Interview: Joyce Maynard on 'Labor Day,' 'After Her,' and J.D. Salinger: "It's About an Imbalance of Power"
To know Joyce Maynard — the real Joyce Maynard, not the innocent people-pleaser who wrote a bestselling memoir at age 18, or the upbeat ‘80s wife who penned ubiquitous life advice columns while her marriage secretly fell apart, or the scorned writer whose choice to reveal J.D. Salinger’s most private secrets to the world almost cost her her career — is to read her fiction.
“I always exploit the themes of my life in my writing,” Maynard said in a phone interview with Bustle. “If you actually sat down and read all my books, you’d know a lot about me. You’d know I love Dolly Parton, you’d know the clothes I wear — you’d figure it all out. But you’d also figure out some neuroses, which, I think, may be a reason Salinger didn’t publish. When you publish your work, people know you.”
If people critique Maynard — and many have, over the course of her four-decade-long career — it’s not because of her lack of honesty. The writer, 59, has penned with candor about everything from her relationship with Salinger in the early ‘70s to her failed 2009 adoption of two Ethiopian sisters. Her openness is a trait that’s admired by many and condemned by others; rare is the person who feels ambivalent towards Maynard after spending time with her work. Maynard's prose has sparked heated emotions and intense debate from countless critics and readers, mostly due to her resolve to tell intimate, often brutally honest narratives regardless — or maybe because of — the consequences.
“I actually spent probably two hours of my life last week writing a long letter to a young woman blogger who had tweeted something unkind about me,” Maynard says. “Sometimes I ask myself, what are you doing? But I just feel a need to try one more time to say, especially to a young woman, let’s reconsider these assumptions that take on a life of their own. We don’t even stop to think, wait a second, why exactly are we not supposed to say these things?”
For Maynard, “these things” refer mostly to a nine-month period of her life in 1972 when she, at 18, moved in with a then-53-year-old J.D. Salinger, the details of which she later revealed in her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. To many, Maynard’s decision to write openly — and negatively — about her time with Salinger broke an unspoken rule that said that the reclusive, idolized author was off-limits for criticism. She received enormous flack for the memoir, which included details about Salinger’s controlling, often cruel personality and questionable lifestyle choices. Critics called her self-serving, heartless, a bitter ex-girlfriend out for revenge; Maynard’s personal and professional life suffered as a result, irrevocably changed.
“There’s a rap on me that I’ve violated the privacy of a great man, that I sold my love letters, that I’m making money off of him, that I’ve built a career off of him — I know them all,” she says. “It’s very troubling that young women are hearing me spoken of this way and having the idea that we are not supposed to tell confirmed and reinforced.”
And for Maynard, that’s the reason she continues to speak out about her time with Salinger, so many years afterwards.
“There are always a lot of, ‘Oh, here she goes again,’ kind of responses, but there are many people who write and say, ‘something like this has happened to me,’” she says. “They’re not usually meaning Salinger — although sometimes they are, you’d be surprised by how many women I’ve heard from over the years who also got letters from him — but it doesn’t matter whether it’s Salinger or their high school teacher or their college professor or their boss or their drunk father, it’s about an imbalance of power.”
This type of response matters far more to Maynard than the negative comments she received post-memoir, which, while stagnant for years, recently revived upon the release of a much-hyped Salinger documentary, in which Maynard, along with Jean Miller, a woman whose five-year-long relationship with Salinger began when she 14, spoke frankly about the author. Most critics’ reactions to the women’s stories were sympathetic, but, in the age of the Internet, there was no shortage of Salinger fans with Twitter accounts to offer their own, less-kind opinions.
“I could spend 10 hours a day challenging them,” Maynard says, “but I won’t. I’d make myself crazy and bitter and angry and I wouldn’t be writing new books… there hasn’t been a day of my life in 41 years that the name of J.D. Salinger hasn’t come up, and it’s not because I bring it up — it gets brought up. Finally, I just thought, okay, I’ll speak, and I’ll count on the wisdom and perception and intelligence of a few people to understand and look back at the original investigation, because not a lot do.”
In September, responding to the film and the criticism it elicited, Maynard penned an editorial for the New York Times , in which she discussed Salinger’s seductive, intense hold on young girls and the seeming disregard of his behavior by the mainstream media.
“It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art,” she wrote.
The editorial had its expected share of criticisms, but most responses were overwhelmingly positive.
"The maturity demonstrated by Ms. Maynard bespeaks the potential for victims to survive and grow,” one woman wrote.
Said another: “Bravo to Joyce Maynard for finally saying what should have been said years ago. I only wish that J. D. Salinger were alive to read it.”
Spokeswoman may be a new role for Maynard, but it’s not an entirely surprising one. She is a writer who often uses her own difficult upbringing — an overbearing mother, an alcoholic father — as material. And while many of her novels, including her latest, August’s After Her, contain elements of mystery and suspense, they all share one simple, relatable theme: family.
“My life is about trying to entangle family, and make sense of what is a family. How do you make a happy family? How do you recover from the wounds of the unhappy family? It’s the thread that goes through all of my work,” she says.
After Her follows two sisters, Rachel and Patty, in the late ‘70s, left mostly alone to fend for themselves after their parents divorce and their mother falls into depression. When their father, a renowned local detective, begins hunting down a serial killer, the girls decide to take matters into their own hands and find the “Sunset Strangler” themselves.
