Joanna Rakoff is the award-winning novelist, poet, and freelance journalist who penned the memoir My Salinger Year that has readers and critics alike raving. Her beautifully written memoir is not of the trashy tell-all material. Instead, she has given us an artful coming-of-age tale that appeals to all generations.
The memoir recounts Rakoff's bluesy in-between year after graduating college and trying to make her way in the cutthroat world of New York. After breaking up with her college boyfriend, Rakoff began searching for a job to pay for her sudden college debt and living costs. She landed a spot at a place called the Agency, a tucked-away corner of the world far removed from the beginning computer craze.
Learning how to use a Dictaphone and meeting the Agency's eccentric cast of characters, Rakoff discovered who the Agency worked for: none other than The Catcher in the Rye's J.D. Salinger. Rakoff was strictly instructed on how to communicate with the famous author. Don't call him up, refer him only to her boss, and definitely don't try to discuss writing with him.
In the year Rakoff spends behind a desk at an Agency from another world, she reflects on the life she is building for herself. The book becomes both dream-like and poignant, with descriptions of NY's career ladder, Rakoff's messy relationship with her new boyfriend, and the cast and crew of the Agency.
My Salinger Year becomes a book not only about Salinger but about life and humanity. The Washington Post described it as the Salinger story weaved “into a broader, more universal tale about finding one’s bearings during a pivotal transitional year into real adulthood.” Rakoff's artful writing and character details make the memoir difficult to put down. A simple scene of Rakoff and a childhood friend getting lunch together was truthful and moving enough to nearly make me cry.
Ms. Rakoff graciously agreed to discuss My Salinger Year and her novel A Fortunate Age as well as writing, titles, publishing, and more. When asked whether she thought writing a memoir or a novel was harder, Rakoff said that she found memoirs more difficult.
"I find memoir more challenging," she says, "which often surprises people because there's this idea that with memoir, you're simply chronicling an extraordinary thing that happened to you. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “well, if I’d been lucky enough to work for J.D. Salinger, I would have written a memoir, too.” And I have to restrain myself from saying, “um, there’s a little more to it.”
"With memoir," she continues, "you’re carving a story out of the truth. For me, the goal—with My Salinger Year and with my new memoir, The Fifth Passenger, out next year—is to write a memoir as if it’s fiction. I want my memoirs to have the pull and urgency of the best novels, which means a full narrative arc and a tight set of well-developed characters.
"But this requires a lot of distance—a detachment--from the very real events and people portrayed in the book. Which can be hard. For the first year after I signed the contract for My Salinger Year, I had trouble writing and buried myself in research, largely because I was afraid to write about my coworkers at the Agency, and also about my closest friend from that time, Jenny, and my boyfriend, Don, because—I eventually realized—I felt that I was betraying them. Not because I necessarily had terrible things to say about them or would be characterizing them in a bad light. But because simply the act of writing about them—of writing my own version of our story—seemed a betrayal.
"I kept saying to myself, “I wish this were a novel!” And then, one day, I decided to play a trick on myself. I wrote, on an index card, 'This is a novel. You are a character. 'Everyone is a character.' And I pinned it up above my desk. Somehow, this did the trick. Whenever I got stuck—in a scene that felt inauthentic or just wasn’t working—I told myself, “this is a novel.” Which didn’t mean that I could just make stuff up, of course! It simply meant that I was in charge of my characters, just as I would be in a novel."
Rakoff also opened up about the messy personal searching required to write a memoir. "But there is, of course, one other way in which memoir, for me, proves more difficult: You have to face yourself," she says. "For me, this meant forcing myself to examine some passages from my youth about which I felt intense regret and shattering sorrow. The break-up of my friendship with Jenny and my role in it. My abandonment of my college boyfriend and the terrifying extent to which I still missed him. There were days I spent sobbing at my desk."
