On January 14, 2014 at the AMC River East Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, Joyce Maynard, an American author of 13 novels and contributor to various nonfiction collections, was interviewed by Chaz Ebert about her 2009 novel “Labor Day” which was recently adapted by Jason Reitman into a film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. Also discussed is Maynard’s writing process, rebuttals to common criticisms of “Labor Day,” and personal life including her notorious affair with famed writer J.D. Salinger when she was 18 years old.
Chaz: One of the things that I find so interesting about you and your writing and your life is that early on, in the 90’s, you were one of the first people, one of the first writers, to start communicating with people on the internet as my husband [Roger Ebert] did as well.
Joyce: Yes, yes it’s true! Technologically I’m a disaster, but I love what the Internet does for allowing us to communicate with you [the audience] and as a result of this I have friends wherever I go!
C: Well you know Chicago is a city of readers – even our mayor encourages people to read, our previous mayor did too. One of the other books that you wrote is a movie – “To Die For,” directed by Gus Van Sant and this one [“Labor Day”] is directed by Jason Reitman. Two big directors, two interesting people adapting your words, tell me the difference in working with them.
J: Complete difference. I don’t know how many of you have seen “To Die For,” I love “To Die For.” Completely different films. That one is a dark comedy and very edgy, and this is a very uncynical movie. Which, no doubt, some critics are gonna have a field day with – [especially] that pie scene. A couple already have. It’s easy to make fun of it. This is a very simple, tender love story, an old-fashioned love story. And Gus Van Sant I think did a brilliant job, but this film I really felt so welcomed into the process. It was a great gift, I love Jason Reitman and he was a completely respectful person.
You know, usually what happens when a writer sells a book to the movies is they want to get rid of that writer so quick – and I can understand that, the last thing a writer or director wants when he or she is making a film is to have the writer standing over his shoulder saying “I think you should do this,” but I saw the screenplay a number of times [although] I had no technical role in it.
C: I’ve met Jason several times, and one of the things that’s refreshing about him is that he’s not afraid of women – when you look at Jason’s movies, the roles for women are actually very interesting roles. And you know what, you talk about the pie scene…it is a very erotic scene…
J: Thank you, I think so.
C: Was it written that way?
J: I wasn’t born yesterday, Chaz, did you think this was just pie lesson?
J: When I write a book, the first person I’m writing for is me. I always want to fall in love a little bit. I want to feel big emotion – there’s got to be something going on to get me out of bed at four in the morning, which is what I do when I’m writing. And so I wrote about a man I knew I’d enjoy being up with.
C: I was sitting next to a friend of mine, and she said, “I guess I’m going to have to find a prisoner like that.” He cooks, he cleans, he was kind to the neighbor’s boy – everything.
J: I want to say – this is not the woman falling in love with the man in prison “syndrome”. And that could be another story, but that’s the woman that wants to keep the man at arms length. This is a woman who desperately wants to be touched, and it’s not my story but I was a single mother for many years – most of those years I was raising my children in a small New Hampshire town and taking care of everybody else with nobody taking care of me. And that part of Adele’s story…I wanted to really honor the experience of a woman no longer young, no longer beautiful, glamorous – who has these yearnings.
C: Another thing I wanted to ask tonight is how you get into the heads of young adults when you write. Especially a boy.
J: Well I raised two of them, and they’re not this boy [Henry], but that age  just tears me up. It’s part child, part adult – both, neither. Embarking on their own sexuality and the painfulness of being themselves. I became that boy, I don’t really know how it happened. The day before I wrote this book – I didn’t know I was going to write this book – I woke up in the morning and heard the voice, I heard this boy telling this story and I just started to type. And I wrote this story in about 10 days because I just had to see what would happen, I couldn’t type fast enough. It really was like I was watching the movie and I didn’t know how it was going to turn out… the only way to find out was to keep writing. This is not my typical writing process. I just published a novel inspired by a Chicago detective that took me two years. But that boy in particular just came to me.
C: [Chaz references the sentimental ending of “Labor Day”]
J: I believe in goodness and I’m always looking for it. I’ve known redemption. I can’t give readers a simple “happily-ever-after,” but I want to leave you not completely in a pool on the floor of grief and hopelessness. And every now and then, like if it’s a New York crowd, they want it to be miserable.
