Joyce Maynard, whose latest memoir, The Best of Us, came out in September, is expecting some tough days ahead. One way she gets through is with her new dog, Jolene, whom she walked in her Hunsaker Canyon, California, neighborhood during our phone interview. The Great Dane puppy is growing fast and is almost overwhelming, a quality similar to Maynard’s relationship with Jim Barringer, the love of her life and the subject of The Best of Us. Barringer died in July 2016 of pancreatic cancer, shortly after their first wedding anniversary.
It was his cancer that helped me learn about Maynard when, not so long ago, my husband was diagnosed with the same disease. As I found, she’s an author with a wide and enthusiastic base of readers, she has written thousands of essays and more than a dozen books, including most famously At Home in the World, a memoir of a brief, youthful affair with J.D. Salinger.
The most refreshing thing about Maynard’s voice is her ability to include it all: the valiant and the less-than-heroic. There are no free passes given for herself or her loved ones.
In The Best of Us, she explores the painful and complicated story of her failed adoption of two girls from Ethiopia, her shame over the experience, and her knowledge that she would need to be honest with Barringer over what had happened. It’s not a surprise that she was recently labeled “The Queen of Oversharing.”
Now, after touring the country to promote the book, she’s back home where Barringer died, facing down quiet moments. Having lost my own husband in February, I was interested to learn how she carries on, with writing and with life. We spoke in mid-December.
The Rumpus: A recurring theme of the book is your realization that marriage is just as much about the pain and suffering as it is about joy and adventure. Many times when you and Jim are facing down the darkest moments of his illness, you are struck with the idea that “This is marriage.”
Joyce Maynard: I know I’ve become a different person than the one who wrote the last novel—a deeper writer, and more compassionate person. In early stage of his illness, as dire as it was, I had this attitude of “We’ll get this taken care of then get back to our real life.” It took me some time to learn that all these hard things that happen aren’t a bizarre aberration. There is no guarantee when you’re born that life is an unbroken series of easy, joyful events. Actually, quite apart from missing Jim, I miss those last weeks that were indescribably hard but so real. I’m feeling very aware of the preciousness of grief.
I was on this radio program this morning. Many people were calling in to talk about their losses. Many times their advice to each other tended toward “keep busy.” But I would say the opposite: Take heed. Fully acknowledge what has happened. When my mother died in the 1990s, I was busy going all over the country giving talks and readings. I had the children to raise. Thirty years later, I still feel the absence of that grieving time. Give yourself time. Pay attention. Don’t be too quick to move on.
Rumpus: And yet, it seems like you were busy. You wrote a big memoir about this experience, had it published within two years of his death.
Maynard: I was diving straight into the wave, right into the source of my greatest grief. There were plenty of other projects tabled. I had a contract to deliver two novels that were a year late. I worked very hard on the memoir, but it was still part of the same fabric of what I’d already been doing, honoring what we had.
Rumpus: I was impressed with the way you bought the summer cottage in New Hampshire while Jim was dying. You bought it sight unseen, and then after he died you went there and wrote every day until the memoir was done. At first, I felt that it was callous for you to be thinking about getting away to New Hampshire, a new home he may never see, but on second thought it seemed very wise. It was a place to imagine yourself on the other side of the death you knew would happen.
Maynard: Here in this house in California, I am surrounded by memories of Jim. I don’t want to forget him, of course, but it’s sometimes stabbingly painful. This was the house of our dreams, for our future we didn’t get to have. And yes, I needed to imagine myself somewhere that would help me, and it had to be real. It’s very like the advice I give on writing: You have to anchor the story in the concrete not the abstract. I didn’t google “healing place.” I googled “lake house New Hampshire.” I wanted a picture in my head of me swimming. What’s your healing place, Jen?
Rumpus: I was able to imagine myself getting through with the children, because they are still school age. So I could see myself on the other side, raising them. But for someone without young children, I’m not sure it would be as easy to know how you’ll carry on from that terminal state, from that finality. You write that your experience with your daughters, in those six weeks in which their new home had been found, the last six weeks they lived with you, felt like a terminal state. I wondered if you realized that waiting was like terminal illness before or after Jim was diagnosed?
Maynard: The terminal experience idea struck later. When Jim was dying, it brought back the memory of the achingly sad experience of knowing every day that you’re living a life that’s drawing to a close and that you’re going to be saying goodbye. Everything is the last.
Rumpus: It was a heartbreaking story, and you write about it so honestly, and you clearly felt responsible for the mistakes you made and worked hard to address them. You realized after some months that it wasn’t working for you or the girls and you went through the painful process of finding them a better home. And you’ve gotten beaten up for it; Caitlin Flanagan couldn’t get past that story, could not forgive your life choice. And yet it was your truth, and it was an important part of your story with Jim.
