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Saturday, April 04, 2020

‘Salinger wanted success as a writer but he didn’t want celebrityhood’

Joana Rakoff on director Phillipe Falardeu’s new film on her book My Salinger Year, working at the literary agency that represented JD Salinger, and how she discovered the reclusive writer

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: March 13, 2020 12:10:09 am
A still from My Salinger Year Photo: micro_scope; the cover of Rakoff’s 2014 book. (micro_scope)

Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year (Bloomsbury, 2014) is all a whirl. Her book, on which the film of the same name is based and which opened the Berlin Film Festival, came out of her experience of being that girl who comes to New York. To reinvent, to begin writing herself, and to become a published author.

She was also that girl who had no idea of the importance of JD Salinger, the storied author who wrote such contemporary classics as Catcher In The Rye, Franny, And Zooey and Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters. It’s only when she stepped into the hallowed portals of Harold Ober Associates, a famous New York literary agency, that represented Salinger, that she discovered the myth and the man. In the shape of that very elusive ‘Jerry’, who shows up in the movie, as he does in the book, only in flashes.

 

Rakoff, 48, still can’t quite believe her life right now, a non-stop whirl of red-carpet appearances, flash-bulbs, and interviews. “I’m just not used to so much make up,” she says with a smile, with just a hint of tiredness in her voice. She speaks of her journey till now, from a youthful, wide-eyed ingenue to a popular public speaker, and what it felt like being someone who actually has had interactions with that famously reclusive author, whose fan mail she was tasked to answer. It was part of her job description while at the agency, and she found her own voice while doing so, which she uses to advantage in her coming-of-age novel, which was published in 2014.

The cover of Rakoff’s 2014 book.

Her book was optioned to be a movie while still at a proposal stage, and she had that highly unusual but thrilling experience of knowing that her words would find themselves on screen. It’s taken six years, a couple of botched attempts by interested parties, and a lot of learning for the movie — directed by Phillipe Falardeu, and starring Sigourney Weaver, as the formidable boss of the agency, and Margaret Qualley as Rakoff herself — to materialise. “The first time I had signed all rights away,” she says, “this time I was involved right from the beginning, all the way till the end”. Excerpts from an interview:

You heard about ‘Jerry’ on your first day at the agency, right?

Yes. On my first day, my boss calls me in, and says, ‘Listen we need to talk about Jerry’. And I had no idea what she was talking about till I left the office, and saw the wall with his books.

And the bulb went off?

Yes, it was a lightbulb moment. I said wait, that’s Jerome (Salinger), oh my god, that’s who Jerry is.

Before you joined the agency, you hadn’t read him at all?

Joana Rakoff (David Ignaszewski)

No, I hadn’t. I had not been a teenager obsessed with Salinger. In fact, I was actively opposed to reading Salinger because I thought that he was kind of a lightweight. Both my parents loved him and we had all of his books, in hardback. But I thought of these as comedic novels, like relics from a different era, and I didn’t care. Also, I thought if he’s so popular, how good can he be. In retrospect I realised, I think that part of the reason why my boss hired me was because I was so clueless. I didn’t mention Salinger at all, so I think she knew I would be a safe person to hire because I would respect Salinger’s privacy, which is what he wanted.

Did you ever get a handle on why he was so reclusive?

I had inklings of it while I worked at the agency. People there talked constantly about Salinger, and the feeling that I got was that he was traumatised by his own fame. That he was this very private person who was not necessarily eccentric, but a person who really prioritised his own thoughts and inclinations, and kind of wanted to follow his own path as a thinker and an artist. What I was told at the agency is that he wanted success as a writer but he didn’t want celebrityhood.

And then there he was, on the cover of Time magazine, it is hard to even imagine just how big he was… I have known people who handled their celebrity status with such grace. That was not the case with Salinger. He handled it as if it were a curse.

But what I found out when I was researching the book was that there was a spin on the story we had been told about Salinger. Which is to say that when he was working on those stories, on Catcher In The Rye, he actively wanted to be famous. It wasn’t that he was scribbling away in obscurity; he was actively trying to write a New Yorker story. His goal was to get into The New Yorker.

And he did.

Yes, he did.

So when you actually set eyes on Salinger, at the agency, what was it like? He appears just as a flash, both in the book (and the film).

Oh I was, like, having a heart attack. The way it worked was when Salinger visited the agency — he came in every four or five years… and in this case he came in the year I was there because he had a deal in the works for a new book and he wanted to talk it over with my boss.

So there was a protocol of him coming in which involved my boss telling no one because there had been terrible experiences where the employees of the agency told their friends and they showed up trying to meet him, trying to give him their manuscripts, trying to get his autograph, and pictures. So it was veiled in secrecy.

I was just sitting on my desk typing and I saw this figure enter the room adjacent to my boss’s, and he looked so elderly. I had only seen photos of him as a young man, but I could tell by his ears that it was him, and by his figure, tall and slender. My heart started beating very very fast and I thought that can’t be him, that can’t be him. And it was.

 

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