For you literary types out there, hopefully you know writer Joyce Maynard for a few reasons, since she has been an accomplished writer of fiction, non-fiction, advice columns and short stories for more than 40 years. For the purposes of film, two of her novels have been adapted for the big screen: Gun Van Sant's highly regarded 1995 work TO DIE FOR (which featured a cameo by Maynard) and the late-2013/early-2014 release LABOR DAY, directed by Jason Reitman and starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. More on the film in a minute.
Maynard got her first major recognition for a piece she wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 1972 entitled "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life," which beautifully captured the mindset and emotional fortitude of a young woman transitioning from high school to college. It was that article that drew the attention of reclusive "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger, and he soon coaxed her into living with him in his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. The details of her time with Salinger were detailed in last year's sadly lacking SALINGER documentary, but if you're interested in Maynard's account (she was interviewed for the doc as well), you might be better off reading her 1998 memoir "At Home In The World," for which she go quite a bit of grief for exposing Salinger's secret life, but also made her a touchstone for young women lured in my famous, powerful older men.
After five successful novels and a handful of nonfiction works, Maynard published "Labor Day" in 2009. It's the story of a lonely, isolated woman (Winslet), scared to leave her house after having her world rocked when her husband leaves her. She also has a young son, who is actually the narrator of the story (from the vantage point of his 30-something-year-old self), and the two take in (or perhaps they are kidnapped; the film is deliberately vague on this point) by an escaped convict (Brolin), who might be the most gentlemanly and handy convict you'll ever meet. The woman and the convict begin to fall in love, but equally important to the narrator, he also is a better role model/father figure to the boy.
Mayanrd followed up "Labor Day" with "The Good Daughters" and last year's "After Her," and is in the early stages of pulling her next book together. She admits that going on tour supporting a movie is far more glamorous than going out to promote a book, and she seems okay with that. I had a great time talking to the charming 60-year-old writer. (And for those of you who are "Hart of Dixie" or "Generation Kill" fans (I'm sure there's a huge crossover out there), Maynard's son is actor Wilson Bethel, who plays Wade Kinsella on the CW series and Q-Tip on the HBO mini-series.) Please enjoy my interview with Joyce Maynard…
Capone: Hi, Joyce. Nice to meet you.
Joyce Maynard: Good morning. This is not how it is when you just publish a book.
Capone: What do you mean? The tour?
JW: Well, the non-stop press. It’s very gratifying for a person who’s been knocking around in the world quietly.
Capone: This is how it is though every time Jason Reitman puts a movie out. This is actually the first time for any of his movies that I haven't gotten a chance to sit down with him.
JW: Well, he’s making a film right now in Austin [MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN]. Yeah, he got right back to work. I love that.
Capone: For someone who has written so much--especially in your columns--about families and parenting, in this story you have a clear succession of what I would consider a pretty bad parenting decisions on Adele's part.
JW: I have to tell you as a person who has raised three children, probably in an unconventional fashion, but in circumstances that didn’t match the TV dream of the way that life was supposed to go, which is true for Adele as well, that I understand and actually embrace the choices that she made. She could have played it safe, and the world is full of people who don’t take risks, do bold things. That’s why the the pie in a way is so important [the making of a pie is an important centerpiece to the relationship], she flipped that crust. She did that hard thing--which I did on TV this morning [laughs].
She took the man home, and many people had a hard time with that choice, and of course, it would be easy to falter and say she put her son at risk. It turns out she was right about him, wasn’t she? He wasn’t a serial killer. You could say she went because he had the hand on the boy's neck, but I don't actually think it was that. She’s somebody who has lived long enough in the world to know that there are people who look like the good people who turn out to be the bad people, and you and I both have probably both encountered a few. And situations that seem safe and wonderful where deep damage is done. And she has stopped buying into the usual rules of things. So, I wont say bad parenting on her. She’s parenting her way, which is not the "Brady Bunch" way, or the "Leave it to Beaver" way. I love it that she teaches her son to dance. Would she have done better to be driving him around to soccer games? Well, she's different.
Capone: I don’t want to get too caught up in the beginning of this story, because it doesn’t seem like she has much choice in the beginning. I’m sure she felt threatened. It’s a very blurry place where it transitions into being more about what she wants. But at least in the film it’s very clear that she is in a depressive, desperate state.
JM: Yes, she is a fearful person. She doesn't go out, and so she is trying to do right by her son knowing that she is a very imperfect and flawed parent. And that’s what all of us are to some degree or another. But I’m with her. I’m on her side.
Capone: It doesn’t hurt that he is the most gentlemanly of convicts.
JM: Yes. Even as he’s kidnapping her, he opens the car door. [Laughs]
Capone: Yeah, he’s so polite about kidnapping them.
JM: Was there ever a point where you though he as going to do them harm?
Capone: Not really.
JM: And I don’t even mind that being said, because that’s not the source of tension. The source of tension is not, is Josh Brolin going to turn out to be a bad guy? But, is he going to get away, and we’re rooting for him to get away.
Capone: Eventually we do. We not only root for him to get away, but all of them.
JM: There’s this very ironic line, and it’s actually one that Jason wrote, when they have arrested Josh Brolin, and they're taking him away, and the counsellor who’s brought in says to the boy Henry, “You will never have to worry about him getting anywhere close to you again.” And we know that that's the heartbreak--he won’t.
Capone: The story is told from the point of view of Henry as an adult. The narration is his [voiced by Tobey Maguire]. This is actually his story. As much as the marketing folks are pushing it as this romance, it’s really filtered through what he's seeing.
JM: Yes, absolutely.
Capone: And he’s almost in need of a male figure in his life as much as she is. That part I love.
JM: Take your pick. They’re both in need. Everybody’s in need in this movie.
Capone: Talk about Jason just first contacting you and saying he wanted to turn this into a movie, because I remember when he came here for UP IN THE AIR, he said he was going to make it then, and then he made another movie in between [YOUNG ADULT].
JM: Well, he was waiting for Kate Winslet, and I love that he waited for Kate Winslet. He made it pretty fast. No grass grows under him. But he really wanted Kate Winslet for this movie, and she wasn’t making a movie the year before so he said, “We’ll wait.” And I think he made the absolute right choice in doing that. He is such a gentleman. I wrote the book in the summer of 2008, and he read it in galleys in 2009, before it came out and contacted me early, early on, and I looked no further. I just felt, he’s the director for this project. I loved his films. They were not like this story at all, but I don't think you say, “Who else did a prisoner-on-the-run story?” You say, “Who else is a great director, and works really well with actors, and casts superbly?” And he had this sensitive heart. He’s a man who loves his mother.
One of the first things he talked to me about was the pie scene. He wanted to come over to my house and see how I made a pie, because he was thinking cinematography of how he would shoot that. And he recognized how it could be--and of course some people are going to say how no doubt it is overly sentimental--but I think he made this incredibly sexy, moving scene. Nobody takes off their clothes, and woo. And he built a special oven for that pie. He talked about the tying her up scene, for instance, and we’re not talking about some porn director doing the tie-you-up scene,. Or the way that he had Josh feed the chili to her, and the way he ties the ropes, and the way the camera lingers on her ankle that doesn't look like this skinny, little, perfect movie star ankle. It’s a real woman's ankle, and a real woman's calf. I love that.
Capone: With your writings, especially in this century, do you consider the cinematic possibilities of your fiction?
JM: I do. I do. I’m not sitting thinking, “What can I do to sell this to the movies?” Not that. But I think that readers today are trained by film. Charles Dickens--and I’m not faulting his novels--wouldn't quite work in the same way for a mainstream reader anymore. I like to think of myself as a good writer, but I want to reach people whose eye and ear is trained by the visual. So, I start by thinking about a scene, and seeing my characters in a place. And almost scene for scene, LABOR DAY is my novel, although of course, there are things in the novel that couldn’t be in the film, so I think people should read the book. Once they do, they’ll find out I have other books that haven’t been made into movies. But it opens pretty much with that scene of going to the Price Mart and shopping. And the other great thing about Jason is he’s the age of this man now; he’s the age of the narrator, so that was a world that he knew. I think he said that he played that Donkey Kong game, which nobody’s playing now.
Capone: Has anyone ever asked you about filming your memoirs?
JM: I think that would make a wonderful movie.
Capone: I do too.
JM: Oh, I love to hear this. I love to hear this. Yes, the wrong people have talked to me about it, but I hope that someday that will happen. It would be a complicated, challenging project, but I would love to see that happen.
Capone: I know your recent book was loosely based on a real criminal case, but with "Labor Day," were there circumstances that inspired that story?
JM: I always throw a lot of things into the pot. So, not just the obvious ones, like that she’s a single mother in a small town in New Hampshire, and I was a single mother in a small town in New Hampshire, but just my obsessions. I’ve been teaching people how to make pie for years; it’s just something I do. In my case, I had two sons and a daughter, but I certainly know about raising adolescent boys, and I thought a lot about the experience of my children seeing my life as an often-struggling single parent.
And some places that you wouldn’t know. The girl Eleanor, the character of the girl who makes sure that he got his first kiss with her. That was me. She talks about being obsessed with Bonnie and Clyde. I’m that girl, I’m Frank, I’m Henry. I’m all through it. The new novel, “After Her,” was more inspired by a particular situation. And actually, last night I met very briefly the Chicago homicide detective who was my main advisor on that story. The main character in the new novel is a homicide detective. It’s one of those things I love and feel lucky about in my career life, that I’ve had readers who have been in my life for 40 years, but especially since the internet. And this detective read something I wrote 20 years ago, and I would hear from him sometimes just talking about being a detective, and so when I knew I wanted to write that book, I contacted him and said, “Would you be my detective advisor?” And I talked to him a couple of times a week for a year and a half, but I had never met him until last night. I got to ride in the patrol car.
Capone: With the two books that have been made into movies, how would you assess you fleeting entanglements with Hollywood so far?
JM: Well, I always wanted to be a movie star. I wanted to act, and I saw my [writing] career as a jumping off point for me. So, it’s very funny and ironic that I am walking a red carpet at the age of 60. I do have a very significant appearance in a film, but it’s not my face. It’s my pie. That's the pie that I make. One of the good things about being 60 and having been working as long as I have--41 years full time as a writer now--is that I have big perspective. So, I can be sitting with you in this hotel, and I say, “Would you send up four raspberries." and sign the thing for $100? And I know this is not my life, this is not how it always is. This is now, and I’ll thoroughly enjoy it while it’s going on. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who always live this way, and if they start out living this way when they’re 25, ugh, they must become pretty obnoxious. But, it’s not going to happen to me. This is just now. I’ll be back in my yoga pants writing a new novel in a month.
Capone: I read some interviews with you around the time that the last book came out in 2013, and it sounded like you were gearing up to start work on the next one.
JM: I was, I was. Yeah, I did. I went off to a writing residency because there was too much going on. And then this, obviously I’m not going back to my room to type four sentences. So, now I’ll wait until all of this is done. Plus, I also teach writing. I’m going out to Guatemala, where I teach every winter for a week a memoir class, only memoir. Then I go home and get back to work on the new novel.
When I was young, I had this big fame when I was 18, probably never again like that, and that’s okay with me. I was in the middle of a whirl when I was the least equipped to deal with it. What I know now after 41 years is to assess the success of one's life by how many books you’ve sold, or if you get good reviews, is to have a very unhappy life. When my memoir “At Home In the World” was published, I was called not just the most terrible writer but the most terrible person, the most terrible human being. Maureen Dowd wrote an op-ed about me, about how bad I was. And that would have been my jumping-off-the-bridge moment if I was going to live by my press. I don’t live by my press. I live by my friends and my children and my work, not this.
Capone: The interview you gave in the SALINGER documentary that came out last year probably opened up a lot of those avenues of people criticizing you again for being so public about him.
JM: Somewhat. They say the same old stuff, and I made the choice to be in that documentary and I don't regret it. It was, as you know, not a success. But I decided to be in it because I knew they were going to talk about me--it always happens--and they always get it wrong, and I wanted a person to look at my face and hear my voice saying what happened. There was no guarantee that they were going to get that, because editors can do all kinds of things. So, I stand by what I said in that movie. I don’t have any use for the movie. But what I also hoped was, and I still hope, that people who are genuinely interested will track down “At Home In the World.” Most people know about it and haven't read it, but it’s not really a book about Salinger; it’s a book about me. But, actually, that was not accomplished by that movie, because that director didn’t actually mention that a memoir existed.
Capone: Right, but the good thing that came out of that is that right around the time the movie came out, you did that editorial in the New York Times that was brilliant. It just laid open a trend and a phenomenon that has been going on as long as people have been famous, I guess.
JM: Yeah, and it still does. It still does.
Capone: With writers, athletes, actors, and other men of power.
JM: Yes, there are still those who genuflect at the feet of these people and say, “What about the privacy of this person?” We’re not talking about privacy here.
Capone: No, it’s a common theme that comes up many times a year, and the double standard is as fresh and wonderful today as it always has been.
JM: [laughs] Wonderful. Great.
