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Motherhood, J.D. Salinger and Me

Photograph by Paris Match/Getty Images

For Joyce Maynard, her latest book-turned-film was a labor of love. In some ways, it was a reflection of her own life as a single mom—in her case, with three kids and a station wagon—instead of the one child in Labor Day, now a film by Jason Reitman starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

While the mother in Labor Day, portrayed by Winslet, is timid and afraid of the world, Maynard has grabbed this life by the sometimes devastatingly sharp horns. She wrote her first essay for The New York Times at 18, had a tumultuous relationship with the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger and wrote briefly—and guardedly—about adopting two girls, whom she later transferred to another family.

We had the chance to talk to Maynard, who spoke candidly about her children, what she respects about Kate Winslet and, yes, Salinger.

This is your second book that has been reimagined as a film. How difficult is it to let go of control of your words, to have them change for another medium?

It’s a lot like parenthood. I’ve gone through that experience with children as well. You have this little being that you give birth to, and you carefully, tenderly nurture and worry about and oversee, try to protect from all harm. And then there comes a day when they have to leave you and go out into the world. And the best you can hope for is that you’re entrusting them to some good person or place. So, you have to let go. It would be a terrible thing for the director to have the writer standing over his or her shoulder, just as—and I won’t continue this metaphor too much longer—but it would be like standing over one of my son’s girlfriends. I don’t think anybody would appreciate it.

How much of yourself, especially as a mother, did you put into Adele, the mom in Labor Day?

A lot, of course. I’ll first say what’s not me. I am actually a person who likes to go out into the world, and I had no problem with back-to-school shopping. My hands do not shake. But the part that is me is that I was a single parent—in my case three children, during that period of years, more or less—and living in a small New Hampshire town. And I know very well the loneliness and yearning of a single mother. Could be a single father, too, I think.

People don’t typically write love stories for those people, and it’s always been important to me to acknowledge and celebrate and tell the stories of mothers—single or married—that a mother can still have a romantic life and still have dreams and longings, and passions beyond finding the best detergent, the most efficient vacuum cleaner.

What did you think when you first saw Kate Winslet as Adele and Josh Brolin as Frank?

Of course, one of the great moments of my life. For a writer, it’s a dream to have the cast that just existed in your head brought to life. I thought them up, I dreamed them up, and there I was in this real, physical town in Massachusetts with flesh-and-blood human beings, walking around, wearing the clothes of 1987, going by the names that I called them—and they’re Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. What’s not to like?

You, Winslet and Brolin are all parents. Did you trade parenting stories on the set?

Josh spoke a little bit about his children, and I gather that Josh has baked for his children. Kate’s children were there, and she was very protective of that, of her time with her children. I was there only briefly, but she is very good at putting a boundary around her mother life. That’s my impression of Kate. I only respect her more for that.

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You’ve written publicly about very personal subjects, including about your relationship with J.D. Salinger and giving up two adopted daughters. What was the most difficult to face on the page?

There’s one that I really do not write about at this point in my life, and that has to do with the adoption. And not because I couldn’t, but … it has to do with children, and I’m very protective of them. Of course, you know it’s very easy to judge me on that one if you don’t know the story, and I don’t say a lot about the story because children were involved. But privately, I’ve heard from a lot of people who have had the experience—there are no villains here—of the great dreams of loving and nurturing children who have gone through extraordinary pain and loss and hardship and the discovery that love is not necessarily enough, which was devastating beyond imagination.

It was the most brutal experience of my life, but I’m very very clear that I made the right decision in finding them a family with a father and other children—things that I could not give them. I do not second-guess that choice, as painful as it was. A lot of people are going to give the soundbite on that one: She gave up her children. She gave up orphan children.

About Salinger, of course, run down the list of all the things you can criticize me for. I betrayed the privacy of this pure and sacred man. It’s really turned around a lot in the last 18 years. When [my memoir] At Home in the World came out [in 1998], the book and I personally were pretty much universally condemned.

As the mother of a daughter—and a writer read by so many women—what advice do you give young, impressionable girls and women about older, powerful men?

I believe that there is nothing so tender and fragile as the human heart, and to treat it lovingly. And that doesn’t just go for men treating women with respect and compassion and the recognition of how fragile, how vulnerable, it is to love and to be hurt, and that’s a two-way street. It was very important to me to raise sons who would be good to women and to raise a woman who would be good to her partner. I’m very proud of them for being those people.

But I would say from my particular experience, it is sadly still a phenomenon that exists of young girls giving over their power and their voice to a more powerful, older man. It’s not unique to Salinger. Salinger happened to do it more than most people know, but unfortunately this is a story that goes way beyond the particulars of one sainted writer. It’s many older men, it’s teachers, mentor figures who abuse that trust. Abuse takes many forms—and not always physical. Many young girls have been crushed. And I know it because I hear from the women that they became. I was not ruined forever; I was not destroyed forever, but my life was derailed for a long, long time by what happened to me when I was very young.

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