We Finally Get To See ‘My Salinger Year’
IFC’s reopening in New York City brings adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s memoir to the world
New York without movies is almost unimaginable, and for a veteran of the publishing world, it was bracing finally to see a film from which the pandemic had distracted almost everyone. My Salinger Year is Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir about her time working in 1996 at a New York literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, whose clients included none other than J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010. The memoir is also about the wild ups and downs of Rakoff’s personal life during that time.
In a conversation with Book and Film Globe, Rakoff said she used to think of herself more as a novelist than a memoirist. In 2002, she wrote an essay about answering Salinger’s fan mail for the agency, which ran in the now-defunct Book magazine, but she did not plan right off to write a memoir. Then after Salinger died in 2010, Rakoff penned a few reminiscences that impressed people at BBC Radio 4, who reached out with a request for her to produce a documentary about answering Salinger’s mail. Editors in the U.K. publishing world passed around a draft of a script, and one of them approached Rakoff’s agent with an idea for turning the script into a book. Rakoff’s agent liked the idea and encouraged Rakoff.
Even with this support, the book was a project not everyone would have dared. It is a memoir about a real office with real people. For a year after signing the book contract, Rakoff recalls, she put if off, worked on a different book, and stayed more than busy raising two small kids. Rakoff realized that she still felt very much a part of a literary agency that valued privacy. She thought about giving back her advance and shelving the project. She weighed writing a novel instead of a memoir. Finally, it proved useful to think in terms of a novel.
“One day, I sat down at my desk and wrote, on an index card, ‘THIS IS A NOVEL. YOU ARE A CHARACTER.’ I pinned it up above my desk, took out a legal pad, listed the names of all the ‘characters’ in the book—my former co-workers, my ex-boyfriend, my boss, my best friend, etc.—and I spent that day coming up with pseudonyms for them. At the end of the day, I wrote on another index card, ‘EVERYONE IS A CHARACTER.’ And the next day, I just sat down and wrote, and didn’t stop for six months,” Rakoff recalled.
When it comes to adapting books for the screen, all too many writers of intensely personal, introspective material fail to find the right marriage of cinematic and literary sensibility. It’s easy to imagine the fiasco that might have ensued if the wrong person brought My Salinger Year to the screen.
A director comes forward
Falardeau read the memoir while on vacation and quickly decided he wanted to make the film. Rakoff was already in the midst of discussions with producers, and her agent was in talks about selling film rights, but Falardeau was the only prospective director who came forward with highly specific concepts about the look and feel of the movie. Falardeau flew down from Montreal equipped with a notebook in which he had done sketches for the set of the office he wanted built, as well as ideas for fleshing out or in some cases removing characters from the story, Rakoff recalled. “Ultimately, the fact that he was not an insider helped, as it allowed him to think wildly beyond the constraints of the real story, in the way one must to adapt a book successfully for film,” she said.
Falardeau’s film made its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020. Talk about unpropitious timing. My Salinger Year went out into the world just as people grew terrified of gathering in groups of any size and cinemas shut their doors along with stadiums, concert halls, bowling alleys, restaurants, cafés, bars, department stores, and barbershops. For most intents and purposes, the film’s real rollout happened in March 2021 as IFC Films and Mongrel Media released it the U.S. and Canada.
Seeing the movie
As millions of Covid-19 vaccinations take place daily, cultural life is bouncing back everywhere, not least through the reopening of independent movie houses.
The long-awaited reopening of IFC Film Center on Sixth Avenue last month evokes memories of countless avant-garde, indie, and foreign movies screened there over the years. The edgy and the experimental get top billing at IFC, one of a cluster of arthouse cinemas in Greenwich Village along with Film Forum, the Quad, Cinema Village, Anthology Film Archives, and the Angelika.
A very brief list of movies to have screened at IFC in recent years includes David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, Rupert Glasson’s Coffin Rock, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, and Damien Power’s Killing Ground. Not all the films there are great, but a visit will always leave you with something to ponder.
