Ep 23 Do cliched books covers sell? Writers talking money, and Joanna Rakoff – author of My Salinger Year

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In Episode 23 of So you want to be a writer, book cover cliches – do they sell? Why writers are opening up about finances, 37 books every creative person should read, how to become a prolific writer while holding down a day job, Writer in Residence Joanna Rakoff (and a giveaway!), the Qwerkywriter, author trademarks and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Book cover clichés: why using them will actually help you sell more books

Why Writers Are Opening Up About Money (or the Lack Thereof) via @JaneFriedman

37 Books Every Creative Person Should Be Reading

How To Become A Prolific Writer While Holding Down A Day Job

Giveaway!

Valerie and Allison talk to Joanna Rakoff on her bestselling memoir My Salinger Year, about the year she spent working in the hallowed New York literary agency which represented JD Salinger, among a number of other literary greats.

You can win one of four copies of My Salinger Year (Bloomsbury). Find out how here.

Writer in Residence

JoannaRakoffJoanna Rakoff’s novel A Fortunate Age won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers and the Elle Readers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle best seller. She has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Joanna’s website
Joanna on Twitter
Bloomsbury on Twitter

Web Pick

Qwerty

Typewriter inspired mechanical keyboard via Anna Hill

Working Writer’s Tip

Author trademarks

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Email us
podcast at writerscentre.com.au

Transcript

Valerie

Thank you so much for joining us today, Joanna.

Joanna
Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.

Valerie
We’re really excited because I have been reading My Salinger Year and I cannot put the book down — it’s fantastic. We’re very excited about it. Just for some of our listeners who are not yet familiar with it, haven’t read it yet, tell us what it’s about.

Joanna
My Salinger Year chronicles the year I spent working for J. D. Salinger’s agent, who was the president of one of New York’s oldest and most storied literary agencies. Some people believe that they’re actually the oldest, it’s sort of one of those New Yorky debates. Some agents say, “They’re the oldest,” others say another agency is the oldest, but they’ve been around since the 20s, the represented a lot of great writers of the 20s, 30s and 40s, F. Scott Fitzgerald being sort of the most well-known one, but also people like Dillon Thomas, Agatha Christie, Langston Hughes.

I went to work for them in 1996, when they were a bit past their prime. My agent who had been there for decades was a person who was primarily dealing with the estates of these agents from previous eras and her main living client was Salinger. I was 23, I had just dropped out of grad school in London. I had a somewhat sheltered upbringing, kind of in a sort of ex-urban, not quite suburban, but not quite rural area outside of New York, though my parents were kind of staunch New Yorkers. My dad was from the lower East Side, he had been a comedian in the kind of heyday of the Borscht Belt.

I moved to New York really not understanding how much money I needed to survive, anything about the literary community, or anything at all. My parents were very opposed to all of this. Anyway, basically it’s this year in which I sort of become rather less naïve in all ways and also kind of have this initiation by fire into the world and cult of Salinger. I had not read Salinger when I started with the agency and I didn’t really understand the extent of both his reclusiveness and also the extent to which the agency was charged with protecting his privacy, because that was a big part of my job.

Valerie
What gave you the idea to write this memoir? Because this is your second book and your first, which was A Fortunate Age, was a novel published in 2009. Why did you decide on memoir this time around?

Joanna
Well, in a way I didn’t… in a way memoir decided on me. I’ll just tell you too much, because this is a writers’ podcast.

Valerie
Go for it.

Joanna
I worked in publishing for a few years knowing that was not what I wanted, that I wanted to be a writer. I was primarily writing poetry and sort of working slowly on stories, having trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with fiction. I ended up doing an MFA program in poetry at Columbia in New York, and publishing poetry. I was very immersed in the world of poetry, which is kind of its own particular subset of the literary universe, at least in America it’s somewhat rarified, very academic.

While I was doing that program one of my professors who was an editor at The New Yorker said, “You know, your poetry aside I really think you should be writing book criticism and journalism, you really have a feel for it. Your papers for this class don’t read like academic papers, they read more like magazine journalism. I’m going to put you in touch with some people.” I guess in maybe not a coincidence another professor of mine who was a writer at The New Yorker said the same thing.

Meanwhile I was writing poetry, I felt comfortable with that, I was publishing it. But, what I really wanted was to work on fiction, to figure that out. I, in short, set myself kind of writing for magazines, mainly writing on books, while I very slowly worked on
A Fortunate Age. I did some stints working in-house at magazines and so on.

