In ‘My Salinger Year,’ a Young Writer Connects With a Literary Legend

A young writer’s year in an office job and her encounters with a notoriously reclusive writer is detailed in “My Salinger Year,” a delightful dramedy based on the memoir of the same name by Joanna Rakoff. Margaret Qualley stars as Joanna, introduced in 1995 as a 23-year-old woman who is so taken with New York during a visit with her friend Jenny (Seána Kerslake), that she decides to abandon her graduate studies and life in Berkeley to move there. Soon, she lands a coveted position as an assistant to a respected literary agent, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). In addition to doing all the thankless duties that most assistant jobs entails, Joanna finds herself conversing on a regular basis over the phone with Margaret’s most famous client, J.D. Salinger (Tim Post).

Both Rakoff and director Philippe Falardeau spoke extensively with Entertainment Voice via Zoom. Rakoff recalled how the pair collaborated together for years on the screenplay. “The book is a bit –– I don’t want to say it’s internal, because it’s really not, but in the book, there’s a lot of like, ‘A girl is sitting there typing,’ and we had to kind of make the story more cinematic and fictionalize some aspects of it. It was just a really, really fun process. It was really fun to be so involved in it. I was involved in the casting and the costuming.”

Qualley taps into the many different sides of Joanna. On the surface, she seems like the kind of polished young woman who has gotten far in life by playing by the rules, but we come to learn that she has a rebellious streak. According to Rakoff, the actress had been her first choice to play her since she first saw her on “The Leftovers” and was impressed by her acting style.

“Not many writers can say that about the adaptations of their books,” she said with a laugh. “I just was so struck by the incredible intelligence to her performance, and also by the emotional transparency and vulnerability [she brought] to that performance. I felt like you could see her having all of these feelings behind the scrim of her face… I just felt she would be perfect as me, because I am a pretty internal person. I’m a bit of an introvert, and the Joanna of the book is a bit of an introvert, and you have to kind of see her in the film thinking things, and feeling things, and processing things without saying what she’s feeling.”

Rakoff went on to reveal the extent of Qualley’s dedication to the role. Just like Joanna, she proved to be a voracious reader. “In playing the role, she really surpassed all my expectations. I don’t know the extent of how much people are aware of how incredibly smart she is. She is brilliant, as is Sigourney, but that’s a whole other story. She read ‘My Salinger Year,’ and she then went and read every book mentioned in the book… When I arrived on set, she freaked out, in a mild way… She came over and hugged me fiercely and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here.’ She almost felt nervous seeing me because she had thrown herself so much in this role of playing me that it kind of unnerved her that it was actually me that was there.”

Because “My Salinger Year” features the dynamic of a young woman in NYC working as an assistant to a high-powered older woman, it has already been compared to “The Devil Wears Prada.” However, Margaret could be almost any strong female professional or professor who knows what she wants. And while there are similarities between Margaret and Miranda Priestly, Margaret is no trendsetter, as she’s resistant to change, which is probably why she’s a perfect agent for someone like Salinger. An amusing running joke is her aversion to all things digital, as she thinks computers are just a fad. Still, she has a lot of wisdom to impart onto Joanna, and Weaver and Qualley are great together as their characters come to appreciate each other.

“Of course, it’s more Joanna’s story, but Sigourney brings a kind of panashe,” said Falardeau. “When I met her for the first time, I was a bit starstruck, to tell you the truth.”

According to Rakoff and Falardeau, Margaret’s role was expanded for the film to give her her own emotional arc. “Joanna is figuring out the models for being a woman in the world, and she’s one model,” explained Rakoff. “She’s this person who’s married to her job. She never had a family. She felt like that was the only way she could succeed in the 1960s when she was starting out… When Sigourney signed on, we realized that we needed more scenes with her. She’s Sigourney Weaver. We needed to show her [outside of work]… I feel like the film is so much better for being dually about Margaret and Joanna, rather than focusing solely on Margaret’s experience.