The novel is a thriller, yes, but like all of Maynard’s work, it’s really about relationships, primarily the ones between Rachel and Patty and each girl and her father. As time passes and the Strangler case deepens without conclusion, the relationships twist and fracture, especially when the girls’ efforts to find the murderer become increasingly dangerous.
Part of the intrigue of After Her comes from the sisters’ unusual upbringing; as their father attempts to capture the killer and their mother battles her illness, Rachel and Patty learn to act as surrogate parents to each other.
“One of the things that drew me to this story is that I didn’t have a childhood anything like that,” Maynard says. “My own parents were all over my life.”
After Her is based off real events that occurred in California during the late ‘70s, and, like in the novel, two sisters whose father was the main detective assigned to capturing a murderer. While Maynard attests that much of the girls’ adventures in the novel were fictionalized, their family life kept relatively with realism.
“These girls were left to invent themselves, and, to me, that seemed like the most thrilling, wonderful childhood,” she says. “Of course it was filled with neglect and doing without a lot of things that children shouldn’t have to do without, but they got to figure out who they were, without adult intervention. I loved imagining that, because it was so far from anything I knew.”
As described in At Home in the World, Maynard’s own upbringing was the polar opposite of the novel’s protagonists. Her parents, both creative types, critiqued every piece of their daughter’s writing and voiced their thoughts on each one of her life decisions, minor or large. Their opinions were often questionable — they expressed no concern with their 18-year-old moving in with a man in his 50s, for instance — but they were always heard.
“I certainly did not replicate that with my kids,” says Maynard, who has three grown children with ex-husband Steve Bethel. “They’re all very creative people, but I wanted them to figure out for themselves who they were.”
At only 18, Maynard experienced extraordinary success with "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life", a widely-read essay published in the New York Times Magazine that was accompanied by a front-page photo of the author. The piece launched her career and caught the attention of many, including Salinger, who began a long correspondence with the teen before inviting her to move in with him. A year later, her first memoir, Looking Back — which included no reference to their relationship, per Salinger’s request — was published to enormous acclaim, and made Maynard a celebrity.
“I didn’t actually get a chance to experience very much of it because I was whisked away so soon,” she says. “I didn’t get to have this great fun time of going off to New York… probably the most glamorous moment I’ve ever had in my life was six weeks ago when I walked the red carpet at age 59. I didn’t get that when I was 18.”
Despite Salinger’s influence, though, Maynard did get to feel some of her writing’s effects; it was impossible not to.
“It’s hard to describe what it was like in 1972. There would be nowhere you could publish a story today that would lead to the kind of impact that my piece in the New York Times did. There’s just so much media now,” she says. “But at that point, the world of media was a much more limited place. For people of my generation, especially if they were in college in 1972, they remember that piece, and they remember that photograph.”
When Maynard recalls Looking Back, it’s with a mixture of nostalgia and frustration.
“In many ways, it’s the writing of that book that compelled me to write At Home in the World 25 years later,” she says. “Looking Back is not the story of my real growing up experience. It’s the official version, the parent-pleasing, friendly, easy, comfortable version, lacking all of the real truths… I could say, oh God, what a foolish girl I was, but I was 18! There’s a lot of things that we don’t know when we’re 18… but I like that girl. She was trying her best.”
Perhaps that’s the reason that Maynard continues to revisit adolescence so often. Many of her works feature teenage narrators, all of which are as complex and imperfect as Maynard describes her own adolescent self. One of the most affecting examples is Henry, the 13-year-old at the center of 2009's Labor Day, whose yearning for a father figure contradicts with the one he’s presented — an ex-convict who moves into his home and falls for his depressive mother. Jason Reitman’s feature film adaptation of the novel, to be released this Christmas, will mark the second time that one of Maynard’s books has been made into a movie. 1992’s To Die For, which became a Golden Globe winner three years later, was the first.
“It’s great luck for a writer when it happens,” Maynard says of the book-to-movie process. “But I can’t say that I’m all that surprised… I’m a very film-based writer. In another lifetime, I would’ve loved to have been a filmmaker, but in some ways, that’s what I do when I write.”
Labor Day received great initial reviews when it made the rounds on the festival circuit earlier this year, with critics calling it “beautifully rendered” and “emotionally potent.” Maynard, who says she was “much more involved” in the film’s production than with To Die For, has nothing but praise for the movie version of her sixth novel.
“For a writer, to have characters who have lived in your head come to life in such a wonderful way… it’s pretty much a dream,” she says.
On October 18, Maynard attended the New Hampshire Film Festival to introduce a screening of Labor Day, as well as receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s an impressive honor, but if fans take it as a sign that Maynard’s career is nearing completion, she’ll be quick to correct them.
“I have no shortage of stories to tell,” she says.
In a few weeks, Maynard will attend a writing residency in Virginia, where she’ll begin work on her ninth novel.
“I haven’t been able to write in a serious way for awhile,” she says. “With the film festivals, promoting After Her, getting married [to Jim Barringer, a lawyer, in July] — I hadn’t had time.”
Maynard was mum on details of the new novel’s plot, but there’s a strong chance that the themes of family and dysfunction will find their way into the book.
“Sometimes I’m on a plane, and someone will find out I’m a writer and ask me, ‘What kinds of books do you write?’” Maynard says. “Maybe it’d be an easier answer if I wrote mysteries or thrillers, but all I can ever say in response is that I write about the drama of human relationships. And to me, that’s as fascinating as any spy adventure or big blockbuster story.”
Image: Joyce Maynard