At one point while I was working on this novel and writing for magazines I sort of had a low. I was having trouble pitching stories, making a living, I was just confused about what to do. I felt like I needed a full time staff job, I didn’t know how to get one, because I didn’t have a journalism degree, I felt like you needed that. I went into The New York Times, where I knew a lot of people, but I happened to know this kind of legendary newsman — let’s just call him that, he really is from a different era. His name is Ralph Blumenthal. He’s won every major journalism award. He’s a hard journalist, though he writes in arts and culture too. I knew him because I had profiled him actually. I said, “Please just help me, what do I do? Should I be trying to get a staff job here? What should I do?”

We ended up just talking, because he’s this veteran reporter. He really can get a person to kind of spill everything about their life. That’s what he did to me. He kind said, “Let’s just put this question aside, let’s just have lunch.” I ended up explaining that I had answered J. D. Salinger’s fan mail, and he kind of put down his fork, put down his coffee cup and said essentially, “Joanna,” he has a sort of New York accent that I’m not going to try to replicate because I’ll do a terrible job of it, he said, “Are you crazy? Why have you not written on this?” He then gave me the talk, I think he’s probably given the talk to a lot of young writers, and the talk went for me was, “You’re writing these kind of journalistic pieces, but your strength is your voice. You are a literary writer, you’re a poet, you’re a writer of fiction, anyone can write a profile of me — anyone can write this kind of straight journalism. What you bring to the work that you do is your own voice. You’re not a hard news reporter, you’re not me. You need to be writing about your own life. You need to pitch a story of this, this is the story that is going to propel you into not having trouble anymore getting assignments because you need to be writing personal essays.”

The agency was a place that so valued privacy I thought, “Well, he’s right, but I can’t do that because I’d be betraying the agency. They don’t want their secrets revealed.” Also in answering Salinger’s fan mail I was writing these personal letters to fans and I really kind of broke the rules.

Now I’ll cut to the real story, so I continued trying to write my novel and write for magazines. One day I had a meeting at a glossy magazine and I had all of these pitches prepared for them. I gave them all of my pitches, which were pretty standard stories, and then without intending to I said, “Also I could write this piece about how I answered
J. D. Salinger’s fan mail.” Of course they said, “That’s the story we want.

Valerie
Yes!

Joanna
I wrote this huge story and all of these people approached me, agents, editors, about turning it into a book. I said, “No.” I had an agent already, she said, “No, no, no, you’re not going to do that. You don’t want to be another Salinger girl,” because there had been these other memoirs about Salinger, “You don’t want to be that. Keep writing your novel.”

I wrote my novel. It sold in a somewhat big way. It came out in a somewhat big way. I started working on another novel. Then Salinger died. I found myself devastated by it. I ended up sort of propelling that grief and confusion into a different essay about Salinger, which was quite different because by this point many years had passed, fourteen years had passed since I worked at the agency. I was almost 40, I was in a very different place in the world. I wrote this essay, it became a documentary for the BBC. With each iteration of this story my perspective on it kept switching. Finally when that documentary, even before it came out, it was circulated internally at the BBC, editors saw it in the UK and I was approached again. I again said, “No,” but they kept at it. They were very relentless, honestly.

My agent finally said, “You know, I think these editors have a point, maybe you should consider this.” I actually still said, “No,” and this went on for months. Finally she said, “Why don’t you try to sit down and write a bit of it?” I said, “OK,” and I took a very long walk and the first few pages kind of came into my head and I sat down and wrote them. At that point I said to her, “OK, I can do this.” I put the novel that I was working on, which I’m still working on, it’s called Money or Love, hopefully it will be done in a year or so, I put that aside and I spent a couple of years working on this.

Valerie
Wow.

Joanna
A very long story. It was many, many, years. I kept saying no, I kept saying no. I don’t like to make the story even longer, please forgive me, Valerie.

Valerie
Not at all.

Joanna
I was not a memoir person, as part of it. Even though I’m rambling on about my life, I’m not a person who writes about myself that much. As a journalist I loved writing profiles, I loved writing about other people. I was a book critic. I liked writing essays that were propelled by ideas rather than my own story. I was never the kind of person who would write a book review that started with, “When I was 24…” blah, blah, blah. I would write book reviews that didn’t even have the first person in them. It was very hard for me to wrap myself around the idea of writing a whole book about myself.

