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Answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail made her a writer

The author, Joanna Rakoff.
The author, Joanna Rakoff.
David Ignaszewski

Joanna Rakoff is a novelist and the author of the recently published memoir My Salinger Year. The book chronicles Rakoff's move to New York in 1996 as a young twenty-something to work for J. D. Salinger's literary agent; in that role, Rakoff began corresponding with Salinger's many fans, eschewing the agency's normal form reply. I spoke with Rakoff on the phone Thursday morning about the book, her writing process, and what's next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey McKinney: For people who haven't read your book, can you talk a little bit about your job at the agency and the day you met Salinger?

Joanna Rakoff: I was an assistant to the president of what was one of New York's two oldest literary agencies. It was an office that was a little bit stuck in its heyday. They didn't have any sort of technology, and my boss thought that computers were a passing fad. There was no voicemail. I had to type everything on a 30 year old typewriter. I would transcribe her letters using something called a dictaphone, which would have been archaic even in the first season of Mad Men.

A lot of what this agency did was serve as [J.D.] Salinger's gatekeepers. They considered it their mission to protect Salinger's privacy. I was strictly cautioned never to give anyone his address or phone number. I knew I would be fired. I was also really strictly cautioned not to keep Salinger on the phone, or talk to him about his work, or try to get him interested in my work. My boss said, "writers make the worst assistants." I was also told Salinger will never call, he'll never write, you'll never hear from him.

Then on my second day of work, he called. That kind of set the tone for the whole year, because he had decided he wanted to publish a new book which would be a stand-alone edition of his last story. He began calling all the time. At the same time, my boss had this horrible personal tragedy, and she had to be out of the office a lot. I was in the position of pretending that she was in the office for months, and had to run interference more than a typical assistant would.

So Salinger and I sort of got to know each other. I talked to him on the phone quite frequently, and talked to the person who was publishing this piece quite frequently, and that sort of deepened my relationship with Salinger, because I was the go-between. They both talked to me frankly, and a little bit treated me like a therapist.

Months into this, Salinger came in to go over the contacts of this deal. His visit was veiled in secrecy. He showed up, and I had no idea he was coming, and I was like "Oh my god. That person seems to be J.D. Salinger," even though the last photos I had seen of him were from the 1960s, and at this point he was in his late 70s. He looked remarkably similar, just with white hair. He was very kind and friendly, as he had been on the phone. I was so nervous that I could barely say hello to him.

KM: You read and answered J.D. Salinger's fan mail. What was it like?

JR: The letters came from all over the world. Japan, Sri Lanka, India, Scandanavia. A lot of letters from England. Every part of the United States. Everywhere. I was supposed to send a form letter to them that said basically "Thank you for your letter. We cannot pass it on to Mr. Salinger as he does not receive fan mail. Now, go away and never contact us again," and I thought this letter was so harsh and cold and jerky. I didn't understand why it had to be so harsh.

I answered such a high volume that they fell into these categories for me. There were letters from people who I called in my head the "crazies," which ranged from people who seemed totally bonkers to weird stalker Unabomber people in love with Salinger. These letters often would be written in pencil, or pen but with blotches of ink smudged all over the paper. There was something really repulsive about it, almost as if they were like "here are my bodily fluids on the page." There were those people, and I was told that if anything seemed particularly crazy, I was supposed to report it to my boss's second in command.

Then there were adolescents and people in their early 20's who would write in the voice of Holden or in the voice of Salinger, and those letters were hilarious. "Dear Jerry you old bastard. Me and my crumbund were thinking about how phony everyone in the world is. You're the only person who totally gets us."

The last category, there were the letters that were tragic. They ran the gamut, but lot of them were older people who were reliving or thinking about their experiences during World War II. Because of this, they had read Salinger when his works first came out, and because of that they felt that he had captured their experience during the war or after the war, and they were rereading it and realized, oh my god, this is about the war.

And then there were people writing about losing spouse, losing a child. I lost a couple of siblings, so the letters about the loss of a child really stuck out in my mind because of what my own parents went through. Those affected me really personally. It was one of those letters about losing a child that sort of propelled me into responding personally to people. I hadn't read Salinger at this point, but once I did, these letters made complete sense to me, because all of his work is about loss.

KM: You didn't read Salinger's books until you were already working for the agency. What was it like reading his work while reading these fan letters?

JR: A lot of the reason I ultimately read him was seeing the impact he had made on these people's lives. Somehow, for to this vast swath of the world's population, he was able to make them feel less alone. They wrote these letters to him that were so intimate. They conflated Salinger with Holden, and what I got from that was that his work had such an intimacy of voice, and the stakes were so high in his work that somehow these readers were able to enter into these works as if they were kind of part of a texture of their own lives instead of a work of fiction. Which is ultimately what the best fiction does.

So I finally turned to Salinger really because of seeing the effect that he had had on these readers. I was still not prepared though. Nothing can prepare you. You can read reviews of books, but you're still not prepared. These stories were about people's inner lives and existential crises and trying to figure out how to be in a world where there is so much sadness. These characters felt like me and also felt like someone I knew in different ways. Reading them made me a better writer.

KM: The first chapter of your book is titled "All of us Girls." Can you talk a bit about what it was like, what it is like, to be a woman in the literary world?

Mysalingeryear_byjoannarakoff

JR: Well. Oh god. There's so much. Hopefully, I think that things have changed a little bit. When I was 23 or 24, I remember specifically going to The Paris Review parties, and there were all of these older men, who were established and successful — it wasn't that they were preying on the young women, but there was an odd dynamic there. I mean, I was not a gorgeous, lithe young thing. I wasn't like Marnie on Girls. It's just that you, as a young woman, are in this odd position where you're surrounded by all of these older men who are filled with their own sense of themselves as literary figures. It's simultaneously kind of thrilling but also kind of terrifying. That's definitely one of the things that I wanted to chronicle in this book.

I'd read a lot about that kind of literary universe, and part of that literary universe was these grand men. I'd written my Master's thesis on Sylvia Plath and there's that legendary story of her meeting Ted Hughes, and I was kind of intrigued by this. I had gone to Oberlin, and I had dated really nice guys; my boyfriend at Oberlin was this wonderful, brilliant, hilarious, perfect guy who treated me with great respect and was really kind to me. Somehow I felt, like many of my friends, that there was something intriguing about this other more retrograde universe.

I still go to parties, and I still see the kind of very, very, very, young women at parties. I do feel like the dynamic has shifted a little tiny bit to be a little less creepy.