The story of her year working for The Catcher in the Rye author's agent is one of the most highly anticipated books of the year – but Rakoff insists she never wanted to write it
Joanna Rakoff, author of the memoir all literary America is talking about, lives in a first-floor flat in a pretty but rather creaky clapboard house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its door release mechanism being somewhat temperamental, when I ring her bell one dank morning in May, she must skip downstairs to greet me – something she does barefoot, the skirt of her primrose broderie anglaise dress gathered girlishly in her hands. Rakoff, 42, is an acclaimed poet and novelist, an experienced journalist, and a mother of two. But at first glance, you would never know it. Wide-eyed, tentative and much given to confidences – her voice falls to an eager whisper when she's really dishing – she seems far younger than her years. "Would you like tea?" she asks, once we're safely upstairs and she is dancing busily between kitchen counter and refrigerator. Translated, what this means is: Be prepared: I've a lot to tell you.
It's hard to believe that her memoir, My Salinger Year, has not yet been published (it comes out this week). So much noise already surrounds it. "Girls meets Mad Men!" shouts her publisher, with only partial accuracy. For months, the emails have been pouring in. Will she write this or that piece? Will she appear on this or that radio show? The other day, she was photographed for American Vogue: stylist, hair, makeup, the lot. Naturally, all this has added greatly to her pre-publication nerves. "I didn't read any of the reviews of my first book [a novel called A Fortunate Age]. But that was relatively easy to do. This time, it will be harder. It's more personal, this book, and there is the issue of Salinger, too. He was one of the reasons I resisted writing it for so long. I didn't want to be seen as yet another person capitalising on his life, and I worry about being perceived that way even though I don't feel this is at all a story about Salinger." She sips her tea. "People love Salinger. They're ferociously devoted to him. So it's important that they understand that I'm not one of those who wants to take him down. He wasn't a psychotic weirdo. He wasn't this jerk, screaming at people in fits of temper like Sean Penn or something. He was kind, gentle, patient and respectful, and I wanted to convey that."
Rakoff's title is shrewd; Salinger sells. But it is also, as she has suggested, misleading. The author of The Catcher in the Rye makes only a few, fleeting appearances among its pages – and even then, he is mostly just a befuddled, too-loud voice on the end of a telephone line. In fact, she has written a coming-of-age story: an involving, evocative tale that will have bookish women everywhere shuddering in recognition. Like Rona Jaffe's novel of the 50s, The Best of Everything – a book that Rakoff loves and reread before she started work on My Salinger Year – it is concerned with what it feels like to move to the big city, to take on your first job, and to struggle to survive on a tiny salary when all the while your dreams are seemingly being snuffed out at every turn, and your love life is spiralling into muddle and mayhem. It is about that heady, never-forgotten period in every girl's life when fear and elation seem almost to be the same thing. The freedom! Anything might happen, out there in the wide world. But how to fit in? How to speak up? How to make it clear that you're capable of being more than typist?
Rakoff's version of this story, however, comes with an extra, gossipy twist – particularly for those readers who move in New York media circles. The job she describes in her book, hard-won and pitifully badly paid, is as an assistant to a literary agent whose most important client is JD Salinger, aka Jerry, that most famous of recluses – a man with whom she is strictly forbidden to engage in casual conversation (on pain of death is she to reveal details of his life to the outside world). Who is this agent? In My Salinger Year, Rakoff refers to her only as "my boss" and to her workplace only as "the agency", a calculated anonymity that adds to the reader's sense that its heroine has joined the literary equivalent of a religious cult. Tap the relevant details into Google, though, and the real names soon appear before your eyes: the boss in question, stern and yet oddly quixotic, is Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates. Westberg is still alive, the agency at which she works sails on, and the Salinger estate (he died in 2010) remains on its books.
Its continued existence seems like a minor miracle once you've read Rakoff's book, which is set in 1996, or thereabouts. This is the era of the dotcom boom and, in the literary world, the rapid expansion of the list of Andrew Wylie, the agent known as "the Jackal" for his rapacity; a time of dizzying auctions, huge advances for authors, and newly short lunches. Across Manhattan, authors, editors and agents alike work on computer, and make full use of email as a means of avoiding embarrassing and vulgar conversations. But at "the agency", the dark ages continue unabated. The office, wood-panelled and quiet as a grave, contains not a single computer. When Rakoff arrives on her first day, she is given a baffling and clunky Selectric typewriter and a Dictaphone machine, which must be operated by foot pedal. When manuscripts go out, their progress is recorded not on a screen, but on pale pink index cards, a Sanskrit-ish shorthand denoting which editor at which house is currently reading the draft in question (at one point, she finds the card for the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye, which reveals that a publisher rejected it). "Most of the publishers listed on those cards no longer even existed," says Rakoff, with a laugh. "For HarperCollins we used the initials HR, which stood for Harper & Row, its previous incarnation. The pace was so slow. We were in the Palaeolithic era."
