Thursday, January 28, 2010

I was the last person who interviewed Salinger: Part 1

Salinger is dead. He mattered most to people like me - young American men, who recommend books to girls they want to impress. But he was a master, whose passing everyone should mourn. He changed the poetry of American short stories - the rhythm of everything we read. He invented italics and emphasis. He ruled dialogue and detail.

He was, for the last forty years, a recluse. We know little about his work since he went into open hiding. The hope I have - and I am sure thousands of others also - is that he really did continue to write and that we will one day, soon, see what he's been creating.

My advice for everyone: read Catcher in the Rye again. Read his short stories. Read Franny and Zooey. These books change you more than any other fiction I know. This sounds silly, pretentious - and I am sure will draw scoffs and loathing. But trust me - I am no Salinger absolutist. His work isn't perfect. I hate much of it, most of the time. But there's something in it - magic - and it is powerful. It is sad, and wonderful and huge.

Just after my dad died, last summer, I began writing to JD Salinger. I am not sure if this was missplaced longing for the mysterious artist man in my life I had just lost, or some striking new ambition which I knew I needed to chase. But it sure felt like destiny. For weeks, I tortured over how to write the first letter. I had hundreds of drafts and ideas. And nothing felt like anything he'd want to read.

Ultimately I came up with a crazy idea. Anyone who reads JD's work knows he's into little girls. This is undeniable. (Up for debate is whether this desire is sexual, or simply envy and adoration of innocence. That the young women he displays so affectionately - seductively - are icons of his longing for things lost).

I became consumed with this idea, and I convinced myself the only way to reach him was to exploit Salinger's dark side.

I began writing him love letters under guise of a young Italian-American girl named Valentina. Raven haired, tall and clumsy, precocious. She was the archetype Salinger Doll. To him, I sent her love, her wonder, her guessing games.

"Dear Mr. Salinger - thank you for your lovely letter. I have told my mother about my penpal and she is very curious about you. I shall never tell her the stupendous truth of course - it would not seem right to give you away. Not just yet, anyway. [...] By the way, I was curious the other night: What exactly is a bananafish? [...]"

And months later, this last fall, I received a letter from Salinger and his legal handlers. A stamped-envelope from a Manhattan legal firm, addressed to my Valentina. An invitation to come visit him in Cornish, N.H. His home, "to meet each other and chat."

I don't want to spend much more words here, or time. I am presently producing the documentary of my trip to meet Salinger. I brought with me two cameras, a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye and a friend of mine - a 20-something Jewish girl, who was tall and petite enough to pass as the Valentina, and I met the man who no one else could in nearly half a decade.

I want to say simply that I feel awful for the deceit, that I have no feelings of pride or happiness about my conquest. And I fear with a tender, submerged heart, that as Salinger faded away this morning, the last words escaping from his broken-hearted lips were whispers. "Valentina. Valentina."


- Tobin Dalrymple

To be continued

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