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Shane Salerno on chasing the Salinger mystique

NEW YORK (Reuters) - J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" is about as well-known as an American novel gets. More than 60 years after its publication, the book is ubiquitous in high schools and bookstores.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" is about as well-known as an American novel gets. More than 60 years after its publication, the book is ubiquitous in high schools and bookstores.

The author himself is more of a mystery. That is what drew filmmaker and writer Shane Salerno to trace the biography of an American literary lion.

The research resulted in two works - a documentary, directed and written by Salerno, and a biography, written by Salerno and David Shields. Both are titled "Salinger."

The works focus on Salinger himself, ranging from the idea, which Salerno calls untrue, that the writer was a recluse, to the long-lasting effects of World War Two, the wounds of which echo through Salinger's books.

Salerno spoke to Reuters about following Salinger's life, the author's reclusive reputation and why he took on the project.

Q. Tell me about the genesis of this project.

A. When I was a kid, J.D. Salinger was a very big deal in my house, a very big deal. I would always ask my mom about him because she always talked about him, and I finally got to an age where she felt I could read his stuff.

I think I was a little younger than most kids. And I just really fell in love with the work, and I remember asking her when I'd read everything: 'What's next? Where do we go get the new Salinger book?' And my mother said, 'There are no more books.' And I said, 'Well, did he die?' This was before Google. This was the early 80s. And she said: 'No, he just stopped publishing. He disappeared.'

That made him like the literary Bigfoot in my house. It was probably the best thing you could tell a teenage boy. It was very dramatic.

Q. Has your reading of Salinger changed over time? And has that happened as you've learned more about Salinger himself?

A. Whenever we spoke with people who knew what we were doing, it was interesting to see how people's perceptions of Salinger had changed.

Holden (Caulfield, the protagonist of "The Catcher in the Rye") is a really good example. When you read Holden as a young man or young woman, it just feels like you and him are side by side in the world, and that he's not writing to you. He is actually writing your thoughts. He is actually saying your thoughts.

When you read it as an adult, it's interesting, there's that part, but you also realize how young Holden is and things Holden doesn't understand yet. So your experience with Salinger does change.

As far as the other work, World War Two was really the ghost in the machine of all of Salinger's work. When you understand what his war experience meant to him, you understand those stories. You understand why they're filled with suicide and depression, why they're so anti-war, why they're so focused on innocence and the loss of innocence.

Q. Where did this construction of J.D. Salinger come from, this recluse construction?

A. It was perpetuated by Salinger himself, and that's something that the film and the book go into. J.D. Salinger was a recluse who came out of hiding to remind people he was a recluse, 'Hey, I'm a recluse.'

I have extraordinary respect for the man, but this was not an accurate label for him. You can't have a one-way dialogue with the world. ... I was trying to tell the full story of J.D. Salinger's incredible life, honor his work, but also be honest about how he lived his life.

Q. Where does people's protectiveness with Salinger come from?

A. People find Salinger at such a critical point of their life, as a teenager or in college or just after college when they're really trying to figure the world out, and he is a seminal figure in their life.

It goes beyond the work, it goes to him. They ascribe the purity of his writing to him, and they ascribe a protectiveness as a result, and so they're fiercely loyal as readers and fiercely loyal as guardians of Salinger, and I respect that.

I didn't spend a decade of my life on this to tear him down. I wanted there to be a record of his life. A large portion of the people that I interviewed have passed away since the film was finished. If I hadn't filmed them when I did, those stories would have been gone forever.

(Reporting by Luciana Lopez; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Peter Cooney)