Joelle Herr

This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.

In his debut, The Whale: A Love Story, former journalist Mark Beauregard supposes what many have speculated: that the brief but intense friendship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne went beyond camaraderie. 

The novel opens on August 5, 1850, with Melville and Hawthorne meeting for the first time while on an excursion with mutual friends in the Berkshires. Hawthorne is fresh off the success of The Scarlet Letter and living in Lenox, Massachusetts, while Melville is visiting his cousin Robert in nearby Pittsfield. Melville’s career is waning, and he is in a bit of a rut working on a novel about the whaling industry.

Though both are married, Melville instantly falls for the handsome, congenial Hawthorne. Shortly afterward, Melville moves his family to a modest farm six miles from Lenox. Hawthorne keeps Melville at arm’s length to resist his attraction to the younger writer, and so Melville funnels his yearning into his work. In effect, Beauregard presents Hawthorne as Melville’s own white whale, the object of his obsession.

Beauregard consulted biographies, journals and letters in crafting his clever and engaging, if unconfirmed, account. While the physical aspect of the relationship is limited to a couple of charged caresses and a drink-fueled kiss, the emotional toll of the affair—which ends when Hawthorne moves away from Lenox in 1852—is high, particularly for Melville. 

In Melville in Love, Michael Shelden—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Orwell: The Authorized Biography—presents another candidate for Melville’s muse, one whose importance has been entirely overlooked for the past 165 years. 

Among the guests at cousin Robert Melville’s house in Pittsfield during the summer of 1850 were the Morewoods of New York City. Sarah Morewood was the “bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate” wife of a wealthy merchant. That summer, the vivacious Sarah organized picnics, hikes and other jaunts, which Melville enthusiastically joined. The attraction between Sarah and the dashing writer was immediate and mutual, and Shelden asserts that Melville moved his family to Pittsfield to be close not to Hawthorne, but to Sarah, who was in the process of purchasing Robert’s estate. 

Shelden argues that the ensuing affair energized Melville, and the passion that Sarah stirred in him flowed through his pen onto the pages of Moby-Dick. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville in The Whale, Shelden claims that Sarah and Melville consummated their relationship, during an overnight trek to the summit of Mount Greylock.

While there is no definitive proof of the affair, Shelden offers compelling evidence supporting his theory, including clues in Melville’s works. Melville in Love is a beautifully written, captivating story that may also be one of the most surprising literary revelations of our time. 

 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.

Draco Incendia Trychophyton—also known as Dragonscale—is a deadly spore that causes people to spontaneously combust. Theories on its origin range from the melting ice caps to biological weaponry to a simple evolutionary turn. Elaborate—beautiful, even—black and gold tattoo-like markings identify those who are infected. Because there is often no warning before a person ignites and there is no cure, paranoia and hysteria spread like, well, wildfire. Eventually, cities burn and civil order dissolves, with ruthless and sinister Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews driving the infected into hiding. 

The titular character of Joe Hill’s fourth novel (following, most recently, NOS4A2), John Rookwood, is not an actual fireman, but a mysterious, charismatic Englishman. He wears a firefighter’s uniform because it not only hides his markings, but also allows him to be in the open without arousing suspicion. The heart of the book, though, is Harper Grayson, an elementary school nurse with compassion, gumption and an affinity for Mary Poppins. Harper is infected, frightened, alone and pregnant when John leads her to an underground community of infected folk who show her that it is possible to live in harmony with the spore. Soon, though, it becomes clear that safety does not always lie in numbers and that there is as much to fear inside the camp as outside.

With plenty of pop-culture references and playfully meta moments (like when characters discuss what they would do if they were in a movie or book), The Fireman is a bona fide, post-apocalyptic page-turner that’s equal parts touching and pulse-pounding, surprising and awe-inducing. The icing on the metaphorical cake? Easter eggs referencing his father Stephen King’s works—ranging from Hill’s use of “shine” as a verb of the supernatural variety to one character murderously swinging a shovel “like a croquet mallet”—pepper the book, delighting this fan of both writers.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Draco Incendia Trychophyton—also known as Dragonscale—is a deadly spore that causes people to spontaneously combust. Theories on its origin range from the melting ice caps to biological weaponry to a simple evolutionary turn. Elaborate—beautiful, even—black and gold tattoo-like markings identify those who are infected. Because there is often no warning before a person ignites and there is no cure, paranoia and hysteria spread like, well, wildfire. Eventually, cities burn and civil order dissolves, with ruthless and sinister Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews driving the infected into hiding.

Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.

Daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut was highly educated, trained in her duties from a very early age. At the death of her father, when she was 12 or 13, Hatshepsut married Thutmose II (her own brother—inter-family royal marriages were de rigueur in Egypt 3,500 years ago). Three years later, Thutmose II was dead. Hatshepsut had only one surviving child with him, a daughter, and so the crown was passed along to Thutmose III, whose mother was a lesser-born wife of Thutmose II. Because Thutmose III was only 3 years old at the time, it was clear a regent would need to rule in his stead. Hatshepsut easily stepped into the role.

It was common for mothers of young kings to rule for their sons until they came of age, so Hatshepsut becoming the regent for her stepson/nephew was nothing out of the ordinary. She was an effective, fair and respected ruler who surrounded herself with the right people. What was out of the ordinary, however, came around six to eight years later, when she announced that Amen-Re (king of the gods) had declared her to be co-king (there was no Egyptian word for “queen”). And so she shrewdly ruled Egypt alongside Thutmose III until her death, likely in her late 30s.

Though the exact reason is unknown, some 20 years after her death, Thutmose III ordered the removal of Hatshepsut’s name and likeness from all Egyptian buildings and monuments—which likely explains her obscurity in part. Though Egyptologists have managed to uncover and piece together some details of her rise to power and rule, hard facts are few and far between, something Cooney acknowledges right off the bat. While much of The Woman Who Would Be Queen is conjecture, it is informed-by-expertise, compellingly written conjecture that will draw curious readers in with its vivid depiction of life in Ancient Egypt and a truly remarkable woman.

Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.

As a new dad, Dave Engledow thought it would be funny to post a photo on his Facebook page that reflected both his new-father status—and his extreme fatigue. The response to that first photoshopped picture of Dave and baby daughter Alice Bee inspired a hilarious series of pictures that went viral—and are collected in a new book, Confessions of the World’s Best Father.

With Father’s Day approaching, we asked the self-styled “World’s Best” to tell us more about his photo project, his adorable daughter and his advice for other inexperienced dads.

What sparked your idea for this series of photographs?
I think it was probably the lack of sleep. I wanted to create an image that both captured the exhaustion I was experiencing while at the same time satirizing the stereotype of the clueless dad (which, to be honest, is a stereotype that was pretty accurate for me at the time). The "World's Best Father" mug was added almost as an afterthought to that first shot that portrayed me sleepily squirting Alice's milk into my own coffee.

How did you come up with the scenarios for each photo? How much help did you have during the planning or shoots?
Early on, the ideas were mainly inspired by my constant fears and neuroses—I was perpetually worried that I was going to be that guy you read about on the news who left the baby on top of the car on the way to work. Creating these photos helped me play out some of those worries. As the series has progressed, the scenarios have been influenced by everything from milestones in Alice Bee's growth to pop culture phenomenons like Gagnam Style. My wife Jen often helps me come up with the scenarios and provides a lot of help in adding small details to the scenes. I generally set up the scene and lights on my own, and then Jen helps make sure Alice is safe, happy, and performing the way we need her to for the shot. For the year that Jen was [deployed] in Korea, I had many different friends help me with the shoots.

Which photo in the book required the most elaborate production? What all was involved?
Probably the Cookie Stealing Investigation (CSI), which is a shot of Alice Bee wearing a cat burglar mask, sitting next to a pile of stolen cookies, hiding on a shelf in a darkened room. I am holding a blacklight, which is illuminating dozens of tiny hand and foot prints leading from the cookie jar to her location. This required my assistant-of-the-day Maggie and I to dip Alice's feet and hands in white paint, press her hands and feet on to plastic transparency sheets, cut out the hand prints and foot prints, and then strategically place the plastic prints in the scene, shoot, replace, shoot, etc until we had created the trail you see in the final image. The even harder part of the shoot was getting Alice Bee to wear the cat burglar mask—luckily, this was maybe the only shoot we've ever done where the very first shot of Alice Bee was perfect, so we only needed her to wear the mask one time. 

