Joanna Rakoff: Interview

Joanna Rakoff: Interview

“We need to talk about Jerry,” announces Joanna Rakoff’s imperious, cigarette-smoking, mink-wearing boss on the first day of her first job as “Bright Young Assistant” at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies. In 1996, it remained a place of dark offices, antiquated typewriters, heavy black phones and monumental bookshelves lined with thrillingly familiar names, though Rakoff had no idea who “Jerry” could be. “Never, never, never give out his address or phone number. Don’t tell them anything. Don’t answer their questions. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible,” commands her boss.

“Jerry” turns out to be the famously reclusive J D Salinger, a writer Rakoff, a literature graduate, had never read. “I had an antipathy against Salinger. I thought his work was so popular it had to be middlebrow and cute.”

Shacked-up with a moody, wannabe novelist with a roving eye—for whom she ditched her college sweetheart—Rakoff is more concerned with making ends meet in Manhattan than dealing with a client of legend. But gradually, through reading “Jerry’s extraordinary fan mail”, she is swept up by the Salinger myth.

“I was so affected by [the fans’] stories. No one was pouring their heart out to Thomas Pynchon or Philip Roth.” Occasionally “Jerry” phones to speak to her boss, and though he gets her name wrong, encourages Rakoff in her poetry writing. And after she finally reads his books, Rakoff becomes an ardent Salinger fan herself.

Compelling as the subject matter is, Rakoff—who won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for her début novel A Fortunate Age—long resisted writing the story of her “Salinger Year”. “What I often hate about memoir is its lack of story arc. I thought it was insane to think I could write a whole book about answering Salinger’s fan mail.” However, when Salinger died in 2010, Rakoff—“genuinely grief-stricken”—wrote a piece for Slate magazine. “And somehow in the meantime, the story had changed dramatically. It had become a coming-of-age piece.”

So she wrote My Salinger Year, now set for simultaneous publication in the US and the UK. It is an utterly beguiling memoir, not only about Salinger and a bygone era of publishing, but about relationships, finding one’s voice, and surviving in the big city. Rakoff, who now lives in Boston, recently attended Knopf’s sales conference in New York. “People kept saying things like: ‘Your book reminded me of my first job, working in a factory in Wisconsin.’ And I thought, ‘How is that possible?’ But there’s a kind of universal experience about your first job, and the way you have to start thinking about the wider world.

“Salinger had a really profound effect on me. He made me a writer because his books demystified the world for me, and gave me a model for what writing could be, even though my work is nothing like his. He was a famous and powerful person; he could do whatever he wanted. But every time he called, he took the time to talk to me.”

Metadata

Publication: 05.06.14
Formats: £16.99 HB/£14.99 e-book
ISBN: 9781408830178/9781408833964
Rights: US (knopf), Brazil, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands
Editor: Alexandra Pringle
Agent: Stephanie Koven, Janklow & Nesbitt

CV

1972: Born Nyack, New York State
1990-1995: Degree in English Literature, Oberlin College, Ohio; then MA in English Literature at UCL
1996: Her "Salinger Year"
1999: MFA in Poetry, Columbia University
1999-Present: Works as a freelance journalist, critic and novelist