Joyce Maynard won’t let me finish a question.
Since avidity has characterized the writer’s 60 years on earth, why should a 15-minute telephone conversation be any different?
This, after all, was once an indefatigable student writer who now reports taking buses from New Hampshire to New York at the ripe old age of 14 to discuss her professional future with the editors at Seventeen magazine.
It was a mere four years later that the major event in her singular literary biography took place: the publication in New York Times magazine of a characteristically precocious piece called “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” That piece won her a fan letter from no less than author J.D. Salinger, which was followed by her parents helping her drop out of Yale and show up on Salinger’s doorstep to begin living with the much-older (53) literary recluse for 10 difficult, life-changing months. It takes its place now as one of the most famous and emotionally gruesome literary cohabitations of modern times.
Even so, it’s a little disconcerting to continue to get only seven or eight words of a question out before the voice on the other end is halfway into answering it. Even though our ostensible subject is “Labor Day,” the film writer/director Jason Reitman made from one of her recent novels, there are so many questions she’s been asked so often, just the drop of a single “keyword” is enough to send her off to the races and rounding the first turn long before the question is finished.
She’s a remarkable figure. Few of her contemporaries have taken quite as much abuse. She reports in the new preface to her wildly controversial memoir of life with Salinger “At Home in the World” that she submitted “Labor Day” to publishers without her name attached to give it a better chance of publication. (She said some publication offers indeed were withdrawn when her authorship became known.)
Rare, indeed, in any profession is the kind of controversy that elicits THIS kind of response.
As told in her new preface to Picador’s Paperback edition of “At Home in the World,” one critic reviewed her book by saying, “The only good thing about ‘At Home in the World’ is that now we’ll never have to read another book by Joyce Maynard again. … At a literary gathering after this book’s publication (a rare event to which I’d been invited to read, thanks to the insistence of a powerful friend), a stunning thing occurred. As I took the stage to speak, an entire row of highly respected literary types got up from their seats – en masse – and exited the hall.”
So much for the “predator” perceived to have violated the privacy of the most famous recluse in the history of modern American literature. The fact that her 10-month love affair with Salinger was her life too – and at a formative, tender age – simply wasn’t enough for some to even give her a hearing.
What now has to be faced about Joyce Maynard is that her lifelong exhibitionism from the pre-Salinger precocious beginning of her career – coupled with another writer, Nicholson Baker, with a passion for his life’s trivia – were major forerunners of the social media world we live in, full of tweets, Instagrams and the shameless public disgorgement of entire lives by what is often called “Generation Overshare.”
A short conversation, then, with someone who has against major odds become a major literary figure.
Jeff Simon: You should know that your history here with our reviewers and critics has always been good. I’m a huge fan, for instance, of Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (based on a Maynard novel) and our book reviewer Karen Brady was very fond of your last novel “After Her.” How much input did you have, first, in the film version of “To Die For?”
Joyce Maynard: In both cases, I had no official input. Buck Henry (who wrote the film “To Die For”) is one of my favorite people in the world. Buck made a point of dealing with me and we really got to know each other. … I don’t want a director or anyone else standing over my shoulder when I’m writing a novel. And I don’t want to be standing over the director’s shoulder when he or she is directing a film. But I had a very good relationship with Jason Reitman.”
JS: You have this much in common with Sylvia Plath – that when you were young you were eager to appear in Mademoiselle and Seventeen and other magazines often dismissed in literary circles as suppliers of Women’s fiction. Are you aware of Jennifer Weiner’s crusade to obtain a fairer literary hearing for writers of what’s often dismissed as “chick lit?”
JM: Yes! I couldn’t get to New York City fast enough. I grew up in a small New Hampshire town. From the time I was 14 years old I would take the bus into New York to have talks with Seventeen magazine. I was burning with ambition, excitement and a desire to have my stories be read.
I love Jennifer Weiner! She’s a hero for me.
There are so many different ways that women get put down in our culture still. If we write about feelings and emotion and love, it’s “chick lit,” it’s soft. If we’re defined by the men we’re with, well take your pick. They’ll talk about what a woman looks like.
All I can do is keep doing my work. When I sit down at my laptop and start to tell a story, I really do not hear the voices of my critics. That’s a very good part about growing older. I only hear the voices of readers.
JS: It would be a felony in my profession to ignore your relationship with J.D. Salinger.
JM: Go for it.
JS: How do you feel about Shane Salerno’s Salinger documentary film and the accompanying oral biography he put together with David Shields?
JM: I made a choice to be in that film with some trepidation. I will say that I did not have the same level of contact and respect with that director that I had with Jason Reitman. But I knew what would happen if I wasn’t in that film; I would be spoken about probably inaccurately. So I’m glad I had some opportunity to tell part of my story. Of course my hope is that people will go back to the source. In that case, there’s no better source than “At Home in the World.”
JS: Criticism of that book was terribly harsh. It was badly roughed up by critics.
JM: It wasn’t even that the book was roughed up, I was PERSONALLY roughed up. It was a very personal kind of attack. I have to say I hadn’t anticipated that. I was like the woman in “Labor Day” who really believes that people will be good. Or just fair. The shock to me is that people wouldn’t read that book. They read the sound bite about it. I think many people (who) have formed opinions of me without having read that book would be surprised.
I’ve been doing this a long time. If my life were going to be defined by what critics (say) about me or my book sales, I’d be a pretty sorry character.
JS: Is it galling at this stage of your mature career to have to confront Salinger questions or is it something you simply take for granted?
JM: It wouldn’t be my choice, but I don’t waste time regretting things that happened long ago. If I lived another 50 years, I will still be asked about The Famous Man. All I know how to do is keep on doing other good work. I like to think that I do. I just carry on. It was very important to me that the book “At Home in the World” be rereleased this year with a new introduction by me. I recorded it for the first time ever as an audio book. … I wanted that story told in my voice. His presence in my life certainly shaped my life in some very painful ways – as it did the lives of many young women. Many.
JS: You could be seen in your lifelong self-revelation as a forerunner of so much that’s commonplace in our social media …
JM: Yes! I always wanted to connect with readers. I always wanted readers to connect with each other. I’m not a tech person. But I had one of the very first author websites in 1996. I had an interactive discussion forum that people still talk about. I loved to hear what readers have to say. I would never seal myself off in some rarefied way. I need to be in the world. That’s where my stories come from.
I had to fight long and hard to get to this place but one of the gifts about being 60 is that you don’t really care. You certainly experience some horrible things by the time you get to this age, but I’m comfortable with myself. I know that part of the root of that is that I like to tell the truth. I like to say what happened. And that, for many people, is very hard to do.
I speak of experiences. Other people may be threatened by that, but I grew up in a family where my father’s drinking was never talked about. THAT was terrifying.