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Powell’s Q&A: Joanna Rakoff

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 subtly like a conjurer's deck, any odd one readily clear to a trained eye."
– Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The improper use of the term "impacted." As in, "We were greatly impacted by your refusal to trim that shrub that borders our yard." No, you weren't. You might have an impacted wisdom tooth. But you were affected by my refusal to trim that shrub.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs and cats. I am that person who loves them both. Right now, I am plotting to obtain a Cockapoo and a Siberian.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Agh, I seem to have so many. Eating in bed. Writing in bed. Eating and writing in bed. Ordering pizza rather than cooking a proper dinner. Licorice. Reading when I should be writing.

Why do you write?
I write to make sense of the world. I can't think of any other way to put it.

But I also love people and stories and language. Recently, another writer — a rather well-known biographer — asked me if I kept a journal. I do, and told him so. "I could never keep a journal," he said, laughing. "It would just be so boring. 'Had a cold today. Stayed home.'" I thought about this and then realized that so much of what goes into my journals has nothing to do with me. So much of it is observation, is trying to sort through the people around me, the world around me, trying to make sense of things.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Everyone should read Dawn Powell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and woefully underread. I'd start with A Time to Be Born, a genius comedy of manners that peeks inside the media world — newspaper magnates, war reporters, magazine writers — on the eve of World War II. This is a novel of ideas that is also supremely entertaining, and superbly affecting.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
I'm torn here between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and Gilmore Girls, but I'll go with the latter, purely because the writing on the show is true genius. It's essentially a serial version of a screwball comedy, like Lubitsch's The Shop around the Corner. The setup is this: Lorelai Gilmore, scion of a wealthy Hartford family, got pregnant at 16, had the baby, then ran away to a small town nearby and got a job as a maid at a local inn. The show starts 16 years later, when that baby, Rory, is a brilliant, bookish teenager, bored out of her mind by the local high school. She gets into a rigorous prep school in Hartford — the same one out of which her mom dropped 16 years earlier — but Lorelai, who now manages that inn, doesn't have 20 grand for the tuition. She calls her parents — from whom she's been estranged all this time — and asks for help. They agree, but only if she and Rory will be a part of their lives, will come to dinner every Friday night. Hilarity ensues!

It really does! But so does much else. When the show first aired, in 2000, it was unlike anything else on television, in the complications of its plots, the depth of its characterizations, and the unabashed intelligence of its characters. In every episode, Rory is reading: Céline, The New Yorker, Mary McCarthy, the Brontes. What's not to love?

How do you relax?
I am so boring. I lie in bed and read. Sometimes while eating one of many varieties of fruit. Pretty much any fruit will do.

I also do a lot of yoga. And I take walks and browse in shops. I'm not sure why this relaxes me so, but it does. Especially when I'm working intensely. Running, too, during those intense work periods, is a great way of releasing strain.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration.
I love music and wrote much of My Salinger Year while listening to the band Okkervil River and the singer M. Ward. While writing my first novel, A Fortunate Age, I listened to truly epic amounts of Elliott Smith.

Five books about Cambridge, Massachusetts:
For much of my adult life, I lived in New York and obsessively read — and wrote — about New York. Now I live in Cambridge, and I find myself (not quite obsessively) reading novels set amidst its ramshackle Victorians and ivy-covered brick, such as:

  1. A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. This sweeping novel in the vein of Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda starts when two Harvard students — one a staunch New Englander from Mayflower wealth, the other a Jew from Dorchester — meet outside a party. Over the course of three decades, and two generations, their lives braid together and swing apart...
  2. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. An unmarried schoolteacher finds herself rather too invested in her favorite pupil's charismatic — and narcissistic — mother. A feminist novel for the 21st century, Messud's riveting third novel exposes the continued prejudices against and perils for women who remain single and childless, but it also offers a pitch-perfect portrait of Cambridge, in all its snow-covered glory.
  3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Yes, the location is lightly disguised. Yes, this novel is genius. All the more so because of the names being changed, which allows Smith a freedom to lightly, kindly satirize the sanctimony of the liberal academics portrayed therein.
  4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. The original scary post-apocalyptic novel is set, yes, in Cambridge. Though it's the weird breeding stuff you probably noticed on first read! (Might not make you want to be my neighbor in the way the others will...)
  5. Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Scientists seeking a virus that kills cancer! This is, in a way, the ultimate novel of Cambridge, written with an insider's wit and knowledge, not to mention intimacy and affection.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joanna Rakoff is the author of My Salinger Year. Her novel A Fortunate Age won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers and the Elle Readers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. My Salinger Year Used Hardcover $17.95

  2. Tales from Shakespeare (Puffin Classics) Used Trade Paper $2.95
  3. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself New Trade Paper $6.99
  4. A Little Princess Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. The Secret Garden (Puffin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $4.00
  6. The Arm of the Starfish New Trade Paper $9.99
  7. A Wrinkle in Time: 50th Anniversary... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  8. The Diary of a Young Girl
    Used Mass Market $2.95
  9. A Time to Be Born Used Trade Paper $7.50
  10. The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial...
    Sale Trade Paper $6.98
  11. The Submission
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  12. Intuition
    Used Trade Paper $1.50
  13. The Handmaid's Tale
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  14. On Beauty: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  15. The Woman Upstairs Used Trade Paper $7.50
  16. A Dual Inheritance New Trade Paper $16.00
  17. Daniel Deronda (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $4.95
  18. Middlemarch. George Eliot New Mass Market $4.00


Joanna Rakoff is the author of My Salinger Year

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