How ‘My Salinger Year’ made my career

A now-successful author sharpened her pen answering fan mail on behalf of the iconic writer.

Joanna Rakoff: ‘There’s a big difference between leading a literary life and actually being a writer.’ (photo credit: DAVID IGNASZEWSKI)
Joanna Rakoff: ‘There’s a big difference between leading a literary life and actually being a writer.’
(photo credit: DAVID IGNASZEWSKI)
In 2009 Joanna Rakoff’s debut novel, A Fortunate Age, won critical acclaim. And yet the success of her memoir, My Salinger Year, published earlier this year, has managed to outstrip that success.
My Salinger Year
chronicles the 12 months the then-23-year-old Rakoff spent in 1996 working as an assistant at a literary agency in New York that happened to represent famous author J.D. Salinger.
In a unique take on a coming-of-age memoir, Rakoff’s sparsely yet vividly written book takes us into the world of a young college graduate hoping to make her mark as a poet in the literary world.
Instead she finds herself trapped in a time warp, in a noted literary agency that appears to be stuck in the 1920s. Despite the advent of computers, the agency uses only typewriters and Dictaphones, and the filing system is a series of handwritten cards.
Rakoff effortlessly juxtaposes the rarified world of New York’s literary set with her own 20-something struggles – living in a tiny apartment with no sink, her inability to even afford to buy a sandwich, and her troubled love life.
At “The Agency,” as it is referred to throughout the book, she discovers one of her jobs is to respond to the volumes of correspondence addressed to Salinger that land on her desk every day. The irony of Rakoff’s position is that until about halfway through her time at her job, she’d never even read Salinger.
She rectifies this by taking all his books and reading them over one weekend – and is profoundly moved by his work. Thirteen years later, she breaks down when she hears about his death.
While many people are drawn to Rakoff’s book because of the Salinger connection (Rakoff spoke with the extremely hard-of-hearing Salinger several times on the phone, and met him only once), it’s her growth from a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate to a woman who comes into her own that has resonated with critics and readers alike.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post by phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rakoff discussed how that year also helped her become the writer she is today, her strong Jewish and Zionistic roots, and how she hopes to one day do a book tour in Israel.
How ironic do you think it is that you landed a job at an agency representing perhaps one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, yet you’d never even read him?
If I had read Salinger as a teenager, I don’t know if I would have been hired. I didn’t know the agency represented him the way literary world insiders would have known that. I think a lot of my appeal was that there was no risk I was going to impinge on Salinger’s privacy, to get him to read my work or annoy him by telling him he was the greatest writer ever. I also think if I had read Salinger earlier on, I’m not sure [my memoir] would have happened.
What do you think has contributed to the success of My Salinger Year?
I honestly don’t know. There’s always one person [when I’m on tour] who is obsessed with Salinger, but in general it’s not the Salinger component. Generally, people say two things: they often comment on the style and tone that draws them in; or they’ll tell me about their first job.
One of my concerns in writing [the book] was that it was about an upper-middle class white person in a rarified literary world, but people from all walks of life have told me it reminded them of their life. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t live in New York or work at an agency. My first job was in a fish canning factory in Minnesota, but it reminds me of [your] job.’ I don’t know if it’s because there’s something universal about those years [in our lives], when we’re all trying to find our way.
Speaking of your style and tone, you made a decision not to name the agency or your boss, but it’s no secret who they are. Why did you do that?
I knew, of course, that anyone that wanted to know could Google it and find it in two seconds. I never was trying to hide the identity of the agency. The truth is, I had some trouble figuring out a tone and style for the book.
One of my goals was to write a story that was larger than the sum of its parts – not just some little girl’s story. Once I took the names out, I was able to write much more freely. It took away the anxiety that these living people are going to hate it and hate me, and I could distance myself from them. What I realized also is that stylistically, it gave the book a kind of timelessness.
How much did that year have an impact on your writing today?
It had a really profound impact; I felt that year made me a writer in a couple of different ways. Writing those letters to the fans was the first bit of genuine writing that I did which wasn’t self-conscious or juvenile. I guess in taking on this role, as the voice of Salinger, I was able to write with much greater authority; I could let go of a certain self-consciousness and ego. It showed me writing could be pleasurable, and could involve taking risks in a very serious way.
The other way was through Salinger – knowing him and his work and little things he said to me about waking up every morning to write. Also, just the simple thing that for no apparent reason, he took me seriously. It helped in terms of taking myself seriously. I did wake up in the morning and write; I spent all my free time writing.
In the beginning, I was excited about being in New York and going to book parties. It was so glamorous. But by the end of that year, I’d retreated from all that and wanted to just read and write.
And that defined my life going forward.
There’s a big difference between leading a literary life and actually being a writer, and I didn’t initially totally understand that.
You have two children. Are you excited for them to read Salinger?
My son is almost 10; he’s a precocious reader and can read adult-level books.
I’m excited that he’ll be ready in a few years. I think he’ll love it, although he’s old enough now to have a sense of what has happened to me with this book. He’s seen me give interviews and he’s kind of excited.
It’s a peculiar Salinger heritage. He might feel obligated [to read him].
Have you been to Israel? Are you following the current conflict?
Yes, I’ve been several times. Oh my God, the current conflict! I drive my kids to camp and then just sit and listen to the BBC World Service. It’s so hard to go about my day; I’m going to cry just talking about it.
I’m from a pretty extreme Zionist family.
Dad was a “red-diaper baby” – born on the Lower East Side, his parents were Russian Jews who were really hard-core Zionist socialists. My grandmother made a pilgrimage to Israel every year, and her apartment on the Lower East Side – which I later inherited – was filled with memorabilia. She taught Hebrew school.
I was sent to a Zionist socialist summer camp – Young Judaea – where my son goes now. I spent a summer in Israel. I was going to do the year program but the Gulf War was about to break out and my parents didn’t want me to go. My mom is very active in Hadassah.
[So my Jewishness] and Israel is a huge part of my life.
Now that my son’s at summer camp, almost all the counselors are in the IDF and are taking a break to come here. It’s been very emotional, because they’ve been talking to the kids about what’s going on in Israel.
So, any plans to do a book tour in Israel?
My book’s being translated into many languages, but right now it’s not being translated into Hebrew. And Israelis love Salinger. But yes, if I were [to have the opportunity], I would love to do a tour in Israel.