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In the late 1990s, when I wanted more than anything to be a famous writer, I took a job as assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent at Harold Ober Associates, the oldest literary agency in the country. Walking into Ober’s offices in midtown Manhattan was like climbing through a wormhole: Overhead lighting was eschewed for desk lamps, the ceiling tiles were yellow with cigarette smoke, and the drinks cart would make an appearance on Friday afternoons (except in the summer, when Fridays were half days). The office was also alive with the clattering of typewriters—typing was a prerequisite of the job, and my boss was somehow surprised that I had taken typing in high school and could center words on a page without the aid of a computer. Ober had computers, but the Internet was available only on a common terminal in the middle of the office, which made checking your personal email an open declaration that you weren’t, in fact, working when you should be. All Ober correspondence was dictated into Dictaphones, and I became expert at working the foot pedal—left to rewind, right to fast-forward, my boss’s voice in my ears with the day’s business. As a recent graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College, I’d made a few friends who lived in New York, who warned me that the thousand dollars I’d saved working at a family print shop in Phoenix was not enough to move to the city, but I was impatient to live the literary life. And when Ober answered the resume I’d faxed to every literary agency in the city, I had no inkling they represented Salinger, or James M. Cain, or William Faulkner, or Sherwood Anderson, or Agatha Christie, or any of the other storied writers on their roster, save for F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my favorites. (I’d read through the letters between Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, which mentioned Harold Ober. Spending my lunch hour in the Ober conference room poring over the bound drafts of The Great Gatsby taught me more about writing than my undergraduate and graduate degrees combined.)
I’d visited New York once, the previous fall, before committing to the move. The Bennington MFA program was low residency, and I’d fly back and forth twice a year from Phoenix to Vermont. My interest in Bennington stemmed from my infatuation with the novelist Bret Easton Ellis—or rather his being a young, famous novelist, my own ambition at that time—and for my graduate lecture at Bennington, I wrote Bret a letter asking if I could interview him by mail. Instead, he called and asked if I wanted to fly to New York to do the interview in person. As the plane circled LaGuardia, the entire metropolis I’d only dreamed about lay out before me, an adult Disneyland full of noise and lights. After our interview, Bret walked me out, and his parting sentiment was, “New York is a great place to be a writer,” which settled the matter in my mind even though I had no idea how to go about undertaking such a move. So I just did it. Not long after I arrived, I looked Bret up, mostly to say I’d taken his advice. He invited me to book parties at KGB, as well as dinner with other writers at places like the Bowery Bar and Grill, and offered to read the novel I’d written, a largesse I quickly learned extended to a whole stable of young writers, all of us envious of Bret’s career and fame. When Bret asked about my job at Ober, he seemed amused by its quaintness. Bret’s world appeared to exist in another dimension from that of Ober, my days filled with transcribing royalty reports into a coded form that would be typed on color-coded index cards, or comparing an author’s new contract with her last contract to look for discrepancies (read: rights grabs by greedy publishers), or granting permission for the various requests to reprint material written by Ober authors, save for Salinger, whose work couldn’t be reprinted in any way under any circumstance, etc., while a large portion of my spare time was dedicated to the get-famous-quick come-on of New York City. These were the days of Puff Daddy, the moment before the explosion of reality television.
Toiling at Ober was a calming reprieve from my baser instincts, namely those of self-promotion in service of my ambition to be a famous novelist. My mentors at Bennington were powerless against the impression, honed over years of growing up in the culture of spectacle, that you could catapult yourself to the world’s attention if you tried hard enough. I began writing what would be my first published novel, We’re So Famous, with just those ideas in mind, churning out pages on my lunch hour, or after hours, or on weekends spent in the Ober offices. Writing a novel about talentless fame seekers in an office lined with classic books by famous literary writers was a study in extreme contrasts, surely, and as I mined my personal biography for all the attention-seeking things I’d ever done—the time I converted to Mormonism for my high school girlfriend; the job I took with Charles H. Keating Jr., the infamous Lincoln Savings and Loan owner; the sudden trip to Alaska to strike it rich in the fishing industry, e.g.—I was glad for the safety of Ober. I recognized that while the outside world might consider Ober a relic of days gone by, there was something religious about their desire to be faithful to old-fashioned business values, especially in a business like publishing, which appeared to be seduced more and more by youth and technology, like the film and music industries before it. Letters instead of email; hand-delivered manuscripts to editors rather than electronic attachments… One day, no doubt, the world would wreck the walls of Harold Ober Associates, but for the moment it was a safe haven for me, not just from the impending millennial world, but from my becoming an inveterate trickster, someone more satisfied with the con than the gain. My life had been a litany of stunts, perhaps small and harmless, but stunts nonetheless.
I knew I hadn’t completely reformed when I became fascinated with the stunt J.D. Salinger pulled when he moved to the woods of New Hampshire and left his publishing career behind.