Valerie
You kept saying ‘no’, but were you saying no because of the privacy issue? Because you felt you didn’t want to do the memoir kind of thing because you were used to doing a more objective piece? Were you not comfortable until after Salinger died? Why were you saying ‘no’?

Joanna
At first I was saying ‘no’ when that first essay came back, which was back in 2002 or 2003, so long ago that I can’t even remember which year it was. It was because of two reasons. First because I honestly did not see a larger story. That essay was very much about how I came to start sending personal responses to Salinger’s fans and it seemed to me a finite story. The essay is kind of stylized in a way. I wrote it knowing how it was going to begin and end and what the structure was. It was very emotional for me writing it — very difficult. I mean it actually was easy, the essay came easily to me, but going through the sort of emotional process of remembering my way back into that point in my life when I was 23, which was a very difficult period for me.

I’m 42 now, I turned 42 a couple of months ago and I am so happy to be in my 40s. You sort of like see movies about people who are sort of sad and depressed about turning 40 and feel like, “Oh my god, I’m ugly now,” or whatever, I don’t feel that way at all! I don’t want to be 23 or 22 again, that was a very difficult confusing period in which I didn’t know myself that well, not that I totally know myself now, but I just felt like I was running on autopilot. I didn’t know what I was doing. I made some very poor choices. There was a lot that was exciting about that, I think that’s captured in the book. There were things that I loved about that moment in my life, but there was a lot that was painful. In particular there’s one plot thread having to do with a person known in the book as my college boyfriend, who I kind of abandoned without knowing why. There was a way in which I felt like I was a bit at odds with my parents who were very disapproving of the choices I made and what I wanted to do with my life and communication with them was not great. I loved them so much. There had been some really awful, tragic things that happened to our family. It was very hard for me to feel that I was hurting them because of the stuff that had happened.

So going back to that period was very hard for me. The idea of doing it at length and revisiting it again was difficult to think about. But, I also honestly didn’t see a bigger story, a book-length story. I thought, “How can I make this into a book?

Then as the years went by, as I was older, part of what happened in researching this documentary is that I was older, so I had more distance from this period and it was less painful and raw for me. But, also with the documentary I did a huge amount of research, which was also procrastination, but that’s a whole other story. I was working with a producer and he said to me, “Why don’t we talk a little bit about Mark David Chapman,” who is the person who killed John Lennon and was obsessed with the Catcher in the Rye. He said, “Can you do some research into him?” I spent a whole week 9:00-5:00 researching the various crazed killers who had been obsessed with Salinger.

I spent a week or two researching what was going on in 1996, that year that I worked there, thinking about what was going on in the world. How peculiar was it that worked at this agency that was anti-technology. That’s a whole other aspect of this story. That they don’t have computers in 1996. My boss thought computers were a passing fad — the internet was a passing fad. I just wanted to figure out exactly how strange that was. I knew it was very strange, but I looked into what was going on in 1996 and I saw that was the year that The Times launched their website, and I actually knew that at the time, I remember when it happened because a friend of mine from college was their first employee, he was The Times’ webmaster. I remember him getting that job.

Basically I saw there was a larger story and that’s why I eventually agreed to do it. When it was just a story about me and my small life it seemed too narcissistic or something. I just didn’t want to write this story that was just about my own little story. The book, as of now, is not a sort of grand sweeping book that’s like, “In 1996 this happened…” it’s a small book that is my own story, but my goal was to kind of weave into the texture of the story these kind of larger ideas about this moment in time and what Salinger means to people and who Salinger was and what his work imparts to the world.

Valerie
It’s fascinating because it’s 1996, which is not that long ago, but it really has this sense of nostalgia. There are many passages in the book which could have been set in the 1940s or 1950s.

Joanna
Yes!

Valerie
Is that deliberate on your part or is that the world you lived? What is that?

Joanna
It was not deliberate. I really was, in a way, recording what happened. For listeners, I did work in this office where I got to work on the first day — just to step back — I got this job almost by accident. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had dropped out of grad school. I was actually working as a production assistant on a Barbra Streisand film — another job that I had fallen into. A friend of mine said, “Hey do you want to work on a film?” It’s not clear in the book, but I’m a huge movie buff. As I said, my father was an actor, a former actor and he was a huge movie buff. I grew up sort of surrounded by films, I spent a lot of time in Hollywood, whatever. I was like, “Yes! I’d love to do that.” It was a horrible job. A friend of a friend basically gave me a card and said, “Why don’t you go work in publishing?” I was sent on an interview at this agency, the placement officer, this sort of headhunter said to me, “You need to know how to type for this job,” she didn’t even explain why. But, everyone used computers at this point, at least in America in 1996. I don’t know in Australia — did they?

