Looking Back on Life: Joyce Maynard

Monday, March 04, 2013

For Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting thirty-one remarkable women— one for each day in March. Today, we’re proud to feature Joyce Maynard. 

Joyce Maynard

“So long as we question a woman’s right to her own story, we allow the perpetuation of the same dangerous and damaging patterns generations before us experienced. Because the most powerful tool most of us possess is our own voice. Take that away and what do we have?”

—Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard is the bestselling author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction. She is best known for her memoir At Home in the World and her novel Labor Day, both bestsellers. Since launching her writing career as a teenager, Maynard has been a commentator on CBS radio, a contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and a reporter for the New York Times, as well as a speaker on parenthood, family, and writing. She has published hundreds of essays and columns for publications such as Vogue; More; O, The Oprah Magazine; and the New York Times; in addition to many essay collections.

Born in Durham, New Hampshire, in 1953, Maynard began publishing her stories, essays, and poems when she was fourteen years old. She won numerous awards for her work before entering college at Yale University in 1971. During her freshman year, Maynard sent examples of her work to the New York Times, prompting an assignment: She was to write an article for them about growing up in the sixties. In April 1972 that article, “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” graced the cover of the magazine, earning her widespread acclaim and instant fame.

Maynard’s story also caught the eye of reclusive author J. D. Salinger, then fifty-three years old, who wrote her a letter praising her work—launching a correspondence that ultimately led Maynard to drop out of college and move to New Hampshire to live with the author. Their relationship lasted ten months. 

Maynard never returned to college. In 1973 she published her first memoir, Looking Back, a follow-up to her New York Times Magazine article published the year before. Having lived alone in New Hampshire in her early twenties, in 1976 she was offered a job as a reporter for the New York Times and moved to New York City. She left the newspaper in 1977 when she married Steve Bethel and returned to New Hampshire. The couple went on to have three children: Audrey, Charlie, and Wilson.

Maynard’s first novel, Baby Love, published in 1981, earned the praise of several renowned fiction writers including Anne Tyler, Joseph Heller, and Raymond Carver. Her next book, Domestic Affairs (1987)—a collection of her syndicated columns, which had run in newspapers across the country—reflected on her experiences as a wife and mother and further cemented Maynard’s status as one of the best-loved modern American memoirists.

In 1986, an area in Maynard’s home state of New Hampshire was selected by the US Department of Energy as a finalist to become the first-in-the-nation high-level nuclear waste dump. Maynard was one of the organizers of the resistance to that project, and she wrote a cover story about it that was published in April of that year and was widely believed to have contributed to the government’s decision to suspend the nuclear waste dump plan.

Maynard’s marriage ended in 1989—an experience she wrote about in her “Domestic Affairs” columns. Many major newspapers discontinued the column abruptly at this point, citing Maynard’s impending divorce as indication that she was no longer equipped to write about family life. Maynard continued writing—though for a much smaller audience—in the Domestic Affairs Newsletter.

In keeping with her practice of communicating actively with her readers, Maynard established a website in 1996; she was one of the first writers to do so, and she was a regular and visible presence through the brand-new technology of her site’s discussion forum. 

Forbidden by Salinger to speak of him, Maynard chose to remain silent about their relationship for twenty-five years, until her daughter turned eighteen. Her decision to write about the experience in her 1998 memoir At Home in the World resulted in an avalanche of criticism, but eventually led to further disclosures by other women who had been in his life. Salinger died in 2010.

Maynard has also written two children’s books and two young-adult novels; of these, The Usual Rules was named by the American Library Association as one of the ten best young-adult novels of 2003. Her literary fiction includes To Die For (1991), Where Love Goes (1994), Labor Day (2009), and The Good Daughters (2010). To Die For was adapted into a film of the same name starring Nicole Kidman. Labor Day is currently being adapted for the screen by director Jason Reitman, and is set to star Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

The mother of three grown children, Maynard now lives in Northern California where, in addition to continuing her career as a writer and speaker, she performs regularly as a storyteller with the Moth and Porchlight. She also runs the annual Lake Atitlán Writing Workshop in a small Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

Click here to find the perfect ebook to read during Women’s History Month, from biographies celebrating strong women to essays from powerful female voices to literature featuring feminist themes.

Click here to read more profiles of Open Road’s extraordinary women.

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