At that point, she had read none of Salinger's own work, but seeing the outpouring of these "documents of human experience", as she calls them, shaped her into the human being and the writer she became.
My Salinger Year is not so much about JD Salinger himself (whose oeuvre she did eventually come to read), as it is Rakoff's own literary, non-fiction, bildungsroman about being a lost young woman writer in a changing world where you have no models for what you want to do, and no idea of how to begin.
Here's a conversation we had with her about how she came to finally write this memoir after saying no for a long time, and how she was re-united with her childhood best friend through reading the fan mail of an author. Three questions and three very long answers.
You've talked about how you were resistant to the idea of doing this memoir for quite a long time. Why was that?
When I was first approached about doing it, I was quite young. I'd published an essay about answering Salinger's fan mail. I got a lot of attention. I was not prepared for that at all. I was working on my first book, my novel in obscurity. I wrote for a few magazines but nobody knew who I was or cared that much.
I think I was freaked out by the attention being thrust on me, and I understood that if I wrote a book about this, there would be more of that. That was a little bit off-putting, and unnerving. Then there was the fact that I saw myself as a fiction writer, really, and I wanted to finish this novel and have that be my first book.
I didn't want to write a memoir about JD Salinger and then be known as "the Salinger girl". There's a writer named Joyce Maynard who lived with JD Salinger when she was very young, and wrote a scathing memoir about it named At Home In The World. She in her 60s now, and she's still known as that woman that wrote the Salinger.
Over the years, people kept asking me, and these things kept coming up, and then A Fortunate Age came out, so I no longer had that excuse, but then I was working on a second novel.
What made you finally do it, then?
The short version of the story is that a lot of things were happening in my life ‒ my father became very ill, and was dying right around the same time that JD Salinger died. This was in 2010, my first novel had just come out, and I wasn't really writing that much because I was mainly taking care of my father and tending to him. I was very close with him. And my perspective of the world changed, as well as my perspective of Salinger and these experiences.
After Salinger died, I wrote another essay about answering his fan mail, and that turned into a documentary for the BBC radio. That documentary took tons of research, and shaped the arc of the story. I've done radio before, I love it, and I love writing the script. But it was through writing this story that my perspective on my own story changed.
I'd written the first essay when I was in my twenties, and this whole thing hadn't happened that long ago. And then years later, I was much farther away from these experiences, and saw my own story in its context.
The book begins with this big picture of all these girls in New York going to work in 1996. I was thinking a lot about that moment in time ‒ the economy was changing, we'd been in a recession, and it was also the dawn of the dot-com era. That was the year it all started ‒ The New York Times launched a website. Salon launched. Work started on Slate. And I started to think about the ways in which the publishing industry was changing, and the way in which work for women was changing. That's when I realised that I could do this, because this is not just about me.
It's kind of a weird thing to say really, "It was 1996, and the world was changing!" I feel like if I were a man, I would write it like that: "Here's the societal perspective!" But for me, I knew it was there, like a river running through the book, but I wanted to write without making grand proclamations like that.
The heart of the book is your journey as a young woman in your early twenties, doing your first real job, and getting these letters ‒ fan mail for Salinger. How did these impact you?
For me, these letters made me rethink the way literature exists in this world, and what the purpose of fiction is. I was this person for whom as a child, as a teenager, reading was my whole life.
I didn't have a lot of friends, I was very, very shy, I was very unpopular ‒ I was chubby and my family was 'weird'. So my friends were the characters in the books that I read over and over, like Jane Eyre.
And then, I went to college, and became an English major. To succeed as an English major means to go into an academic track ‒ to get a doctorate. That track kind of removes you from the pleasure of reading, because it is so focused on theory and criticism.
So by the time I was at that job, I had certain ideas about how literature should be. But those letters really returned me to the time that I was a child, to reading books just for the pleasure of reading books. They returned me to my instincts as a reader and thus turned me into a writer. You can't write a good novel or a good poem if you're trying to adhere to these fixed ideas about what makes something important. It's going to be boring and cold.
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