If Rakoff's boss and her colleagues grasp that things are different outside, they give no outward sign. Their attitude is resolutely superior, as if to say: we do things differently here. Sometimes, this backfires. Rakoff watches in horror as Judy Blume, the bestselling children's author, takes her business elsewhere, apparently fed up with the agency's antediluvian approach. Mostly, though, they are content to struggle on, calcified and unyielding. Rakoff's boss, in particular, seems to have come from another age, to the point where her new assistant is unable to work out exactly how old she is (she could be 40 or… 60). She wears mink coats and headscarves, smokes all the day long, and reminds Rakoff simultaneously of Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall. She reveals nothing at all of her private life or even of her feeling for books – "She was more like a mortician than an agent," says Rakoff – and seems only to come truly alive when Jerry is on the line. Jerry, by the way, has decided to allow his last published story, "Hapworth 16, 1924", to be reissued by a tiny publisher in Virginia. Does Rakoff's boss tell him this might be a bad idea? No, she does not. (As Rakoff puts it now: "Anyone else would have said: this guy isn't even minor league; he's peewee league!") What Jerry says goes, and she and the rest of her staff can only watch as the unlikely deal predictably ends in disaster, the publisher in question having talked to a local newspaper about his exciting news, at which point a furious Salinger pulls out.
Salinger, when Rakoff finally plucks up the courage to converse with him, is indeed kind to her. He is extremely deaf, and gets her name wrong. But he also encourages her to keep writing her poetry (he reveres poets). She meets him only once, when he comes to the agency to have lunch with her boss; she notices that his hair is neatly combed, but she is too agog to take in much more. Amazingly, she has not yet read his books – an epiphany lies in the near future on that score – but she is sucked in by his mythology nevertheless. Forbidden to forward to him the hundreds of fan letters he still receives every week, it is part of her job to send form letters to their authors. The only trouble is that once she has read these notes – they are so personal, so heartfelt, so tender – she cannot resist sending a proper letter back. Sometimes, quite firm, she provides advice; at others, she offers words of encouragement. "I kept only one," she says, when I ask if she still has any of these letters. "It's in my bedroom right now. In the book I guess you could say I recreated them. At one time, I did have more, because it felt strange and bad to throw them away, and they were the one thing the agency didn't file. But I left them all in Don's apartment when I moved out."
Ah, yes, Don. On the rebound from her devoted and kindly college boyfriend, a composer called Keeril, Rakoff moves in with Don, a chippy socialist and wannabe writer with junkie friends and big ideas about the novel he is writing – so big, in fact, that he cannot be bothered to get a proper job, with the result that Rakoff must bankroll him. They move into a strange apartment deep in Brooklyn which has no kitchen sink and is sub-zero in winter. When they do finally persuade their antisemitic Polish landlady to install a heater, it leaks gas so badly, Rakoff has to move out for 24 hours. Don has a wandering eye and a pretty tough line in put-downs – "he used to say to me: 'I'm not going to listen to some dentist's daughter from Scarsdale!'" – but she stays with him because she is lonely and at sea. Her parents, upset at her rejection of her college boyfriend, won't help her financially – her post-college debts are huge – and her friends are slowly drifting away. Jenny, with whom she went to school, works at a publisher in New York, but she is turning into Bridezilla before Rakoff's very eyes, her only ambition to join her fiance in Cleveland.
Was it easy to put all this on the page? The book is so gripping and funny, you feel sure she had only to twitch her nose to be back there, Selectric and all. But Rakoff shakes her head. "I didn't want to write this book," she says. "My agent didn't want me to write it either." So how did it happen? "Well, in 2001, I lost my job on a magazine called Lingua Franca, which folded. I went freelance, but I was having a hard time making a living. So I went to see this legendary reporter on the New York Times, Ralph Blumenthal, to ask for some advice, and in the course of the conversation I mentioned that I'd once answered JD Salinger's fan mail. He said: 'You should write about that.' So I did. I wrote a 6,000-word piece for a glossy magazine. That was the start of it." The piece in question got a lot of attention, and publishers began writing to her asking if she might turn it into a book. Her agent, though, warned her against being "a Salinger girl, another Joyce Maynard or something" (Maynard published a controversial memoir of the months she spent living with the much older Salinger as a teenager.) She should finish her novel instead.