What’s the most surprising, interesting—or impassioned—response one of your photos has elicited?
We get LOTS of positive responses all the time from both parents and children all over the world who see something in the images that connect them to their own families. These are the responses we love the most and the ones that encourage us to keep shooting. However, the most impassioned responses we receive are generally from people who have not seen our work before and appear to not quite understand that these are intended as satire. I recently re-posted an image of a 15 month-old Alice Bee sitting on an outdoor grill, her feet on the grate next to a charcoal fire, preparing to flip burgers. A woman who had obviously never seen our work before kept commenting about how dangerous it was to have Alice Bee sitting on the grill, even when others in the comment thread tried to explain to her that it wasn't real. Her final comment was something along the lines of "Her feet could get burned—there are much safer ways for children to use the grill!"

How has the photo-taking process evolved as Alice Bee gets older?
We have to be more strategic in how we do the shoots, since she now has the ability to just get up and walk away if she's bored with what we're doing. We generally try to make it seem like a game to her—we'll start getting her excited early in the week ("Guess what? We're going to have a tea party on Saturday" or "You're going to get to play with a toy you've never played with before—it's called an Adding Machine") and try to make it as interesting as possible for her. My fantasy is that as she gets a little older, the two of us will come up with ideas together and we'll become partners in crime.

How are you keeping her grounded in light of her worldwide fame?
Luckily, Alice Bee does not yet fully understand that she is Internet-famous. I think she just thinks that it's perfectly normal to have an entire book with her pictures in it. In real life, Jen and I are in occupations that require us to set ego aside and we both do our best to be thoughtful, respectful and humble in our interactions with others. Hopefully, setting this type of example will help Alice Bee remain grounded once she learns that people all over the world know who she is. 

Your wife, Jen, appears in just a couple of the photos. Does she ever feel left out? What does she think about all of this?
Jen loves these images and is definitely a co-conspirator. She has been involved in some aspect of the creation of almost every single image in this series. She actually prefers to stay behind the scenes, but now that Alice Bee is older and more persuasive, the two of us have been able to convince Jen to appear in more of the images. Since her return from Korea, Alice and I have convinced Jen to appear in at least one image a month.

Do you have a favorite photo? Which one and why?
The very first image in the series is still my favorite. I think it perfectly captures the sleep deprivation and cluelessness I was experiencing at the time. It is also one of the only images in the series that was taken in a single shot, and every detail was painstakingly thought out in advance, from the color of my sweatpants to the angle of the milk stream. The only part that was serendipitous was Alice Bee's longing sideways stare at her milk going into my cup. 

Is the project ongoing? What’s up next for you and Ms. Alice Bee?
The project is still ongoing, with over 125 images in the series and counting. My goal is to keep doing it for as long as Alice Bee is game. For folks that follow our work on Facebook, we have a number of ideas we'll be exploring in the coming weeks, including Alice's current fascination with Wonder Woman.

As the world's best father, what advice would you like to pass along to your fellow dads?
There is no greater pleasure in the world than making your kid laugh. No matter how tired, frustrated, sleep deprived, stressed out, homicidal you may be feeling at the time, if you concentrate on generating those peals of tiny belly laughs, everything else will pale in comparison and those other feelings will rapidly disappear. That laughter the two of you will share together really is the best thing ever.

All photos copyright Dave Engledow.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Father's Day feature on gift books for Dad.

 

As a new dad, Dave Engledow thought it would be funny to post a photo on his Facebook page that reflected both his new-father status—and his extreme fatigue. The response to that first photoshopped picture of Dave and newborn daughter Alice Bee inspired a hilarious series of pictures that went viral—and have been collected in a new book, Confessions of the World’s Best Father.

Best-selling and RITA Award-nominated author Christie Ridgway (who also happens to be our romance columnist!) kicks off her new Cabin Fever series with the delightful Take My Breath Away.

Set in the resort-area mountains a few hours outside of Los Angeles, the book introduces Poppy Walker, single mom and bona fide optimist who is bound and determined to spiff up and rent out the neglected cabins on her family's property. Enter impossibly handsome former teen idol Ryan Hamilton, haunted by a terrible tragedy and looking for a place to hunker down for the month of March. The two couldn't be more different from one another, so naturally the chemistry between them is electric. But is their connection strong enough for them to be able to push aside the obstacles keeping them from a happily-ever-after?  

We asked Ridgway a few questions about the utterly charming page-turner and what readers can look forward to in the heartwarming new series. 

Take My Breath Away is the first in a new series for you. What’s the Cabin Fever series all about, and what inspired you to write it?
The Cabin Fever series features the four Walker siblings and their unexpected journeys to love. The books are set in the mountain resort communities of Southern California, where there are peaks and pines, deep lakes and four seasons. My husband’s family has a vacation home in the area, and it’s a great place to visit . . . in person and fictionally. It’s not all sand and surf in SoCal!

The heroine, Poppy Walker, is quite a spitfire. How did her character evolve during the writing process? What do you like the most about her?
I love Poppy’s optimism and determination. These are good qualities in a character for a writer, because she keeps the plot moving with her plans and promises to herself.

The brooding, haunted Ryan Hamilton is a former teen idol. Did you have any real-life actors in mind while developing his character?
Rob Lowe came to mind. I had recently read his autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Though Ryan’s tragic history is all his own.

What is it about Poppy and Ryan that makes them “among the unlikeliest of couples”?
Ryan doesn’t want to love anyone—and considers himself incapable of it anyway. Poppy is sunshine and smiles, and he’s afraid he’s going to darken her happy disposition. Then there’s the fact that she’s a single mom, and she and her son deserve a man that can care for them both. Ryan is convinced that can’t be him.

The book actually features two love stories. Not just Poppy and Ryan, but also Charlie and Linus, whose romance is partly told in the form of a screenplay written by Linus. What inspired that technique? Did it come with any challenges? 
I loved writing about Charlotte (Charlie) and Linus. Since the Hamilton brothers are involved in the entertainment industry, it came to me that a screenplay would be a fun way to tell about how the two initially met. I have taken a few screenwriting seminars, but of course I had to write those pieces in a way that would work for readers, not movie-goers. I had a blast with it, and the biggest challenge was cutting those scenes to their absolute essential. I could have gone on and on!

What ingredients do you feel are required for composing a super-sexy love scene?
Details! When you’re in love (or lust) you pay close attention to the other person. So I work to include small things that would only be noticed by an avid observer . . . the body warmth that remains on a shirt as it’s removed or the change in the tempo of the lover’s breathing.

Speaking of which, what sparked your idea for the sure-to-be-infamous intercom scene?
I wanted Poppy and Ryan to be . . . together without really being together. And it occurred to me that a large house like that one would have an intercom system. The writer’s imagination took it from there!

What’s up next for you?
All the Walker siblings are going to get their happy ending. Up next is Shay’s story, Make Me Lose Control. She meets a man, and they have an anonymous but blistering single night . . . until they meet again and she realizes she’s landed herself in big trouble!

 

(Author photo by Damon Kappell/Studio 16)

Best-selling and RITA Award-nominated author Christie Ridgway (who also happens to be our romance columnist!) kicks off her new Cabin Fever series with the delightful Take My Breath Away.

In her lovely new memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff takes readers on a tour of mid-1990s New York City—from the hallowed halls of an esteemed literary agency to the not-yet-gentrified streets of Williamsburg—as she settles in to her first real job.

What inspired you to write the book? Is there any significance to the timing of the publication?
This is a surprisingly difficult and complicated question, as My Salinger Year could also be called “The Book I Kept Trying Not to Write!”

The story is this: Many years ago, when I was trying to make my way as a freelance magazine writer—and largely failing—I called the most seasoned, accomplished journalist in my acquaintance, veteran Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, and begged him to have coffee with me, in the hopes that he’d be able to help me find my way. Somehow, we got to talking about my first job, working for J.D. Salinger’s agent, answering his fan mail, and I explained that I began corresponding with some of the fans, and that Salinger decided to publish a new book during my stint at the agency. And Ralph just looked at me and said, “You need to write about this.” I’m not a person who tends to write much about myself—I was working on a novel at the time and all my magazine pieces were straight journalism—so I just sort of laughed nervously, though I knew he was right.

But it took me years to follow his advice, in part because the culture of “the Agency,” as I call it in the book, is one of secrecy. Or perhaps privacy would be a better term. So much of our time and energy was spent protecting Salinger’s privacy. And it was very clear that I was not meant to speak about Salinger outside of the office. It was a bit like working for the CIA.

Anyway, in 2003, I finally wrote a piece—a long essay—on answering Salinger’s fan mail, and I was naively shocked by the response it got! I was in Maine, at a friend’s wedding, when the piece came out, and reporters began calling the house, trying to interview me, purely because I’d met Salinger once. Editors and agents contacted me as well, asking if I’d turn the essay into a book. But I was still working on that novel, and I didn’t want to put it on hold. And I already had an agent, who said, “Listen, if you write a book on Salinger before your novel comes out, you’ll be known as ‘the Salinger Girl.’ That’s not you. We don’t want that. Finish your novel.”

I followed her advice. That novel, A Fortunate Age, came out in 2009. And I began working on another one (Money or Love, which should be complete by the end of this year), but when Salinger died, I wrote another piece about working at the Agency, and was again overwhelmed by the attention it received. That piece was turned into a full-length radio documentary for the BBC, and as I wrote the script for that documentary—and researched both Salinger and his fans, and the era during which I worked for “the Agency”—a larger story, a story of social change, a story about coming of age at the moment the digital revolution arose, began to materialize. When I was approached, again, about turning the story into a book, I still hesitated. For a few months even. But then, one day, the first few pages of the book sort of floated into my head. I sat down and pounded them out, and the narrative arc began to take shape for me. I said yes.

I think the truth is that I needed time. It was almost 20 years ago, now, that I worked at the Agency. I needed those years to see the story for what it was.

"Salinger had never been anything but kind and funny to me on the phone, and after reading his works I found myself, strangely or no, perhaps a bit more nervous about talking to him. A bit more in awe of him. Though since I was the most naïve, awkward, young person ever to have lived, “more nervous” isn’t saying all that much."

Did you consult any of your former colleagues at “the Agency” either while writing the book or later, to let them know it’s coming out? Will it be the first they’ve heard of your personalized responses to Salinger’s fan mail, or did they already know?
I did! Perhaps because one’s first job is such a formative experience, I stayed in touch with a good number of my co-workers from that time. The character known as “Max” in the book is one of my favorite people in the world, and I was glad for the excuse to sit down and talk with him about that time. I also had some long lunches with two of the assistants with whom I worked—one of whom is now a big-deal agent in her own right—and some others, and it was just fascinating to see what people remember and what they don’t. One person remembered, so clearly, all the little physical details of the office: The strange steel cases in which we kept what were known as “cards”—these bits of paper on which we recorded when and where a particular manuscript was sent. The color of the enormous filing cabinets.

Most of the my co-workers still work in publishing, but one, the agent known as James was rather difficult to track down. He’d been at the Agency for something like ten years when I left, and though he had his own office and was taking on clients, he was still officially an assistant. To me, he represented a very particular corner of New York life: He lived on the Upper East Side and wore crisp Brooks Brothers shirts, and his wife was something of a socialite. So I was surprised to discover him living off the grid in Vermont, on a farm, with chickens. I drove up to visit him, and it was wonderful to see this person I remembered as rather tense looking almost exuberant with happiness.

Because I’ve already written a couple of essays on my highly unorthodox  responses to the fans, I don’t know if my co-workers will be all that surprised. I heard through the grapevine that my old boss was “tickled” by that first essay I wrote, back in 2003, and I do hope it’s true! At the risk of sounding hokey: I wrote this book from a place of love and admiration. This is not a gossipy tell-all. Or a take-down. It’s not The Devil Wears Prada.

Like you, I first read Salinger in my mid-20s, and so I loved your description of devouring his works in a weekend.  How did having read his books impact how you felt about your job? About Salinger, himself?
I say in the book that my boss—and the Agency, as a whole—felt less like a business and more like a temple: There was an almost religious quality to their work, as if Salinger were a god, and the other well-known writers to whom they tended—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, to name a few—were demi-gods. Our job was to protect and serve them, in every way.  Before I read Salinger, it was easy for me to scoff at this, but—and this is the truth—after I read his works, I thought, “okay, I get it.” I thought, “he really is a genius. And he really is, in a way, too sensitive—too something—for this world. He needs the Agency’s protection.” My job took on newfound importance. I became a true believer. It was a bit like being inculcated into a cult!

Salinger had never been anything but kind and funny to me on the phone, and after reading his works I found myself, strangely or no, perhaps a bit more nervous about talking to him. A bit more in awe of him. Though since I was the most naïve, awkward, young person ever to have lived, “more nervous” isn’t saying all that much.

What’s behind your decision to refer to your boss as simply “my boss” and the agency as simply “the Agency”?
I struggled, for some time, to find the right tone and style for the book. The first person doesn’t come naturally to me, so that was part of it, but I was also nervous that my story—the story I had to tell—was just so small and insignificant. For the first six months—or year—of working on the book, I had trouble truly immersing myself in it, giving myself over to it.

