In her lovely new memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff takes readers on a tour of mid-1990s New York City—from the hallowed halls of an esteemed literary agency to the not-yet-gentrified streets of Williamsburg—as she settles in to her first real job.
What inspired you to write the book? Is there any significance to the timing of the publication?
This is a surprisingly difficult and complicated question, as My Salinger Year could also be called “The Book I Kept Trying Not to Write!”
The story is this: Many years ago, when I was trying to make my way as a freelance magazine writer—and largely failing—I called the most seasoned, accomplished journalist in my acquaintance, veteran Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, and begged him to have coffee with me, in the hopes that he’d be able to help me find my way. Somehow, we got to talking about my first job, working for J.D. Salinger’s agent, answering his fan mail, and I explained that I began corresponding with some of the fans, and that Salinger decided to publish a new book during my stint at the agency. And Ralph just looked at me and said, “You need to write about this.” I’m not a person who tends to write much about myself—I was working on a novel at the time and all my magazine pieces were straight journalism—so I just sort of laughed nervously, though I knew he was right.
But it took me years to follow his advice, in part because the culture of “the Agency,” as I call it in the book, is one of secrecy. Or perhaps privacy would be a better term. So much of our time and energy was spent protecting Salinger’s privacy. And it was very clear that I was not meant to speak about Salinger outside of the office. It was a bit like working for the CIA.
Anyway, in 2003, I finally wrote a piece—a long essay—on answering Salinger’s fan mail, and I was naively shocked by the response it got! I was in Maine, at a friend’s wedding, when the piece came out, and reporters began calling the house, trying to interview me, purely because I’d met Salinger once. Editors and agents contacted me as well, asking if I’d turn the essay into a book. But I was still working on that novel, and I didn’t want to put it on hold. And I already had an agent, who said, “Listen, if you write a book on Salinger before your novel comes out, you’ll be known as ‘the Salinger Girl.’ That’s not you. We don’t want that. Finish your novel.”
I followed her advice. That novel, A Fortunate Age, came out in 2009. And I began working on another one (Money or Love, which should be complete by the end of this year), but when Salinger died, I wrote another piece about working at the Agency, and was again overwhelmed by the attention it received. That piece was turned into a full-length radio documentary for the BBC, and as I wrote the script for that documentary—and researched both Salinger and his fans, and the era during which I worked for “the Agency”—a larger story, a story of social change, a story about coming of age at the moment the digital revolution arose, began to materialize. When I was approached, again, about turning the story into a book, I still hesitated. For a few months even. But then, one day, the first few pages of the book sort of floated into my head. I sat down and pounded them out, and the narrative arc began to take shape for me. I said yes.
I think the truth is that I needed time. It was almost 20 years ago, now, that I worked at the Agency. I needed those years to see the story for what it was.
"Salinger had never been anything but kind and funny to me on the phone, and after reading his works I found myself, strangely or no, perhaps a bit more nervous about talking to him. A bit more in awe of him. Though since I was the most naïve, awkward, young person ever to have lived, “more nervous” isn’t saying all that much."
Did you consult any of your former colleagues at “the Agency” either while writing the book or later, to let them know it’s coming out? Will it be the first they’ve heard of your personalized responses to Salinger’s fan mail, or did they already know?
I did! Perhaps because one’s first job is such a formative experience, I stayed in touch with a good number of my co-workers from that time. The character known as “Max” in the book is one of my favorite people in the world, and I was glad for the excuse to sit down and talk with him about that time. I also had some long lunches with two of the assistants with whom I worked—one of whom is now a big-deal agent in her own right—and some others, and it was just fascinating to see what people remember and what they don’t. One person remembered, so clearly, all the little physical details of the office: The strange steel cases in which we kept what were known as “cards”—these bits of paper on which we recorded when and where a particular manuscript was sent. The color of the enormous filing cabinets.
Most of the my co-workers still work in publishing, but one, the agent known as James was rather difficult to track down. He’d been at the Agency for something like ten years when I left, and though he had his own office and was taking on clients, he was still officially an assistant. To me, he represented a very particular corner of New York life: He lived on the Upper East Side and wore crisp Brooks Brothers shirts, and his wife was something of a socialite. So I was surprised to discover him living off the grid in Vermont, on a farm, with chickens. I drove up to visit him, and it was wonderful to see this person I remembered as rather tense looking almost exuberant with happiness.
Because I’ve already written a couple of essays on my highly unorthodox responses to the fans, I don’t know if my co-workers will be all that surprised. I heard through the grapevine that my old boss was “tickled” by that first essay I wrote, back in 2003, and I do hope it’s true! At the risk of sounding hokey: I wrote this book from a place of love and admiration. This is not a gossipy tell-all. Or a take-down. It’s not The Devil Wears Prada.
Like you, I first read Salinger in my mid-20s, and so I loved your description of devouring his works in a weekend. How did having read his books impact how you felt about your job? About Salinger, himself?
I say in the book that my boss—and the Agency, as a whole—felt less like a business and more like a temple: There was an almost religious quality to their work, as if Salinger were a god, and the other well-known writers to whom they tended—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, to name a few—were demi-gods. Our job was to protect and serve them, in every way. Before I read Salinger, it was easy for me to scoff at this, but—and this is the truth—after I read his works, I thought, “okay, I get it.” I thought, “he really is a genius. And he really is, in a way, too sensitive—too something—for this world. He needs the Agency’s protection.” My job took on newfound importance. I became a true believer. It was a bit like being inculcated into a cult!
Salinger had never been anything but kind and funny to me on the phone, and after reading his works I found myself, strangely or no, perhaps a bit more nervous about talking to him. A bit more in awe of him. Though since I was the most naïve, awkward, young person ever to have lived, “more nervous” isn’t saying all that much.
What’s behind your decision to refer to your boss as simply “my boss” and the agency as simply “the Agency”?
I struggled, for some time, to find the right tone and style for the book. The first person doesn’t come naturally to me, so that was part of it, but I was also nervous that my story—the story I had to tell—was just so small and insignificant. For the first six months—or year—of working on the book, I had trouble truly immersing myself in it, giving myself over to it.
Meanwhile, I’d been struggling to figure out pseudonyms for all the characters—as I wanted them in place early on, so that I could begin thinking of them more as true characters, if that makes sense—but I couldn’t figure out anything for my boss. As a placeholder, I simply called her “my boss” and in doing so suddenly everything fell into place. Somehow, by calling the agency “the Agency” and my boss “my boss,” it made the story more universal, larger, and allowed me to think of it as something slightly outside myself.
I also, you’ll notice, never name “my college boyfriend.” He’s just “my college boyfriend.”
Typewriters, Dictaphones—What was the single most bizarre practice that you encountered at the Agency?
Oh, gee! How to choose! Well, taking dictation—if that’s the right term for what I did, which was typing letters that my boss had dictated into her recorder—was pretty strange. It feels incredibly intimate, this voice murmuring in your ear. But perhaps the strangest, funniest little task came about when the Agency obtained a computer. One computer for the entire office, with one email account. I was allowed to use the computer purely for Agency business, including checking the Agency email, and printing out any pertinent notes for my boss, who would then dictate responses for me, which I would then type, on my typewriter, and after she approved them, retype them into the computer.
Whatever became of Don? Did he publish his novel?
Don, alas, never found a publisher for his novel. He did, however, publish a nonfiction book—part memoir, part straight nonfiction—about boxing, and another book about Brooklyn. I’ve not read either, but I’m told that I appear in each. As he got older, the age of the women he dated remained the same. (Or so I’m told.) He never married.
You left the Agency after a year. Where was your next position? Have you ever regretted not having chosen the path to becoming a literary agent?
After I left the Agency, I went to work for an agent who’d briefly merged her own independent agency with the Agency. We overlapped just momentarily there, but I really loved her, and when she left the Agency, she offered me a job. Because she was an independent agent—she worked out of her home, a beautiful, enormous apartment overlooking the Hudson—she allowed me more flexibility with hours, which, in turn, allowed me to enroll in Columbia’s MFA program, where I began writing for magazines, under the tutelage of Lis Harris and Alice Quinn. She’s a wonderful person—and a wonderful agent—and became a sort of older sister or aunt figure in my life. I loved her—love her—and loved working for her, but it became abundantly clear to me, during my time with her, that I don’t have the right personality to be an agent. I just don’t have the social or business instincts necessary for that line of work.
So, no, I’ve never regretted not becoming an agent. I’m too fond of sitting in bed, in my pajamas, inventing lives or chronicling my own.
How did your time at the Agency impact your own development as a writer?
In a way, working at the Agency made me a writer. All those letters to the Salinger fans? They lent me confidence and authority. They were my first real works! Somehow, writing as Joanna Rakoff of the Agency—rather than just plain old Joanna Rakoff—allowed me to be more bold and forthright, to jump off a cliff in the way you need to when writing.
But working at the Agency also demystified publishing for me in a profound and important way. Knowing how publishing worked allowed me, as a writer, to simply forget about the business side of writing and just write. I didn’t burn energy worrying or wondering about how to get published. The Agency taught me that good work gets published. My job was simply to make my work as good as it could possibly be. Not to worry about how it would get out in the world.
If you had to choose one adjective to describe your “Salinger Year,” what would it be, and why?
Transformative. Exhilarating. Fun. (That’s three. Sorry.)
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m working on a novel, Money or Love, about a trio of families whose lives have been wrecked—in different ways—by the economic crisis of 2008. Cheerful, I know! But I love these characters—even the banker who ends up making money off his neighbors’ bad loans; even the awful, emotionally frozen loser husband, who’d rather let his wife apply for food stamps than get a blue-collar job—and I look forward to spending time with them every day. I keep hoping I can find a happy ending for them. . . .
Author photo credit David Ignaszewski.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.