Writer Joyce Maynard on Her Affair With J.D. Salinger and Social Media
Renowned author Joyce Maynard is not one to shy away from controversial subject matter. Her 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” which detailed her affair with the infamously private author J.D. Salinger, drew much criticism from critics for its candid insights into their relationship.
Her latest novel, The Good Daughters sees the author taking on her first gay character. At Home in the World was just reissued with a new introduction by Maynard, and her 2009 novel Labor Day may be adapted for the big screen by director Academy Award-nominated director Jason Reitman.
I recently visited the author at her home in Mill Valley, California, to discuss Maynard’s first ever lesbian character, what she learned from her life-changing relationship with Salinger and the ensuing criticism, and how she teaches aspiring writers to channel their own innermost struggles into "authentic" memoir writing.
In your new novel, one of your main characters, Dana, is a lesbian. By making her so “ordinary,” you normalize her. For many of your mainstream readers, this will be the first time they read about a lesbian. What do you hope that they take away from it?
I have a particular amount of empathy for anyone who considers themselves an outsider. This is a quest of mine. I want to demystify or to be able to break open what is "embarrassing" or what is "feared" or things that aren’t talked about. Look, I’ve talked about every embarrassment in my life –- breast implants, alcoholism in the family, –- but I do it because I know there are so many women out there who are ashamed or feel there is something very wrong with them. If I can say, "Hello? Me too," I think it can help.
But also, I like to open up dialogues, and I think the real origin of my wanting to be honest and open about things is that I grew up in a family where we only talked about things on the surface. I mean, I truly believed growing up that I was the only person on earth whose father got drunk every night. I believed if anybody ever found out, they wouldn’t like me anymore. That experience is so deep-seeded in me, that… memory of that, that I’m completely the other way. I’m Lady Godiva -- I will just go out over and over again and talk about things.
Maynard with two of her daughters.
In the '90s, your novel To Die For was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, and now, your novel Labor Day may be adapted into a film by director Jason Reitman. Do you think The Good Daughters will ever make it to the silver screen?
I don’t think so. The movie-going world, unfortunately -- unless it’s a Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon movie -- just doesn’t want to see 50-something women up on the screen. That makes me sad, because I think women in their 50s really want to see mature women on-screen, and I think mature women keep getting more interesting all the time! I met this man recently and he said to me, "I wish I could meet someone just like you, but younger." And I said, "Hey! What a contradiction! Even I wasn’t like me when I was younger!" [Laughs hard].
You just wrote an updated introduction to At Home in the World, your 1998 memoir. You got beaten up in the press when it was released –- mostly by men, but also by women -- because you detailed your 10-month relationship with J.D. Salinger, which happened when you were 18 and he was 53. It’s now 2010. I wonder if the younger generation of women will judge you less harshly.
I don’t sit around thinking about how I’m perceived, but I will say this. The mothers of my generation would be impressed that their daughter was getting the attention of an important man. When I got the letters from Salinger, people would ask me, "What would your mother say?" Listen, I adore my mother, and I wish I could have told people she told me not to go, but in reality, she made me the dress that I wore to his house.
That said, I hope the generation of young women who are coming of age now have a sufficient sense of their own worth and will be less inclined to take their sense of inner value from some man –- or woman or anyone –- and realize their worth. I mean, I revered Salinger, and found him so much more worthy than myself. That’s why I spent 25 years in silence; I felt I owed that to him. It was only when my own daughter turned 18 that I was able to revisit that experience. It was then that I, as a mother, imagined my daughter experiencing that, and my loyalty went to the girl.
On Rosie O’Donnell’s Sirius radio show the talk show host recently said that when she was going through that public feud with Donald Trump, she kept secretly hoping that feminists would come to her defense, because Trump’s comments about her were so sexist. When At Home in the World came out and you took that beating by the critics, did you ever wonder, "Where’s the feminist cavalry?"
Well, two women did support me -- Erica Jong and [author] Rosemary Danielle, who’s a southerner and a great feminist writer. Other than that, the standard feminist line was that an 18-year-old girl is fully cognizant. An 18-year-old is strong, she makes her own choices and she’s a woman, not a child. And she’s not a victim.