Available seats at IFC were spaced widely apart, but it made no difference because in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, I was one of three people in the audience. Mask on at all times. No popcorn, candy, hot dogs, pretzels, drinks. But these rules didn’t detract from the experience. My Salinger Year isn’t what they call a popcorn movie. Restrictions aside, after many months of painful confinement and slow-burning desperation, few things could offer the same sense of relief, of turning a page on COVID-19, as going to see a movie the traditional way.
Viewing this film in a theater was a return to the past in more senses than one. My Salinger Year transports the viewer to a time well within living memory, 1996, when workers at the agency used typewriters and fax machines, the web was not quite so ubiquitous, and some people still had relatively little sense of websites and blogs. Joanna Rakoff, played here by a charming Margaret Qualley, arrives in New York planning to stay with her best friend for a few days and then go back to her boyfriend in Berkeley, but something in her responds to the bustle and furor of the city and she ends up sticking around, though she has not officially broken up with her Bay Area beau.
Harboring writerly ambitions of her own, Joanna consults with a placement agency, weighs working at a publishing house versus a literary agency, and opts for the latter. Soon Joanna lands what sounds like a dream job. She reports for work at Harold Ober Associates, whose website today bills it as “representing some of the greatest iconic authors of the 20th Century.”
It’s also a momentous time in her personal life. At a socialist bookshop, she meets a young writer named Don with leftist convictions and no small amount of progressive self-righteousness, and they end up living together. But things get rocky with Don and when he goes off to a friend’s wedding without bringing Joanna, her feelings toward him can only grow more complicated even without the matter of the boyfriend back in California.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has actually worked in publishing to learn that toiling at the agency from day to day is not all glamour and cocktails with literary legends. One author in particular is highly elusive, though there are rumors and discussions of new projects. Spurning book parties, interviews, tours, and what people call “the literary life” in general, J.D. Salinger lives in seclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire, and has occasional direct contact with the agency. An employee once got fired for giving out his address.
Right away, Joanna’s bosses lay down rigid rules about dealing with the many Salinger fans who write and call, often with importunate demands. They want to get in touch with the author and are not slow to take offense when refused. Joanna is to send out a curtly worded form letter stating that Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive letters from the public. Her boss, a tough, smart, exacting agent named Margaret, played by Sigourney Weaver, will brook no departure from protocol.
The volume of letters and calls from readers and admirers of the reclusive author, and the aggressive manner in which some of them make their requests, can be jarring. People all over the world feel a bond with Salinger and yearn to convey to him the depth of their ardor for his work, to lay bare that part of their psyche that proved vulnerable to the verbal sorcery the author put to work in The Catcher in the Rye.
It’s a book that speaks to millions of people from all walks of life, including some very loose cannons indeed. My Salinger Year briefly alludes to John Lennon’s killer, who sat on a curb outside the Dakota Hotel reading a copy of the novel when the police showed up on that awful day in December 1980.
My Salinger Year captures the tension and excitement of being an intermediary between the public and a living legend. Most of the fans who appear here are not murderers, but some are pretty weird. There’s the high school girl whose teacher threatens flunk her unless she can get a reply directly from a Salinger; the veteran who has been through hell and whose trauma finds some redress in Salinger’s writing, and who demands to be put in touch; the dean who wants to invite Salinger to give the commencement address at a small college whose student body, the dean claims, includes many veterans who can relate to Salinger’s work; and one fan—a leitmotif of the film—identified only as a boy from Winston-Salem, who seems just barely able to keep his darkness in check by engaging with the saga of Holden Caulfield and seeing and hearing the world through Holden’s eyes and ears.
The boy, in his incarnations in both the memoir and the film, is a shy, haunted, tortured soul who writes eloquent, albeit brief, letters setting forth his affinity for Salinger and his wish to engage with the writer. He’s hard to ignore, but Joanna has received orders not to engage with these strangers or share anything with them.
These are but a few of the strangers whose endless requests Joanna must deal with while her bosses are off enjoying long, boozy literary lunches. Understanding how much they have invested emotionally in their relationship with Salinger’s work, Joanna does not want to brush off them with a curt form letter, but she knows the consequences of violating her agency’s protocol will be dire indeed. Here is her dilemma.