Valerie
I think so.

Joanna
Probably. In all of my interviews in the UK everyone was like, “That’s completely insane that they used typewriters in 1996!” I think in most places in the Western world the used computers.

She didn’t say, “Oh, you’re going to have to use a typewriter.” I went on the interview and as the headhunter had told me my boss did indeed say, “Can you type? You need to know how to type for this job.” As instructed I lied and said, “Yes, I can type 65 WPM,” and I could not. I got to work on the first day and my boss showed me this enormous typewriter, like a room-sized typewriter. It was 30 or 35 years old, it made as much noise as like a 30 or 35-year-old car.

She then said, “Do you know how to use a Dictaphone?” I had no idea what that was, some of you listening might know what it is. I had never heard of this. It’s a machine — it’s basically a tape recorder, essentially. My boss would dictate letters into this recording device and then would hand me the cassette tapes and I would type what she had recorded rather than taking live dictation. In the 50s a Dictaphone was considered this modern piece of technology that allowed you to not have to take live dictation and use shorthand. Those are the elements that you see me at this job, typing and typing. It was completely out of step with what every other office in the Western world was doing at that moment.

Valerie
I must admit I’ve come full circle and gone a bit retro. I just recently purchased in the last month two typewriters.

Joanna
Do you type on them?

Valerie
One of them I don’t because it’s 1921, and the other one I do, because it’s 1970, so it’s still totally workable. My neighbors I don’t think really appreciate it, however.

Joanna
Is it so loud?

Valerie
Yeah, it’s pretty loud.

Joanna
Do you use it to write your own work?

Valerie
I use it more to get the flow happening. Once the flow is happening I go back to my computer.

Joanna
Yeah, that makes total sense to me. I can imagine doing that.

Valerie
The documentary catalyzed the research, which led you to realizing this book could have a larger story. When you decided, “OK, I’m going to write this memoir,” you were spending most of your time, up until then, writing for the magazines and writing profiles. How did you change gears? They’re totally different types of writing. You can’t approach it the same way. How did you go from these shorter pieces, which have a finite period, that you’re writing for magazines to then spending two years on a book? How did you just chop and change? Presumably you still wrote for some of the magazines in that period.

Joanna
Actually I mean there’s a whole other chunk of my life, which is that I spent many years working on this novel, A Fortunate Age. My inclination as a fiction writer is very much towards sort of like big, social realist novels like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, that kind of thing. There’s an American writer named Jean Korelitz, who I love, who writes these big novels. I love like the Victorians, The Forsyte Saga is my favourite books. I love Dickens and Elliot.

I was working on this novel that was kind of social realism, also a comedy of manners, both of those things together, that was huge. Multiple characters, a big span of time, switching perspectives, different generations, ridiculously ambitious. I had worked on it probably for, in total, maybe five or six years. My life went through different phases as I worked on it. I started working on it when I was a freelance magazine writer. During that time I actually decided, I made the choice to give up a lot of my magazine work and just do — I wrote a lot for The New York Times, so I had a kind of like contractual series that I wrote for them. I basically decided that I was going to take a part time job at a magazine, an online magazine as an editor, as their books editor, like editing book reviews. That was two days a week. Then I would do my work for The New York Times and then I would work on my novel.

That actually made my life easier because I kind of had this more structured life. So, I had years working on this novel. Then at the end of 2007, right at the end of 2007 I sold the novel and I was lucky enough, or whatever you would call it, to get enough money to live on for quite some time. I actually had a full time job, the magazine that I had worked at for two days a week hired me full time as their editor in chief. I kept that job for six months/seven months after I sold the novel and then realised I actually couldn’t sustain it because, some listeners may not realise this, after you sell a book there’s a significant amount of work that has to be done, it really is kind of a full time job. I had to do a rewrite of it. The publicity type work for it started right away, you’re writing articles and stuff primarily to publicise the book. It’s just endless. I was also pregnant with my second child at the time, throwing up. I was at work throwing up. I would go to meetings and I would have to run to the bathroom to throw up.