Capone: Was it really that New Yorker review of SALINGER that inspired you to write that?
JM: Oh, yes. There was some guy who said, “A pretty girl, who wouldn’t want to? Blah, blah, blah.” I forget.
Capone: I think it was something like, “Salinger liked them young; no kidding.” Or “Duh.” Or something dumb like that.
JM: Yes, it was that. Exactly.
Capone: As a result of you writing what you wrote in your memoir, and then in this piece as a sort of an update to it, at least for a little while you became something of a touchstone for this particular issue, whether you wanted to or not.
JM: It’s not what I would have chosen for my life, but sometimes things happen. I think about that boy who died the other day who had the progeria [Sam Berns]. His mother--I’ll start to cry because I’ve followed him for years, the parents are both physicians--has become one of the team that has isolated the gene. Would she have chosen to be that when she went to medical school? But, she’s doing something that needed to be done, and my story is about far more than one 53-year-old man writing extraordinarily seductive letters to one 18-year-old girl-- emotionally seductive, not sexually seductive. That's a story that a lot of people, sometimes even boys, go through. I have survived it, and so I will speak of it. I’m not going to make it my career.
This was happening when TO DIE FOR was out there as a wonderful movie, and it was said, “All she’s ever done in her life is sleep with Salinger.” Oh, please. I had supported my family as a writer for 25 years before I even published my memoir. And for me, the great joy of LABOR DAY--there are so many joys--is please, that’s ancient history. We have new work that’s just made and new work will come.
Capone: I’ve got to imagine there are many days where you’d rather just have the conversation be about the work and not about your personal life.
JM: Yes, except that in another way, I’m always ready to say what I think needs to be said on that,. If it’s in people’s minds, and it is, then I’d rather have the opportunity to respond to it. My critics are cowards. They’re usually anonymous, and they don't confront me, but I’d love to have them go for it. And I’d like to know, how do they put this in with their picture of me as the person who’s just made a career off of Salinger? If anything, I’ve made my career off of Jason Reitman and Josh Brolin. [laughs] Josh Brolin gave me such a leg up, and I’m grateful. I’d be nothing without Kate Winslet.
Capone: In terms of making TO DIE FOR, can you talk about what your roll in that process?
JM: Very, very different. I think I had one conversation ever with Gus Van Sant, and I respect it. That’s his process. I didn’t talk a lot with Kate Winslet. She had her boundaries very clear. Josh Brolin, it was like he was my best pal. People work differently in their artistic lives, and I’ll respect that. I actually did get a much better cameo in TO DIE FOR.
Capone: I remember you in that. Were you in this too?
JM: I am, but nobody would know it. He was just being kind to me. I said, “I have to be in this movie.” I spent three hours in makeup getting the perfect 1980s look, but it didn’t matter. I was just a flash on the screen, but my pie is really my part in the movie. I think Jason and Gus just work differently. If I would choose a director to hang out with, it would definitely be Jason, and I have hung out with him. Jason is fun to hang out with; Gus was just doing his thing. But Jason was really always respectful of the book, and of course, that means a lot to me, because until the day comes when somebody calls me up and says, “Will you please write a screenplay?” What I do is I write books, and of course what I ultimately want to happen from this movie, I want the movie to do great, I think people will love this movie, but I want them to read the book.
Capone: Has “After Her” been optioned yet? Has somebody picked that up?
JM: No, but I think “After Her” is hugely cinematic, but I think the crucial problem is that the main characters are 11 and 13. And I do say, “Remember STAND BY ME”?
Capone: I’m sure a lot of younger, female writers ask you for advice. What would you advise them in terms of opening up their lives to the world and inserting parts of themselves into even their fictional work?
JM: Everybody does it. People know more about me than some, but I happen to have gone through a particular fire that I feel strong enough to have gone through. I teach memoirs specifically because I am uniquely equipped to say, “There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to really tell the truth, and not be sitting there worried about what your mother or some famous writer who wrote you letters is going to think about you. That’s not what makes good work.” But, it’s worth it. I get to live the life of an honest woman. I don't live with secrets very well.
Capone: You had your chance to keep them.
JM: I think that’s a miserable way to live, to be afraid of being discovered, Afraid of, what if they find out about me? I’m Lady Godiva. They've already found out about me. There’s nothing that they can say about me that I haven't said about myself, and that’s actually a very comfortable place to be.
Capone: Joyce, thank you so much. It’s really wonderful to meet you.
JM: You too, I look forward to reading what you write.