Interview: Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year

by Lori M. Myers, Senior Interviews Editor

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joanna rakoffThe life of J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey among others, was not an easy one despite his success. He became a recluse and at times was consumed in legal battles. But Joanna Rakoff, who became Salinger’s assistant in the late 90s, knew another side as she describes in this interview for Hippocampus Magazine. Tasked with answering Salinger’s fan mail, she took it upon herself to humanize him through the responses she wrote to his admirers. But the book is not only about Salinger; it’s also about Rakoff, twenty-three years old at the time, finding her own voice.


Lori: You had to really dig deep to find that “truth” all memoirists want to discover. Was it daunting?

Joanna: It was a long and somewhat brutal process. One that ultimately changed my life, in myriad ways, as I was forced to confront my younger self—and the various idiotic things that younger self had done. There are people, I know, who regard their youth as the best time of their lives, who lament getting older. I am not one of them.

But, to return to memoir: I’d never wanted felt a desire to write one, in part because of this fear of confronting myself. I signed on to write My Salinger Year with great trepidation (I was, essentially, convinced to write it). And that first year, after I signed the contract, was one of terrible anxiety and confusion. I spent months and months and months sitting at my desk banging my head against the wall, and month after month writing down my memories of that year, knowing that most of this material wouldn’t make it into the book, but just trying to remember myself back into that time, to find the story within the story.

Let me ask you about that “story within the story.” What was your light bulb moment? When did you realize that “Aha, now I have it!”

Well, at a certain point, about a year into the process, I decided I needed greater accountability. Meaning, working in total isolation—as I had on my first book, the novel A Fortunate Age, which is a big, sprawling Dickensian thing—wasn’t quite working for me. In order to turn in this book on deadline, I needed help and support. So, I formed a writing group with a few friends, one of whom was under contract for a similar book, a memoir focused on someone else (in this case, the writer’s best friend, who was murdered when they were in their twenties). What this meant, of course, was that I soon had a deadline for my first fifty pages. And that deadline helped more than I can express. Writing has to involve just jumping off a cliff, making huge and bold choices. I’d never, until I began working on My Salinger Year—which is to say, writing about my own life—had trouble doing so. But that deadline—having to turn those pages in—forced me to dive off the precipice. Truth is, I’d had those first pages rattling around in my head for weeks, or months, but I’d been too nervous to get them down, to worried that they were wrong, cliched or melodramatic, awful. But I had a deadline, so I sat down and typed, “We all have to start somewhere. For me that somewhere was…” And the minute I had those two sentences down, the rest just came. Easily. Weird as that sounds.

This is, I should add, typical of me. Whenever I have a piece due for a magazine, I procrastinate and moan and cry, and take long walks, and generally freak out. Then, I sit down—usually a week or two after my deadline (I know, I know)—and it all comes out as a piece. Somehow, during those fraught weeks, my brain is working everything out. My process—at least for nonfiction—involves some self-torture. I wish it were otherwise, but I also just accept that this is how it is.


My process—at least for nonfiction—involves some self-torture. I wish it were otherwise, but I also just accept that this is how it is.


my-salinger.year coverI bet the literary life in New York during the 90s was fantastic. Tell me about the energy going on back then.

It was indeed a wonderful time. Part of what I attempted to capture in My Salinger Year was indeed the singularity of that moment, when the literary world—and the publishing industry—was poised to dive into the digital age. At the time, everyone lamented the ways in which publishing was moving in a more corporate, less personal direction, but the truth is that the mid-1990s were perhaps the final years in which one could experience that older model of publishing—as exemplified by my boss at the Agency—in which deals were settled over a long lunch at the Intercontinental.  Publishers—and magazines—still threw big, lavish parties, and the literary world felt charmingly provincial, its only little hamlet within New York. I loved it.

