An Interview with Joanna Rakoff

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By Victoria Best

My Salinger Year was unquestionably one of the best books I’ve read this year – poignant, funny, real, warm – you can read my review here. The author, Joanna Rakoff, managed to find time in her hectic schedule to answer my (many!) questions with tremendous grace and generous detail:

Victoria: I understand that there’s quite a complicated story about the genesis of My Salinger Year? I’d love to hear more about how the book came into being.

Joanna Rakoff Credit…David Ignaszewski

Joanna: Agh, well, where to start? Perhaps a dozen years ago, maybe more, I was trying to make my way as a freelance writer. This was, perhaps, the last moment when a person could, just barely, scrape together a living reviewing books, if one could file a superhuman number of reviews per week, but I reached a point at which I was having some trouble. My income was too sporadic. I was having trouble making ends meet between checks. I knew I needed to move to the next level, to start writing longer pieces for better magazines—or something like that—but I couldn’t quite break through. In desperation, I called Ralph Blumenthal, a legendary Times reporter whom I’d profiled sometime back and with whom I’d stayed in touch. Somehow, I mentioned that my first real job involved answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail, and that I’d engaged in correspondence with some of the fans. He gave me a weird look and said, “Joanna, you have to write about that. That’s your story.”

A few years later, I did, for a now-defunct glossy magazine, and was approached about turning the piece into a book. I said no, and continued to say no over the decade that followed, at first because I was working on a big, sprawling novel—A Fortunate Age, which came out a few years ago in the States and will be soon be published in the UK—and then because I couldn’t see the larger story, couldn’t see how this essay about something very small and finite could be expanded into a book. Editors kept trying to convince me. They’d call or write, years and years after the original essay came out, saying, “I was at a friend’s summer house and I found an copy of this magazine in the nightstand, and read your essay, and thought, “this needs to be a book!” And I’d think, “actually, it doesn’t.” I was a book critic then, primarily, and I’d read so many books that had originated as magazine articles and thought, “this did NOT need to be a book.” I also read a decent amount of memoir and felt it wasn’t the form for me. As a writer, I tend to look outward rather than inward. I’m interested in larger ideas, in the ways societal forces—economics, politics, media—shape personal lives. The idea of writing a whole book about my small life—my small life as a 23-year-old—didn’t interest me.

Anyway, in 2010, shortly after my novel came out, Salinger died and I found myself bereft. Couldn’t stop crying, re-read all his work, woke up at night filled with sadness. I wrote a second, shorter piece for Slate about working at the agency, and realized, in doing so, how much the story had changed for me, how much older I was, how much more perspective I had on what had transpired. That essay became a radio piece for an NPR show, and then a full-length documentary for BBC Radio 4. In putting together both those pieces, my perspective deepened once again, and I began to see a larger story, a story that wasn’t just about me, a story that was about a world poised to clatter into the digital age (as it was in 1996), a story about work that influenced generations of readers around the globe, a story about coming of age in a shifting, unstable universe. About being young and stupid, as everyone was, at one point, I suppose.

And when I was approached again about a book, I…still said no. But my agent—with whom I entrust my life—had a long call with one particular editor, which convinced her, and she convinced me.

Victoria: What was it like to revisit that time in your life? What do you wish you could have said to your 23-year-old self? What did that young, untested self say to you as you wrote about her?

Joanna: Oh my goodness, it was incredibly difficult. Nonfiction books are, of course, sold on the basis of proposals. So, I signed a contract to write the book, which gave me eleven months to finish it. “Just think of it as an extended magazine piece,” my agent said. Part of my concept for the book was that it be short and a bit sparse—the opposite of my first novel—and I stupidly thought that short and sparse meant quick and easy. I didn’t realize that, as you said, I’d need to revisit my confused, mildly idiotic 23-year-old self. That I’d need to open up all these old wounds, to chronicle these old mistakes, to examine why I’d made certain choices. It was very painful. There were days when I’d just sit at my desk and cry.

