Q: What motivated you to write Burning the Days?
A: The death of an old friend made memories of him and his wife suddenly poignant. We had been very close, the three of us, just after the war. He was an Air Force officer in Hawaii and so was I. Rather than make fiction of it, I wrote the story truthfully. It was published in Esquire as "The Captain’s Wife" and impressed my editor at Random House, Joe Fox, sufficiently to have him encourage me to write in the same manner of other people and places–the world as I had known it, essentially, from about 1930 to 1980, things worth recalling–and this became the book.
Q: In describing the process of writing A Sport and a Pastime, you once wrote "it seemed that the book alread existed, and it remained for me only somehow to copy it down." In the introduction to Burning the Days you explained that this was a more difficult book to write. Why was that?
A: Truth that is not invented makes stricter demands. There was research of the kind that a biographer might do. I went back to places I had not seen for decades, read old letters and clippings, journals. Also I probably felt I was more or less drawing a line beneath my life, making a summation of it.
Q: For years you have requested that your earliest novels, The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh, remain out of print. But next summer Vintage will re-issue The Hunters. What caused this change of heart?
A: The Hunters was my first published novel. Sometimes a first book is a writer’s best book–James Jones among others comes to mind–but in my case this wasn’t so. I felt uncomfortable about offering yet another novel to a satiated public, even a novel that had been thought respectable, but was finally persuaded by Jack Shoemaker, at Counterpoint, to republish the book after it had been revised and made more mature. It turned out that Shoemaker knew more than I did, and the Vintage edition is this revised and improved one.
Q: You were born in Manhattan. When you visit the city today, does it seem worlds removed from the city that you knew in your youth?
A: Not really. Most of Manhattan seems completely familiar, the avenues, the rivers, the parks. Most certainly the subway, but above all the city’s great heartlessness and style.
Q: After attending Horace Mann why did you decide to attend West Point?
A: My father, as Burning the Days relates, went to West Point. To please him I took the exams. The war had just begun. I was too young to be drafted but I imagined myself as an officer in combat.
Q: The Los Angeles Times wrote that your "account of air combat in Korea…stands as a masterpiece of battle writing in this century." Burning the Days covers so many periods in your life. Why do you think critics and readers keep coming back to the flying passages?
A: Some critics and some readers. But it is not my intention to argue with them. Perhaps the chapters–there are three of them–stand out because of their unfamiliarity.
Q: Do you still fly?
A: Only as a reluctant passenger.
Q: Richard Ford and Michael Ondaatje, among others, have cited you as an inspiration for their writing. Who were some of the writers who have influenced you?
A: The writers who influenced me no longer matter; they have been absorbed, so to speak. Some of them affected me for their lives as well as their work. A life can light the way. I like Japanese writers: Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima. Also Isaac Babel.
Q: How would you compare the New York publishing industry to the Hollywood film world that you describe so vividly in your memoir?
A: They are difficult to compare although alarming links are beginning to appear. Hollywood–movies–are an industry while publishing remains something of a profession. In New York a writer has his picture taken. In Los Angeles that only happens when he or she is getting a driver’s license.
Q: So many memoirs have been published in the last decade. In fact a growing number of writers are choosing to write non-fiction instead of fiction to express themselves these days. Why do you think this is so?
A: Partly the fashion, partly, perhaps, the desire for intimacy on the reader’s side. There may be other reasons. No life that has not been written about has been truly lived, Gertrude Stein said. Consciously or not, perhaps writers are obeying that, scribbling on the pages of history, hoping to make it as a miniscule citation.
Q: John Irving wrote that Burning the Days was better than most good novels and as good as some great ones. Would you comment on that?
A: I wanted the book to read like a novel and so I am particularly pleased by the suggestion that it does, overstatement aside.