"Years passed, and still I would get letters: 'I saw your piece in a magazine while I was visiting my friend's beach house', etc, etc. But still I couldn't see how it could be a book. So, cut to 2010. My father was dying, I was married to the wrong person [not Don, but not Keeril either], things had really deteriorated in my life. I wrote another piece about Salinger for Slate, and I did a piece on National Public Radio, and then the BBC wrote and said would I make a documentary about him for Radio 4? So I did that, too. It was mostly about his fans. We even hired a private detective to track one down." But if she thought this programme would draw a final line under the whole business, she soon found she was back to square one: yet again, publishers wrote begging her to turn the story into a book. At which point, her agent capitulated. She took Rakoff to lunch and told her she had changed her mind.
"I was hesitant, and I had a lot of trouble of writing it. It was painful, going back. I'm so much happier being 42 than 22. I also had all these fears. I'm not someone who likes to write about myself, and I felt loyal to the agency, even though I didn't really have anything horrible to say about them. The first year I was supposed to be working on it, I did ridiculous amounts of research, trying to put off starting. But then two things happened. The first was that I decided not to use real names. I told myself this was a novel, and these people were characters. That helped. The second was that I started to realise this is a universal story. I got my opening pages, in which I describe all these girls going to work all over Manhattan. It's not just about me. It's about women alone in the world. I was thinking about that a lot, that feeling of being unmoored."
Is her boss likely to read the book? And how would that make Rakoff feel? After all, she has invaded her privacy, describing among other things the day she fails to come to work, her married lover having shot himself in her apartment while she – Rakoff's boss – was in the next room. Rakoff frowns. "I don't know. I hope that if she does, she'll feel that she was portrayed accurately and in a holistic way. Someone said to me: everyone is comparing your book to The Devil Wears Prada. But it isn't like that. I can't feel negatively about her. I feel only sympathy. The playing field isn't level [for women], we know that. People do what they have to do." She pauses. "When I wrote that first essay, I heard that she had read it, and that she was tickled. But I remember then that I was more worried she would be upset by my revealing things about the agency than about her. It's complicated. When I worked there, I would go back and forth with my feelings. I would have moments when I felt intense love for the agency. I would go to [my friend] Jenny's office, which was all cubicles and pods and emails, and I would think: the agency seems more fun than this. But then, at other times, I was so painfully aware of how things were outside."
Salinger's death in 2010 took her by surprise; when she heard the news, she broke down. By this time, of course, she had long since left the agency – she worked there for only a year – and she had left Don, too. But her marriage to another writer, Evan Smith Rakoff, was also in trouble, and she was desperate to leave him. Salinger's end only added to her agitation. "Keeril [her college boyfriend] would come to New York, and I would collapse in his arms. 'I want to be with you,' I would tell him." This went on for years until, finally, last year, she plucked up the courage to leave her husband. She told him in a therapist's office, and as soon as the school term ended, she took her two children and went to Cambridge [Keeril teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. My Salinger Year, then, was written against a backdrop of huge emotional turmoil – and perhaps it's really thanks to this that it feels, in places, so raw and so true. What, though, will "Don" have to say about it? Gosh. Her voice drops to a whisper as she tells me a lot more. (Her opening line: "It was like I had been conked over the head by a caveman… ")
Not a day goes by, she tells me, without someone asking her about Salinger. Often, they will preface their remarks with a comment along the lines of: "I liked The Catcher in the Rye when I was young and angry, but when I read it again later, I found it so mannered, so annoying." Rakoff, though, doesn't feel this way. She read the stories and the novel first as an adult, and in the years since, turning to them again and again, she has never felt herself to have outgrown them. "I love them all, though the character I still identify with most is Franny [in Franny and Zooey]." She is wary of a literary culture that turns on those who, like Salinger, refuse fully to participate in it, and to those who believe that on some level he must have wanted the attention – who insist, as I do, that his behaviour made him more visible, not less – she is apt to point out that never before or since has a single novel had such an instantly dramatic reception as The Catcher in the Rye. "It was a cultural moment," she says. "Nothing else can be compared to it." Who could blame him if his response to fame wasn't always consistent? She isn't pious about this; her attitude, smiling and thoughtful, happily acknowledges her hypocrisy. His name is on the jacket of her book, after all. Rakoff, too, has used him – though I, for one, am inclined to forgive her. My Salinger Year is a treat even Jerry might have enjoyed.