Maynard: I told Jim the night I met him that I gave up two adopted children. I knew if anything was going to develop between us then he had to know who I was. So it was very much a part of the story of our relationship. And I do not believe that the Atlantic writer is exemplary of how people are thinking in our culture. She has made a name for herself by beating up women. I’m in very good company. If getting beat up for telling the truth about my life was going to stop me, it would have happened long ago. I’m an optimist and I don’t believe we’re in a world filled with Caitlin Flanagans. Nothing that anyone can say about me is more painful than living an inauthentic life. Everything critical she said about me came from me, from stories I’ve told myself, what I’d already written.
Rumpus: I’m curious if you’ve been in contact with your adopted daughters.
Maynard: I saw my older former daughter this summer. I made an effort to meet her. The Disney Afterschool Special version is that she said “thank you for taking me to America.” But she was pretty tough. And she had a right to be. My fatal flaw was that I needed to be loved back. It’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect a child who has lost that way, suffered the loss and abandonment she had suffered, to step in the door in Mill Valley, California and start loving you, or even looking you in the eye. I was too needy myself. They were two very wounded little girls, and rather than give up on them, I gave up on me. I gave up on my ability to be strong enough.
Rumpus: Do you think there’s some push today, maybe because of social media, to be always showing our best side?
Maynard: I don’t show only the pretty parts of myself on Facebook. There are a lot of people thinking “What’s the matter with me, I’m not off in Tuscany like everyone else,” because they see these pretty posts of their friends. But I try to be honest on Facebook.
Rumpus: Is there an idea that if you your memoir sells and you make money from it, then you were living your experience for ulterior motives?
Maynard: Why anyone would say, “Oh, she made money off her husband’s cancer” is beyond me. Every oncologist in America makes money off cancer and no one says this. I write the stories of my life. Should I not write this one? It’s what I do. Where did we get the idea that writers shouldn’t be paid for their work? But I don’t think the culture shuns the person who does share.
In my first book, I was just showing the pretty parts of myself. I don’t think I got more technically skilled; I just grew up. I’ve been hearing from my readers for fifty years and I have great respect for them, [and] don’t want to give them less than an honest story. When I write my faults and failures, they trust me. Readers write to me about the scene when [in a fit of frustration over the delays getting Jim necessary pain medication] I shoplift a hairbrush. I wrote about—I had to write about—the day I wanted to throttle him, my dying husband, because he showed up at our front door with a whole wheelbarrow of wood he wanted to chop. And the story reveals my selfishness—I didn’t want him to do it because it would mean he was taking something away from me that day. He would be completely wiped out, robbing us of our time together, and so I was angry at my dying husband.
I don’t think a reader is going to trust me if I present a picture of a paragon, either of Jim or myself. I don’t present myself that way. An important part of the story was my frustration, impatience. Those things belong in a memoir if you’re going to have your reader’s trust.
Rumpus: You weren’t just accused of oversharing, but rather “still oversharing,” which seems, along with the subhead “The personal essay may be over, but Joyce Maynard isn’t,” to have a germ of ageism about it.
Maynard: You know, it’s baffling to me that in these #MeToo days, when so much is being said about the value of women coming forward to speak their truth about what happened to them, of how they shouldn’t be intimidated by men, that there could still be an effort by the Atlantic to dismiss a woman’s story of her experience.
Rumpus: I think it’s important to note how many women who’ve come forward about sexual harassment allegations are older, many in their sixties.
Maynard: When the question—Why is she talking about it now?—is raised, well, women of my generation all understand. Pierre Trudeau’s wife was twenty years his junior. Frank Sinatra was married to Mia Farrow. In Manhattan, you could watch on screen Woody Allen basically being a pedophile. Charlie Rose kissed me on the mouth when I’d come in for an interview. Here I was, strong, independent Joyce who had lived through a lot of things. And, you know, I was flattered. That is a dirty little secret that doesn’t eradicate the crimes of these men. We were sufficiently indoctrinated to believe when a powerful important man gave us even unwanted attention, we should feel successful. Of course, this was Charlie Rose twenty-five years ago. He wasn’t bad looking. But it was wildly inappropriate. And, of course, when a fifty-year-old man of incredible power decided he wanted to meet me, wanted me to live with him, I was interested. And not because of his fame—though my mother was definitely impressed with that—but because of the appearance he gave of understanding me.
Rumpus: It seems sad, too, that Salinger could be so dismissive of you when you were just getting started in life, that he didn’t want you to write, that he talked you into leaving college. I love that many years later you met the absolute opposite in Jim, who said to you, about the love and struggle the two of you faced, “You will tell this story one day.”
Maynard: One of the most heroic things about him was the way he died. But it was important not to write a book about Jim dying. I wanted to bring him fully to life. There’s 150 pages of book before we get to the diagnosis. He made me feel like a very loved woman.
Rumpus: And he reflected on a similar feeling near the end, saying, “I have been known.”
Maynard: This last phase was taking the book on the road. I’ll have a hard time letting go of it. When the tour is over—then, in some ways, Jim is really gone. Now it is over. I have to keep on doing my work.
Author photograph © Catherine Sebastian.