Joanna Rakoff. Photo: Nikita Doval/ Mint
Joanna Rakoff. Photo: Nikita Doval/ Mint

People’s emotional lives are as important as a book on the Gulf war: Joanna Rakoff

Joanna Rakoff , author of 'My Salinger Year', on writing a memoir and the struggles women authors have to face even today

Writer Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year was one of last year’s most popular book. The New York Times called it a “breezy memoir" of the time Rakoff worked in a famous literary agency in New York in the mid-nineties. Nothing spectacular about that except that this was the agency which handled J.D. Salinger. A coming of age story which charmed many, this was Rakoff’s second book after the successful A Fortunate Age: A Novel. In an interview she spoke to Mint about how she wasn’t very convinced about writing a memoir and the struggles women authors have to face even today.

From fiction (‘A Fortunate Age’) to a non-fiction memoir, ‘My Salinger Year’, that’s quite a leap from your first book to the second. How did it come about?

A Fortunate Age was a novel that I had an idea for. This idea (My Salinger Year) did not occur to me. A Fortunate Age had been popular enough and I was working on another novel when Salinger died. I did a documentary and it was the script for that which was circulated in the publishing industry. An editor contacted my agent and said, would I write? It just did not strike me as a book, I thought it was a small tale. For someone to write a memoir, it has to be really momentous or world changing. I thought a lot about that year though, 1996 and all that happened in it. One day I was walking along the Highline (a linear park in New York) and there were all of these girls, dressed up for work, buying their lunch, going to their offices and I started thinking that there was something so timeless about that experience being in your twenties, when you want to please everyone and I thought there is a larger story here about women. Then I wrote the first twenty pages of the book and realized that there is a story here that is larger than me.

Most of the writing about young women of a certain age, going through certain phases, in recent years has been conveniently labeled under the chick-lit genre. What do you make out of that whole phase of writing and publishing?

A Fortunate Age had older characters but it was about people living in New York who are trying to carve a life out for themselves and how it should be ethically, politically. They don’t have any money and it is hard to stick to their ideals and they drift into situations which they have no control over. I wrote the book at the height of the chick-lit thing. I was working as a book critic then and I would get these boxes of books from my editor and they are all these books which are just about ridiculous fantasy, economically, socially, who are these women? What do they do?

Of late writers like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have been calling out the literary world for the convenient labeling of women writers. What are your thoughts on the subject?

My friend Robin Black’s book, Life Drawing, came out in June last year. It’s a wonderful book about a long marriage of an artiste couple and things that happen to them. You know from the first sentence that the husband will die but you don’t know how. The way it unfolds, it feels a little bit like a mystery but in the contemporary parlance this is considered a domestic novel, a quiet novel. In a lot of the reviews it has been said that this is a masterpiece but it is a quiet novel and will not find a large readership. People are saying that from the get-go. It is really frustrating. It was nominated for a very big prize for first novelists, even short-listed for it. The other nominees were mostly men and the books were on subjects like war etc. She did not win and she was ok with it but she felt that for the big prizes of course people should take up important subjects but people’s emotional lives are as important as a book that is about the Gulf war. To me that is the frustrating bit.

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