man who pushed him beyond his skill level.

"I thought this guy was trying to humiliate me," recalls Salter. "We had to go around a little corner, and I can remember looking down over jagged rocks for about 150 to 200 feet, and it's like leaning out of a 20-story window, but you're completely exposed." Salter's voice trailed off. "I remembered it, so it must've meant something."

It did. He described the fear in an interview about 'Solo Faces,' an unfilmed script he wrote for Redford that he turned into a novel, which revolves around a climber: "That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can't do this, I know I can't do this, I'm certain I can't do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there's no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end, it uplifts you somehow. . . ."