In the fall of 1995, Joanna Rakoff dropped out of grad school in London and “spent a month or two basically bumming around” New York City, working as a production assistant on a Barbra Streisand film and going to parties.
At one party, someone suggested the avid reader try for a job in publishing — and Rakoff’s life took a turn that has since yielded a best-selling memoir, and, now, a movie:
“My Salinger Year,” directed by Philippe Falardeau, hits theaters and streaming services March 5, starring Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley.
The movie is set in “New York’s oldest and most storied literary agency,” where Rakoff landed a job.
“The interior looked like the library of a Rockefeller mansion circa 1927 — all dark wood and floor-to-ceiling bookcases — and the agents operated as if time had stopped not much later than that,” Rakoff, of Cambridge, tells me.
On her first day, Rakoff’s boss gave her “a strict, terrifying talk about someone named ‘Jerry.’ If he called, I was to put him through right away. I was not to make chitchat or waste his time. I had no idea what — or whom — she was talking about,” Rakoff recalled.
Then she “noticed a wall of familiar looking books: The works of J.D. Salinger.”
Rakoff put two and two together: Jerry was the author of “Catcher in the Rye.” And one of her jobs was answering Salinger’s plentiful fan-mail.
Rakoff felt bad answering heartfelt letters with “a cold, patronizing form letter from the 1960s.” She “became intrigued, maybe a little obsessed, with the fans” who wrote so candidly.
One day, she started answering Salinger’s letters in her own voice. She also started chatting on the phone with Jerry.
Rakoff’s memoir about the experience came out in 2014, and in the movie adaptation, Rakoff is played by Qualley — who’s garnered attention for HBO’s “The Leftovers”, “Fosse/Verdon” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Weaver plays Rakoff’s boss.
I caught up with the author to talk about her Salinger year.
Q. I loved your book. When did you find out it would be a movie with Sigourney Weaver?
A. When the book came out, there was interest in adapting it for film. [Falardeau] flew to Cambridge to meet with me at the late, great Café Algiers. I knew, from the moment we shook hands he understood the book.
The film was in development for more than three years before Sigourney was cast. There were moments we wondered if it would really get made, so when Sigourney said yes, we were over the moon. In part, because she’s Sigourney. But also because she’s so perfect for the part. When I arrived on set, in June 2019, she walked over to me, embraced me and whispered, “Thank you for the role of a lifetime.”
Q. What was Salinger like?
A. I only met Salinger once, but I spoke to him on the phone many times. From the very start, he asked me questions about myself, my take on things — what did I think of his new publisher? How was my boss doing?He was very nice, very kind and respectful, and very much treated me like a human being, rather than my boss’s amanuensis.
One conversation we had led me to imply that I read poetry. “Do you write poetry?” he asked. I had just, actually, had my first poem accepted for publication. After that, every time we talked, he asked me how my writing was going.
Q. What were some letters that stick out?
A. Salinger received a lot of letters from veterans saying that he was the only writer who’d captured their experience after coming home, their inability to relate to their wives and children, or to cope with the banality and ease of everyday life. Those letters broke my heart but also confirmed my feeling that literature can save a person’s life.
Q. How involved were you in the movie?
A. I worked as a consultant on the script. It was me, actually, who suggested Margaret Qualley to play me. I’d seen her in “The Leftovers” and thought she would be perfect.
Interview has been edited and condensed.