Joanna Rakoff’s first job out of graduate school at a New York literary agency offered many surprises, including acquaintance with reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Rakoff recently talked with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about her new memoir, My Salinger Year. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
Q: What was the strangest thing about your job?
Everything! This was a place where no one explained anything to you. They regarded themselves almost as a sort of celebrity entity and so they assumed that you would already know everything about what they did.
Q: Which is why they didn’t bother to tell you that Jerry – their principal client – was actually J.D. Salinger?
They were this way about everyone, from the office manager to J.D. Salinger. [Also] technologically they were quite behind the times. This was 1996 and they had just recently acquired a copy machine. The fax machine was this newfangled object [to them].
There was no voice mail. There were no overhead lights. It was a dark wood-paneled office. It looked like a library or someone’s apartment. There was a receptionist who was only there during business hours and if you called outside those hours the phone just rang. It was quite archaic.
But I loved it. I found it fascinating.
Q: The job also introduced you to Salinger. Was he different from his public image?
[In some books] he is portrayed as being a cranky eccentric, if not totally deranged. I was of course dealing with him on matters of business and not personal matters. But he was always very kind to me, very polite as people of a different era tend to be.
My boss led me to believe that he wouldn’t have time for me, that I shouldn’t keep him on the phone. But I found that it was he who wanted to talk to me.
He was very different from this popular portrayal of him.
Q: You read and responded to Salinger’s fan mail and came to sympathize with his decision to keep his fans – and the world – at a distance. Why?
My perception is that two things factored into that. One is that Salinger was rather like his famous character Seymour Glass and he was too sensitive to the world. He couldn’t just send a form letter to people pouring out their hearts to him. It made him just want to cry or kill himself.
The other reason is that he received some death threats and threats of violence toward him and his children, and he just felt like he couldn’t do it anymore, which is pretty understandable.
Q. Your boss is also a strong – and poignant – character in your book. Did knowing her shape or change you in some way?
Yes. Definitely. Many people have been comparing this book to “The Devil Wears Prada” and I’m honestly quite shocked by that. [My boss] was an imperious person but she did not take pleasure on being cruel to her employees by any means. She was a pretty complicated person and she had an enormous impact on me.
I sort of was looking around me for models. How do I be? What is my life going to be? What are my options here? As a child I hadn’t seen that many professional women in the kind of conservative suburb in which I grew up. The families were very conventional and I knew I didn’t want that life. My boss, like many women of her generation, had sacrificed her personal life to her job. She was kind of married to the agency. It really did make me think: Okay, here’s one option and it’s not the option that I want. It factored into my leaving and trying to figure out what I wanted from life.
Because my boss didn’t seem happy. If she had seemed happy and thrilled and at peace with herself that would have been another thing. But she did not. Nor did she seem happy with her life outside the office. She was kind of a cautionary tale.
But she also taught me so much about how to be a grownup. At first she was an enigma to me. She just kind of seemed to me like this person who was always ordering me around. But as time went on I saw that she was a more complicated person.
I was still a child when I took the job. Knowing her made me understand the nuances and complications of adult life, to realize that people make mistakes. No one is who they seem to be.
Q: And how about Salinger? Did your contact with him change you and your life?
Specifically, he changed my writing habits. I’ve always been a pretty disciplined person, but I had trouble giving myself permission to wake up an hour or two early every morning before work to write. But in my conversations with Salinger he would say to me, “You’re a poet. You’re not a receptionist. You need to wake up and write every day.”
And just the fact that one of the world’s most famous living writers took me seriously and told me “You’re a poet” gave me the authority to take myself seriously.