Despite all that, I will still talk about Salinger on occasion, and I do it because there are young girls and women who need to know this story. I still get letters from girls and young women telling me about some teacher or something, and I think it’s important that my story be known.
Why do you think Salinger remains so precious to American readers?
He did have a powerful effect, especially on men. He captured the experience of adolescence and was able to form an attachment with those readers. And when you form an attachment to a book at age 14, it’s sort of like you’re forming an attachment with a person at that age –- it’s much more intense.
You’ve been teaching writing workshops for years in Guatemala, in the States –- even in your own home. As an author who’s written across so many genres, what’s the most rewarding to teach?
What I love best to teach is memoir, and I believe in the writing of memoir -- even for people who are most interested in fiction -- because it’s the story you know best. And it’s kind of like your laboratory of how to tell your story. Writing a memoir is not about saying what happened, it’s about making sense out of every story. If I write a novel, I want it to read like it actually happened, and if I write a memoir, I want it to read like a novel. It’s such a joy to facilitate the experience of telling other people –- many of whom have never written anything –- how to get their story on paper in a way that can also tell them who they are.
What do you think is one of the most important elements one has to learn in order to be a successful writer?
Authenticity. Emotional authenticity.
See, I’m a huge believer in talking about the things that we don’t talk about. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, nobody wanted to tell her. So I sat with her and told her, and was honest about the prognosis. When she heard this, she waited a few minutes and said to me very quietly, "Isn’t life interesting?"
And now, I feel like that one line is like my credo. I can’t make life easy, I can’t always be happy, I can’t protect myself from heartbreak, but I can let life be interesting. And when I teach writing, I begin by saying that you’re going to do two very separate columns of work in that very packed day. And one would be about craft -– I’m a real stickler for rich language and consistent point of view and hearing the rhythms of your sentences and syntax and structure, and that’s one part of it.
But the other part of that day is going to focus on emotional authenticity. I think it may be possible that a profoundly screwed up human being can actually become a brilliant fiction writer. But you cannot be a good writer at memoir without having first faced the truth about yourself and who you are. So a big part of my workshop is about discovery.
I imagine that must be one of the most challenging things to teach.
Yes and no. Here’s a good example. I had a woman who was a recent widow, and she told me her husband was wonderful, and she wanted to write about him, and how great a husband he was, and how great their lives were together.
And I could sort of smell that something wasn’t right; I knew that wasn’t her story. Now, I didn’t want to make her go to a place she wasn’t ready to go, but about 45 minutes into the workshop, she revealed to me that her husband had had an affair with her best friend about a year before he died. And they had gone through a huge struggle and then they had gotten back together, and then he got sick and died.
So she had almost lost him once, and then she really lost him. So that was the story -- not the loss of this paragon, this perfect husband -- but the loss of this deeply flawed man, who had broken her heart. And that was a much more interesting story.
I have to ask –- because you hold workshops in your home, have you ever had a Kathy Bates moment from Misery, where you ran into trouble with a fan?
No, in fact, it’s always been a great group of people. However, one time, I was teaching a pie class [Yes, Maynard also teaches the art of making pies in her home] and some woman announced, "I just want everyone to know that I brought a gun with me, because I thought there might be a lot of weirdos here!" [Laughs]. I told her to kindly put it in the car, and that was that. But you know what’s interesting about that? All of the worst things that have happened to me happened not because of some ... stranger that approached me; they happened to me because of someone I thought I knew.
A lot of authors are against social media, but you are pretty active on Facebook and Twitter, and you were one of the first authors to have a Web site. Do you enjoy it, or is it something you feel you have to do?
I’m just doing my job, and a part of my job now requires that I do a lot besides write a good book. Jonathan Franzen is lucky in that he’s on the cover of Time, so because of that luxury, he may not have to utilize social media. But there’s a lot of competition for your attention as a reader, and I better get out there and let readers know. Luckily, for me, I happen to really enjoy Facebook, and I have readers that I’ve been hearing from for 30 years and Facebook allows me a great opportunity to interact with them. I love hearing about the stories of my readers lives, I’ve always been interested in people, so I think social media is a great medium.
To learn more about Maynard’s writing workshops – as well as info on her infamous pie-making classes -- visit joycemaynard.com.