“Larry, I just saw the trailer for the J.D. Salinger documentary and I could swear that’s your voice at the end of it.”
I told my friend that it could be, since I was interviewed for the film five or six years ago, when Shane Salerno was still figuring out how he wanted to make a film about the world’s most mysterious, reclusive and perhaps most fascinating writer. I didn’t know Salerno when he contacted me to be in the film, and when I tried to tell him that I had no inside knowledge of Salinger, he insisted that didn’t matter. Few people did.
But he had read some of my interviews and had researched my credentials and experience in that field, and he wanted to know what I would have asked Salinger if given the opportunity.
“Moot point,” I said, “because that’s never going to happen.”
“But what if?” Salerno asked. “That’s where I’m going with this. I just want to get your take on Salinger from that perspective.”
“I would have to reread his books,” I said. “And probably whatever books have been written about him. It would take too much time for such a What If.”
“I’ll pay you for your time,” he said.
“When do you need me?”
It was an intriguing proposition. What would I ask Salinger if I had his undivided attention and knew that he wouldn’t throw me out if I broached uncomfortable subjects?
So, I spent a few weeks preparing as if I were going to actually sit across from the man who created Holden Caulfield and the Glass family. His book, The Catcher in the Rye, was probably the most read book among teenagers across America. His Nine Stories were perfectly written in spare, sparkling and often disturbing prose. I read what biographers had to say about him, and what his former lover Joyce Maynard wrote about him. I learned about his vegan eating habits, and about how he lived in virtual isolation in New Hampshire. Journalists wrote stories about trying to get a glimpse of him, to no avail.
I read his uncollected stories, and I read the last story he published in the New Yorker in 1965, before he went silent. I enjoyed re-reading him as much as I had when I first read his stories and novels. I was intrigued by how he had just dropped out completely. No one ever saw Salinger promoting his work on talk shows or in magazine interviews. He wasn’t trading words with other writers the way Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal went at each other in public. He had turned away from fame and by doing so retained his fame without any blemishes or scars. Other writers were as curious about him as his readers, and his readers numbered into the millions.
I felt like a speculator in the stock market sitting before Salerno’s camera talking about such an enigmatic writer. What did I know? But I did my best trying to sum up the man, though I knew I was talking about a ghost. No one really knew very much about Salinger. He had even stopped those who had read some of his letters in library vaults from quoting what he had written.
At one point, as the camera rolled, I began to list dozens of potential questions I might have asked J.D. Salinger…..and then I stopped myself mid-question and said, “You know, I don’t really care about any of these questions. I don’t care what kind of food he eats or whether he’s a practicing Buddhist or an atheist or what he might watch on TV or what books he has read or what he thinks of what others have speculated about him. Because, really, there are only two questions I would really like Salinger to answer.”
And then I gave Salerno those two questions. Which to me were (and still are) obvious. But to Salerno….well, he made me promise not to talk about what I wanted to really know from Salinger because he wanted it to be fresh for his film. And when we finished, he asked if I would return later that night to film some more. I said I had said everything I had to say, but again he was persistent and again he offered to pay me for my time. So I returned and talked some more. And six months later he called and said he was going to do a night shoot on the rooftop of a hotel on Sunset Strip, to get the lights in the background, and would I come talk again? I couldn’t judge Shane Salerno’s talent yet as a filmmaker, but he certainly got a thumbs up for persistency.
Salerno interviewed a few hundred other people about Salinger and did a cut of his film while Salinger was still alive. I never saw that cut, but I spoke to Shane about it and he enthusiastically told me, “You made the cut.” Then in 2010, Salinger died, and people who had refused to talk to Salerno about him suddenly changed their minds. So Shane had to add these new people to his movie, which then had to be re-edited. With the addition of this new blood, I was sure I was going to end up on the cutting room floor.
No great loss, I figured. I had really been speculating about someone of whom I knew very little. But then I saw the trailer to Salinger and a minute into it, I heard my voice saying something about his army days and then a minute or so later I heard my voice saying something about how tough it was to be a writer. I haven’t seen the film yet, but whether I’m in it or not is not important. I’ll catch it when it comes out, or see it on PBS’s American Masters series next year. As for what I would have asked J.D. Salinger? Same questions anyone who has read his work and would like to read more would have asked.
Just think about it.