by John Geddes
Friday, January 29, 2010
The death of J. D. Salinger prompted many to call to mind the voice of his most indelible character, Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old hero of The Catcher in the Rye.
But more than a few readers were also able to call up Salinger himself as a fictional character. The reclusive author comes to life in Shoeless Joe, the compelling 1982 novel by W. P. Kinsella that was later adapted into the hit movie Field of Dreams.
Kinsella spoke to me today from his home in Yale, B.C., about not only reading Salinger, but also writing him.
Q. When did you first read The Catcher in the Rye?
A. It came out in 1951 so I would have been 16. It was probably at least a year or two later when I read it, probably in Grade 12.
Q. Was everybody reading it?
A. God no. I was in Edmonton. We didn’t study any literature in school. One Shakespeare play and one J. M. Barrie play was the total literature of my high school years.
Q. So how did you discover Catcher?
A. I’ve just always been a reader. I went to every dramatic production that came to Edmonton, which was probably about four a year, and every high school year play. I read and worked in the library in Grade 12.
Q. Did you feel like you were Holden Caulfield?
A. It spoke to every young man who read it. You may not have acted on it but you said, yes would have liked to have done that or I felt that way. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards.
Q. But that voice…
A. Oh yes—“My stupid life…”
Q. Can you remember how you came up with the idea of writing Salinger into Shoeless Joe?
A. I was sending my character off on a quest of some kind and I had always been a fan of Salinger’s, who of course made himself conspicuous by hiding, and I just thought, “What would happen if…”, which is what writers are thinking all their lives. What would happen if he went off to New Hampshire and kidnapped Salinger and took him to a baseball game?
Q. Why Salinger? Was he a big influence on your writing at that time?
A. Of course The Catcher In the Rye is the quintessential book about growing up male in America. But his writing never really influenced mine. There’s a lot of false information out there on the Net that we were friends and that sort of thing. I never met him.
Q. You never had any contact at all?
A. His lawyers wrote my publisher’s lawyers saying he was outraged and offended to be portrayed in the novel and they would be very unhappy if it were transferred to other media. Which was legalese for, We really don’t have enough to sue you, but we’ll try to pee on your parade if you try to take it to television or the movies. So the movie people [behind Field of Dreams] were too chicken to use Kinsella as a character, so they created Terence Mann.
Q. To me, losing Salinger took something away from the story.
A. Their feeling was that probably only 15 per cent of the movie-goers would have any idea who Salinger was anyway.
Q. That’s a sad thought.
A. Many, many people [who have read Shoeless Joe] think Salinger is a fictional character, that I invented the whole thing. They have no idea that he’s real.
Q. Did you try to make your Salinger like the real guy?
A. He was pretty much an imagined Salinger, apart from being a recluse. I made sure to make him a nice character so that he couldn’t sue me.
Q. The book’s main character is named Ray Kinsella. Many readers understandably think that must be basically you.
A. Ray Kinsella is not named for me. He’s named for a character in one of Salinger’s stories. It’s an uncollected story called “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All.”
Q. So did you start out deciding to put Salinger in your novel, or to use the name Ray Kinsella from his story?
A. I said, What would happen if I used Salinger? Then I thought, Well, I’d better know as much about him as I possibly can—maybe there’s some interesting details I can work into the book. I re-read everything of his just looking for some ideas. I discovered he had used the name Kinsella twice in his work. Richard Kinsella in The Catcher in the Rye, who is the garrulous friend of Holden, and Ray Kinsella, from this uncollected short story.
Q. Salinger was obviously a major cultural figure. You’ve had the experience of being a widely read novelist, quite famous. Do you think the era when writers of fiction can occupy that sort of place is coming to an end?
A. I don’t think it’s as possible as it was thirty or forty or fifty years ago. Somebody said Catcher in the Rye has sold 60 million copies, which is phenomenal. The publishing industry today is just—I couldn’t break into the market today if I was just starting out. The publishing industry is down to a few dozen mainly adventure and romance writers. There’s still some academic fiction out there, but it has an incredibly small audience. Nobody really cares about it.
On a reasonably related note, here's the rather neat cover graphic for the Indian release of Kenneth Slawenski's rather excellent Salinger biography (which you ought to buy, if you haven't had the sense to get one already):