"I was just amazed": Joanna Rakoff on reading Salinger's fan mail

A memoirist discusses her first job at a time-warp literary agency and the reclusive author who restored her faith

Published June 30, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

J. D. Salinger, Joanne Smith Rakoff    (AP/David Ignaszewski)
J. D. Salinger, Joanne Smith Rakoff (AP/David Ignaszewski)

Joanna Rakoff's new memoir, "My Salinger Year," describes its author's trip down a metaphorical rabbit hole in 1996. She arrived not in Wonderland, but a place something like it, a New York City firm she calls only the Agency, where she landed a job as a personal assistant to the literary agent for the reclusive author of "The Catcher in the Rye." Part of Rakoff's job was to read the stacks of letters sent to Salinger by his fans. The author himself explicitly instructed the Agency not to forward any of this mail to him, but two disturbed young men (Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.) had shot public figures (John Lennon and President Ronald Reagan) in the early 1980s, claiming "The Catcher in the Rye" as an inspiration, so it was deemed prudent for someone to keep an eye on his correspondence.

Rakoff was a refugee from grad school and from a long-term relationship she felt compelled to abandon for reasons she did not understand. Within a few months, she was living with a domineering Marxist novelist and navigating an office that seemed to be trapped in a time warp. The Agency had no computers or voice mail, and even the photocopier was such a novelty that the staff still called the copies it produced "carbons." Rakoff's workday mostly consisted of strapping on the headset of an antiquated dictaphone and transcribing letters for her intimidating and enigmatic boss. She didn't know that Salinger was a client until a her first day on the job, when her boss sat her down and said, "We need to talk about Jerry." The drill: Never, ever give out his address or phone number. And don't hang around assuming you'll get the chance to befriend him.

That was OK by Rakoff, who'd never read a word of Salinger's work, and who didn't even realize who this "Jerry" guy was until after the big talk was over. Nevertheless, she did end up chatting with the celebrated (and rather deaf) author, who admired the fact that she wrote poetry. When, on an especially grim weekend, Rakoff decided to stay in with a stack of Salinger's books, the experience of reading them was a revelation. I recently spoke with Rakoff by phone to find out more about this turning point in her life.

Besides being an outright tribute to the enduring power of J.D. Salinger's work, this memoir begins with a sly homage to another writer known for her depiction of life in New York City. Your opener is a riff on the first chapter of Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything," which describes hopeful young women arriving at Midtown subway stations carrying sack lunches and heading for their jobs in publishing. Like "The Best of Everything," "My Salinger Year" is very much a story about that first job in a big city: crazy landlords, difficult bosses, the deli sandwiches you can't afford and the burning desire to be involved in the world of writing and books. Can you talk about how Jaffe's novel influenced this book?

Actually, it was my boyfriend at the time who introduced me to it. I'd tell him stories about my work and the Agency, and he kept saying it was just like "The Best of Everything." I saw the movie before I read the book, and it amazed me how little had changed. I'm not just talking about the fact that her characters use typewriters like the one the Agency had me use. I would see these young women around me undergoing difficult experiences and coming out on one side or the other of them, and I was bowled over by the way that book still spoke to what we were going through.

There's something universal to the experience of having your first job, particularly for a certain type of young woman. Having this type of job actually is different for young women than it is for young men. It's different for a young woman to move to an enormous city and have no money. You're more vulnerable and there's more anxiety. You have to develop ways of coping, a tougher skin, and you're shot through into adulthood in a somewhat more intense way.

That seems especially true of your younger self. As described in the book, you'd been fairly sheltered. Your parents were protective, to the point of trying to force you to move back home. You had this new boyfriend who was overbearing and patronizing. So while you're on your own in the city for the first time, all the people in your life still think you can't take care of yourself.

Including, in a way, my boss and the people I work with. Everyone wants to direct what I do and who I am. Part of what happened to me in that year is that I did realize that I had to take control of my own life. I could, essentially, have hidden away in the Agency for the rest of my days. I could have become my boss. That would be one potential outcome, and that became very real and kind of scary to me over that year.

The way you describe the Agency, with all of its rituals and its resistance to change, going to work there seems a little like an initiation into a religion.

Yes! It was exactly like that. It really was. The Agency itself was really in the business of being the Agency, of doing things the way they had always been done. It was a difficult environment for some of the younger agents to work in because so much time was spent doing things the Agency way.

There were all sorts of things that had to be done in a very, very specific way. There were these oversized cards where we had to record everything having anything to do with any book, from the minute the manuscript arrived in the office until long after it was published. And if there was one tiny typo or a letter that didn't fit exactly in a tiny, tiny box, my boss would catch it and be very upset. And the level of her dismay and annoyance was really outsized compared to the mistake that had actually occurred.

At other agencies I encountered, or publishing houses or whatever, people obviously cared about details, but their focus was mainly on the work itself and on making money. In that way, the Agency was strangely cultlike, in that they are mesmerizing you with your adherence to these rules. You became so focused on them that you couldn't think about anything else!

Book people are funny that way. Everyone complains about the industry's resistance to change, but everyone also loves to idealize the past. You have to be a little old-fashioned to devote your life to books. The people who do are always harking back to the days when editors really edited and publishers cared more about publishing great books. Everything was always more "literary" in the past. The Agency sounds like a strange place, but there's also something typical about it.

I have definitely encountered people through the years who have those feelings about the Agency and a couple of other agencies like it. They're sometimes called curatorial agencies or archival agencies, where they're mostly just tending to estates, and those agencies do have a musty, old-world feel to them. They're trying to perpetuate the gentlemanly approach to publishing, where all deals are resolved around a three-hour lunch and a handshake. And there's no speaking of money because that's gauche.

I do still meet people who are starstruck by this. I've been getting a decent amount of mail since this book came out, and maybe one out of every six letters says something like "I wish I could've worked at the Agency!" And I think: Really? But that's exactly why: There's this idea that in a different era, in the 1920s and 1930s usually, the experiences of editors and writers were more authentic or something. They didn't have to worry about the market, and editors just wanted to produce books that were fantastic and didn't care what sold. But of course that just isn't true.

I'm still amazed that you did not know that this was Salinger's agent before you went to work there.

This was before Google, before you could just look anything up! If someone were applying for that job today, the first thing they would do would be to Google the Agency. You would think the lady at the placement agency would tell me, but she didn't. She'd been sending people to the Agency for three months and they had rejected them all. In the ensuing years, I've thought that one reason she didn't tell me was that she knew that my boss really didn't want someone who was going to say, "I'm a big Salinger fan."

Also, I was dressed by my mother. She had bought me this very old-fashioned suit. I arrived at my interview wearing a below-the-knee pencil skirt and court shoes, this very fitted jacket and a vest -- as if I were an extra in "His Girl Friday." I think my appearance and manner screamed, "This is an appropriate person who is not going to blab to people."

Meanwhile, you were living in Brooklyn with this boyfriend who was basically a brocialist.

[Laughs] I've never heard that term! Oh my god, that's perfect!

He decides which apartment the two of you will move into without consulting you, he insists on discussing his attraction to other women with you, and then finally he goes off to his best friend's wedding and doesn't bring you with him! To the reader, it's obvious that this guy is the worst, but it takes you forever to figure that out. In writing this book, you decided to keep the narration very close to your naive view of things at the time, rather than interjecting the better judgments you've had since then.

I went through many many iterations of the style of narration. I have hundreds of pages of this book that were tossed away. A friend of mine, the writer Claire Dederer, had read my book while working on a piece about the same stage in her own life. She said, "How could you stand to do this? It is so hard to face myself at that age. I was such an idiot and I did the stupidest things." I said, "Trust me, I know!"

You hadn't read Salinger when you went to work at the agency. What was the idea you had of him?

I thought that he wrote cutesy, comedic tales, kind of like James Thurber, one of those New Yorker writers from the '20s and '30s who was writing light, humorous tales about kids and teenagers.

So your first inkling of what his work was really like came indirectly, through these letters you were reading from his fans, people who really loved him and found his work profoundly meaningful. Did your perception of his work change as the result of reading those fan letters?

It changed dramatically, yet it was also gradual. As the months went by, and I read letter after letter, I was at first just amazed that people were writing these long, confiding letters in which they poured out not just what was on their minds but also things that had happened to them. There were narrative letters, often about difficult passages from people's lives. A lot of letters from teenagers talking about how they had no friends and no one understood them. They were so much like Holden, or they wished they had a friend like Holden. At first I thought some of the letters were funny. Then, as time went on, it began to strike me that Salinger played a central role in the imaginations and emotional life of a truly enormous swath of the world's population. It's no exaggeration to say that.

I began to see that his work could not be what I thought it was or these people would not be writing these letters to him. There had to be something going on in his books that was causing people to pour out their hearts to him. Not just that: It also caused people to feel as if they knew him. That struck me. They felt that they knew Holden, of course, but that's not so surprising. Often, someone like you or me, for example, might have felt when we were kids that Ann of Green Gables was our best friend. But these people, a lot of them, were grown-ups, and they felt like they could only talk to Salinger about these very private things.

Did all of this change your own idea of what a great work of fiction does? Up until the time you went to work at the Agency, you'd been interested in a lot of challenging, rather austere and difficult writers.

The truth is, I was overwhelmed by the extent to which a lot of what he was doing aligned with some of the writers who really interested me at the time. His work runs the gamut. The earlier stories are a bit more sparse and shorter. They're more carefully edited and a lot happens off-screen. The later stories, the Glass family stories, are very maximalist and all over the place with these huge long sentences. Those stories are actually my favorites. I prefer the density of language in them and the humor in them. I was reading David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen and Mary Gaitskill at the time, and those stories really reminded me of the writers I admired. The earlier stories reminded me of Jean Rhys. I'd been dismissing him as this light writer when really his work was difficult in the way that, at the time, I wanted fiction to be. Later, thanks to the Internet, I discovered that David Foster Wallace was a huge, huge Salinger fan. Salinger had a huge influence on him.

How did your Salinger year change your idea of the relationship between author and reader?

What happened to me during that year restored me to myself as a reader. I was a kid who had lived my life through books. Academic training had taken the joy out of reading for me. I was in grad school, and taking this very detached, academic stance to literature that you sort of had to take at that moment, but it also felt unnatural. My time at the Agency and reading Salinger brought me back to that state when you're a kid or an adolescent – or just a person! – who reads for pleasure. I was able to go back to the pre-academic me who fully understood the actual pure power of literature to change a person's life, to guide a person through life, or to allow a person to live fully. And that really allowed me to become a writer.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books J.d. Salinger Joanna Smith Rakoff Memoirs My Salinger Year Publishing