Technology changes, but you’re also witness to the end of an era in publishing in My Salinger Year, right?
I was there for this last gasp. In a way, even though my boss was a woman, it was kind of like an old boy network, in which deals were signed with a handshake. My boss had these cronies from a different era. And she would occasionally go to lunch with them at her favorite restaurant. I don’t know why she liked it. It was a pre-foodie era where people ate at these places, not because the food was good, but just because you wanted to be there. And she really was trying to keep the publishing world within the model that she knew. It was also a model where agents didn’t have to fight so much — or not “fight,” but didn’t have to sell their clients in the way they do now.
Your boss comes off as this great caricature of a smart New Yorker who just wants to cut out all the schmaltz and get stuff done.
Several people have said to me, “You know what your book reminds me of? The Devil Wears Prada!” Which, I obviously have not read The Devil wears Prada, I’ve seen the movie. But I feel like, “Really? I love my boss! I thought she was amazing.” I wasn’t trying to present her as some kind of nightmarish scary person who beats me into submission.
J.D. Salinger’s in the title, and Salinger himself is this boogie-man or something you only really hear about as “Jerry” or in your phone conversations. Why was Salinger such a symbol of this time to you?
He is a titanic figure in the world, and I was from a pretty sheltered background, in which honestly the literary world and this literary universe was something that seemed very much beyond my reach. And that was part of initially why I had gone into academia. Because that I understood. There was a clear trajectory. That seemed very safe. And so getting this job at the agency, to suddenly have a person who’s kind of a myth — a piece of American mythology — who was this real presence in my life, who would talk to me and give me advice about things and what have you. It was a really life-changing thing. It really was.
How did it change you?
It turned my ideas about the world on their ear. At the same time, there’s a way in which his fans, and reading their letters and writing back to them, and being in touch with him at the same time, changed my thinking about fiction and the way it works. And I think I had these much more lofty, juvenile ideas about fiction and what it should do. And I’d forgotten the part about, like, wait a second, fiction and literature is not there to be this edifying thing. It’s not there to present difficulty and make you decode things. It’s there to make you cry and make you experience things and make you understand the world in a completely different way.