Charles Salzberg Derek Alger One on One

portrait Charles Salzberg

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 146 ~ July, 2009

Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer living in New York City whose novel
Swann’s Last Song was recently published by Five Star Mystery
. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, New York
, the New York Times Arts and Leisure, the New York Times
Book Review
, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and numerous other

He is the author of over 20 non-fiction books, including From Set Shot to
Slam Dunk, An Oral History of the NBA
, and On A Clear Day They Could See
Seventh Place, Baseball’s 10 Worst Teams of the Century
(with George
Robinson) and co-author of My Zany Life and Times, by Soupy Sales.

Salzberg has been a Visiting Professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public
Communications at Syracuse University and teaches non-fiction at Sarah Lawrence
College. He currently teaches at the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a
Founding Member, the Writer’s Voice and the Open Center.

Derek Alger: Your novel, Swann’s Last Song, was recently

Charles Salzberg

Charles Salzberg: Recently published, yes, but written almost thirty
years ago. It’s a quirky, literary detective novel and when I first wrote it
nobody would publish it because they hated the ending, which I refused to
change. Twenty-five years later, I dug it up and resubmitted it. Everyone still
hated the ending. But this time, I changed it. I’m working on a sequel now,
Bad Reception…but my agent tells me I’ve got to sell several thousand
copies of Swann before a publishing company will buy the sequel, so a lot
of my time is spent doing something I hate — promotion.

DA: Well, fortunately, this isn’t a promotional interview, but we should
mention you’ve written other novels.

CS: I still think the best thing I’ve ever written is a satirical
novel, Black Magic, but it’s a tough sell. It’s about a very liberal,
middle-aged guy who finds he’s turning conservative, so he goes to a shrink who
turns out to be a black man with a Viennese accent who harangues him in a
combination of street talk and psychoanalytic jargon, as well as dressing up in
various “costumes,” to make his points. It’s very funny and very dark and very
controversial, so like most of what I write, it’s a tough sell.

DA: You grew up in Manhattan. Were you aware of books and writing at an
early age?

CS: Because I was a shy kid, books were my refuge. There was a Rextall
drugstore downstairs on the ground floor of the apartment building where we
lived, with racks of paperback books and I used to stand there, transfixed,
staring at them. I just picked up books that seemed interesting to me. Saul
Bellow’s Seize the Day, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, John
Hershey’s The Wall, Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer, even books by
Sigmund Freud. Sometimes, it was the cover that caught my attention, other
times, the title. I had no idea who I was reading, I just read.

When I got old enough to take the bus downtown, I found a discount
bookstore on 23rd Street, and I used to haunt the place, picking up books for a
buck. Later, a discount bookstore opened up on 58th and Third, I think, called
Marlboro Books, and they had all kinds of great remaindered hardcover books,
many of which I still have. I became friendly with the guy who worked the cash
register. His name was Ron Rector. He was a poet and he used to give me
typewritten poems, which I still have, and I’d give him parts of a novel I was
working on. Years later, I found out he’d changed his name to Liam Rector, and
he’d become a fairly well-known poet.

DA: You were also an avid sports fan.

CS: I was a big baseball fan. First, when I was very young, the Dodgers,
and then after they left Brooklyn, the Mets. Like most kids, I collected
baseball cards, flipped them with other kids — we never really traded them,
just “gambled” them. Of course, like every other kid, my mother tossed them in
the trash one day, probably when I was away at camp.

Generally, though, I played anything with a ball — baseball, basketball,
football, tennis. I was pretty good, and I think that, along with books, got me
through a difficult, rather lonely childhood.

DA: Were your parents much of a literary influence?

CS: No, not at all. I don’t think I ever saw my father read a book, and
my mother didn’t read much either. So there weren’t many books around the house
other than the ones I brought in or those given to me, or my parents. It was
probably my grandmother on my mother’s side who was my biggest literary
influence. She loved books and was a great storyteller.

DA: You were pretty young when you started writing.

CS: I wrote my first “novel” when I was 12 — a roman a clef
but I don’t think I finished it. Something about sleepaway summer camp, which I
knew a lot about, since I’d been going since the age of four. But I was pretty
lazy, so I didn’t write much for school — hated book reports and term papers —
though I did write a story for the high school literary magazine, something very
Freudian about a death wish, I think. Took place on the subway tracks, as I

The truth is, I always wanted to be a writer, not a rich and famous one,
though, just one that got published regularly…and went to lots of literary

DA: Where did you go to college?