Perhaps the most difficult part had to do with the character known only as “my college boyfriend,” whom I’d abandoned in the months before I started working at the agency, without really understanding why. A mistake that had defined my life, defined all that came after it. He had been my best friend, the only person I’d ever loved fully, in the way that you need to love someone to truly traverse the world together, and I still didn’t understand why I’d left him, why I’d hurt him. If I could say anything to my 23-year-old self it would be—as cheesy or sentimental or pop feminist as this sounds—“you are worthy of his love! Go back to him!”

And my very young self did indeed have much to impart to the older me—you’re completely right! In chronicling that long ago year, I regained a sense of passion, an understanding of the need to take risks. The young me didn’t care so much about the world’s expectations. She wanted to carve out a life for herself on her own grounds. The older me had become very much trapped in other people’s ideas of how I should live my life. Writing the book allowed me to slough off a lot of that. And also, honestly, to change my life for the better, the happier. (Does that sound cheesy, too?)

Victoria: Although there is a definite sense of you as a narrator, this is an unusual memoir in that it’s very turned outward towards the world. How did you find the exposure to which a memoir subjects its author?

Joanna: It’s so funny that you say that. Yes, as a writer, I do, as I said earlier, tend to look outward rather than inward. I had, as you’ve probably guessed, a lot of trouble laying bare my inner self. Or even my outer self: It was hard to write about the stupid, misguided things I did. Though, in truth, the difficult part was facing those things myself, not revealing them to others. No one can be harder on me than I am on myself.

Victoria: I found the character of Don wonderfully intriguing and repelling, and I loved the way you kept your own writing ambitions uncorrupted by his. What do you think is the attraction of a self-centred man like him?

Joanna: Oy. Does every young girl go through a Don phase? I suspect as much. I suppose the attraction has something to do with the excitement—or shock?—that a narcissist has turned his attention to you? And part of it, perhaps, stems from media, from stupid, pseudo-Romantic ideas we get from movies or television shows or novels about Real Love being stormy and filled with conflict rather than peaceful and companionable. Heathcliffe. Mr. Darcy. Rebel Without a Cause. In Don’s case, it was: the Grand Man of Letters! Who believes, above all, in his own genius. And that this genius allows him a free pass as he moves through life, a freedom from the constraints of normal society. There’s something slightly thrilling about this, or there was for me. The idea that I could throw off all the bourgeois constraints of my childhood: the matching pumps and purse, the dinner at exactly 6:30 with every food group represented on one’s plate, the preordained trajectory from student to fiance to wife to mother.

For me, I suppose, my attraction to Don also had to do with my own insecurities and self-image. I’d been a bookish, brainy child, forever told my hair was too frizzy and my body too curvy, my nose too big. You can imagine. And to have this guy who styles himself as a connoisseur of female beauty choose me.

Victoria: And did he ever publish his novel?

Joanna: He did not! His agent sent it to pretty much everyone, but found no takers. Eventually, he suggested Don put together a nonfiction proposal for a book about boxing. That, he sold, and it came out perhaps ten or twelve years ago. A couple of years ago, he published a second book, part memoir, part straight nonfiction, about the history of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. (It received rather scathing notices.)

Victoria: I’d love to know more about your pathway to becoming an author after you left the agency. What missing parts of the puzzle did you still have to find?

Joanna: Well, a lot. In my final week at the agency, an old friend convinced me to apply to Columbia’s MFA program in poetry. She was so convinced I would get in—and that I should go, that I needed to go–that the day before the deadline she actually went up to Columbia, got me the application, came down to Brooklyn, handed it to me, and said, “FILL THIS IN NOW.”