I’d loved The Catcher in the Rye like every other teenager, but had read nothing else of his work. Eventually I read and admired Nine Stories while answering the Ober phones on the receptionist’s lunch hour, but a sampling of Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters was enough to know that on balance Salinger’s work wasn’t for me. What was of more interest was the volume of mail Salinger received in care of Ober, considering he hadn’t published a book since the early 1960s. Nearly 40 years. That, to me, was remarkable. Perhaps Salinger had invented the lexicon all future young adult novels would imitate, but that wasn’t a literary legacy large enough to engender the absolute cult built up around him. The only explanation was his shunning the world, his declaration that he wanted not to be a famous writer but to be an ordinary citizen, causing the exact reverse to become true. A part of me argued that it had been Salinger’s intention to do just that. The coming Internet age would prove true that a little mystery goes a long way. Even after I left Ober, I entertained the thesis that Salinger was more like Madonna than anyone could guess.
I spent the next decade working on my writing, and editing Post Road, the literary magazine I cofounded with friends. I floated back to Arizona, then to California, then to Boston. I got married. My wife and I worked on Post Road together. We ghostwrote some books. I edited a couple of anthologies. We rescued a failing bookstore. We started a family. Through the bookstore, I met a writer who wanted to start a small publishing company, and he agreed to publish the trilogy of novels I’d written when I wanted to be a famous young novelist. I also met a British writer who put me in touch with his editor at Bloomsbury, in the UK, the same publisher that published my first novel. The editor agreed to bring my new novels out in the UK as well, and eventually became the sole publisher of said novels, with the small publisher’s blessing. As I revised the manuscripts, I found myself thinking of Salinger. Friends and writers were impressed that I was able to write and publish novels while coparenting a toddler and helping run an independent bookstore. I unreservedly copped to the reality that the books had been written in what seemed like another lifetime, though I admitted I was grateful for their publication. I hadn’t had the impulse to write another word in years, and when friends inquired if publication would inspire more books, I answered truthfully: that I’d said what I had to say, and more books would just be my making the same arguments (albeit with differently named narrators in differently set locales), namely, that you and I are essentially alone in this world, and that we could be better people, less selfish, more understanding, that we could do more to look out for each other.
It struck me that the same might’ve been true for Salinger. The world awaited more work from him, but the only tangible proof he was still writing came in the form of his entering and ultimately breaking a contract to publish a revision of his story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” first published long ago in the New Yorker. It was a fair assumption that Salinger had said what he had to say, and I revised my opinion of his disappearance from a publicity stunt to an organic understanding of himself as an artist.
Writer friends consoled me on the loss of my ambition, but it hardly seemed sad. I certainly wouldn’t miss the intense examination of human motive and behavior that had seemed so compelling at the outset, but that had ultimately poisoned my general outlook. The lure of trying to illuminate the sadness in the world only led to a fetish for sad books, sad movies, sad songs. Once writers begin cataloging sadness, they see it everywhere.
An amateur diagnosis is that once becoming famous became beside the point, my ambitions were so modest—I was never interested in winning awards, giving lectures, writing book reviews, or acquiring any of the decorations of the writing life—that they were too easily satisfied: study creative writing with authors I admired; start a literary magazine; publish a handful of short stories; work in publishing; publish some novels, and a memoir; edit some anthologies. Plus all of the unexpected nice things writers get to do: give readings, appear on panels at literary festivals, be invited to teach, contribute to magazines, make book trailers. My only real want along the way was to illuminate something about the human condition in a voice and from a point of view that could belong only to me. And if a bid for posterity beats in the heart of every writer, mine is alive with the possibility that long after I’m gone, someone will discover an old paperback of my work and say, “What’s this?” But whether or not that happens is independent of the volume of work a writer publishes, so what’s done is done.
I sometimes daydream about the notion of learning how to write the kinds of books that capture the popular imagination, “entertainments” as the novelist Graham Greene called them, without prejudice. I know how to write character-driven books where language is paramount, but popular fiction is far removed from what I gleaned from MFA programs and literary magazines. In my quest to become a Writer with a capital W, I failed to learn the essential elements of storytelling that these books require. I often fantasize about creating a pseudonym and becoming that writer, akin to creating a pop-star persona and becoming its principal songwriter. But the attraction is mostly me daring myself to start from scratch writing-wise, to learn how those writers do what they so successfully do.
The dissipation of my literary ambition is more freeing than anything else. Perhaps just as it was for Salinger. No more reading both to scavenge, with my own work in mind, and to keep hacking away at the forest of Great Literature too populous ever to clear. Owning a bookstore is positive proof that there are more books published than anyone can possibly read—if you think the stack on your nightstand is mocking you, try working in a bookstore—and the defeat is liberating. The stress of literary ambition demands that you at least attempt some sort of relationship with those books and authors labeled canonical, never mind the contemporary writers you haven’t read, or writers in the zeitgeist. When my ambitions vanished, so too did the anxiety that yet another good or even great book demanded my immediate attention. My prevailing assumption is that the bookstore will keep stoking my reverence for writers—as well as allow me to continue to promote them and their books—and that a desire to read as I like, just as the patrons of the bookstore do, will replace a desire to write, a nice irony.
For me, Salinger’s isolation was too complete, too much like death. Writers are born of a kind of benevolent arrogance; the notion that you, and you alone, can tell a particular story that will reveal something hitherto unknown about humanity is the engine that fires the imagination. It’s a fire that can burn so brightly that it consumes itself, and sometimes everything and everyone in proximity. That’s one explanation, anyway. After spending two-plus decades striving to be just one thing, I was surprised to look back and see my ambitions far in the distance, struggling to keep up, ultimately falling back, leaving me open and available to welcome whatever is next.