There was that whole period. I knew what it was to work on a project. In fact, this book… I had started to work on this second novel, which is equally big in scope as my first one. It’s called Money or Love, it’s very much about the economic crisis of 2008, the kind of aftermath of it. My agent, one of the ways she convinced me to write this memoir was she said, “You know, you’re a magazine writer, just think of this as an extended magazine piece. Just get it done quickly, let’s get it out there.” My editor who has worked with so many writers, as has my agent, my editor knew it was going to be bigger than an extended magazine piece. But, they still ultimately gave me just 11 months to do it. They were thinking it was short, it was focused, it wouldn’t take me that long. They were, of course, wrong. Though my editor said, when I asked for an extension, she said, “We knew you weren’t going to write this in 11 months, nobody writes a book in 11 months, unless it’s like a celebrity biography or something that has to get out there.” They gave me an extra six months. It really was about a year and a half it took me to write it.

The funny thing is that actually seemed really, really short, a really small amount of time because it had taken me all of these years to write a novel. It felt like a very focused intense period. In a way it felt kind of — there was a way in which it was so easy because it was just this one story. There were these competing threads of the story, especially during this kind of six month period where I worked on it very, very intensively. Like, I would wake up at four in the morning and write for a few hours before my kids woke up, bring them to school, go to my office, work very intensively until I had to pick them up, bring them home. I couldn’t work while I was with them, but the minute they went to sleep I would work again. It was just completely ever-present in my brain. I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t really write anything else. It was all I could do. I would occasionally take breaks to write book reviews. I was sort of able to do that, but even that was hard for me.

There were these different threads of the plot, there’s kind of like my home life. I have this sort of pseudo socialist, pseudo intellectual would be novelist awful Norman Mailer type boyfriend, so there’s that thread of the story. There’s the office story. There’s the Salinger story. There’s my parents. I had like all of those threads on Post-it notes. I would kind of colour-code it. I would put them all board in my office and try to rearrange them, trying to sort of have the different stories — have there been an even allotment of each thread of the story.

In a way it was almost of the opposite. My experience was almost the opposite. This felt like this very brief intense process of working on the book. I actually really liked it. I would love to sort of do that with my next novel, just kind of hunker down and just work on it and do nothing else.

Valerie
Obviously the advice regarding the timeframe worked, but did the advice really work in terms of — you said yourself that when you write some of the magazine pieces and the book reviews you don’t even use the word ‘I’, but this is full of the word ‘I’. Obviously it is about you, and you have to take a completely different non-objective approach to it. Was that hard to get into?

Joanna
It was very hard. It was unbelievably difficult.

Valerie
How did you do it then? What techniques did you kind of help yourself with?

Joanna
I spent a lot of time marveling at the world we live in, honestly, just as a preamble. I have tons of friends who are writers and they’re on social media like every minute of the day just telling people everything about their lives. I know those are constructed persona, right? But that is so not me. I am on social media, but it takes me days to come up with a Facebook status update, to figure out what I want to say. I am not a professional over-sharing person.

In a way that’s how this book worked for me. I mean I couldn’t figure out what the style and the tone was, because I’m not that person who’s going to be, “Blah, here’s everything… and then I went to the bathroom… that night we were in bed and we were having sex…” whatever, I can’t even joke about it because it’s so not me. I don’t want to reveal those bedroom or bathroom tales, I don’t want to go into these kind of things that feel very private to me.

Valerie
Yes.

Joanna
I just couldn’t figure out who was the ‘I’ of the story.

Two things happened, there were two things that pushed me over the edge. One was that I had not read a lot of memoir because I didn’t like it. In the early sort of heyday of memoir, which was in the late 1990s and early noughties, that’s when I was first starting out as a book critic. I was assigned some memoir and I usually did not like them, they felt shapeless to me, they felt self-indulgent, as though the writers were so convinced that every single detail of their life was interesting. The tough choices were not being made about what to include, what not to include. Also for me there was this odd inability to suspend disbelief, because there would be these recreated conversations from when the writer was four or something. I would think, “What?! This is obviously artifice. This is not real, this person has recreated this. Why is this being presented as fact?” I’m not saying that I was thinking it was fiction, but it was hard for me to get around.

The memoir has changed in those years. I think there was a period in the late 90s and early noughties when publishers were just like, “Memoir sells!” “Memoirs are best-sellers.” “The Liar’s Club was a huge best-seller, write us any memoir about, like, abuse or crazy families.” Memoir is really different now. It’s evolved as an art form.

