Shane Salerno Talks About Chasing the Elusive J.D. Salinger


Millions know J.D. Salinger's work -- after all, his 50+-year-old Catcher in the Rye still regularly appears on bestsellers lists and is the topic of countless teenage discussions in and out of the classroom. But it is his personal life that has always been more than a little mysterious.

A supposed recluse -- Salinger "disappeared" to a small town in New Hampshire at the height of his fame -- he never published after 1965. And while there were sightings of and occasional sound bites from him -- not to mention several biographies, tell-alls and who knows how many blogs -- only bits and pieces of his life have been revealed.

In his brand new movie and book, Salinger, screenwriter Shane Salerno and author David Shields pulled all those bits, and many others, together into a fascinating oral history that even those who wouldn't know a Franny from a Zooey will love. Salerno spoke with me about how and why he took on this 9+ year project.


Salinger Dog
J.D. Salinger in a never-before-seen photo with his dog, Benny.
Credit: Paul Fitzgerald/The Story Factory


Sara Nelson: Are you one of those Salinger nuts, obsessed since childhood with everything about him?

Shane Salerno: My mom always talked about Salinger when I was growing up in Washington, DC and San Diego. We always shared a great love of books, and do to this day. But the thing about Salinger, she would say, is that it is half about the work and half about the mystique. I mean, he wouldn't allow himself to be photographed for TIME magazine! It was just all very interesting... and then when I started to read the work, I was taken with Catcher in the Rye, and fell head first for the Glass family [characters from Franny and Zooey]. So, I was a passionate fan, but knew very little about his life.

Then when I started to find out about his life... when I found out that J.D. Salinger landed [as a soldier] on D-Day, it blew my mind. When I found out that the love of J.D. Salinger's life dumped him for Charlie Chaplin on her eighteenth birthday (or shortly thereafter), it blew my mind. I had to make this movie and write this book. They had me at hello. To show you how naïve I was, I thought this project would take six months and cost $300,000. It cost more than $2 million and consumed nine and a half years of my life. I really got hooked.

SN: There has been a lot of material floating around, in books and elsewhere, about Salinger's life: there are several biographies, many articles; his daughter Margaret wrote a book, his one-time girlfriend Joyce Maynard has written about him, etc. But you managed to pull together all the pieces and add some new ones. How and why did people who'd never spoken talk to you?

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Comments (3)

I wrote a letter to J. D. in 1980 and much to my surprise I received a telephone call from him on a January afternoon and he asked if he could come to my home. I live in Claremont, NH which only about 5 miles from his home in Cornish. First of all, I thought it was a prank call and reluctantly agreed to let him visit me in my home. I have never written about this meeting before now because he asked me not to. He was very upset with a girl named Shirley Blaney because she had published his interview. So until now very few people know about my meeting with him and perhaps when I mention it now they think it's the rantings of a senile old lady Looking forward to reading the book. Best wishes, Janice

Posted by: Janice M. Richmond | Wednesday August 28, 2013 at 4:53 PM

In my opinion, Salinger's "contradictory", recluse existence- a timeless mystery- is a thing of beauty that reveals the complexities harbored within the writer's mind. After his unintentional rise to fame from constructing Holden Caulfield, one can hardly imagine the sort of pressure he felt to live up to his own namesake in the book business. Nothing takes the pleasure out of writing novels like writing with a leaden pen, strained by the expectations of the masses. Ultimately, his actions are no different than Rowling's recent attempt to write under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. True artists require the satisfaction of knowing that their work can stand alone without their name splashed on the cover. Thus, publishing posthumously seems no different than hiding behind a pseudonym. Salinger was a lover of the written word; he wrote for the benefit of literature, not the hype of the masses.

Posted by: Hannah Watt | Sunday September 1, 2013 at 8:43 PM

With the new Salinger doc coming out this week, I may have to re-read "Catcher in the Rye". Simply because at the time I read it I never saw what the hell was so special about it. The main character complains for the whole book. When I attended writing workshops, I discovered that more people wanted to write like this and I dubbed it "complaining fiction". Hey, I got problems too but I could never relate to anything from Holden Caulfield. So sorry if I say that "Catcher" is an over-rated book.

Posted by: 12-String Frank | Tuesday September 3, 2013 at 11:13 AM

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