This week’s story, “Non-Disclosure Agreement,” is about a young man who, in the age of e-commerce, takes a job with a company that makes mail-order catalogs. Why did you choose this particular profession? Did you want it to feel anachronistic?
There’s a lot behind the decision, starting with the fact that the narrator recently quit his job working on the assembly line at an Amazon fulfillment center, and, at least on paper, his new line of work – in an office – should be a stand up for him. But he soon begins to have a vague awareness that he may in fact have embarked on an obsolete industry that is on the verge of collapse. I wanted this puzzle to be just one of many examples of the “faulty wiring” in his brain that rendered him unable to recognize what should be obvious red flags, otherwise known as scams, frauds, deceptions and things too good to be true. Seeing his salary doubled without even having to negotiate is another example. But, as far as the narrator is concerned, he finally found a professional job.
So I needed a business that would have absolutely no use in today’s world, and mail order catalog came to mind. It’s mentioned in the third paragraph, and I was hoping, in addition to its necessity for the plot, that it would add a bit of absurdity to the story, which is another way of saying that I wanted the reader finds something funny. One of my goals in this story, as it could be in much of my writing, is to try to strike a tonal balance between humor and dread. I don’t think it’s easy to achieve one without the other, and I was hoping that if I could make the reader laugh at the start of the story, maybe I’d have a chance to make them feel some of the most complicated emotions: sadness, fear, despair, anger. These take longer to develop.
By the way, one of my favorite songs is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn, and she says that every winter her father bought her a new pair of shoes from the mail order catalog, after she had had to walk barefoot. the summer because of the poverty of his family. Maybe that’s why the idea came to me. Her singing of the phrase “mail order catalog” always struck me as incredibly affectionate, sung by someone who no doubt had a close and personal relationship with such catalogs. She describes her life as a child in 1930s and 1940s Kentucky, and I write about life in contemporary Buffalo, but my goal of using a mail-order catalog company was not anachronistic – it it was not about looking back. It was about desperation on the part of the narrator and his inability to see what is right in front of his face.
[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]
The narrator studied comparative literature in graduate school, but since leaving his leafy New England college he’s worked in entry-level jobs, at Hertz, Trader Joe’s and Amazon. With the mail order catalog gig, he finally has a job he can sit in. How much does it matter?
At some level, it’s all about status and image. He repeatedly mentions how he and his classmates would sit around a wooden table, casually discussing literature with their teacher. He is nostalgic for that time. But, unfortunately, everything ended – literature, intellectualism and session-when he got his master’s degree. In an early draft of the story, I had written that the main benefit of his new job was that he had “the aura of a skilled trade”, and I decided to trade it for “s’ sit in a chair,” as it seemed like that would be a more immediate and real benefit to someone who had left a job for twelve-hour shifts. And it’s more of a concrete physical description that the reader could experience on a sensory level, as opposed to something more abstract – we all know what it feels like to finally be able to sit down. Also, “sitting on a chair” Is involve a certain level of respectability and professionalism. I worked for Martha Stewart’s company – the best day job I’ve ever had – and I’ve always enjoyed being able to do my job while sitting in a chair, which, by the way, was also ergonomic . Not too long ago, I happened to chat with some baristas at Starbucks that I’ve known for a very long time, and when I asked what had happened to this or that who had been working there for years, the response was, “He found a job where he can sit. »
In college, the narrator observes, “we believed that the act of reading and writing was its own legitimate form of work”, although the subject of money itself seemed rude or unintellectual. How ill-equipped is a liberal arts graduate for the world outside of the academy?
I don’t know about liberal arts graduates in general, but when I started out as a writer the publishing industry was a complete mystery to me, as I think it is for most people. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to be a writer, but other than having this burning desire, I had no idea what I needed to do to have a career. So I wasted a lot of time walking around in a state of confusion about what to do – I didn’t even know there was have been not. Maybe it could be because I had only taken two writing courses in my life, none of which were career-related, and I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree because I dropped out of university. But I think it may have more to do with a general educational philosophy at university level, in which art and commerce should not be mixed lest the art be tainted.
There’s obviously no standard template when it comes to forging a career in writing, but I think it’s imperative to know about agents, editors, and publishers. Did I mention the work ethic? I learned these things when I finally met people who could teach me. They weren’t teachers. They were working artists. The sad truth is that no one is of a writing career, just like no one owed an acting career or a basketball career. Just go out there and hope for the best. Part luck, part talent, part persistence, and frankly, there’s perhaps no better education than having your work rejected by a real publisher. I think a rejection letter — as opposed to getting an A in a class — can go a long way to sobering you up and getting you to work on becoming a better writer.
It turns out that the owner of the mail-order business is a reader of Rilke’s poetry and Jean Genet’s novels. Are we to believe that his interest is real?