Author recounts her 'Salinger Year'

She answered J.D. Salinger's fan mail

Writer Joanna Rakoff is on the phone, the day after returning from a trip to India and hours after being released from the hospital, where she was treated for dysentery.

"The worst part is that I took every possible precaution," she says. "I had to do a lot of interviews in India, so I didn't eat the fruit, I didn't eat the vegetables. But on the plane going home, I started getting sick."

The 42-year-old author and Massachusetts resident had been on a book tour for her memoir, "My Salinger Year," which recounts Rakoff's 1996 stint working as a glorified secretary for the tradition-bound literary agency representing the celebrated author J.D. Salinger.

One of Rakoff's tasks was answering the stacks of Salinger's fan mail that poured into the office. Some of the letters were so heart-wrenchingly personal that the young assistant found herself unable to send a form letter. Instead, she began writing back — with unexpected results.

The memoir both a tale about being 23 years old and coping with bad boyfriends and unlivable apartments (Rakoff's lacked both heat and a kitchen sink) and a story about a fledgling writer finding her voice.

Anecdotes about publishing world powers that be, combined with the mix of admiration, resentment and sympathy that Rakoff felt for the enigmatic woman who was her boss, have earned the memoir a reputation as the literary set's equivalent of "The Devil Wears Prada."

"I was part of the first generation of women to come of age with this unspoken assumption that we could do whatever we wanted," Rakoff says. "So much of the book is about not being prepared for the adult world, which was exciting but also chaotic."

Rakoff will read from her memoir Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop. An edited conversation appears below.

Despite the title, your book isn't really about J.D. Salinger. You only met him once, and briefly.

True, though Salinger was a hugely important figure for me. I kind of feel like he's the underground river running through this book.

He didn't become my best friend, but in a quiet way he really affected my thinking about the world and being a writer and a grown-up. He took me seriously. He didn't treat me like a silly young girl, as my boyfriend and parents were doing at the time.

He'd say little things about waking up early and writing every day and thinking of yourself as a writer and not getting lost in the easy gratifications of the job.

I did start writing every day, and within a few years of leaving the agency, I had set myself up writing for major newspapers and magazines.

He also taught me to be kind to everyone. It's odd, but I found that the more important and successful people are, the less they needed to make themselves feel powerful by belittling someone's assistant.

Have you gotten any response from the people you write about in your book?

I have not heard from [my boss], which is to be expected. She would think it would be gauche to say anything.

Because of my journalism background, I was very conscious of wanting to fact-check, so I interviewed some of the people I wrote about. I interviewed Roger Lathbury [a Washington-area publisher who lost the rights to release one of Salinger's novels] and I interviewed my former boyfriend, who in the book is called Don.

"Don" has published a couple of nonfiction books in which I am a character, so he's not hugely in a position to care about how I portrayed him.

Your book describes the trauma your boss went through when someone she loved committed suicide. Though you don't identify her, anyone with an Internet connection can easily learn her name. Were you concerned that publishing those personal details would embarrass her?

Yes. That's one of the reasons why it took me so long to write the book. I know this sounds absurd, but what happened to [her boss] affected me profoundly. I'd sit at my desk and feel as if my heart were cracking open.

I grew up in a house saturated with tragedy. Two of my siblings were killed in a car accident before I was born, and I think that has made me more open and porous when tragedies occur in the lives of people around me.

That also was the year I was looking at the older women I knew and the choices they made, and trying to figure out how to live my life. My boss and my mother were around the same age, but they made complete opposite choices.

My mother was brilliant and had been this star student. But she wanted to have this perfect Betty Draper 1960s life, so she didn't pursue a career. I saw the way that made her dissatisfied.

My boss had made the total opposite choice to have a career and not to have a family, and I also saw the limitations of that life.

Now that you're a best-selling author yourself, do you reply to your own fan mail?

[Laughs]. I so sympathize with Salinger now. I do get these notes that are comparable to the letters I answered for Salinger. People pour out their hearts about the abusive relationships they've had or their divorces. I'm glad if they found my book inspiring or helpful, but it's hard to know what to say to them.

In some ways, it's easier to figure out how to answer someone else's fan mail. I have two children now, and being responsible for their emotional well-being is so exhausting that I think: "This is all I can do. I can't take care of someone else, too."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"My Salinger Year" was published June 3 by Random House Books. 272 pages, $25.95.

If you go

Author Joanna Rakoff will read from her memoir at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

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