Joyce Maynard seems finally at home in her world.
The best-selling author-essayist was sitting at a faded wooden picnic table on the weathered deck of her “funky old house” on a hillside above upscale Mill Valley in Marin County, her primary residence for the past 17 years. She gazed reflectively at the gorgeous view of steep, forested hills and gently sloping Mount Tamalpais. The house is rented out now, though some of Maynard’s art and furniture remain. One of the conditions of the lease allows her to come and go, with advance notice.
Maynard has mostly relocated to the home of her new husband, attorney Jim Barringer, in Montclair in the Oakland hills. They met two years ago through match.com (“No shame, it’s a sensible way to meet people”) and married in July in her native New Hampshire in a ceremony that made The New York Times “Weddings and Celebrations” column. The bride will be 60 on Nov. 5.
One of the lines in her marriage vows, the Times reported, was, “I will bake you apple pies and never wear flannel pajamas.” Pie-making is a passion.
The conversation would soon get around to her new suspense novel, “After Her,” based on a true case that happened near Mill Valley. It’s Maynard’s eighth and most favorably reviewed novel, a continuation of the sometimes surprisingly dark themes that reoccur in her fiction: strong women who survive the odds against them; the bonding between teen siblings; divorce, love, risk, tragedy, parenthood, the search for happiness.
Over her career, Maynard has been a journalist for The New York Times, a TV commentator, a nationally syndicated columnist, a writing coach, a college teacher and a familiar name in national magazines. But perhaps she is best known for her intimate memoirs; in one of them she painfully recounts her live-in affair with “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger.
Maynard is quick with a laugh and an anecdote, thrives on drama, is startlingly frank and doesn’t back off from her opinions. Yet at the center of that hurricane is a more fragile persona, one that has had a lifelong need for love and attention.
At the moment, though, she wanted to explain the nature of pie-making, moving into the retro kitchen.
“I bake pie for love and I’ve taught well over 1,000 people how to make pie,” she said, pointing to the wide kitchen counters, ideal for rolling out dough. Maynard’s pie-making lessons serve as fundraisers for charities, but they’re really about the zen of baking.
“Making pie is not about measurements or a recipe,” she said. “It’s about getting in touch with the butter, the water, the flour and yourself. You have to be very tuned in, get comfortable and free. Pie-making is a metaphor for how I feel about many things.”
Maynard began “teaching pie” 24 years ago as an homage to her late pie-making mother, and hasn’t stopped. She even taught Josh Brolin the art for his role in the film adaptation of her 2009 novel “Labor Day,” set for December release and co-starring Kate Winslet. The plot involves an escaped convict who invades the home of a single mother and her teenage son, with surprising consequences. The pie-making scene in movie is evocative of sexually charged pottery-making scene between Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.”
Maynard walked across the hardwood floors and settled on a couch in a skylit room that served as her writing center when she first moved from New Hampshire to California. She writes in several places, including a small house in a Guatemalan village on Lake Atitlan, where she has taught a weeklong memoir-writing workshop since 2001. She also writes at her “little shack” in rural New Hampshire. “It doesn’t have running water, but it does have a fine outhouse,” she said.
Her latest book “After Her” is part thriller, part coming-of-age, set in the 1970s and about two sisters – Rachel, 13, and Patty, 11 – who use one of their made-up word games to cleverly survive a confrontation with a serial killer known as the Sunset Stranger. He’s murdering young women in Marin County, including on Mount Tamalpais. Their father is the lead homicide detective on the case and spirals into depression when he can’t capture the killer.
The Sunset Strangler is modeled after convicted serial murderer David Carpenter, known as the Trailside Killer, who terrorized Marin County from 1979 to 1981. He remains on death row in San Quentin. “I hiked the mountain for years, dimly aware of the killings that happened there a long time ago, but (local) people were still haunted by them,” Maynard said.
“After Her” also parallels the real-life stories of two sisters who grew up in Novato, whose father was the lead investigator in the Trailside Killer case. “He was consumed by it,” Maynard said. “He could not catch the killer and was crushed by that. It was the formative experience of the sisters’ childhood.”
Ultimately, Carpenter was arrested in San Francisco by an FBI surveillance team.
Maynard met the sisters – Janet Cubley and Laura Xerogeanes – at a memoir-writing workshop in her Mill Valley home.
“Everybody had left and we were in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes,” Maynard recalled. “The moment I knew I wanted to explore their story was when Laura told me she had written a letter to David Carpenter to ask if she could see him. She felt there was something missing in her understanding of her father’s experience (he died shortly after Carpenter was arrested).”
The meeting was fruitless, however. “He was unreachable and she didn’t get insight into anything,” said Maynard.
Mostly, the off-camera Sunset Strangler murders in “After Her” are a backdrop for the “heart of the story,” the sisters’ relationship with their father and each other. “I got to imagine their adventures and the kind of childhood so few children get to live anymore, one that’s not all about scheduled activities and (social media),” Maynard said. “Their magical thinking allows them to believe they can actually help their dad catch a killer by being the bait and setting a trap.”
Maynard paused, then leaned forward on the couch and lowered her voice.
“The strangest thing happened,” she began. “Yesterday I got a 10-page, unsigned letter in a very shaky handwriting, postmarked ‘San Francisco.’ This person was writing about my new book, and he said that David Carpenter was innocent and went on to describe his rage over what happened to Carpenter, with some extraordinary specificity about the murders. He wrote, ‘I will grant you the whole first half of the book is very authentic ... .’ Holding those pages, I felt I was holding something toxic. I think it was a letter from David Carpenter himself … .”
