Salinger aside, after 50 years and 18 books, Joyce Maynard of Bennington has earned her own literary fame
|Published: 08-09-2021 4:21 PM
Joyce Maynard remains weary. The local author, whose own life has served as the core for much of her nonfiction and fiction work, has conquered mediums of every kind during her 50-year career.
She’s written bestselling novels, magazine pieces and newspaper articles. She’s provided commentary for NPR, sold the movie rights to a pair of her books, wrote a nationally syndicated column for decades, and affected readers and publishers all over the country with the autobiography she wrote when she was just 18 years old.
She went to Yale in the early 1970s and, at 67, recently returned there to get her degree. She got married, had three kids, got divorced, then watched her second husband die from cancer after just three years of marriage.
Her weariness, however, comes not from an unmatched work ethic that has produced voluminous amounts of material. Or her alcoholic father and overbearing mother. Or a pair of marriages that took their toll on her soul.
Rather, Maynard has been asked, over and over, to reflect on the 11-month relationship she had in the early 1970s with J.D. Salinger, whose 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, touched teens in a profound manner, with its open dialogue about depression, sex and loneliness.
They lived together in Cornish for seven months, when Salinger, bigger than life by then, was 53. Maynard was 19 by the time she left. He had read a piece by her. He loved it. Their names were together, in some form, forever.
“I’ve heard enough about Salinger,” Maynard, pleasant but firm, said over the phone on Wednesday. “What does it say toward our attitudes of women? I’ve written 18 books, raised three kids and had a hard-working career, and the focus was the man she was with 50 years ago.”
She didn’t raise her voice. The day before when we met, she didn’t furrow her brow, either. Instead, she was an open book, inviting me to her home on a lake in Bennington. She agreed that nothing, no subject, was off limits.
There’s a lot there. Beyond Salinger.
Maynard recently appeared in Concord to read from her new book, Count the Ways. The book jacket says she writes about a family, “from the hopeful early days of young marriage and parenthood to divorce and the costly aftermath that ripples all through their lives.”
She’s made a career of writing books like this, based on family dynamics, often from her own life. Her words have touched readers, creating a bond through her depiction of flawed people – oftentimes well-meaning people – who make bad decisions.
“I explore fictional family obsessions that I have lived with,” Maynard told me. “It just doesn’t look like The Donna Reed Show or Leave it to Beaver.”
She liked those shows growing up. She felt isolated at school. She felt awkward around boys. She sacrificed a lot at Oyster River High School, refining her writing skills while classmates were smoking pot.
From one view, Maynard grew up with parents who dedicated themselves to bettering her life. Her father, Max Maynard, was a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an artist, a painter. Her mother, Fredelle, earned a Ph.D and had several books published.
Together, mom and dad would sit in their living room in Durham and listen to their daughter read her most recent work. They’d write comments in the margins, constructive criticism to sharpen her words.
Joyce would then revise and polish, showing a work ethic, focus and talent that simply didn’t exist with most 16-year-olds.
She accompanied her father on Saturdays for day trips, museums and such. Her mother, foiled in her attempt to teach at UNH because she was a woman, helped Joyce become a great writer.
Below the surface, however, trouble. Max was an alcoholic who, in time, stopped caring if anyone noticed. Fredelle sometimes commented on Joyce’s physique, making sure she kept her weight down. Joyce developed an eating disorder, an illness that Salinger would later nurture by convincing Maynard to stick her fingers down her throat after a meal.
She won writing awards at Oyster River High School, over and over, and she submitted writing samples to major publications as a freshman at Yale.
Asked how she mustered the confidence and courage to send her work as a teenager, Maynard said, “You didn’t grow up with my mother. When I was six, my birthday present was a mimeograph machine so I could start a newspaper. I knew that I had worked really hard and had faith in myself.”
Big opportunities lay on the horizon. She sent a writing sample to Seventeen Magazine and later was sent to the White House to interview Julie Nixon Eisenhower, President Richard Nixon’s daughter.
The piece was sanitized, lacking any real mood from the era, the tension and the conflict. The Vietnam War was off limits. But her name was off and running.
Angry at all the cuts that had been made to her story, she sent her original version to TheNew York Times. She suggested another story, about the youth vote, and received the following letter from Harvey Shapiro, an editor at the New York Times Magazine:
“Please go ahead with a 3,500-word personal essay about what it is like to be 18 years old in this country. Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or what?”
She wrote it. She sent it. And on April 23, 1972, Maynard’s piece was teased on the cover, with a headline – above a photo of her wearing jeans and a wry smile, her huge eyes dominating her small face - that said, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life.”
