Fiction Is There to Make You Cry: Joanna Rakoff on Her Salinger Year

People move to New York City with big dreams every day, and My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about her job at one of the publishing industry’s oldest and most respected literary agencies, is the type of book that sums up the life a new New Yorker. There are the apartment issues, the loneliness, and the realization that the cheapest thing on the menu is too expensive. The one big difference, however, is that J.D. Salinger is a character in Rakoff’s lovely book. And while it would have been totally understandable for Rakoff to use her connection with the legendary author as the basis of her entire story, My Salinger Year is without a doubt about its author and also much more than that: it’s a book about New York, a book about an era ending in the publishing world, and the type of memoir that only a gifted writer like Rakoff could produce. When I spoke to Joanna Rakoff, she shared memories about pre-smartphone New York, how publishing has changed, AOL.com e-mail addresses, and, of course, Salinger.

Flavorwire: The book takes place in the late 1990s, and you were living in Brooklyn during that time. It wasn’t exactly the literary hotspot it is now, was it?

Rakoff: No, it wasn’t. I loved it there, I crazily loved it. But I did come to be very disillusioned with New York and did want to leave. But I think if I had stayed in Williamsburg or another part of Brooklyn, I wouldn’t have felt that way, probably, because it was filled with people who’d just graduated from Oberlin and Bard and Bennington and all those places, and I had a zillion friends there. And the truth is that most of them were more in the visual arts. It was a place painters and sculptors moved to, and dancers and people in theater. It wasn’t necessarily writers; it was an eccentric place.

You talk about pay phones, and there’s all this analog technology used in your office — I think midway through the book you guys get the Internet in your office. Even when you open the book, it’s marketed as taking place in a pre-digital publishing world. Do you miss those times? Were you longing for the days where you weren’t connected to everything so much? Or did you kind of think, “Oh, I’m glad these things are now obsolete.”

While I was writing it, I will say, I didn’t write it filled with a sense of nostalgia. I’ve had an iPhone since the first one. My family has always been one that embraces technology. I have a cousin who’s a world-renowned physicist. He’s at Stanford, and ran the linear accelerator for many years, and he sort of knew what was going on at Apple headquarters from inside out. And when I was there with my parents, he was like, “You have to get her a Mac. The first Mac. She needs to learn how to use it. This is the future.” And so I am definitely by no means a luddite at all. After this job, I went and worked at a dot-com. I worked for another agent for a few years, and tried to bring her more into the digital era, because she was really confused by things. I was like, “You don’t want an AOL account.”

There are still people who use those! I don’t get that!

I just got an email from someone with an AOL account! My therapist has an AOL account, and she’s a totally normal person. Her husband’s an architect, they live in Cambridge. Like, how do you have an AOL account?  But I am by no means someone who’s like, “If only we could go back to the age of the phonograph.” But in thinking about the book, after I wrote it, and in talking to people about it, what I realized is that what I was interested in and what I wanted to capture was that ability to be fully alone.

There’s this moment at the beginning of the book. And I maybe did feel some kind of nostalgia, but that’s not the right word, because it has negative connotations. But I felt something, a kind of longing to have a moment like that again. There was this blizzard, and I went into work, and no one called to tell me that the office was closed. And I didn’t have a radio, I didn’t have a television. I knew that it was snowing out and there as a lot of snow, but it was my first year of work and I’d never had a job before. And I didn’t want to be fired for not going. So I went. And then I got to walk through Midtown and it was completely abandoned. There was no one there; every shop was closed. And again, I’d grown up half in New York City — I’d been in the area a million times. And I’d never seen anything like this. It’s normally so loud and there’s such hubbub and this was not far from Times Square. It was just so wonderful. After I left my office I got to walk through the snow by myself and kind of linger. And it was so beautiful. And now, if that were to happen today, you’d have your phone with you, you’d be taking pictures. Tweeting.

salinger yearTechnology changes, but you’re also witness to the end of an era in publishing in My Salinger Year, right? 

I was there for this last gasp. In a way, even though my boss was a woman, it was kind of like an old boy network, in which deals were signed with a handshake. My boss had these cronies from a different era. And she would occasionally go to lunch with them at her favorite restaurant. I don’t know why she liked it. It was a pre-foodie era where people ate at these places, not because the food was good, but just because you wanted to be there. And she really was trying to keep the publishing world within the model that she knew. It was also a model where agents didn’t have to fight so much — or not “fight,” but didn’t have to sell their clients in the way they do now.

Your boss comes off as this great caricature of a smart New Yorker who just wants to cut out all the schmaltz and get stuff done. 

Several people have said to me, “You know what your book reminds me of? The Devil Wears Prada!” Which, I obviously have not read The Devil wears Prada, I’ve seen the movie. But I feel like, “Really? I love my boss! I thought she was amazing.” I wasn’t trying to present her as some kind of nightmarish scary person who beats me into submission.

J.D. Salinger’s in the title, and Salinger himself is this boogie-man or something you only really hear about as “Jerry” or in your phone conversations. Why was Salinger such a symbol of this time to you? 

He is a titanic figure in the world, and I was from a pretty sheltered background, in which honestly the literary world and this literary universe was something that seemed very much beyond my reach. And that was part of initially why I had gone into academia. Because that I understood. There was a clear trajectory. That seemed very safe. And so getting this job at the agency, to suddenly have a person who’s kind of a myth — a piece of American mythology — who was this real presence in my life, who would talk to me and give me advice about things and what have you. It was a really life-changing thing. It really was.

How did it change you? 

It turned my ideas about the world on their ear. At the same time, there’s a way in which his fans, and reading their letters and writing back to them, and being in touch with him at the same time, changed my thinking about fiction and the way it works. And I think I had these much more lofty, juvenile ideas about fiction and what it should do. And I’d forgotten the part about, like, wait a second, fiction and literature is not there to be this edifying thing. It’s not there to present difficulty and make you decode things. It’s there to make you cry and make you experience things and make you understand the world in a completely different way.