I basically spent — I don’t know — a year just reading every memoir that sounded even vaguely interesting to me. I asked friends what memoir to read. At the risk of sounding really cranky there was still a lot that I didn’t like for those exact reasons, that they felt shapeless. Then there were these memoirs, there’s maybe a half dozen of them, that were as brilliant as my favourite novels, that had the kind of depth of characterisation. That was the other thing about the sort of bad memoir was that there was a kind of inability to create a character other than the ‘I’ of the book. The ‘I’ was so interesting and the other characters just felt like these quirky cardboard cutouts.

The great memoirs that I read, of which there really are many —

Valerie
What are some of them?

Joanna
My absolutely favourite was a memoir by the writer Claire Dederer called Poser.

Valerie
Yeah, the yoga one. 

Joanna
Was that a big seller in Australia as well?

Valerie
It was quite popular.

Joanna
Yes, I love that. It was called My Life in Twenty-three [Yoga Poses] — I actually just gave my copy — I’ve gone through several copies. I kept buying them and then I give them away because I love them so much. I’ve read it probably four or five times. It’s so interesting because it’s not like, “Oh, here’s this fascinating thing that happened to me, it’s just a book about this woman’s life and about the world that she lives in. It reads like your favourite novel, like a George Elliot novel, anything. It is truly like a canticle work. She’s just a brilliant writer and it’s hilarious, it’s heart-breaking. It’s just wonderful. It’s not really about yoga, it’s just about her life.

I also loved a book that I’m sure was a huge bestseller in Australia, it was huge here, it’s called Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s about a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — wonderful.

Then, of course, Joan Didion’s memoir, Blue Nights, about her daughter’s death. That had a profound affect on me, for stylistic reasons — I mean all of them did. It’s a very sparse book. Didion is a very cool kind of cold writer and yet that book I was just sobbing through it. She describes these kind of big emotions — she doesn’t describe them, she portrays them in this very sparse way and it’s because of that kind of sparseness that they hit you so profoundly.

I realised — with all three of these I thought, “That’s what I want to do. I want to have the kind of cool, sparse element of the Didion, but I also want the kind of humour of the other two books, I want this to read like a novel. I wanted the coolness of the Didion, but the warmth of the Didier and Strayed. I think my own book is not really like either of those three, but I learned so much from them.

I read them and I realised what memoir could be. That was really what happened. I realised memoir can be as great as a great novel and that unlocked something for me.

Valerie
The memoir is set at a literary agency. Can you tell us how you developed your own relationship with your own literary agent? How did that happen? Because many people are interested in that breakthrough moment, if you know what I mean.

Joanna
Yes, of course. It’s kind of a funny story. It’s funny now, it was kind of sad at the time. As I mentioned I published this essay in a glossy magazine about answering Salinger’s fan mail years ago, 12-odd years ago. That essay is what got me my agent. I was not looking for an agent. I was in the very early stages of my novel. I knew from working with agencies, I had worked at two agencies, I went to another one after the period in the book, I knew that I was not even remotely ready to find an agent. You really need to finish your novel before you find an agent.

This is something that people ask me all the time. Some stranger wrote to me on Facebook the other day saying, “I’m 100 pages into my novel, should I start looking for an agent? I think I should.” I was like, “No, you shouldn’t because they won’t want to see it until it’s totally done.”

I wasn’t even thinking about an agent, though I was writing for magazines and I knew that there was a way in which it could be helpful to have an agent, but it was really not something that I was thinking about.

I wrote this essay and it was for this magazine that’s now folded that I’m not going to name because you’ll see why in a second. I turned it in. It was a very long essay, it was 6,000 words. My blood was in this essay. As I said, it had been a really difficult experience for me to revisit these kind of difficult year in my life. I turned it in and they did not respond to me. I wrote to them, I mean time went by. Usually you turn in an essay to a magazine they write to you right away. I turned it in late and they were not hounding me for it. They didn’t seem to care. I wrote and said, “I’m going to be late.” They said, “Sure,” or maybe they didn’t respond. I kept writing to them and saying, “What’s going on with this?” They were barely responding to me.

