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EXCLUSIVE! J. D. Salinger: The Final Interview

August 18, 2011

In December 2009, I traveled to Detroit to interview Mitch Albom, the Greatest Writer of Our Time—or, as I like to call him, the Thomas Kinkade of the Typewriter. Albom had just published his epic 73-page memoir, Gill: The Goldfish Who Taught Me to Love, and I was anxious to find out what made him tick. (Turns out: Money! And robotic innards!) On the flight back to Manchester, New Hampshire, I sat next to an elderly gentleman, neatly dressed in khakis and a red cardigan, fast asleep in his seat. Once we were airborne, he began to stir, and I was immediately struck by the character of his lined face, his healthy crop of distinguished white hair, and the quartet of empty Jack Daniels minibottles on the floor next to his feet. Seemingly oblivious to my presence, he began to page through the most recent issue of the New Yorker (occasionally clucking and shaking his head with what I took to be distaste), produced another bottle from his pocket, and twisted it open. As he emptied it in a single gulp, I was thunderstruck by a sudden flash of recognition. Here, just inches from me, was a man I’d been waiting to meet, who would provide the crowning touch for the greatest coup of my literary career—my forthcoming coffee-table book, To See or Not to See: People Who Choose the Window Seat (to be published by Phaidon, December 2011). In the course of seven years of tireless work on the manuscript, I’d interviewed hundreds of men, women, and children across the globe about their seat preferences—window, middle, aisle, exit row, bulkhead, you name it. Here, clearly, was a person who had chosen the window seat; or perhaps the window seat had chosen him. That’s what I hoped to find out.

In the nearly two years since the interview took place, several scholars and editors have reviewed the transcript. I have been roundly criticized for, in the words of one commentator, “squandering the opportunity of a lifetime.” Another called it “the worst interview in the history of interviews, including all interviews yet to be conducted, regardless of time, place, subject, or species.” To which I say: Whatever. All I know is, I made a new friend, and also ordered a fake rock, with a little secret compartment to hide a house key in, from the SkyMall catalog. Read the interview below, and judge for yourself whether it really is, as the New York Times put it, “a new low in clueless, sub-literate idiocy.” And say hello the next time you see me in business class. I’ll be sitting on the aisle, since it’s easier to use the bathroom.

* * * * *

Hi. I can’t help but notice you chose the window seat.
[Looks up] Pardon?

You’re sitting in the window seat.
Yes. It allows me to control the shade. Sometimes I want it closed, when I want to sleep. But sometimes I want it open, to look out. It’s not too bad when the sun’s out, but the sun only comes out when it feels like coming out.

Fantastic! You know, I’m really interested in people who choose the window seat. Would you mind if I interviewed you?
[Long pause] Let me tell you something, kid. An hour ago, I told some asshole who tried to take my picture to go fuck himself. All morons hate it when you call them a moron. But you know what? I’m in a good mood now, and I feel like talking. I’m getting older. I’m not going to live forever. When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

I know, right? Because, why not just give me the money now and let me get something I really want? So you don’t mind if I ask you some questions?
I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You go ahead and ask me anything you want. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. It’ll feel good to finally let it all out. All I ask is that you go swipe me some more of those pretzels.

“What do you do, Jerry?”

You got it! [Gets up, returns one minute later with a double handful of tiny bags]
Thanks, kid. [Opens a bag, empties it into mouth, chews, swallows] OK, shoot.

First: What’s your name?
You can just call me Jerry.

What do you do, Jerry?
I’m a writer.

Oh, yeah? Anything I might have read?
I don’t know. I don’t usually carry my own books around, but I happened to find one that someone left behind on the shuttle bus. I mean, what are the odds? Do you know it? [Pulls a red paperback from his satchel, hands it to me] You can have it. I’ll sign it for you, if you like.

“Catcher in the Rye.” Hmm, yeah, I hate rye bread. [Hands it back] You know what’s good? That honey oat they have at Subway. But I hate their commercials.
Well, I have to disagree with you there. That fat kid Jared is all right.*

“I hate rye bread”

Anyway, I have my hands full with this new book by Mitch Albom. The goldfish one. I’m almost halfway through. Do you know him? Now, there’s a great writer. I just interviewed him. I could probably introduce you, if you wanted.
Well, thanks, but I’m kind of out of the loop with the younger generation of writers. It’s better if you don’t take the book. [Puts it back in satchel] Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.