J: This has been the big question for a lot of people – a lot of people cannot imagine how she could have taken him home [in the beginning of the film]. That is the big thing that I had to sell in my book and that Jason had to sell in that movie, that we could make it a believable thing for her to take him home. Did you have a problem with that?
C: I did have a question…The first scene, when they’re leaving the store and they’re driving home and there’s a police car going the opposite way. I was thinking, she could have turned around or turned the steering wheel. You tell us what’s happening at that point.
J: Well, I did not have her actually pass a police car in the book. But, basically I had her doing something that she didn’t have to do – there would have been an exit. My feeling about this character is, she’s a woman who has been profoundly failed by the way that life is supposed to go – you get pregnant and you’re supposed to have the baby, you get married and the man is supposed to stay. The usual rules for life have not applied for her. The men who look like the good guys often turn out to be bad guys. So, perhaps, and I remember feeling this way myself for many of my long, single years – that perhaps the bad guy would be the good guy, or at least the outsider, the one that society has cast aside.
I never sit down to “send a message,” I just want to tell a good story, but this is a story about outsiders about people who have fallen away, who are not acknowledged in the world. That includes Adele, it includes Frank, it includes Henry. The character of Barry – the boy in the wheelchair – is a very important character for me. He’s someone that no one pays attention to; they treat him as if he’s an idiot. He understands everything, and his great triumph is that he is the one who GETS it. No one will listen to him, but that’s kind of how they all are. So the easy answer for why she takes him home is that he puts his hand on [Henry’s] neck and says “this has to happen,” but I think there’s a part of her that is drawn to a fellow loser.
C: Your characters in “To Die For” were also outsiders.
J: Yes, the Nicole Kidman, Susan Moretto, wants desperately to be the center of everything – the TV anchorwoman. But they’re all people who don’t fit in, yeah. And, well, a writer is usually such a person…try to find a writer who’s Ms. Popularity, queen of the prom. Usually not.
C: And you always wanted to write.
J: I always wrote. This is my 13th book, I’ve been writing full time since I was 17-years-old, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done, really. I’m very lucky, not to say that that was an easy way to make a living and support my family but that’s what I’ve always done, yeah.
C: And I have to ask this question because it’s also something that’s in literary history. Your writing actually attracted J.D. Salinger. And you ended up living with him when you were but a girl.
J: Yes, I did, I did. You know there probably hasn’t been a day in my life – I turned 60 last month – in the last 41 years that his name hasn’t come up. Think back on your own – when you were 18, if you want to be defined by who you were then and who you loved and who loved you or broke your heart. That’s not to say that that wasn’t a very important episode in my life, but it was an episode in my life. I had published a long article in the New York Times magazine section in what turned out to be my one and only year of college because this event made me drop out of college and I never went back. I published this article with a big picture of me on the front cover and I got every conceivable kind of offer – to write magazine articles, to go on TV, to write books, and in among those letters was a letter from Salinger. And the whole world went away at that point. He was even then, in 1972, sort of a recluse.
So I began to correspond with him and very soon went off to see him, dropped out of college, severed relationships with pretty much everyone in my life, gave up my full scholarship, and imagined – the way an 18 year old girl does – that, regardless of the fact that he was 35 years older than me, that I would be with him forever. And 11 months later he dispatched me from his life just about as abruptly as he entered it and with excruciating pain.
But I didn’t speak of it for 25 years, I said nothing. And I was asked about it all the time – because it was known that I dropped out of college to be with Salinger – and then when I was in my 40s and had my own daughter, my daughter turned age 18 and I revisited that experience and I decided that I had no obligation to protect Salinger’s secrets and I wrote a memoir. And that memoir was a profoundly condemned book, it still is – it destroyed my career for many years.
The best thing that I know to do with that endless Salinger thing, and I don’t fault you for asking, is to carry on with my life and just write more books. I’ve written 13 and he’s in exactly 1 of them, and even that is not a book about him, it’s a book about me. He’s a part of my life. There you go.