When she read it 25 years later, Maynard became uncomfortable with her voice, which had been chosen to amplify the youth view, represent a generation.
She criticized herself for assuming too much, making her voice too strong, transferring her ideas to other people without using their words. On right and wrong, on what people might be thinking.
Maynard followed that mindset with me, never firing darts at the man she had trusted and admired. She adopted his outlook – or at least tried to – on limiting ego and fame, on money and on what foods to eat.
Her mind became Salinger’s mind, when he was 53 and she was younger than some of my socks. But be patient. We’ll address that later.
Maynard was a celebrity before Salinger even entered the picture. After, as well.
Her personal reflection in the Times got noticed everywhere. Got her noticed everywhere. Offers came in, trying to recruit this new and exciting voice who could write like a seasoned veteran.
She took the train from Yale, in New Haven, Conn., to New York City to eat expensive food and talk about writing jobs with editors from Mademoiselle and McCall’s.
She signed a book deal with Doubleday. Talk shows called. She auditioned for the part of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, which later went to Linda Blair.
And she was offered assignments by The New York Times and later sat in its newsroom, a staff writer smack in the middle of national heavyweights, who were two times older than her, three times, more.
“I was very keenly aware of the fact that this was what my mother had raised me to do,” Maynard said. “I had hungered for the city, so New York was everything I wanted at that point.”
Shortly after her story went public, her mailbox and dorm room at Yale filled with letters. Most were supportive, refreshed by her honesty about feeling like an outsider. Males called her their soulmate. Some questioned why someone so young should command such a prestigious platform.
One letter, written on thin paper, told Maynard to watch out for agents and publishers and the public, none of whom will have her best interests at heart. The letter warned about the trappings of money and getting a fat head.
The letter told her to write for, and stay true, to herself. They encouraged her to write more, tap into her potential, which, to him, was clearly present.
The writer told Maynard not to call him J.D. Salinger. He told her to call him Jerry. She knew his name, of course, but at the time had not read his masterpiece.
She read “The Catcher In The Rye” and felt the connection Salinger said he felt in his letters. They wrote to each other for four months, drawing closer, his age becoming less relevant.
Maynard stopped here. She was willing to open up, but not before making sure I knew that “There’s much more to me than Salinger’s letters.”
Then she fed me what I wanted: “He wrote a fabulous letter. Reading that letter in my 40s, I could see a huge amount of manipulation, but to an 18-year-old, it might as well have been crack cocaine in that envelope.
“He was funny and wise, and I felt reading that letter as if he was a friend, somebody who knew me.”
Maynard lived with Salinger in 1972 and ‘73 for seven months, at his secluded, hard-to-find home in Cornish. She called it a “radical step.”
And thus, the narrative of Joyce Maynard, already intriguing, already a success story, expanded.
It’s had a lasting impact. How could it not? A literary genius, tall, dark, handsome and mysterious, whose book was carried in the minds and back pockets of more than one generation, and whose obsessive need to hide from the public rivaled that of Dylan’s, invites a woman 35 years younger to live with him. Out of the spotlight.
The less he said, the more interesting he became.
Maynard kept silent about their relationship for 25 years. Until her book, At Home In The World was released in 1998. But Salinger was so beloved that an unwritten law had been written, that he was a gift, and therefore should be allowed to live in peace.
Maynard was called a leech for exploiting her love affair. Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The Times, called her a predator.
She wrote that Salinger’s mood eventually soured, and that one day in 1973, while vacationing on a Florida beach, he gave her $40 and told her to go home.
We didn’t talk much more about Salinger. In fact, we never had the chance to discuss much of her work. More time was needed.
Count The Ways is the latest of her nine novels. One, To Die For, was based on the Pam Smart case. Nicole Kidman represented Smart’s character, under a different name. Maynard has also written five nonfiction books.
There are a lot of highlights, and Maynard was gracious enough to invite me to her lake house in Bennington to look back. Her home is rustic, with wood everywhere inside and lots of mosquitoes outside, even during the daytime.
It sits at the end of a road, a rocky, grassy path that doesn’t look like a road at all. Tall trees frame the dock and lake down below. Maynard loves to swim.
She has a boyfriend who visits from Connecticut. She pointed to the boathouse where she wrote her latest book.
She served coffee and offered me a piece of her blueberry pie. She’s proud of her ability to bake.
She’s proud of a lot. She’s known for much more than her famous partner from the early 1970s. That’s just one part of her story.
“Hasn’t our culture come further than that?” she asked. “I’ve done a lot of other things in my life.”