[Pause]

So, I guess you’ve already explained why you chose the window seat.
Yes.

Umm … seen any good movies lately?
I don’t go out to the movies anymore. They’re all a bunch of goddam phonies in Hollywood. I get Netflix, though. I’ve been watching The Wire on DVD. Good show. I’m halfway through the fourth season. I like that Kima. She’s a sassy one. I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.

You should try Jersey Shore.
I finished writing my twenty-ninth novel in a cottage on Cape May a few years ago. A lovely place on a secluded point. A man can think in a place like that, with no one around to bother him.

The best part is when they go to the clubs and start fist pumping. You ever do that?
No. But I fought at Utah Beach, and in the Battle of the Bulge, during World War II. That’s what the novel was about, in fact. Twenty-four hours in the life of a soldier during the D-Day invasion, before he’s shot in the head. Sort of my take on Ulysses. It was a new direction for me. Probably the best thing I’ve ever written.

“He didn’t flush it”

Awesome. Do you know what Mitch Albom did when he found his goldfish floating in the bowl? He didn’t flush it. He gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And damned if it didn’t work. And then he ended up overfeeding it, and it died anyway, but at least he learned to love.
That’s quite a story.

I’ll say. Bill Paxton is going to play Mitch in the movie, and Leo DiCaprio is going to be the goldfish.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

I did that with Mitch, until he changed to an unlisted number.
I met up with Hemingway in Europe during the war, and he was very kind and helpful to me.

You know what’s another good movie? That one with Mariel Hemingway, where she plays the lesbian runner who tries to get into the Olympics. There’s some wild girl-on-girl stuff in that. They used to play it on cable a lot.
Mariel is a very talented actress, and a good friend. In fact, she gave me some of her grandfather’s private, unpublished manuscripts, and one became the basis of my seventeenth novel, which is both a completion of Hemingway’s novel and a fictionalized account of the process of its completion. The structure is quite unusual. It’s one of my more experimental efforts.

Neat. You want an Altoid? I have some right here. I really like the ginger ones.
No, thank you.

“Spearmint is usually my second choice”

But I won’t even touch the cinnamon ones. Those are just awful. They never should have invented them.
People are always ruining things for you. Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.

Spearmint is usually my second choice, then the plain ones, I guess they’re peppermint, then wintergreen.
I see.

I’ll eat the licorice ones, but I really have to be in the mood for those.
It’s good that you have so many options.

You know, I’d love to rap some more, but the chapter I just finished in Mitch’s book was kind of a cliffhanger, and I’m really anxious to find out what kind of fish he ends up buying for his new aquarium, and whether he loves it.
I understand.

Thanks for talking to me, though. My editor told me I needed two more pages for the book, and this should do it. Watch for it. I already got an invite from Oprah.
My pleasure. I am always saying “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though. But I actually like you, kid.

Thanks, Jerry. Same here. And keep at the writing. You’ll make it someday.
I will, thank you.

*UPDATE, 2015: That fat kid Jared is not all right.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 2:09 am

    Har! Where can I get whatever you’re on? Don’t you just hate people who hog the window seat and never look out?

    • August 18, 2011 12:03 pm

      Read Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Then get five years of psychotherapy for your murderous rage. Or, start a blog. Cheaper.

  2. August 18, 2011 3:07 am

    Who doesn’t love the window seat? If you’re worried about excusing yourself to go to the bathroom, then go early before the flight starts. You can lean against the side of the plane and stare at the clouds… amazing!

    About your interview: Spearmint for me. Everything else in the interview was completely irrelevant to the pressing matter of choosing the right flavor to get that kick.

    • August 18, 2011 11:57 am

      I began to love Altoids even more when they started printing little jokes on the inner paper wrapper. (The tin next to me as I’m writing this has one that says “Wave this in case of surrender.”) They should do this with toilet paper. I love to read in the john.

      I’m definitely a window seater (not in the john). But I occasionally take the aisle seat, as here, in the cause of satire. It’s people who actually prefer the center seat who are really disturbing. I mean, insecurity issues, much?

      • sonnypi67 permalink
        August 18, 2011 12:06 pm

        Didn’t know Altoids did that. How cool. I wonder if I can get a job writing those. Hmmmm….

        You toilet paper idea sounds like a winner to me. Who doesn’t like to read in the john?

      • August 18, 2011 12:16 pm

        Altoids wrappers are the new fortune cookie. As for novelty toilet paper … I can’t understand why it never caught on more. It says “classy” and “wipe the seat when you’re done” at the same time.