"I was fully expecting to receive a lot of angry notes and calls," she admits, when asked if anyone was angry about how they were portrayed in her memoir. "A few months before the book came out, I freaked out and thought, “maybe I shouldn’t publish this!” A dear friend of mine, Claire Dederer, who’d recently published her brilliant memoir, Poser, talked me down from the ledge, by calmly explaining that every memoirist has such a moment and, also, that people are generally happy to become characters in a book. Even if the portrayal is less than flattering, they’re still flattered.
"She turned out—as she always is—to be exactly right. I heard from only one person, a woman who’d worked as an assistant with me, whom I call Olivia in the book. The funny thing is: I loved and worshipped her. She was a few years older than me and struck me as wonderfully wise and witty and worldly, and also beautiful, effortlessly
stylish in a kind of European way, and glamorous. And this was pretty much how I characterized her in the book. So I was pretty shocked that she found her portrayal to be negative." When asked how she handled the confrontation, Rakoff answered: "Badly, I think. I’m not sure I wrote back."
If dealing with the aftermath from a memoir is hard, writing the book is harder. Rakoff opened up about her writing process, saying "By nature, I’m a morning person, and I wrote a lot of my first two books—and also a million book reviews and magazine articles—largely by waking up before everyone else and getting a chunk of work done before I had to speak to anyone else, which then laid the foundation for the day. If I could get work done early, I always knew, I could easily return to work later after the kids were dropped off, after I ran errands, or what have you. Because I was already immersed in the story, the world of the book (or the article, or
"But seven-odd years ago, my life changed, dramatically: I left my first marriage and returned to the man known to readers of My Salinger Year as “my college boyfriend,” and I moved from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with my children, Coleman and Pearl. And, suddenly, I didn’t want to get out of bed at 5 am to work before everyone got up. A few years later, we had our daughter, Izzy, who’s a terrible sleeper, and life has been more, let’s say, full, for me. Because I’m almost always operating on a big sleep deficit, I can no longer get up before everyone else. And I now often do my best work later in the day, after lunch, or in the late evening after everyone has gone to bed. I’m still, by nature, a morning person. But my to-do list is often so huge it’s hard for me to settle down and work before I’ve crossed a lot of things off it. Somehow, in the late evening, after everyone and everything is settled, I can work more easily. Especially if I take a walk first."
Her must-haves for writing? "Solitude. And time. I write best when I have a decent swathe of time and can putter around, making cups of tea, or lying on the sofa thinking things through. I’m not one of those people who works best in a café surrounded by people. Or in short bursts between scheduled activities. Also, now, for me, I write best if I don’t have my phone with me, silently begging me to check in with my husband and see how the kids are doing, or peek at Instagram or what have you."
I asked about the writing process: what it looked for her and how many drafts she did for each book. She answered by saying that she thought it was different for each book.
"I spent a good five years working on A Fortunate Age. The first year, really, I just thought my way into the book, figuring out my characters and my narrative tone, and writing material that I suspected I’d cut, that was a way of figuring out the book. The next year or two, I spent hammering out a first draft, which I then gave to two trusted readers, who gave me feedback, and I took a couple of months to think through and incorporate what made sense.
The next draft she sent to her agent, "who had a lot of thoughts about overhauling the novel, which then clocked in at something like seven or eight hundred pages. I took a few months to, again, think through her various ideas. And then spent two full years taking the book apart and putting it back together. After we sold it, I did two more rewrites. One based on my editor’s thoughts, another based on my own. So that’s, what, five drafts. But there were many others along the way. Many."
She contrasted the lengthy editing experience of A Fortunate Age with My Salinger Year, which was a shorter process. She focused on Elizabeth Gilbert's phrase "Sometimes DONE is better than GOOD" while editing her memoir. "When one is under contract, one must remind oneself of that each day. For me, it’s very hard. Especially with memoir, as one feels obligated to get the story exactly right. Not just for one’s own sake, or for the sake of the book, or art, but for the sake of the people who’ve become characters in the book.) Again, I spent a year thinking my way into the book, researching it, writing hundreds of pages I knew I wouldn’t use, that served purely to help me figure out narrative tone and style, and to find the story. Then, at the end of that year, I spent a month or so panicking. Then, one day, I realized that the book must be ordered by season—for this is how the story unfolded in my mind—and once I knew this, I was able to sit down and calmly write.
