By Leslie Lindsay
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK
Leslie Lindsay & Joyce Maynard in conversation
After falling in love in the last years of the 1970s, Eleanor and Cam set out to follow their dream to raise three children on a New Hampshire farm, a parcel of land she has purchased with her hard-earned children’s book royalties. Their life is pretty idyllic, if only Cam would step-up and be a bit more of a provider–overall, there’s love and heart and good things happening in this quiet, secluded life of art and merrymaking.
But there’s a tragic accident that brings a chasm between Cam and Eleanor, changing the family forever. There’s grief and blame, resentment, and more, but they will manage. But they don’t. Cam has an affair with the babysitter, the marriage ends (not a spoiler; this is all mentioned on the back jacket).
We follow the family through heartache and loss, life and birth, art and stagnation, days of illegal abortion, the draft, computer age, AIDS, early #metoo era, the Challenger explosion, divorce, and so much more. I wasthrust back to my own childhood–many scenes triggered ideas and scenes quite vividly for me.
Told in 101 short, named chapters, Joyce Maynard is a master at observation, a keen eye for detail not just in the visual sense, but also in social-emotional nuances as she transforms the landscape of words into meaningful connections of home, family, parenthood, love, loss, identity, and also forgiveness.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Joyce Maynard to the author interview series:
Joyce, oh goodness! Welcome. COUNT THE WAYS is a gorgeous exploration of family and love, forgiveness, and so much more. I always want to know what you were trying to discover or answer in your own writing? Much of what we do as writers, I think, is exploration. Is that true for you?
Every character I write yearns for something she doesn’t have, and struggles with something that’s getting in her way. For the central character in COUNT THE WAYS—Eleanor—the great longing she carries is for family, something she didn’t have when she was young, herself, and wants to create with her husband, Cam, and their children. Her great struggle is with her own bitterness over her husband’s failure to prevent a tragedy in their family. This destroys the couple’s love for each other, and their marriage. I’m glad I can say I never lived through an experience like the one that struck their family, but I know some things about holding onto anger in a way that not only hurts another person, but one’s own self. Eleanor’s journey in COUNT THE WAYS is about learning how to forgive.
I’ve loved all of your books, but this one seems much more personal. I think that’s because it is. In your author’s note at the beginning of the narrative, you mention that there are some very stark parallels between your ‘real life,’ and our characters’ lives. Without really asking what’s true and what’s not, I’d like to ask about reconciling ‘story’ with fact. What insights can you share?
Every novel I’ve ever written—and I’ll even include TO DIE FOR, the one that might seem to have absolutely no connection to my real life—contains elements and obsessions from my life. But COUNT THE WAYS bears the most obvious resemblance to my actual story. I fell in love and married in the late seventies, moved to a farm in New Hampshire, had three children—and lived through a painful divorce (is there any other kind) when I was 35. For any reader familiar with my work over the years, there will be some familiar stories. (Eleanor, tearing her house apart to find her seven year old daughter’s lost Barbie shoe; Eleanor making little boats with her children, and people to put in them, and launching them in a brook near their house; Eleanor, burnt out on Christmas morning, and at the end of her rope, smashing the elaborate cake she has just finished making in her effort to give her family a perfect holiday…)
But COUNT THE WAYS is not “a thinly veiled memoir.” I used experiences from my life, and most of all, feelings that I’d experienced, to create a work of fiction. I created this family—their love, and their losses—as a way to explore and set out on the page just about everything I wanted to say about marriage and divorce and raising children and seeing them leave home and become their own people. And I wanted to say these things from the perspective of someone the age I am now—67. I’ve learned a few things over the forty or so years since my oldest child was born, and the thirty some years since the end of my marriage. I wanted to offer the perspective (do I dare to say it? Wisdom) that can probably only come with the passage of time.
There’s often a very blurry line between fiction and non–fiction because as writers, we borrow experiences from life all the time. We’re good at shifting perspectives because that’s the lens we look at the world. How do you know when you’ve stumbled across an idea that ‘must become a book?’ How might a book-length work be different than, say an essay or an article, flash, or something else? How you decide the ‘shape’ of a work?
I think I always knew I’d tell the story of a family who love each other a lot, but break apart. I carried this story with me for a very long time. Maybe it was the death of my second husband, Jim, five years ago, and the experience of losing someone so dear to me, that released me from what I think of as “the old narrative”. Things that once seemed so important no longer mattered. Things I once took for granted came to feel extraordinarily precious.
On a personal level, I felt for the kids so much when they struggled with their parents’ divorce, when custody became an issue. This time you write about—the 1980s—divorce was becoming almost ‘the norm.’ My parents split then, too. I choose to live with my father. My mother and I were estranged. It was a complex time; she struggled with her mental illness and the by-products of her poor behavior. While you don’t write about mental health directly, it’s there, sort of breathing in the white space. Can you talk about that, please?
