PA Judson Merrill writes to employer Jonathan Franzen

My literary career is young but it’s never too early to begin filling in the gopher holes in the golf course of posterity. For the benefit of scholars and fans alike, I will use this space on The Outlet, on a semi-regular basis, to release a selection of my correspondence and other papers. Enjoy. (Universities interested in acquiring the complete Judson Merrill archive should contact me through my web site.)

Dear Mr. Franzen,

Our mutual friend, Cathy, told me you were looking to add another personal assistant to your staff and I ran home (I’m still sweating) to draft this letter and send you my resume. It would be an honor to work for you. I am a student of the Suburban Plight genre and think your work among the very best. Indeed, I myself am a novelist. (Though still a few lucky breaks away from being published, making my living as a writer, or successfully revising a draft.) As long as I need a paycheck, I can think of no better training for an up-and-coming novelist than to book flights for a much more successful novelist. Thank you for considering me for any position you have available.

Mr. Franzen,

I was thrilled to report to my first day of work but, as you can imagine, disappointed that I wasn’t able to meet you. Still, I followed to a tee the instructions you left. I also had a little extra time so I washed the feet of all your chairs and alphabetized your writing pens. But I think, accidentally, I left a draft of my new novel, Windjammer’s Lament, on your desk. If you see a manuscript you don’t recognize, please just read the first chapter or two to make sure it’s mine and then leave it in my work cubby. Thanks!

Mr. Franzen,

Just wanted to check in and say I’m really enjoying working for you. Recently, my schedule’s become a bit more flexible and if you ever need someone to spitball with — hash out what you’re working on — I’m available. Likewise, if you need me to attend meetings with your publisher or agent or publicist in your stead, I would be happy to do that. Or, if, after a long day, you just need someone to read aloud to you from an exciting new novel by an emerging voice, just let me know.

Mr. Franzen,

Great to hear from you. Yes, there was someone with me at your house today, but he’s not a friend. That’s Jerry. He’s my new personal assistant. When I first started this job I was pretty overworked (the feet of your chairs aren’t going to clean themselves!), so I hired Jerry to help me with some of the menial and tedious things I don’t have the time or the inclination to deal with. He’s very attentive and motivated. I’ve been able to power through a good part of the second draft of Windjammer’s Lament since he’s come on. For the most part he’ll be handling my personal matters, but he’s so good at iCal I used to schedule him some of your appointments.

PS — Per your request, I sorted your spare change and put all the nickels in the guest bedroom.

Mr. Franzen,

First, the good news: I successfully killed that ficus plant you didn’t like. I’ve been giving it salt water for a few days now and it seems to have done the trick. Secondly, I have to apologize for Jerry. It seems he accidentally uploaded Windjammer’s Lament onto your iPad and left it open to the climactic bird-watching scene. Of course, I’m mortified. He claims he meant to only read a few pages but was deeply moved, was caught up in the story, and lost track of time. I’m sure it’s not “mesmerizing,” as Jerry claims, but I did want to warn you that it’s on there.

Mr. Franzen,

I was hoping to get your opinion on something. Jerry, it turns out, is something of a writer himself, and, since I’ve taken him on, he’s asked several times if I would read his manuscript. I can’t decide if it’s a good idea to complicate our professional relationship in this way. You’ve had a lot of PAs. Do you have a policy in this regard? And if so, what’s been the most effective way assistants have gotten you to read their work? I want to be prepared for anything Jerry throws at me. (Also, he refuses to empty my cat’s litter box. You think that’s a dealbreaker?)

Mr. Franzen,

Apologies again for the confusion over that ficus. I’ve ordered a replacement and Jerry’s going to pick it up from the nursery tomorrow.


I have to admit I’m stunned. I thought we had a good working relationship. I told you from the beginning that if Mr. Franzen ever fired me you’d be working pro bono. I thought we agreed we would try that arrangement, with the understanding that I would empty the litter box. Instead, your abrupt departure, and to go to work for Mr. Franzen no less, has me feeling a bit betrayed. Still and all, I hope we can remain friends and literary associates. Did I ever show you Windjammer’s Lament? I think you’d like it.

PS — One last tip: Mr. Franzen expects his assistants to show him new and exciting work from up-and-coming novelists.

* * *

The full Judson Merrill archives can be found here.

-Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at

Photo: Rex Features

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