But I do want to say that it’s also a wonderful literary time in New York *right now*. Books and literature are more part of the cultural conversation than ever. There are great events every night. Publishers are, I think, returning to that more personal, personality-driven style of putting books into the world. We’re living in a golden age of all things literary.


Really? Should writers be celebrating what’s happening in publishing right now?

Honestly, I think publishing is in a fantastic place right now. You see large trade houses—and major agents–taking great risks with offbeat, interesting books, like, say, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation and Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, and many, many others. So many. And you have wonderful smaller presses, like Melville House, for instance, filling in the gaps, taking even greater risks, which tend to really pay off, as in the case of books like Rachel Cantor’s TKTKTK. A lot of energy has been spent lamenting the death of books sections in major newspapers and magazines—and I’m as upset about this as anyone else, maybe even more so—but at the same time, there’s such brilliant coverage of serious literature online, from the zillion excellent books blogs to Salon and Slate to The Millions and The Rumpus and The Los Angeles Review of Books. I actually feel like there’s more coverage now than ever.


I happened to see that a film is being planned about Salinger. Any guesses as to how they’ll portray him?

Well, my fear would be that the filmmakers portray him as a crank or a curmudgeon, screaming at everyone who crosses his path and terrorizing his loved ones. My hope is, of course, that they present him in a more nuanced way. I knew him to be incredibly kind and generous, thoughtful and patient. I know, from others’ accounts, that he could, certainly, be eccentric and difficult, but that isn’t the whole story. Readers should know that he was lovely to his agent’s assistant, that he always took the time to chat, that he was interested in other people’s lives, and in the world, and that there are a lot of conflicting ideas about him out there.


Why was it important to you to send personal responses to his fans?

Well, I was very, very young, and very, very idealistic. I suppose my fault, as a human, is an overabundance of empathy. I was charged, of course, with sending his fans a rather foreboding form letter—that essentially said, “he doesn’t want to hear from you! don’t write again!”—and I found it very hard to send such an unkind missive in response to the fans’ letters, which were so personal, so intimate. The fans poured out their hearts to Salinger. They told him about their divorces, their children’s deaths, their trouble with girls. These letters were pages and pages long, and just wonderful; it seemed cruel to simply send back a form letter.


I think it’s wonderful you felt that empathy towards Salinger’s fans. Did he ever find out what you were doing?

Not as far as I know, but I always wonder. There was part of me that thought, honestly, he would be okay with it. Before he decided to let the Agency handle all his fan mail, he actually devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to his fans, entering into long correspondence with some. People think he cut off the fans because he was hardhearted and self-absorbed, but in fact the truth is quite the opposite: The fans effected him too much, they took up too much of his mental energy and space, responding to them siphoned from the mental reserves he needed to write. He cut them off in a bid for self-preservation.


Anything coming up for you that you can tell us about? Writing, travel, hobbies?

Oy, a lot! This winter and spring, I’ll be traveling a total of more than two months, speaking about My Salinger Year: To India, Australia, Germany, and various (lovely) parts of the States. (My mother, as a side note, is completely perplexed that the book has a following in India; but it does!) I’ve spent much of the last six months traveling, so I’m a bit fatigued with packing—I’m a terrible packer—but hugely excited to visit places I’ve only read about. My parents actually lived in Germany in the 1950s—in Frankfurt—so I’m particularly excited to retrace their steps a bit and see friends in Berlin. And, well, India! Australia!

In terms of writing, for the next few months, during this period of heavy travel, I’ll mainly be working on essays for magazines. But once it’s over, I’ll resume work on my next novel, Collective Memory, which can best be described as a contemporary retelling of The Age of Innocence, set in pseudo-Bohemian Brooklyn. (Yes, this sounds a bit like my first novel, A Fortunate Age, but stylistically it’s very different.)

My hobbies, these days, seem to be limited to yoga and ice skating, and, in the summer, kayaking on the Charles, the latter two are things I loved as a kid, and now do with my kids, which is pretty wonderful.

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