The author of the novel Labor Day on becoming a teenage celebrity — and the joys of a middle-aged comeback
Editor’s Note: Joyce Maynard’s latest novel is Labor Day. She is also the author of nine other books, including At Home in the World, a controversial memoir that was subject to intense criticism for its revelations about her relationship with the novelist J.D. Salinger.
Thirty-six years ago, when I was 19, I published my first book, a memoir called Looking Back. It was an expanded version of an article I’d written for The New York Times Magazine the year before, in 1972. Both the article (titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”) and subsequent book featured a photograph of me — barefoot, wearing jeans, looking a little like an anorexic Linda Ronstadt crossed with “The Flying Nun.”
The book was a big seller. I went on television and got photographed by Richard Avedon and even — most weirdly — was invited to audition for the Linda Blair role in “The Exorcist.” Though my life at the time bore little resemblance to that of most young women my age, for a brief while I was the girl editors called if they wanted a story about the younger generation. I was the girl of the minute — for a minute anyway.
But here’s the thing about making a name for oneself as a Spokesperson for Your Generation: It’s a dead-end job. And though I believe that I matured substantially as a writer over the years, my career was never hotter than when I was a teenager. And it was never colder than it was in the summer of 2008, as I found myself closing in on my 55th birthday.
I had raised three children by this point, and published nine books — a number of novels, a collection of essays and a second memoir called At Home in the World that incited harsh criticism in the literary world. I had written out of the conviction that every writer has the right to tell her own story. Many felt otherwise. In fact, one critic said, “Now that she’s told this story, we’ll never have to hear from Joyce Maynard again.”
So for me, 1998 was a brutal year. I knew I would never cease to be a writer, but it was unclear after that whether I could survive doing the work I loved. My next three books sold badly, and it was hard not to view my career as finished.
Having experienced the kind of notoriety I did as a young person — and again in my 40s — I was left in a kind of box. A lot of people who had never read a book of mine had read about me, at one time or another, and formed some opinions based on that. “Have you thought of changing your name?” a well-meaning agent suggested a few years back. In the years that followed, many others weighed in with the same recommendation.
One thing never changed. I loved to tell stories. Last summer, I spent two months at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ residency in my home state of New Hampshire. It was in the middle of a completely different project that I had a dream about a woman who lives with her adolescent son. In the final days of a New Hampshire summer — just like the one I was experiencing right then — she embarks on an unlikely and dangerous-seeming love affair. Their story is narrated by her 13-year-old son.
This was not the first time I wrote a novel in the voice of a young person. Or a boy. My novel To Die For was written in the voices of a group of characters, principal among them a 15-year-old who eventually shoots and kills the husband of his teacher, with whom he’s fallen hopelessly in love. Then, too, I found myself nearly channeling the voice of a character with whom I would have seemed to have almost nothing in common. But in fact, Labor Day is filled with my own obsessions, and — though the story is pure fiction — informed by pieces of my own experience. I think that’s why I wrote it so easily and swiftly; it was almost as if I were transcribing a story being dictated to me from inside my brain.
It was just past Labor Day weekend when I reached the last page, at which point I put my head down on my desk and wept. In 35 years I had never known a happier or more redemptive writing experience. But the task remained to find a way of connecting my story with readers, at a time when my stock as a writer was at an all-time low.
I traveled by bus to New York City, where I met with a couple of wise, thoughtful agents about the book. Both pronounced my career dead. “I have enough writers on intravenous feeding,” one of them said — words that struck me not as unkind, just crushingly honest.
Then an agent read my manuscript overnight and called me the next day to say he wanted to represent me. “But here’s what we’re going to do,” he told me. “We’ll send this one without your name on the title page. I want the editors who read this story to come to it with no preconceptions.”
So, that’s what we did. And for the next week, my agent fielded calls from editors who’d read the book and wanted to know the name of the young man who’d written it. Somewhere along the line an item surfaced in a New York gossip column, speculating that the author of this “mystery novel” editors were buzzing about must be the actor James Franco, who’d reportedly recently enrolled in a writing program.
No doubt some people were disappointed when my agent eventually revealed that the author of the novel they’d just read was a middle-aged woman. As if that is an unfortunate thing for a writer to be.
“I wouldn’t have thought she’d write something like this,” someone commented after reading the book.
My agent sold the book — for the best advance I’d received in my career. Foreign rights have been purchased in ten countries so far.
I take it as the highest form of compliment that readers of this new novel of mine imagined it to have been written by a young man in his 20s. I hope I got his voice and outlook right — and most of all, the workings of his heart. And I hope, if I’ve accomplished this, that readers and others may be a little less quick to write a person off for being older, or even old. Or to suppose that a woman in her 50s could not write about passion or longing, first love or last.
Here is the truth as I know it now, 36 years since the day my youthful face looked out to readers from the cover of The New York Times magazine: Much as I might want that unlined skin and the flat stomach of the girl pictured there, I do not want to be that person now. As a teller of stories, I have never known as much as I do today. I expect to know more tomorrow.
And I want to say this to that critic who assumed no one would ever hear from me again: I’m not even close to being finished with telling stories. Or reaching the final chapter of my own.