"At a certain point, maybe a third of the way in, I became overwhelmed with the various threads of the plot and decided to stop and do some outlining. I eliminated a few characters and thought through the plot, realizing that it roughly fell into three threads, which I had to weave together, evenly and smoothly. Once I had a draft, I did a big edit, which involved a lot of trimming. And I did one edit—more trimming, for we wanted the book to feel spare and tight—for my editor."
She poked fun at her tendency for not being able to keep short stories short. "I love, love short stories—and read a very heavy volume of them—but I have trouble with the form. Every time I begin work on a short story, it becomes a novel."
Rakoff also spoke about her research process, particularly for her new memoir The Fifth Passenger, and the weirdest and hardest things she's had to discover.
"I'm investigating the deaths of my siblings, Anita and Mark, which occurred about a year before my birth and was largely kept a secret from me for most of my life. Which has involved—I’m not yet finished—talking to many people from my hometown of Nyack, a small town in the Hudson River Valley, and—suffice it to say—it’s been incredibly emotional. Heartbreaking, really. After each interview, I’m destroyed for weeks. In part, because I’m asking these people to chronicle a horrifying trauma from their childhood or adolescence, to talk to me about an enormous loss, for some of them the central loss of their lives. In part, because in each interview so much is revealed about my own family—my parents, my surviving sister—that it’s just…overwhelming. Often, after these interviews, I sleep for twelve hours."
Rakoff laughed at the experience of coming up with a title for her novel, A Fortunate Age. It was originally supposed to be titled Brooklyn, but another author was also publishing a book with the same company, also titled Brooklyn. Rakoff and her editor combed through massive amounts of different title ideas before the phrase "A Fortunate Age" came into Rakoff's mind in the middle of the night.
"The truth is," Rakoff laughs, "that esteemed older male writer—whom you’ve probably guessed is Colm Toibin--did me a huge favor in taking “Brooklyn” away from me. Despite this, I held a grudge against him for a very long time. Until, actually, this past April—eleven years after both books came out—when I finally read Brooklyn and loved it."
Of course, being a reader, I had to ask her what books have shaped her most as a writer.
"That's a hard question to answer because so many books have shaped me. Here are a few, from all different time periods, read at all different stages of life: The Forsyte Saga, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Anne of Green Gables, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and also some of her magnificent earlier novels, like The Country Life, Americanah, Tova Mirvis’ memoir The Book of Separation and her novels The Ladies’ Auxiliary and Visible City, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Curtis Sittenfeld and J. Courtney Sullivan are both novelists in the vein of Dickens, whose work I love. (Especially Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Sullivan’s Friends and Strangers.) Jonathan Franzen, whom I know is very unpopular right now, but I love his work. Donna Tartt. The
Goldfinch has been a lodestar for me with my book."
As for books she's read over and over, Rakoff admitted she's a Jane Austen fan. She also mentioned titles The Secret Garden, Little Women, Poser, and Love and Trouble. She says she's "obsessed with Jennifer Haigh’s novel, Faith, and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar, both of which remind me of another favorite, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I’ve read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble twice! Thomas Pynchon’s perfect novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which I used to re-read once each year. And Salinger, of course."
In true author spotlight fashion, I asked her what her best piece of advice for aspiring authors was. She said: "Just write. Don’t read too much or worry too much about publishing or media. Just write. So often, I get notes from aspiring writers, saying things like, “I have the first forty pages of my memoir completely done. Can you recommend an agent?” Or “How should I position myself on Instagram so that I can sell a book?” No. No no no no no. Just do whatever makes sense for you to earn money and write the book you need to write. Don’t worry about selling it or, God forbid, selling yourself. Just write. Also, of course, read."
If you liked this, you'll love: