Janet Groth: An Insider’s Look at The New Yorker

September 27, 2012
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The Receptionist cover
The Receptionist
by Janet Groth
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Janet Groth
Author of
The Receptionist

By Ellen Birkett Morris
October 2012

 

In her memoir, The Receptionist, Janet Groth gives us an insider’s look at the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and takes us on her journey of self-discovery as she navigates the changing times and finds the person she was always looking for, herself.

 

 

 

“I had been itching to turn from strictly scholarly pursuits . . .”
—
GROTH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: As a professor and author of books on Edmund Wilson, what led you to want to look inward and write a memoir?

GROTH: I had been itching to turn from strictly scholarly pursuits, even the lighter hearted one represented in my last Wilson book, Critic in Love, and I began to wonder what I would find if I looked into the blue notebooks I had used for my personal writing, going way back to the late fifties. When I did, I discovered the archive that was to provide the material for my memoir.

AUTHORLINK: What do you think accounts for our fascination with this period in history? Our fascination with the New Yorker?

GROTH: So much change was taking place in America in the era of rock and roll, the sexual and social revolutions represented by feminism and the civil rights movement – we just can’t get enough of digging around in it to figure how we got to where we are now. Partly I think our fascination with The New Yorker stems from its continuity. While everything else changed around it, the magazine kept on coming out week after week, with pretty much the same format, recording the times and events swirling around it with reassuringly steady and trenchant voices. The cartoons gave amusing form to our dismay, the editorial content could be relied upon to attempt analysis of its causes, and even the ads assured us we could – or somebody could – buy things that would effectively mask it.

So much change was taking place in America in the era of rock and roll, the sexual and social revolutions represented by feminism and the civil rights movement – we just can’t get enough of digging around in it to figure how we got to where we are now. Partly I think our fascination with The New Yorker stems from its continuity. While everything else changed around it, the magazine kept on coming out week after week, with pretty much the same format, recording the times and events swirling around it with reassuringly steady and trenchant voices. The cartoons gave amusing form to our dismay, the editorial content could be relied upon to attempt analysis of its causes, and even the ads assured us we could – or somebody could – buy things that would effectively mask it.

“Once I committed fully to doing it, I exercised no censorship at all.” —GROTH

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide what to include and what to leave out as you took us on your journey of self-discovery?

GROTH: Once I committed fully to doing it, I exercised no censorship at all. Ultimately it was my editor, Amy Gash, who made a few judicious suggestions for cutting – all in the direction of excising what the kids nowadays call “TMI.”

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write The Receptionist?

GROTH: I sometimes answer this question – it comes up a lot – by saying that it took the whole of my adult life. But, if you mean the time between my first serious probe of those blue notebooks and the time I submitted it for publication, the answer is five years.

“. . . art is the result of wresting part of the artist’s very being from within.”
—
GROTH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What did you learn during the period covered in the book, when you were around great writers, which you have taken into your own writing?

GROTH: I discovered and lived the bleak truth behind Joyce’s line – “I bleed by the black stream for my torn bow!” – which to me means that art is the result of wresting part of the artist’s very being from within. (Wilson used those words as the epigram for The Wound and the Bow.) From the thirty-two year writer’s block of essayist Joseph Mitchell – and from my own long artistic silence – I learned that the shadow of potential failure accompanies each attempt to put words on paper. From critic Dwight Macdonald I learned a guiding principle of structural organization – “Put everything you have to say about one thing in the same place.” And, from E. B. White, who interviewed me for my position at the magazine, I learned via his classicElements of Style to construct most sentences with a subject a verb and a predicate, in that order.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research. Did you do much fact checking or rely primarily on memory?

GROTH: I did a surprising amount of research, considering that my material was ostensibly residing in my own memory. I had, in addition to those notebooks, every telephone message, every drawing or scrap of paper or photograph to which I refer in the pages of my book. I double-checked dates and places. I often turned to the Complete New Yorker on disc. That was enormously helpful. Then I discovered there are still proof readers, text editors, and page proof readers who work on facts as well as grammar and syntax. Algonquin staff was always asking me to correct, approve, or verify suggested changes at every stage of production. This was also much to my surprise, since I had had it told to me often, by writers publishing with other houses, that such meticulous editorial attention to detail was a thing of the past.

 

 

 

 

“Much of the way around the hardest obstacles was won by hard work on the analyst’s couch."
—
GROTH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What challenges did writing this book pose and how did you overcome them?

GROTH: Much of the way around the hardest obstacles was won by hard work on the analyst’s couch. Learning to confront one’s self is number one on the memoirist’s list of tasks, and that one I had, finally, learned how to do. Then it was a question of deciding which identities I needed to protect, if not for the subject’s sake, for the sake of their offspring.

AUTHORLINK: How did you secure Carolyn Larson as your agent?

GROTH: During my last year of teaching in Plattsburgh I was preparing Edmund Wilson, the Man in Letters. Student assistants helped digitalize Edmund Wilson’s correspondence (his own and others), much of which was in long hand and difficult to decipher. One of the quickest and best of these students was Joshua Pokotilow. One day he told me that his mother, Carolyn Larson, worked as a literary agent in the offices of Lescher & Lescher Ltd. This seemed amazing to me as I had known Robert Lescher in the days I worked at the magazine. One thing led to another and, when my collaborator David Castronovo and I were looking for an agent for Critic in Love it seemed natural to send it to Carolyn. She took us on as clients and I am pleased to say I remained her client ever after, and eventually became her friend also. With great sadness I must report that she died last February, very suddenly, just after she had completed the fortuitous sale of my memoir to Algonquin

AUTHORLINK: What was it like working with Amy Gash on this book?

GROTH: As the sitcom writers are fond of saying “Don’t get me started!” Amy was, and is, my guardian angel, overseeing every moment of the transformation between the typescript I originally submitted and the book now on bookstore shelves – and reader’s shelves – as The Receptionist. She saw the story of my failure to advance as key to the arc of the book and gave it, right from the start of our work together, not only its coherent shape, but its, title! We moved the chapter “Jack Spills the Beans” from the back of the manuscript, where I had buried it, to the introduction. Several all-day sessions – working from first page to last – resulted in the loss of some material, and a few pages, not to do with that arc, were sacrificed, but we came out with the coherent story you now see. I am most grateful.

 

 

 

“Get thee to thy computers, potential writers. And, if blocked, get thee to a good analyst!”
—
GROTH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for first time memoirists about writing?

GROTH: Get thee to thy computers, potential writers. And, if blocked, get thee to a good analyst!

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for first time memoirists about breaking into publishing?

GROTH: There I think the best advice I can give is to do some book reviewing. It was my way in to print, and it is still a good way.

AUTHORLINK: Are you currently working on another book?

GROTH: Always. As is, I suspect, every writer. There is always some new material incubating just under the surface of the conscious brain. But, beyond saying that I am fielding requests for my story to be continued, I can’t be more specific just now.

About the Author

Janet Groth, a former Fulbright lecturer in Norway and Visiting Fellow at Yale, is professor emeritus of English at Plattsburgh State University of New York and has taught at Brooklyn College, Vassar, and Columbia. She is the author of Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time, winner of the NEMLA Book Award. With the late David Castronovo she has written three other books on Edmund Wilson, most recently, Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson. She lives in New York City.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris