Speaking Your Truth: An Interview with Joyce Maynard
On Aging, Gratitude, and her new novel, Under the Influence
Joyce Maynard has lived her life in the public eye since 1971 when her essay, “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” made the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Then a Yale undergraduate, she dropped out of school after her piece galvanized the long-reclusive J.D. Salinger to begin a correspondence with Maynard—and then invite her to live with him in New Hampshire.
Their relationship foundered over the question of future children (she wanted them; he did not), and in 1973 Maynard published a book-length memoir, Looking Back—never doing so again, as a writer. Since then, she’s written nine novels, four nonfiction books, and contributed to several anthologies; Maynard also worked for years as a New York Times reporter and wrote the “Domestic Affairs” column from 1984 to 1990. Her novels To Die For and Labor Day have been adapted as films.
Maynard’s latest novel, Under the Influence, is a literary thriller about a single mother named Helen whose misstep due to alcohol results in her vulnerability to the attentions of a charismatic, rich couple. These days Maynard spends time teaching in several locations. She was in Guatemala during the week of her book release, where telephone reception is tenuous, so she answered my questions via email.
Bethanne Patrick: This is your ninth novel. What has become easier for you in writing fiction? What has become more difficult? How has your process changed over the years?
Joyce Maynard: I wrote my first novel, Baby Love, back in 1980 when I was 27 years old—over the course of ten days of complete obsession in which I didn’t cook a single meal or wash one dish. After it was finished, I was left (very briefly) with the idea that this was how it would be for me, as a fiction writer. An idea would hit. POW. Ten days later, I’d be mailing it off to my editor.
This hasn’t been my story of course. I still write relatively fast—though never again as I did with Baby Love. What takes the most time is the thinking part. I spend months working on a story in my head, before I write—and more months, sometimes, on false starts. In many ways, the writing has gotten harder because my standards for my work have gone up since I was young. There are just so many books out there. I don’t want to contribute another to the shelf unless I think it really deserves a reader’s attention. And I want to stretch myself as a writer. If I kept on doing what I already know how to do, what would be the point?
BP: Under the Influence examines suggestibility and sway, if you will, in many forms. What is your own experience with that concept?
JM: My narrator, Helen, has been, for much of her life, a person who allowed other people to chart her course. If a man loved her, that was reason to be with him. Having grown up with so little in the way of family, she’s always looking to fit into someone else’s world. And when a rich, glamorous, exciting couple—Ava and Swift—invite her to be a part of their lives, she abandons just about everything to join them there.
I was never such a person, myself. But as with every novel I’ve ever written, this one contains elements of my own patterns and experiences. I have certainly known the feeling of being lost and alone, and the longing to be accepted. When I was younger, I was much more ready to believe that other people had things figured out so much better than I did. (You know the syndrome: Maybe if I bought this dress, attended that yoga class, cut my hair that way, I’d be like her?)
One of the gifts of age is that I no longer feel the urge to be like anyone else. A person falls under the influence of friends like Swift and Ava—as Helen does—when she doesn’t fully know who she is in her own right. I figured that out a while back.
BP: At the center of this book are Ava and Swift Havilland, who seem to be a golden couple, despite the spinal-cord injury that confines Ava to a wheelchair. We all know people who seem to have it all, no matter what their socioeconomic level. Could you talk about why your protagonist Helen falls for them so hard and so fast?
JM: Although they’re rich, it’s not so much the Havillands’ money that seduces Helen. It’s the fantasy they’ve created—that she buys into—of their perfect marriage, their astonishing connection to each other, the magical world they’ve made. Most of all she is seduced by the attention they show her. At one point, early in the story, she reflects on how flattered she is that Swift calls her by her name. Just that. Helen has been an invisible person—in her own perception of herself, at least. They pay attention to her. This is everything.
BP: A great deal of this novel concerns how people who are often overlooked—a housekeeper, a steadfast man, a second wife—live with the fallout of other people’s poor decisions. Why is it important to show that?
JM: I wanted to explore the shallow appeal of grand gestures, big romantic proclamations, romantic fantasies—against the backdrop of a quieter, less ostentatious brand of behavior and character. Swift and Ava represent the fool’s gold that glitters until you get up too close. Elliot—whom they call boring—offers Helen something of far greater value. And she fails to recognize it. Same thing with Estella, the Guatemalan housekeeper in the Havilland household. She recognizes what’s going on. She just keeps it to herself.
In many ways, the new novel is my homage to a certain kind of quietly good man that I might well have failed to appreciate when I was younger. It’s dedicated to a longtime friend who inspired the character of Elliot. But running below the surface, too, is my feeling about my husband Jim—an Eagle Scout, in word and deed. Literally and figuratively. Swift would have dismissed a man like Jim. And Jim would have no use for a character like Swift. Though as an attorney, experienced in the art of deception (revealing it, not practicing it!) he would know the type.
BP: Speaking of your own past, but on the professional side: You’ve been a journalist, a columnist, a novelist, a memoirist, and you entered the literary scene at a young age. We know that a lot of things have changed for writers. Anything for the better? What would you advise a beginning writer today?
JM: I feel grateful every day for the good fortune of having been able to do this thing I love—write, and tell stories—for my entire adult life. (44 years now, and counting.) I published my first book—my early memoir, Looking Back—when I was 19 years old. I think I had a pretty strong set of skills already; what took years to acquire was a capacity for greater authenticity. And the courage to write the truth, and nothing less.
Advice to a young writer? Don’t become a writer to make a lot of money, or become famous. Don’t imitate anybody else, or try to anticipate what the marketplace will want. Write because you can’t not write. Write the books you want to read. Then whatever happens on the career side of things, you will please at least one person. And you’ll be true to yourself.
BP: Much of your work and life has taken place in the public eye. What were the good lessons you learned? The bad?
JM: It’s a very freeing experience, to speak one’s truth. I don’t have to worry about anybody else outing me, because I generally do it myself first. (The list is long, of stories I’ve revealed, over the years, about choices I’ve made and things I’ve done that represented weakness and flaws on my part. I think that’s part of what has connected me to readers, because most of us live imperfect lives.) And I always hope that in speaking and writing as I do, I’m giving other people who read what I have to say the permission in their own lives to do the same, with a little less shame.
Most recently—I’m speaking of the period following the completion of Under the Influence—I recognized I had developed an unhealthy dependence on alcohol. Specifically, wine. It was actually reading over the galleys of this new novel—written in the voice of a recovering alcoholic, who lost custody of her son following her arrest for a DUI—that forced me to recognize my own problem. Mine was still in the “socially acceptable” category. But I could not kid myself. I was using wine, as my character did, to mask feelings I didn’t want to experience fully. As I write this, it’s been six weeks since I had a glass of wine, and I won’t pretend this hasn’t been a challenge—because I loved wine, and I loved the companionship of sharing wine, and most of all, it allowed me to take the edge off some painful parts of my life. But I also like how much more alert I am to what’s going on in my life.
BP: Back to Under the Influence: Helen has made some big mistakes, but she’s also a deeply caring and involved mother. Is she, as Elliot notes, a “terrific” mother? What constitutes being so? Or does it matter? (I’m thinking of Bettelheim’s “good enough” parent, here.)
JM: I raised three children—now all in their thirties. For most of those years, I was a single parent. And I suffered from the syndrome of finding my children’s pain almost too much to bear, at times. I felt guilty, of course, that I had failed to provide them with the happy, so-called “intact” family I dreamed of when their father and I were young and starting out together, in our twenties. (There it is again: that syndrome my character Helen suffers from, of imagining that everyone else has things all figured out. Because their lives look so much more successful than her own.)
I sometimes tell the story of a time I actually jumped into a subway pit on a trip with my kids when they were young, to retrieve a juggling ball my son Charlie had dropped. And tearing our house apart to locate a lost Barbie shoe for my daughter. Crazy stuff! Of course, I never succeeded in sparing my children pain. More to the point, I would no longer want to do that. Pain is what causes us to grow. Pain teaches us compassion, and gratitude. It’s just so hard to watch our children experience it.
My last child—my son Will—left home 14 years ago. I adore them all of course, but it is also a relief to be off duty. (And I know it must be a relief for them, too.) I have no choice these days but to consider what’s happening within my own self.
