Describe your latest book.
My Salinger Year is a memoir about my sojourn as the assistant to J. D. Salinger's agent, a job that involved answering his fan mail, typing letters on an ancient IBM Selectric, mastering an archaic device known as a Dictaphone, and generally coping — or trying to decipher — the odd, outmoded customs and practices of the agency. When I took the job, my boss warned me that I'd never see Salinger, that he would never call, and if by some crazy chance he did, I was to utter as few words as possible and immediately put him through to her. As it turned out, this was not the case! Salinger decided, during my first month at the agency, to publish a new book: a standalone edition of his last published story. And soon he began calling frequently, if not as often as his fans.
Over the course of my year at the agency, I got to know Salinger better than I ever thought I would, but also got to know those fans, whose letters affected me in a profound and unexpected way. Though I was supposed to send a cold, firm form letter — the message of which was basically, "Salinger doesn't want to hear from you; go away" — I eventually began sending personal letters to many of them, for their letters — confessional and intimate — struck me as too heartfelt to be so routinely dismissed. It was an act that changed and defined my life.
My Salinger Year takes place in 1996, and I suppose it's also the story of that year, the year the world — or, well, the media world, the publishing world — jumped off the precipice, into the digital age, the year that everything changed.
And it's also the story of my life outside the office, of my ratty apartment in Williamsburg, of my would-be Norman Mailer boyfriend, of my scraping by on $250 per week, unable to afford a sandwich for lunch or pay my bills. It's the story of the endless parties we attended, of the café down the block where I sat and wrote, of the boy I left behind when I moved to New York, of my parents' confusion over my unconventional choices, of the best friend I lost when she turned down a more conservative path. It's the discovering of Salinger — his work, which I'd never read — and discovering that the world was not exactly as I'd thought it.
It's the story, I suppose, of my growing up, or trying to.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Well, um, answering J. D. Salinger's fan mail! (I also worked as a PA on a Barbra Streisand film. That was strange, but not all that interesting.)
Describe a recurring dream or nightmare.
Oh, gee. Well, when I was three, I had a close encounter with a snake. I was picking blackberries in our backyard and the snake poked its head out of the bush at me — like a snake in a fairytale — then wriggled past me, toward our house. I was terrified. That night, I dreamt that snakes were crawling all over me in my crib. (That's how young I was. I still slept in a crib.) That dream never left me. Versions of it recur, particularly during moments of intense strain. Or when I accidentally see a snake at the zoo or a pet store. Horrible!
What was your favorite book as a child?
There were so many, it's hard to pick just one. The Narnia books. Jane Eyre. The Diary of Anne Frank. A Wrinkle in Time, and also Madeleine L'Engle's series about the Austin family, particularly The Arm of the Starfish. The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. All of Judy Blume, but especially Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Lamb's Shakespeare. But I suppose more than anything, I loved Anne of Green Gables. I read the whole series over and over and over, so much so that I still have sentences from it emblazoned on my brain tissue. When people talk about Anne, they always say, "Oh, she's such a great character," and it's true — beyond true! — but those books are driven as much by the sheer force and energy of Montgomery's writing, the inventiveness of her narrative style and approach. Go back and read them as an adult. You'll find that they more than hold up. They're as riveting, as magnificent, as affecting to a grown-up as to a child. I promise!
What do your bookshelves look like? Are you a book hoarder? Do you embrace chaos, or are you a meticulous organizer?
I'm afraid I am a bit of a book hoarder. Maybe not a full-on hoarder, just a semi-hoarder. For years and years, I worked as a book critic, which meant I was sent galleys of pretty much everything. After I got over the novelty of free books arriving in the mail — or by messenger! — every single day, I became rather good about passing on those that I knew I wouldn't read — fantasy, romance, presidential biographies, and so on — and shelving those I knew I would. But I still have all sorts of strange book attachment issues. For instance, I have in my possession not one but two galleys of Amy Waldman's genius novel The Submission, and a finished copy. Why? The galleys have two different covers — the publisher changed the cover after sending out the first round of galleys — and I love that first, discarded cover. I also can't seem to get rid of books I loved in college but know I'll never read again.
That said, despite having too many books, I do keep them well organized. My books are alphabetized and sorted into poetry, prose, and plays.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Through the rest of the afternoon, through her trip to the market in downtown Kinneret-Among-The-Pines to buy ricotta and listen to the Muzak (today she came through the bead-curtained entrance around bar 4 of the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble's variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist); then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews in the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves, eventually, oven on, into the mixing of the twilight's whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell ("Mucho") Maas from work, she wondered, wondered, shuffling back through a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn't she be first to admit it?) more or less identical, or all pointing the same way