I was not a famous writer, but I was known as a book critic at this point, I felt like they were really not treating me particularly well. It’s not OK to do that. I had worked as a magazine editor too and I would have never had done this to anyone. Finally I got a note from a different editor, not the person I had been working with, saying, “Yeah, we like this essay, but we might want to cut it in half,” and I thought, “What?! No.” I wrote back and said, “I’m not sure that’s OK.” I didn’t hear from them. More time went by, didn’t hear from them. I said, “Is the essay scheduled?” Months by this point had gone by — months.

I finally wrote to a friend of mine and said, “I think this essay could work for many different magazines, like maybe The New Yorker, maybe Harper’s, maybe The Atlantic. I think I should pull this.” This friend who was an agent, but would not be the appropriate agent for me, said, “You’re totally right. They have not responded to you. Here’s my friend at The New Yorker. Maybe you should send it to him.” I had actually met this person once, we had spoken together at a conference. I was well-known enough that I was speaking in front of people about my… this magazine was totally ignoring me.

I wrote to this man who wais an editor at The New Yorker and explained the situation. He said, “Yes, I want to see that.” He read it in a day and he said, “We want this essay. We do want to cut it a little bit, here’s how, but we want it. Here’s your contract. We want to run it next month.” Then he said, “You have to get an agent because the minute this hits people are going to ask you about turning it into a book and I bet they’re going to want an option to film rights.” Then he said, “This is my agent, why don’t you contact her.” He said, “It’s not just that she’s my agent, I think she’s the right person for you. You’re working on a novel, she does fiction and non-fiction. I just think based on our interactions…” because he had met me, we had done this thing together, “I think you’re going to love her.”

I wrote to her. She responded immediately. She read the essay immediately. We talked on the phone. I loved her. She just was brilliant. Our sensibility was just very much shared. An agent has to be a business person, but they also have to have a literary sensibility and ours was very much the same. She was truly an intellectual and she also was just kind and warm and funny and sweet. I just felt like I could talk to her so easily, that we were very much on the same page. I had talked to one other agent, this time a friend said to me, “Why don’t you talk to my agent?” I went in and talked to the agent, that agent seemed much more like purely a business person. I signed with her immediately, I just loved her.

Valerie
And the rest is history?

Joanna
Exactly.

Valerie
What has been the reaction though from the boss of the agency? The boss who is your boss in the book in real life? I don’t think you actually name your boss in the book, do you?

Joanna
No.

Valerie
I’ve gone back through many pages thinking, “Have I missed it? Have I missed it?” Which is a wonderful literary technique in itself, but a quick google is very easy to find —

Joanna
Yes. It takes one second to find out.

Valerie
— the agency that you worked at and the name of your boss. Has there been a reaction? Are you still in contact?

Joanna
No. I was a little bit in contact with her. Also there’s a character in the book named Hugh, who was kind of like the office manager, but also kind of like the curator of the agency, because so much of their work is dealing with these kind of old and dead clients’ estates.

Valerie
I just see Stanley Tucci playing him in a movie. But, anyway, that’s just my —

Joanna
Oh my god! That’s hilarious. I was just visiting family and they were playing — I just went on my American tour, most of my family is in California in the kind of San Francisco area. They all came to one of my meetings, all my cousins, and one of them was saying, “Who is going to play you?” No one could agree on anyone. They said, “Who do you think should play the other characters?” The one that I knew for sure, I was like, “I think Bryan Cranston should –“

Valerie

Oh, yes, of course!

Joanna
I just could picture him. The truth is that man, he really did actually literally look like him.

Valerie
Really?

Joanna
Yes. I was in touch with him. He was such a kind and lovely, wonderful person. I was in touch with him a bit. I was in touch with my boss a bit. Then we fell out of touch, as you do. When this essay came out years ago, 12-odd years ago, I heard from the Hugh person saying my boss was tickled by the essay. She never got in touch. I mean she didn’t use email. She still does not use email, from what I’ve heard. It’s a little bit harder to be in touch. It’s not like she’s going to pick up the phone and call me.

But, with the book I’ve had no response, I guess it’s four years ago now that this other essay, which I wrote for Slate came out. No response to that. That became a radio piece for NPR, a little radio piece. No response to that. Then it became this BBC documentary which came out a year later in 2011 and there was no response to that either.

I think my boss is just of the generation that feel — she’s very much of the kind of gentleman’s club school of publishing and business and what have you, and values privacy above all. So the idea of responding to anything would just be tacky to her or gauche, you know?

Valerie
Yeah.

Joanna
So even if she read it and she thought she was portrayed as a monster, which I don’t think she is, I hope not, I really wrote with this with a lot of love.