A few weeks later, I actually went to work for another agent, an independent agent who worked out of her home. The set-up allowed me more flexible hours and I used the extra time to write, of course. That spring, I got into Columbia. I started the following fall, and was able to continue working at this new, little agency, which was perfect, as I had one foot in the real world of publishing and another in the more rarified, academic realm of poetry. But I also took many classes in nonfiction, including a couple with New Yorker staffers, both of whom said, “you should be writing for magazines.” I honestly had no idea what this meant or how one would do such a thing, but these lovely people gave me some advice and encouragement—as did a dear friend who’d recently started working at The Atlantic—and I began writing for various newspapers and magazines. That was my life for years, though I was always working on poetry and stories, dividing my days into segments (paid assignments versus my own work), and I loved it all.

Journalism gave me discipline and confidence—seeing your byline in, say, The New York Times, or Vogue, can be really bolstering—and I began working on a novel. I finished a draft just before I gave birth to my first child, Coleman, who’s now nine. Truth is, being pregnant and having kids helped rather than hindered me as a writer. I became more motivated and disciplined. Before having kids, if I had a free moment I’d read or take a shower or have a snack or call a friend. After having kids, my writing invaded my brain in a way it hadn’t before. I revised and rewrote A Fortunate Age while I nursed Coleman, every second he was asleep, rising ridiculously early to work. Writing was my refuge from the all-encompassing demands of motherhood. My Salinger Year was written when my daughter, Pearl, was very little, and I had even less time or help. So much of it was written at four in the morning, before the kids woke.

Victoria: The aura around Salinger at the agency is gorgeously palpable, but he nearly leads everyone into a very problematic venture with the publication of ‘Hapworth’. Do you think the literary world needs gods like Salinger, or is it those very gods who bring out the dangerous excesses in publishing?

Joanna: I honestly don’t know! I tend to think about writers more in terms of their work, rather than their relationship to the publishing industry. When I reflect on Salinger—which I do all the time, of course—I tend to think about, say, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” about the way that story makes me feel, the precision of tone and style, about Salinger’s singular sense of humor.

Are there dangerous excesses in publishing? Here in the States, we’re constantly told that the industry is rather in crisis. It’s been more than a decade since publishers stopped, for instance, throwing launch parties for books. Most writers aren’t sent on tour, or if they are, strict budgets are implemented. One does, of course, hear about outsized advances being heaped on writers—the sort my boss cautioned against!—but these tend to go, funnily enough, to debut novelists, rather than gods.

Victoria: Finally, the letters to Salinger from their touching and touchy correspondents. I wonder if you could sum up the impact they made on you? If you received a fan letter (and I’m tempted to send one!) about My Salinger Year, what would you be most pleased to hear?

The letters changed my life in myriad ways. They made me a more empathic person—or, rather, perhaps, allowed me to embrace my empathic inclinations, rather than striking a pose of cool irony, as was in vogue at the time. They allowed me to fully understand—or remember–the impact of great fiction, the ways in which great literature (in the real sense of the term) allows us a way of making sense of our world, our own lives, even as it transports us to other worlds, other lives, even as it allows us to transcend the quotidian, the ramparts of our limited minds, through the sheer urgency of great prose (like Salinger’s).

They also, of course, made me into a writer. The first real writing—writing that had some semblance of real urgency–I did was the letters to Salinger fans.  Perhaps because I was writing in a clandestine way, to a known audience; perhaps because I was taking a risk, breaking a rule. Perhaps simply because the letters themselves were so moving, so filled with the fans’ own urgency. I will always be grateful to them, those fans, and kind of miss them.

Oh gee, what would I want to hear in a fan letter? I suppose anything, anything at all that was true. That the book moved you, gave you that clenched feeling in your chest that comes with too much emotion, made you see the world a little differently? But, honestly, the effort at writing, at reaching out? In a world in which we’re so often very, very alone, despite all these tools meant to keep us together, connected, all the time? That would be enough.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny Editors. Read her review of My Salinger Year here.

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year, (Bloomsbury, 2014), 272 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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