Meanwhile, I’d been struggling to figure out pseudonyms for all the characters—as I wanted them in place early on, so that I could begin thinking of them more as true characters, if that makes sense—but I couldn’t figure out anything for my boss. As a placeholder, I simply called her “my boss” and in doing so suddenly everything fell into place. Somehow, by calling the agency “the Agency” and my boss “my boss,” it made the story more universal, larger, and allowed me to think of it as something slightly outside myself.

I also, you’ll notice, never name “my college boyfriend.” He’s just “my college boyfriend.”

Typewriters, Dictaphones—What was the single most bizarre practice that you encountered at the Agency?
Oh, gee! How to choose! Well, taking dictation—if that’s the right term for what I did, which was typing letters that my boss had dictated into her recorder—was pretty strange. It feels incredibly intimate, this voice murmuring in your ear. But perhaps the strangest, funniest little task came about when the Agency obtained a computer. One computer for the entire office, with one email account. I was allowed to use the computer purely for Agency business, including checking the Agency email, and printing out any pertinent notes for my boss, who would then dictate responses for me, which I would then type, on my typewriter, and after she approved them, retype them into the computer.

Whatever became of Don? Did he publish his novel?
Don, alas, never found a publisher for his novel. He did, however, publish a nonfiction book—part memoir, part straight nonfiction—about boxing, and another book about Brooklyn. I’ve not read either, but I’m told that I appear in each. As he got older, the age of the women he dated remained the same. (Or so I’m told.) He never married.

You left the Agency after a year. Where was your next position? Have you ever regretted not having chosen the path to becoming a literary agent?
After I left the Agency, I went to work for an agent who’d briefly merged her own independent agency with the Agency. We overlapped just momentarily there, but I really loved her, and when she left the Agency, she offered me a job. Because she was an independent agent—she worked out of her home, a beautiful, enormous apartment overlooking the Hudson—she allowed me more flexibility with hours, which, in turn, allowed me to enroll in Columbia’s MFA program, where I began writing for magazines, under the tutelage of Lis Harris and Alice Quinn. She’s a wonderful person—and a wonderful agent—and became a sort of older sister or aunt figure in my life. I loved her—love her—and loved working for her, but it became abundantly clear to me, during my time with her, that I don’t have the right personality to be an agent. I just don’t have the social or business instincts necessary for that line of work.

So, no, I’ve never regretted not becoming an agent. I’m too fond of sitting in bed, in my pajamas, inventing lives or chronicling my own.

How did your time at the Agency impact your own development as a writer?
In a way, working at the Agency made me a writer. All those letters to the Salinger fans? They lent me confidence and authority. They were my first real works! Somehow, writing as Joanna Rakoff of the Agency—rather than just plain old Joanna Rakoff—allowed me to be more bold and forthright, to jump off a cliff in the way you need to when writing.

But working at the Agency also demystified publishing for me in a profound and important way. Knowing how publishing worked allowed me, as a writer, to simply forget about the business side of writing and just write. I didn’t burn energy worrying or wondering about how to get published. The Agency taught me that good work gets published. My job was simply to make my work as good as it could possibly be. Not to worry about how it would get out in the world.

If you had to choose one adjective to describe your “Salinger Year,” what would it be, and why?
Transformative. Exhilarating. Fun. (That’s three. Sorry.)

What’s next for you?
Well, I’m working on a novel, Money or Love, about a trio of families whose lives have been wrecked—in different ways—by the economic crisis of 2008. Cheerful, I know! But I love these characters—even the banker who ends up making money off his neighbors’ bad loans; even the awful, emotionally frozen loser husband, who’d rather let his wife apply for food stamps than get a blue-collar job—and I look forward to spending time with them every day. I keep hoping I can find a happy ending for them. . . .

 

Author photo credit David Ignaszewski.

A portion of this article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.

In her lovely new memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff takes readers on a tour of mid-1990s New York City—from the hallowed halls of an esteemed literary agency to the not-yet-gentrified streets of Williamsburg—as she settles in to her first real job.

What inspired you to write the book? Is there any significance to the timing of the publication?
This is a surprisingly difficult and complicated question, as My Salinger Year could also be called “The Book I Kept Trying Not to Write!”

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