While I don’t see Eleanor as a person with mental health issues, she certainly struggles—as many mothers do—with what happens to a person when she neglects her own needs for a long time, in the service of her family. In the novel, I call Eleanor’s melt-downs “crazyland”. It’s a place she goes when her feelings simply overwhelm her. I know that place, though I haven’t been there in a long time. I know what it feels like to be Eleanor at those moments. And writing this novel allowed me to imagine what it must be like for a child, witnessing them. It was sometimes painful, doing that. But also instructive, as it generally is when you hold a mirror up to some aspect of yourself.
The experience of an adult child’s estrangement from a parent—something Eleanor lives through –happens more than we know. In my life, and from the many years I’ve spent, leading memoir retreats in which I help women to tell their stories I’ve known many women I consider to have been what we you might call “a good mother”—women with flaws, like all of us, but ones who tried hard and did the best they could—whose child has rejected them at some point. There’s so much shame around this.
Sometimes no doubt estrangement from a parent happens for good reason. Sometimes, it’s a symptom of hurt that has other origins. In Eleanor’s case, one of her children rejects her in a way that is brutally painful—shutting her out of her granddauther’s life—because Eleanor kept a secret for a long time, in an effort to protect her. For a woman like Eleanor, the loss of this relationship (two relationships: with her daughter, and with her granddaughter) feels almost like a death.
I wanted to explore this, because a surprising number of women have experienced some degree of this kind of estrangement, and hardly anybody ever talks about it. That’s what I always do in my writing, I think—my nonfiction and my fiction. I try to shine a light on the unmentionable.
I understand you are back in school—at Yale, no less—what are you studying? How is that going?
As some people may know—if they read my first memoir, At Home in the World—I dropped out of college when I was eighteen years old. At the age of 64, I decided to return. I wanted to study all the things I never got to before, and to take in new ideas, at an age when it might have been easy to settle into a comfort zone. I’m in my third year now, and though I doubt I’ll ever actually earn a Yale diploma, I’ve learned so much. Some of it in the classroom, a lot of it from my fellow students, who are a whole generation younger than my children.
I’m a humanities major—which has allowed me to study history and poetry and languages and art– but really, what I wanted most was a new adventure. I took most of last year off during the pandemic, but I’ll be back in the fall. I feel so lucky to be there.
As a writer, I think it’s crucial to keep one’s eyes open to the world. Being at college has opened mine in so many ways. I’ll just mention one of those, which is seeing how differently young people today approach questions of gender and accept, without judgment, a range of sexual orientation. For someone of my generation, some of the ideas and choices young people are making these days may be challenging –like the decision to use the pronoun “they”, for instance. I know it was the gift of living among young people for much of the last three years that allowed me to create the character of Alison—who transitions to be Al, in my novel. I wanted to show a woman of my generation, experiencing those kinds of experiences and getting to the place where she accepts and embraces them.
That’s what I try to do in my novels:
I create a character a reader can understand and identify with , and taker her to some places that reader may never have been. It opens up your mind. Plus, it generally makes for a good story.
Joyce, this has been so delightful. Thank you for taking the time. What should I have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, maybe there’s something you’d like to ask me?
Oh, we’ve covered a lot of territory here, Leslie. I’ll just add that I recorded the audio book of COUNT THE WAYS myself , as I have for my last five books, I think. (All but my novel, LABOR DAY that required a male voice. That one was recorded, beautifully, by my son Wilson Bethel.) For anyone who enjoys audio books, I recommend this way of taking in my new story.
And for anyone who’d like to learn more, by all means visit my website, joycemaynard.com
I always love to hear from readers. Go there and you’ll find out how.
For more information, to connect with Joyce via social media, or to purchase a copy of COUNT THE WAYS, please visit:
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I was reminded, in part, of SO HAPPY TOGETHER by Deborah K. Shepherd for the time frame, age of characters, abortion, and so many other things. Look too at Jennifer Weiner’s MRS. EVERYTHING for similar themes, BENEFICIENCE by Meredith Hall. Also, you might like Elizbeth Brundage’s work–particularly ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR and THE VANISHING POINT. While these books are not exactly the same, they offer some overlap.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A native of New Hampshire, Joyce Maynard began publishing her stories in magazines when she was thirteen years old. She first came to national attention with the publication of her New York Times cover story, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life”, in 1972, when she was a freshman at Yale. Since then, she has been a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose “Domestic Affairs” column appeared in over fifty papers nationwide, a regular contributor to NPR and national magazines including Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and many more. She is a longtime performer with The Moth.
Joyce Maynard is the author of eighteen books, including the New York Times bestselling novel, Labor Day and To Die For (both adapted for film), Under the Influence and the memoirs, At Home in the World and The Best of Us.
Her latest novel, Count the Ways —the story of a marriage and a divorce, and the children who survived it—will be published by William Morrow in June, 2021.
She is currently at work on a book about her return to Yale University two and a half years ago as an undergraduate, forty-eight years after dropping out at age 18.
Maynard is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. She is the founder of Write by the Lake, a week-long workshop on the art and craft of memoir, held every year since 2001 at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
Cover and author image retrieved from J. Maynard’s website 7.27.21. Special thanks to William Morrow. All other images, unless noted, from Leslie Lindsay.