Vol. 110 (2021)

A Conversation with Novelist Jerome Charyn



Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author with a loyal international following. An in-depth interview with him was recently highlighted on the cover Rolling Stone magazine (French edition). With more than 50 books to his credit, he is known as an inventive and prolific chronicler of the real and imagined lives of famous historical figures and for his Isaac Sidel crime novels.


He was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the American University of Paris.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with Jerome Charyn in New York City to discuss his latest novel.


STAY THIRSTY: In your latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, you reimagine the life of J.D. Salinger, one of the most elusive writers of the 20th century. After novels about Teddy Roosevelt, Jerzy Kosinski, Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln, what drew you to Salinger?


JEROME CHARYN: I first heard about Salinger when I was in the High School of Music and Art. A kid from the Bronx in a muscle tee-shirt, I listened while all the middle-class damsels talked about a writer that they read in The New Yorker. I’d never heard of The New Yorker, but I was interested in these damsels and I was a very quick learner. By this time Salinger’s story collection had been published and I fell in love with For Esmé—with Love and Squalor. This was the Salinger I wanted to write about – the mentally woeful Sergeant X. And when biographies and documentaries about Salinger began to appear a while ago, I summoned up my love of this very secretive man, and decided I wanted to write about his years in World War II, when he was shell-shocked and lost.



STAY THIRSTY: As a novelist, what research do you do in advance of a book about an historical figure? Did you ever meet Salinger or speak with people who knew him well?


JEROME CHARYN: I never met Salinger, but I did speak with someone who had known him. That wasn’t the real point, I learned nothing at all, except that Salinger had very big ears. Mostly I read what I could about him, and put my own Sherlock Holmes, Lenore, on the case. She uncovered the secrets of Salinger’s sister for me, and that was a helpful entrée into the novel.



STAY THIRSTY: How did you go about handling the complex personality of Salinger in crafting your story?


JEROME CHARYN: Every personality is complex. I became Salinger and splashed around blindly in the sea until I found his shape and his form. It’s always a mystery. Most often you fail. Sometimes you succeed.

Jerome Charyn

STAY THIRSTY: What was it about Salinger's life experiences that intrigued you the most? Were there instances where you, as a writer, felt his triumphs and disappointments as if they were your own?


JEROME CHARYN: I loved the idea that he ran away from fame. That he insisted on his own invisibility. We don’t know how many manuscripts he has hidden away in his bunker. Perhaps there are none. But he sat there, writing every day, like a good soldier.



STAY THIRSTY: Salinger seemed to have a strong attraction to very young women rather than contemporaries. What was the psychological balance he sought to achieve? Was he scarred by the failure of his marriages?


JEROME CHARYN: I think he first fell in love with Oona O’Neill, a sixteen-year-old debutante and the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. She ran off to Hollywood and married Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 – she had a hundred children with him, perhaps two hundred. When she skinned Salinger alive with her disappearance, every other woman he met was an emanation of her, or Oona’s ghost. But ghosts can’t make love and they can’t really soothe you.



STAY THIRSTY: What influence did Salinger's participation in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II in Europe have on his writing and on his life? How did his post-War mental state influence your development of his character in Sergeant Salinger?


JEROME CHARYN: If he hadn’t gone through World War II, as a rifleman and a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), I don’t think I would have been interested in writing about him. The war ruined him as a man, and created him as a writer. We have so many war novels like The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity, full of heroism and masculine guile, but For Esmé—with Love and Squalor is the most painful story I’ve ever read about the war. There are no heroes. There are only wounded souls.



STAY THIRSTY: Ernest Hemingway, columnist Walter Winchell and Oona O'Neill begin your story in a magnetic scene at the legendary Stork Club in New York. Why did you start your book with a very young J.D. Salinger thrust so abruptly into the epicenter of New York celebrity life? Is it a true account or a reimagined meeting?


JEROME CHARYN: It is both true and reimagined. He did attend the Stork Club with Oona, who was debutante of the year, but he despised the place, and I tried to show it in the novel. I thought it was a good entry point into his life and his love for Oona. He may have met Hemingway at the Stork Club, but he certainly did meet him several times during the war. Hem was one of his great literary heroes. He is also one of mine. But I only like the Hemingway that did stark beautiful work when he was freezing his ass off as a young man in Paris cafés. 



STAY THIRSTY: After spending so much time with J.D. Salinger in writing this novel, how do you feel about him as a writer and as a man?


JEROME CHARYN: I love his early stories, but I’m not that fond of the recluse that he became. Did he really master his seclusion? We will never know.




Jerome Charyn   



All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.