“I’m not going to define myself by how well my books sell,” says Marin author Joyce Maynard. Hmm, a statement like that cuts both ways. And check the record—in her more than 35 years of writing, Maynard has had repeated success.
Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, published when Maynard was only 19, is now read by many high school English and social studies classes and considered a baby boomer classic. In 1995, her novel To Die For was made into a film of the same name starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix (Maynard had a cameo role). Four years later, Maynard stunned the literary world with At Home in the World, a searingly honest accounting of her never-shall-it-be-discussed and short-lived relationship with reclusive Catcher in the Rye author J. D. Salinger. Seventy thousand copies were sold of that memoir, which was printed in eleven languages.
Between book-writing stints—she’s had eleven published—Maynard visited Macedonia during the Kosovo war, Uganda early in the AIDS/HIV pandemic and New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In turn she wrote articles for O, the Oprah magazine; Vogue; the New York Times Sunday Magazine and More magazine (where she is a contributing editor).
The seasoned writer has interviewed Muhammad Ali, Dolly Parton and Lyle Lovett. In addition, for years she was a syndicated weekly columnist writing “Domestic Affairs,” which appeared in 65 newspapers nationwide. Currently Maynard leads popular writing workshops, focusing on memoir, both here in Marin and at her second home on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (for information see joycemaynard.com).
At age 55, living in a sun-splashed home above Mill Valley, Maynard has no thought of slowing down. “I’ve always been a fairly driven person,” she says, “and I love what I do.” Her three adult children from a 12-year marriage that dissolved 20 years ago are leading successful lives, her health is excellent (“I try to swim every morning at the Mill Valley Rec Center”) and her latest novel, Labor Day, has been optioned for a movie with Jason Reitman, director of Juno, as screenwriter/director.
Let’s start with Labor Day—what’s it about? Labor Day tells the story of a passionate, unlikely and dangerous love affair that unfolds over the course of a single long, hot Labor Day weekend between a small-town single mother and the mysterious drifter she meets while back to school shopping with her son. I chose to tell the story through the eyes of the boy—remembering what happened as he looks back twenty years later, to events that changed his and his mother’s lives. But at the core, what the book explores is the experience of a young person, just embarking on his own sexual life, witnessing the sexuality of a parent. And it’s about an obsession of my own—the dream of a family, in whatever unlikely form it may configure itself.
I wrote Labor Day over the course of around eleven days last fall, and it was almost as if I was not so much writing the story as I was transcribing the words of the narrator—the son—as he spoke to me. I know why I wrote the book so fast: I had no idea how the story was going to play out, and the only way I could find out was to finish writing it.
I’ll freely admit here, I’m a hopeless romantic. The story I tell in my novel is about the terrible risk and danger of big love, but also, love as a force of redemption. One book that continues to haunt me—and I think it was in my head as I wrote this story—is Love in a Time of Cholera. The central character in that novel holds onto the burning flame of love for whole decades of unrequited love. I find that a beautiful, heartbreaking idea.
Personally, how have you changed as the years have passed by? I started out in life with a strong need for approval. First, it was my parents; then Exeter Academy and Yale and, God knows, Salinger. He was a teacher; a spiritual guide. And for years after that relationship ended, I adhered to the dictates that he was a person not to be spoken of, even though it was well known that, when I was 18 and he was 53 we lived together. I left Yale to be with him. Now, 36 years later, not a week goes by that I have not been asked about him. And for 22 years, I subscribed to the theory that many of my critics still hold true: that this great writer was somehow entitled to secret treatment by the world.
It was only when my daughter turned 18, the age I was when I met Salinger, that everything changed for me. I no longer felt I had to protect “the great man.” I did not want to destroy him; I just wanted to tell my story and that was At Home in the World. By writing my memoir, I gave up trying to be a good girl; the kind who does everything other people want her to do. My objective these days is to be true to myself and if people don’t like it, I can live with that.
These days, other than writing and related pursuits, what is your life like? Like nearly everyone I know around here, of course I like climbing Mt. Tam and doing yoga and grazing farmers’ markets. Probably to balance out the totally solitary nature of the work I do, a particular love of mine is to gather people in my home classes in my living room. Sometimes I teach writing. Other times, branching out beyond the living room to my kitchen, I teach pie making. It’s something I started doing after my mother died, twenty years ago, to honor her because she was not only the best editor and teacher of writing I ever knew, but also the best baker. So I run workshops. Sometimes they’re about writing memoir. Sometimes they’re about making great pie crust. The underlying theme never changes however: Namely, that there are no hard and fast recipe rules to follow. Rather, you need to trust your instincts. Well, there are a few other important points I cover. But of course, I hope your readers will want to come over some day and find out for themselves about those.
I’ll add here, that I’ve made some great friendships over my fourteen years in Marin, from teaching my classes. When I moved here, I didn’t know a soul in this town. Now I’ve got friends—who are pie baking and memoir writing alumni—all over the county.
How would you like to be remembered? As a good friend; that I made happy, healthy children who made a contribution to the world; and if a little bit of good teaching is in there, that will make me very happy. Books? I don’t kid myself; books aren’t living, breathing things. Mostly, they sit on a shelf. Oh, I know they’re out there; every few days I’ll get a letter from someone who’s read At Home in the World and they’ll talk about the universal experiences we’ve all shared—and that makes me very proud.