CS: Syracuse University. I first went as a history major, but I quickly
realized that if you were an English major you could spend most of your time
reading books, which wasn’t really work. At the time, as they do now, Syracuse
had a great English department. Delmore Schwartz taught there, but when I tried
to sign up for his class I was told he’d taken the semester off. Evidently, that
happened very often — word was that he was too busy drinking to actually teach.
I only took one creative writing class, and I did pretty well in that.

DA: Your writing career took a little detour.

CS: I wanted to get a Masters in Literature, but this was the period of
the Vietnam War, and so the choices were to go to Canada, feign mental illness,
get a student deferment by going to a professional school, or teach (to this
day, I’m not sure which alternative was best.) I chose law school in Boston, but
I only lasted one year — hated it, but stuck it out for the deferment. Then
they took those away, so I wound up teaching emotionally disturbed kids in a New
York City public school. It was tough, because the kids were wards of the city
and were quite violent. But I got along with them pretty well, probably because
I didn’t know what I was doing. And neither did the other draft dodger teachers,
who mostly used their instincts to get to the kids. All free time, though, was
spent working on fiction.

DA: What came next?

CS: When I didn’t have to teach anymore, I found a job in the mailroom at
New York Magazine. It was the lowest job, sorting mail, handing it out,
doing other odd jobs, but it turned out to be great because I met people like
John Simon, Ken Auletta, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, all of whom came through
the mailroonm and chatted with us.

DA: And then you set off to become a writer.

CS: I took a class at the New School, with a fellow named Jim Hoffman.
I’d just finished a novel and I asked him what to do with it. He said he was too
busy to read it but he had a friend who owed him a favor and he’d ask him. I
gave him the manuscript and two weeks later he dropped it on my desk with a
letter from John Bardin, praising the book. Because of that, he gave it to a
friend of his who was an editor at MacMillan. Unfortunately, he was leaving
publishing, and it never went anywhere, but it was a great boost to my

DA: How did you make a living in those early days?

CS: I left New York Magazine after three months because I realized
I didn’t want to be an editor — much too lazy for that — but the job of
freelance writer looked pretty damn good, because you could sleep in and didn’t
have to go out in bad weather. I sold my first two pieces — one to the New
York Daily News
, the other to New York Magazine, and I was off and

But those early days were tough. I lived hand to mouth. And I

remember waiting for the mail, grabbing a check, and then running to the bank it
was drawn on so the money would clear quicker. When friends with real jobs would
ask me to go to a movie and dinner, I’d say I could do one, but not both.
Fortunately, I had a very cheap rent, which was kind of my writer’s subsidy.


DA: How did you eventually escape the tough times?

CS: I started writing celebrity profiles, four or five a year. I got a
reputation for being able to get people to talk who didn’t like being
interviewed. People like Meg Ryan, John Travolta, Amanda Plummer, Kevin Kline,
Timothy Hutton. But I was still writing fiction, fiction that wasn’t selling.


DA: What was your next step forward?

CS: My first three books came accidentally. I’d written an article about
street gambling, 3-card monte, and an agent asked me to write a novel based on
it. I didn’t really want to, but when she said I could make several thousand
dollars, which was a lot of money then, I said yes. I think I wrote it in a
month and I wanted to use a pen name, but they printed the covers before I could
tell them the name I wanted, so I was stuck with my name on it. It was called
Street Gambler, and fortunately, I probably have the only copies left.


A short time after that, I was playing softball for the Dell team in the
publisher’s league and the shortstop, an editor, approached me and said, “I know
you like baseball and you’re a writer, how’d you like to write an unauthorized
biography of Darryl Strawberry?” I jumped at the chance, and at the same time a
friend of mine had to bail out of ghostwriting a book for a famous men’s
designer and she recommended me and I did that book as well.

DA: Your love of sports brought you to the first book you truly wanted to

CS: An editor I knew called and asked me to come up with a sports book
idea and I’d just read The Glory of Their Times, loved it, and thought it
would be a good idea to come up with a similar book about the NBA, which was
only about 40 years old, at the time. That led to From Set Shot to Slam
, which remains one of my favorite books, because I got the opportunity
to interview about a dozen former star basketball players, guys who played in an
era, where they only made five or ten thousand dollars a year.

A few years later, a softball buddy of mine, George Robinson, came up with
the idea of doing a book about baseball’s worst teams, and he asked me to co-
author it with him. The result was, On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh
Place, Baseball’s Worst Teams
, which is going to be reissued by Bison Book
next spring. It was also a great experience, because the truth is, losers are
usually much more interesting than winners.

DA: How did you get into teaching?

CS: Accidentally. A friend’s class was over-subscribed and she asked me
to take the over-run. At first, I balked, but I finally said yes and it was the
best decision I ever made.

DA: That was quite an honor when New York Magazine named you one
of the best teachers in New York City.

CS: It was. And it came as a tremendous surprise, because it’s not
something you lobby for. I didn’t even know they were doing it. I was teaching
at the Writer’s Voice and two other teachers there, Patty Dann and Elaine Equis,
were also named. It was great, because it brought a better caliber writer to my

DA: You must have a great feeling seeing former students come out with
published novels.

CS: People may not believe me, but it’s an even greater thrill than
getting something of my own published. Lauren Weisberger was the first — the
first essay she wrote for class was called “The Devil Wears Pravda,” but
there are many, many more who’ve published either books or articles. In the last
few months, three of my students have published books: Lisa Cohen’s After
, Sally Koslow’s The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, and Andy Raskin’s
The Ramen King and I. And there are more coming up, I’m sure.

DA: You also have a memorable experience from a well-known literary

CS: While I was teaching, I volunteered to work at Antaeus, the literary
magazine run by Dan Halpern. I used to go into the office a couple times a week
and do whatever needed to be done. The biggest thrill was when Dan handed over a
story by Jim Harrison and said, “Take a look at this. If you like it, we’ll
publish it.” I did and they did. One afternoon, I was sitting in the office
alone when a guy walked in and asked for Dan. “He’s upstairs in his apartment,”
I said. “Well, tell him Gerard Malanga’s here to see him.” I had no idea who
that was and what I didn’t know was that Malanga recently reviewed one of Dan’s
books of poetry and savaged it. Anyway, I called Dan and said, “Gerard Malanga’s
here to see you.” “You’re kidding,” he said. “Nope. He’s here,” I replied.
“Hold him there,” Dan said. About three minutes later, Dan bursts through the
door wielding a baseball bat. He takes one look at Gerard and bursts out
laughing. It was his friend, Marvin Bell, playing a joke on him. And, obviously,
on me, too.

DA: You have also published books through Greenpoint Press.

CS: I was working on Jonathan Kravetz’s webzine, Ducts, and we
decided to create our own publishing wing. We called it Greenpoint Press — he
lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and our first book was How Not to Greet Famous
, a compilation of the best writing from the first five years of
Ducts. Since then, we’ve published Gene Kraig’s The Sentence and Richard
Willis’s Long Gone (which is in its second printing and got sensational
reviews — he’s 82 now, and he wrote a memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm in
the 1930s.) And our latest book is Doug Garr’s skydiving memoir, Between
Heaven and Earth

DA: Tell us about Trumpet Night.

CS: Trumpet Night is Jonathan Kravatz’s baby, although he’s now
part of New York Writers Resources. It’s been going on ten years now and the
second Saturday of every month we have three readers at the KGB Bar in the East
Village, which, by the way is owned by a former student, Denis Woychuk.

DA: I can’t forget to ask about California Pizza on 60th Street and Third

CS: It’s my Elaine’s. I love the food, the atmosphere, the people who
work there, and they’ll let me sit there with many friends as long as I want.
What could be better?

DA: You’re pretty involved now, but what are your upcoming plans?

CS: I should say, to work on my sequel to Swann’s Last Song, as
well as send out another novel I’ve just finished, Skin Deep, which is
based on a true crime, a man who killed his entire family, three kids, wife,
mother, dog, then disappeared into thin air. But it’s summer, so I’m probably
going to spend most of my time playing softball, watching softball, going to the
beach, seeing movies, hanging out with friends, and taking a break from
teaching. But you probably shouldn’t print that, so why don’t you just say,
“writing and teaching.”

DA: Okay, we’ll try again. What are you doing this summer?

CS: Writing and teaching.

DA: That’s what I thought.

CS: And you thought right.