Perhaps, or maybe her reaction is simply in keeping with the sense of earnest drama and startling candor that are her trademarks.
Raised as a writer
Maynard grew up under pressure from her “extraordinarily gifted but frustrated” parents who “no longer loved each other” – an alcoholic English professor-father and unrecognized artist, and an intellectual mother who held a Ph.D. from Radcliffe but couldn’t find a career beyond keeping house and writing articles for women’s magazines.
“I was their creation, schooled from age 3 to write,” Maynard recalled. “I would read out loud from my manuscripts and my parents would critique them. I got a mimeograph machine for my seventh birthday. Growing up, I felt totally alone (though she has an older sister, Rona).”
Maynard won a string of writing awards through high school and was submitting stories to national magazines in her teens. As a freshman at Yale, she became a national phenomenon when The New York Times Magazine published her essay, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” and pictured the doe-eyed Maynard on the cover.
“That dramatically changed my life overnight and seemed to provide everything my mother had always wanted for me,” she said. “I was a small-town girl who was suddenly invited to go out to lunch with big editors in New York City, fly to Los Angeles and go on TV, and sign a book contract.”
Her fame led to a second sea change in her young life – she dropped out of Yale, cut herself off from her friends and lived for 10 months with writer J.D. Salinger, who was 53 and the sanctified darling of the literary establishment. Their May-December relationship ended in 1973 when he handed her two $50 bills and told her to leave.
“I was plucked from my world by this extraordinarily compelling man who wrote me irresistible letters (which she auctioned for $156,500 in 1999),” she said. “My whole world was different after (the love affair) ended. There has hardly been a day since then that his name hasn’t come up.”
The Salinger trauma would set the course of Maynard’s life.
“Everything I believed came from him,” she said. “The man I had revered the most in the whole world had told me I was a corrupt, shallow, hollow individual for wanting (to fulfill my dreams) of publishing my work and connecting with the world, and I felt like a failure. So I took the $17,000 I’d made (from the memoir ‘Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up in the Sixties’), bought a farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in Connecticut and lived by myself for three years, doing political commentary for CBS radio.”
Maynard later moved to New York City, landed a job as reporter and columnist for The New York Times, met “an age-appropriate man” (artist Steve Bethel), married him in 1977 and quit the Times. “I did the most politically incorrect thing I could have done,” she said. “I told (legendary editor) Abe Rosenthal I wanted to go back to New Hampshire and have babies.” Eventually, she had two sons and a daughter.
Having a normal, happy family life (“Which I didn’t have”) has been Maynard’s quest since childhood, she said, and she thought she’d found the template at last. She shared the intimate details of their rural life in her syndicated column, “Domestic Affairs,” which ran in 60 newspapers from 1984 to 1990, including The Bee.
“I loved telling the honest, unglamorized story of two people trying to have a marriage, raise their children well, and deal with huge frustrations and flaws,” she said.
Fulfillment would remain elusive, though. “During the course of those years, my marriage was falling apart,” Maynard said, and her column increasingly focused on the growing dysfunction between wife and husband. Finally, Maynard announced her divorce in her column, took the children and relocated to another New Hampshire town.
By 1996 “(the children and I) needed to broaden our world, so I looked at a map and said, ‘Where’s a great place to live?’ she recalled.“We spent two days in San Francisco, and I rented a car, drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, saw the Mill Valley exit and was struck by Mount Tamalpais. So we moved here, to a place where we had no history. We were like the Beverly Hillbillies. I thought, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ It’s like making pie crust — you improvise.”
Cutting the psychic ties with New Hampshire “allowed me to write (the 1998 memoir) ‘At Home in the World,’” said Maynard. The lengthy section on Salinger is squirmingly intimate. A new edition was released in September, with a new foreword. The cover is a 1973 portrait of an emotionally battered-looking Maynard, shot by famed photographer Richard Avedon shortly after her breakup with Salinger.
“(‘At Home’) is not a book about Salinger, it’s a book about my life and how one aspect of it changed everything,” she said. “I was personally condemned (by the literary establishment) when it came out because there was this belief – still alive and well – that no one should ever say anything about Salinger and I had violated that code. I had to work really hard to bring the book back out, and I felt so strongly about the story being heard in my voice that I recorded the audiobook (for free).”
The new edition was a well-timed part of the perfect storm that hit in September. “After Her” was new in bookstores, and the documentary “Salinger” was released in theaters nationwide (to tepid reviews), followed by the companion biography of the same name by David Shields and filmmaker Shane Salerno.
Maynard participated in the documentary “knowing full well the alternative was to be spoken about,” she said. “It disturbingly soft-pedals Salinger’s pattern of pursuing very young girls in ways that were hugely damaging.”
Maynard felt so strongly about the issue that she wrote an essay published in the New York Times, titled “Was J.D. Salinger Too Pure For This World?” In it, she writes, “The (film) director’s idea seems to be that Salinger’s interest in young women sprang from his emotional war wounds and attempt to reclaim innocence. Absent from the discussion is an assessment of the cost to those whose innocence the great man sought to claim.”
Salinger will always haunt Maynard, but – with a new marriage and a novel in progress – she’s focused on fresh starts.
“I feel fully myself and I don’t try to please everybody anymore, which is a huge relief,” she said. “ I am not a ‘happily ever after’ kind of person, but I am definitely an optimist. A source of pride for me is I have managed pretty consistently to locate some belief of redemption or hope.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy,” she said. “One life just doesn’t seem like enough for me, so I’m trying to pack in as much as I possibly can. I do get around a little bit.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.