Joanna’s life outside of the office is also on display here. She ends up dating and moving in with Don (Douglas Booth), a fellow writer she meets in a socialist bookstore. He wins Joanna over with his smarts and charm, but it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s arrogant and a master gaslighter. Most women, if they haven’t dated a Don themselves, know someone who has. While Rakoff admitted to having a hard time reliving that relationship while writing the book, she wasn’t really triggered watching Booth’s portrayal in the movie.

“The truth is, we softened him a little bit,” she revealed. “He’s not as difficult as he was in the book or he was in life. Doug Booth is so charming and charismatic that I could be like, ‘I see why she fell for him.’ Obviously, the Karl character is much better.”

Karl (Hamza Haq) is the sensitive composer boyfriend Joanna left behind in Berkeley. He’s the opposite of Don in all the ways that matter, and the emotional high points of the film are the two scenes in which he and Joanna reunite. In real life, Rakoff’s boyfriend’s name was Keeril, and they finally got back together for good after she wrote the book, and are now married with a five-year-old child. She revealed it took her more than ten years to expand what was originally an essay into a book because her feelings for Keeril caused a block.

“Leaving him was the biggest mistake of my life,” she admitted. “I had stayed in touch with him, although it was really painful for me to stay in touch with him because I loved him so much and he was my best friend… I had to face up to what I did, that I did this really stupid thing and I hurt the person I loved most in the world, and I still don’t understand why I did it. Once I admitted that to myself, the book kinda all snapped into place, and I wrote it very quickly.”

But the real male lead in “My Salinger Year” is the man himself, with whom Joanna carries on a professional yet warm relationship with him over the phone. Although he mostly calls her by the wrong name, Susanna, this is due to his old age and hearing loss. He encourages her to make time for her writing, which may sound like simple advice, but something that a young person busy with a full-time job and a draining relationship needs to hear. 

Although Salinger does appear in the flesh a few times in the film, his full face is never shown. Falardeau spoke about why he chose to present the author in this mysterious way. “With Salinger, the more it felt like he would eat up the whole film. People would expect more because it’s Salinger. I needed to find a way to make it playful, to make it so that the audience would understand that he is not the main character. Right from the start, I think the convention of showing him but never really showing him, you tease the audience… and you get inside Joanna’s head instead.”

Although the film is set in 1995, it has a timeless feel, not unlike Salinger’s works. Although the internet and cellular phones were in existence, people were not dependent on technology back then like they are today, which Falardeau explained helped him create the look of the film. “It was pertinent to the story because it was about the written word… We created an environment that could encompass any time period, really. When I did research about the nineties, I looked at how people dressed, and they dressed like the eighties, the seventies and the sixties all combined together.. It made sense for me to create this timeless space which also had a relationship with Salinger, and also this old, venerable agency that dated back from the thirties and the forties.”

A turning point comes when Joanna goes behind Margaret’s back to reach out to Salinger’s fans. An unusual job duty of hers is to read the copious amount of letters sent to the author, not to pass them along to him, but to look out for any threats, like the next Mark David Chapman. Afterwards, her instructions are to send back generic letters. However, although Joanna has never even read “The Catcher in the Rye” when she starts working for Margaret, she cannot help but be moved by those whose lives were touched by this classic novel. We see these people come to life, as Joanna vividly pictures them in her mind while reading these rich letters, the most intense being a young man simply called Boy from Winston-Salem (Théodore Pellerin). Another, a young woman in high school (Romane Denis), even shows up in the flesh in a memorable scene.

“I eventually met him,” said Rakoff about the Boy from Winston-Salem, whose letter she still keeps today. She explained how she hired a detective to track him down for a BBC Radio documentary she did years earlier. “It turned out that he was actually a grown man when he wrote that letter. He wasn’t a boy… There’s just a kind of raw honesty to that letter, and I think it was so honest because he knew that Salinger wasn’t going to read it. I think he really thought that he was writing into a void and could say whatever he wanted… I think, for me, as a writer, I kept it by my desk because it was a lesson to me that in writing, you always have to jump off a cliff and write with that kind of transparency.”

My Salinger Year” releases March 5 on VOD and in select theaters.