  3. August 18, 2011 7:54 am

    Leo as a goldfish? That has academy award written all over it. And, blah, yuck– yeah the cinnamon altoids are just terrible. Oh, and cemeteries–what is up with that? Don’t get it either. Buy me flowers when I’m alive so I might have a chance to enjoy them. That has to be the most informative interview of all-time. Take that, Oprah.

    • August 18, 2011 11:55 am

      It’s always been a dream of mine to make fun of Mitch Albom, Thomas Kinkade, and Oprah in the same post, while singing the praises of ginger Altoids. Today is like Mardi Gras for me.

  4. sonnypi67 permalink
    August 18, 2011 8:43 am

    Brilliant. Mitch Albom is under-appreciated.

    • August 18, 2011 11:53 am

      Not by goldfish. Dude will write anything to sell another book.

  5. August 18, 2011 10:38 am

    Robotic innards! is exactly right.

    • August 18, 2011 11:52 am

      My great hope is that Albom reads this interview, begins to cry, and rusts himself into immobility, like the Tin Man.

      • sonnypi67 permalink
        August 18, 2011 11:56 am

        That would be awesome. Hope someone documents it.

      • August 18, 2011 12:13 pm

        That’s why God invented YouTube.

  6. August 18, 2011 3:37 pm

    You are a riot! This reads like a SNL skit. Too freaking hilarious for words!!

  7. August 18, 2011 3:54 pm

    Thanks. Dan Aykroyd or Phil Hartman would have made a great Salinger. I loitered outside JDS’s house in Cornish, NH a few times when he was still alive, but never caught a glimpse. He had quite a huge mailbox, though (true).

    • sonnypi67 permalink
      August 18, 2011 4:35 pm

      Stalking JD Salinger — could be a title of a book….

      • August 19, 2011 1:56 pm

        There must be a lot of people who have made the pilgrimage. JDS also showed up in Hanover (home of Dartmouth) from time to time, and shopped at the bookstore there.

  8. August 18, 2011 4:44 pm

    I don’t think Jerry was really forthcoming about his motivation for taking the window seat. The window shade? Really? Talk about trite!

    But I think the important thing here is, Altoids used to have little mints that were covered in real chocolate. Boy, do I miss those.

    • August 19, 2011 2:18 pm

      The chocolate-dipped Altoids never really worked for me. Two things that are better apart than together.

  9. sonnypi67 permalink
    August 18, 2011 5:10 pm

    It seems clear that you need to to an in-depth retrospective on Altoids.

    • August 19, 2011 1:57 pm

      People disappoint you sometimes, but dogs and Altoids never do. Except for the cinnamon ones.

  10. August 19, 2011 10:37 am

    I really like the window seat, but it doesn’t usually work well when you have bladder incontinence…unless of course you don’t like the person sitting next to you.

    • August 19, 2011 1:58 pm

      That’s probably a lot more effective than poking someone in the ribs.

  11. August 20, 2011 2:44 pm

    [confused]

    “the Thomas Kinkade of the Typewriter” = ironic complement?

  12. infinite monkey theorem permalink
    August 23, 2011 1:13 pm

    Well…I’ve spent so much time impaling Koons, I never got to his frighteningly earnest little bro, the “painter of shite”, and now thanks to the satirical stylings of the japier with the rapier…wit! I don’t have to! (brb…scratching that one off my list!) Brilliant post Sir! You remind me of a young Olivier in your gripping performance as the clueless young isle seater! Bravo!

  13. August 24, 2011 9:54 pm

    “Japier with the rapier” automatically makes you my BFF. I now have an epitaph. And, don’t tell anyone, but I had Vivien Leigh long before Olivier got to her. She cooked a mean dinner, but was even better at breakfast. If you know what I mean. As in sleeping over and then making home fries the next morning. As God was my witness, I never went hungry again.

  14. August 27, 2011 11:50 am

    “The Thomas Kinkade of the typewriter”! Well done! You spoke my language from the very first line.

    I’ve never been big on Salinger because I realized I’m most certainly one of those phonies of which he writes with such disdain.

    • August 30, 2011 12:32 am

      You know, “The Phony Greatsby” has kind of a nice ring. I like the idea of a Fitzgerald-Salinger mashup. It’s not such a long drive from West Egg to Manhattan. Especially in a swanky yellow Rolls-Royce.

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