For those of us who have worked in publishing, so much of Joanna’s story will arouse more than déjà vu. We find here mirror images of our own experience. The driven agent who is alternately encouraging and abrasive toward a promising ingenue? Check. The gulf between the romantic concept of working at a literary agency and the daily grunt-work that falls to the lowest person on the totem pole? Check. The politics of an office where personal, professional, and generational differences, animosities, and loyalties coexist uneasily? Check. The encounters with demanding and, in some cases, unstable strangers from out there in fan-world, one of whom shows up in person with no appointment and responds to kind words with vituperation? Check.
Just as it teeters between two radically different technological ages, the office in My Salinger Year sees conflict between literary sensibilities and commercial imperatives. A painful scene comes about fifty minutes in, when Judy Blume arrives at the office and excuses must be found as to why her books are on the lower shelves. Blume’s new manuscript might be hard to sell. A meeting between Blume and Margaret doesn’t go well, or so we are left to surmise when Blume leaves in a huff and Joanna, instinctively taking her side, risks getting in trouble by letting slip that she would want to leave too.
In adapting the book, Margaret’s character may have undergone subtle changes. In our discussion, Rakoff described Margaret in the memoir as a holdover from a different time in the publishing industry, when friends made deals over long lunches. “In the book, it’s made quite clear that part of the reason she’s not quite doing as well as she should as an agent—all the clients she’s inherited from the previous president of the agency, the legendary agent Claire Smith, are leaving her, as are her own longtime clients—has to do with her refusal to participate in what publishing has become, namely, a more corporate entity, and one with rather different rules,” Rakoff said. In the book, she describes the agency as a religion, whose prime deity is Salinger, with holy status also belonging to F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, and Agatha Christie.
Hence Margaret resolutely holds onto some of the furnishings common in an older era of publishing, such as Dictaphones, typewriters, and lamps, in what Rakoff calls an act of magical thinking. The Margaret of the book would like to see the cubicles and multiple submissions of corporate publishing vanish and the world she knows return, Rakoff said. “Joanna is utterly enamored of said trappings, because to her (to young me!) they connote authenticity; they are the accoutrements of people who care about literature, rather than commerce.”
In the movie, Margaret maintains those old-fashioned trappings, and perhaps the most jarring thing for viewers today is to see her smoking in the office, and she is obviously smart, yet it is, somewhat ironically, the younger of the two—Joanna, not Margaret—who seems more enraptured with publishing as a literary rather than commercial endeavor. The blow-up with Judy Blume and its aftermath drive this home.
A film for the moment
In her conversation with this publication, Rakoff reflected on the wide appeal of her memoir throughout the publishing industry and beyond, and guessed that the timing of the film’s U.S. and Canadian release has given the experience added resonance for many. “The fact that it came out at a moment in which we are all at home, isolated from each other, perpetually forced to work alone, completely alone, seems to mean that it’s had an impact it might not have had during normal times. I’ve received a pretty enormous amount of mail–on all channels–from past and present publishing people, friends and complete strangers, just saying how much they loved it, and the memories it brought up for them,” Rakoff said.
Rakoff has heard from women who worked as assistants at publishing houses in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as young women who have only just entered the industry. Whether their publishing adventure is half a century ago or in the present, all say that the film captures aspects of that experience.
On page 157 of the memoir, Rakoff briefly describes attending a reading by David Foster Wallace at KGB Bar. The event is so packed she has to stand in the hall. When she reads a galley of Infinite Jest at work the next day, Wallace’s writing drives her pulse way up. This is no random fact.
Not many people appear to have picked up on affinities between certain themes in the writings of Rakoff and Wallace. A sly kind of inverse symmetry is at work in My Salinger Year. You may recall that one of Infinite Jest’s running jokes is a near-future setting where corporations pay to have a given year consecrated to one or another of their products. Hence we have “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar,” “Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland,” “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on.
It is hard to imagine anything more odious than a corporation dedicating a year to a product for crass commercial ends. Rakoff’s achievement is to have rescued, and elevated, the concept of a consecrated year, by infusing that year with a literary identity—in this case, the identity of an author who flourished in a time when more people cared about the quality of the writing in a novel or story. The long-awaited wide release of My Salinger Year brings to the world a film that looks not only to the past but, one hopes, to a still possible future.