Valerie
No, not at all.

Joanna
Even if she thought she was portrayed like the boss in The Devil Wears Prada she’s not the kind of person who would sue me or say anything, because in her mind that would make it worse.

Valerie
Very gauche.

Joanna
Yes, yes!

Valerie
Tell us now, because obviously the book is out, it’s doing really well, you’re doing some promotion and publicity, but you are working on Money and Love, how far into it are you? What stage are you at with it?

Joanna
I’m at the awkward stage. I’m like the age 13, acne, your arms and legs are growing too fast and you’re tripping over yourself because your feet are so big stage.

I’m about 100 pages into in terms of the beginning of the book. I’ve got these 100 pages down, that 100 pages — and this is totally not the way I normally work, but because of the way this book has been interrupted by another book and all sorts of things that chunk of the book has been read by some different people and I’ve read pieces of it aloud to audiences because of just having to, teaching at a writing conference and there’s a reading and I have to read from new fiction, that kind of thing, it’s sort of more out in the world. I mention this because I’m usually a very private writer, but the pieces of this have kind of been seen by a lot of people and read by a lot of people.

But at the same time, there are two other things I’ll mention, this novel started off with my actually thinking of it as short stories that would be very strongly linked together, like sort of a little bit in the manner of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, if you know this book, but even more strongly linked. It would really feel like a novel. There would be an actual plot running through it, but it would follow a few different people who all live in a small town in upstate New York that’s been kind of destroyed by the recession. Then what happened to me, what definitely sometimes happens to people, like this probably happened to some listeners, this one particular set of characters kind of began to overtake the others. It was like a gerbil eating its babies. I’m really interested in the other characters still. So, I’m now at this stage where I’m not totally sure what’s going to happen. It’s at that stage that’s really exciting where you’re like, “Something huge is going to happen here,” but I’m not totally sure, so there’s a lot of anxiety.

Valerie
Yeah, a bit scary too — very scary too.

Joanna
Yes, exactly.

I also have a little bit — I’ve almost been on break from it for really three years. I had to go back to it, I’ve had periods where I’ve gone back to it, but I have also, and I’m almost scared to say this aloud, I’ve a little bit reconceived the structure of it.

I’ve always been obsessed with the novel The Age of Innocence, Morton’s The Age of Innocence. But, I thought of that novel really more as a doomed love story. I’m sure pretty much all of the listeners out there have read it, because it’s such a classic, so I won’t ramble on about it, but I reread that novel about a year and a half ago, actually because of sort of big events in my own life. I made some huge changes in my own life that were very difficult. I kept thinking about it and I reread it. I’ve read it many, many times, but I haven’t read it in a few years. I realised that the backdrop of that novel is the banking crisis of I guess it’s 1879 that sort of destroyed the economy of New York and thrust all of these upper middle class and wealthy sort of New York elite into a really rough financial situation. It had not occurred to me. That novel is very sort of tightly structured and is much more like this memoir of mine, it’s much more very kind of one person’s story set against a social backdrop.

It’s so scary for me to say, but I actually feel like even though I have these hundred pages that are really kind of done, they’re down, I’ve worked them and I can go forward, there’s part of me that wants to rip them apart and start over.

Valerie
I’m scared that you’re going to say this too! 

Joanna
I know! I know! I think it will be woven in a way, but I think I might — a novel is so much about the entry point and right now the entry point for the story, the first line of the story of the novel, and you’ll be able to tell how long I’ve worked on this and how much I have worked it that I’ve memorized it, the first line of the story is, “After years of plenty they had nothing — nothing.” It begins with this woman who is barely keeping her family together, like all day she’s just fending off calls from creditors, she’s in debt dramatically. Her family has lost all their money. They’ve been keeping it together for years and it’s all about to fall apart. There’s part of me that wants to go back and have this come later and start before the crisis in the way that The Age of Innocence does and have the love story be the primary thread rather than the money story.

Valerie
Wow. Well, I wait with bated breath to see what happens in the end with the outcome of the next book.

Honestly I think I could talk to you for hours, but we should probably wrap up now. Thank you so much for chatting to us. I know that listeners will be really interested in what you have to say. The book is brilliant. It’s definitely the best memoir I’ve read this year, if not the best book I’ve read this year. I’ve loved it. 

Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Joanna
Thank you, it’s such a pleasure.


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