BP: It isn’t easy to craft literary fiction that’s also suspenseful. At what point in composing Under the Influence did you realize what was going to happen at Lake Tahoe? Were you surprised?
JM: Here’s what I believe. You create characters that feel like real, complex people. You make them come alive on the page. Do a good job with that and at some point, they take on lives of their own, and as a writer, you can let them reveal to you what will happen, based on the kind of thing you know that person would do.
So no, I did not know what was going to happen at Lake Tahoe. But I knew the character of the man at the wheel of that boat. I knew the kind of son he’d raised. I knew what happens when people drink too much, and drive. And I know the difference between a person who takes responsibilities for his actions and one who does not. The difference between a man like Swift, for instance, and a man like Elliot. And between a woman like Ava and—as flawed as she is, and she is very flawed—a woman like Helen.
BP: Is there a book you wish you had written? Corollary: Which authors have had the greatest influence on your work?
JM: There are so many books I love. But can I wish I’d written Pride and Prejudice? Or—a novel I kept on my desk when writing this new one, because of certain related themes, and a tone I wanted to emulate—The Great Gatsby? No. I want to write my own best book. The best book I am capable of. That standard keeps changing, as I grow. One day, for instance, I hope I can write a book I am not yet ready to write, about children of divorce. And about two people who find each other—as my husband Jim and I did—in what I choose to call middle age, though that might be an overly optimistic term for where we were when we found each other, at age 57 and 59. But I want to be at my full powers for that one.
BP: Several of your books have been adapted. Do you have a casting “wish list” for this novel?
JM: I know an actress I’d truly LOVE to see in the role of Ava. She’s not a box office star, but she’s terrific, and she’d be perfect in this part. Catherine Keener. I’ll leave it to readers to cast the other roles. It’s always fun, doing that. Swift, in particular, would be a great role for a certain kind of sexy older actor with a kind of raw animal power and venality.
BP: What are you reading? Are there current authors you love to follow, and/or newer authors whose work you enjoy?
JM: I just finished reading Megan Abbott’s new novel You Will Know Me. It won’t be out until the summer, and all I can tell you is: GET THIS BOOK. One contemporary writer I love is Andre Dubus III (with whom I am going to be leading a workshop this summer, in Greece). I am re-reading a novel I love, Plainsong, by Kent Haruf—a writer who died not long ago, whose work I love. I go back to the stories of Alice Munro and Grace Paley. I was hugely struck by Julie Pierrepont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things. I’m just starting The Longest Night by Andria Williams, and a collection called I’ll Tell You Mine featuring 30 years of great nonfiction essays by writers from the Iowa Writers’ Program. And I’m reading and loving the poetry of Jane Kenyon. Reading poetry reminds a prose writer of the importance of language.
BP: I know right now you’re in Guatemala—and that you hold workshops in Greece, Maine, and probably other places. Could you talk about how those very different landscapes influence your classes/writing?
JM: Every February for the last 15 years I’ve brought a small group of writers to a small Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan where I have a house, for the purpose of helping them with their writing. We just finished up the most recent Lake Atitlan Workshop, and though it is always exhausting, it’s also my favorite week of the year. Astonishing things happen, when you take a person out of her traditional environment as we do here—bring him or her to a place of spectacular beauty where all the usual patterns of her days, and her thinking, have to be reinvented—and watch what happens to the writing.
This summer, I’ll be doing the same thing on the island of Patmos, in Greece—with two great friends, Terry McMillan and (as mentioned) Andre Dubus III. (If anyone reading this is interested, the details for this and my other workshops can be found on my website). The Greek workshop should be wonderful. And for those who can’t travel quite so far, I’ll be teaching in Maine this August. I always find my own work inspired by these times I spend in new places. You get a certain perspective that doesn’t occur at home.
BP: You have a wonderful photograph on your site of you in a room with nearly two dozen masks on the wall above you. I’d love to hear a bit about those.
JM: The masks were made by a very dear friend, Francisco (Paco) Sainz, a Spanish artist who spent the last 40 or so years of his life in New York and died in 1998. I own 24 of them, and I study the faces daily. I like to think of them as representing my readers. Some of the masks have two different sides, so I turn them around on occasion, if I’m feeling the need for a new face.