Joyce Maynard did not fit in at Yale the first time around. When she arrived on campus as a freshman, in 1971, she was a lonely, aloof eighteen-year-old. She would wake at sunrise to compose letters to her parents about campus life, as though, she’d later recall, she were “Margaret Mead observing the behaviors of some South Sea island tribe.” When she could not find a “safe place to sit” in the dining hall, she’d smuggle small meals into her dormitory. On many weekends, she stood by the side of I-91 to hitchhike home to New Hampshire. By the end of her first semester, she had applied to relocate to a so-called “psychological single,” on the far end of campus. Already an accomplished writer, Maynard picked up freelance assignments in her spare time, including, in the spring of her freshman year, a cover story for the Times Magazine. After the piece’s publication, she received an admiring letter from J. D. Salinger, and the two began a now infamous affair. On the first day of her sophomore year, Maynard left Yale, giving up her scholarship, to live with Salinger, who was thirty-five years her senior, in the wooded seclusion of New Hampshire. Their relationship lasted just eleven months, but her involvement with the famous, and famously private, man would come to define much of her life.
In the decades since, Maynard has published more than fifteen books, among them three memoirs, several novels, two children’s books, a young-adult novel, and a true-crime thriller. She has married twice, raised three children, and settled outside of San Francisco. Since 2015, she has appeared as a guest speaker, either in person or via Skype, in a writing workshop at her alma mater taught by Anne Fadiman, a professor and writer-in-residence. Fadiman’s syllabus for the class includes parts of “At Home in the World,” Maynard’s memoir from 1998, recounting her relationship with Salinger. The women were born months apart, in 1953. During Maynard’s trips to New Haven, they often discussed, with some amusement, the idea that Maynard might one day reënroll in school. As a guest speaker, the author had been unusually popular in Fadiman’s class. “She was so cool!” one student told Fadiman, after Maynard’s first visit. “I expect memoirists to be angsty, but she actually seemed happy,” another said. After her second husband died, in 2016, Maynard began to entertain the prospect more seriously.
Last February, she travelled to Yale for a campus visit. She was hosted by one of Fadiman’s students, a current senior and English major named Allie Primak. Strolling through New Haven, Maynard showed Primak her old haunts, among them her first dormitory on the freshman quad and the post office where she checked, almost daily, for new mail from Salinger. At night, Primak slept in the common room and gave Maynard her bed. In the morning, Primak awoke to find that her guest had been leafing through the many novels on her nightstand. “Joyce was so active and independent during her stay,” Primak told me. “She wanted to go to classes all day, and then in the evenings she wanted to go to plays.”
Last spring, nearly five decades after withdrawing from the university, Maynard made the decision to rematriculate at Yale, as a sophomore. She rented out her house in California, left her dog with a handyman, and moved across the country to join the university’s Eli Whitney Students Program, which welcomes “nontraditional” applicants with “exceptional backgrounds and aspirations.” At the age of sixty-five, she has embraced university life in all the ways she didn’t as a teen-ager. In her first months back, she joined a literary society, learned to row from a classmate on the varsity crew team, and was cast in a student film, playing the part of a grandmother with dementia. Maynard does not receive a need-based scholarship; to afford tuition, she plans to dig into her late husband’s retirement funds. The sheer cost of her course load freights every school day with expectation. In the fall term, Maynard transferred out of a painting class after complaining to the professor that the lessons seemed unstructured. Her current schedule, which includes a libretto-writing workshop and a history seminar titled Yale and America, will position her for an interdisciplinary major in the humanities. One student who shares a class with Maynard told me, a bit snidely, that she sometimes seems more vocal in the classroom than the professor himself.
A month into the fall semester, Maynard had missed class just once, to watch Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. After a high-school classmate of Kavanaugh’s, Christine Blasey Ford, alleged that he had sexually assaulted her at a party in the eighties, Senate Democrats began investigating a new allegation by one of his Yale classmates, Deborah Ramirez. (Kavanaugh denies both allegations.) At Yale, where I am a senior, protests against Kavanaugh’s looming confirmation consumed the law school. “I’m surprised that some of the undergraduates I talk to aren’t more concerned about this,” Maynard told me that afternoon, when I met her outside her apartment, on the outskirts of campus. “I haven’t been able to focus on anything else.”
I was accompanying Maynard to a reading at Wesleyan University, part of the ongoing tour for her most recent memoir, “The Best of Us,” from 2017, which recounts her relationship with her late husband and his fight against pancreatic cancer. A black cab met us at the curb. In her seventh decade, Maynard has the style and bearing of a fit, eccentric millennial, with wide brown eyes and long copper-blond locks framing her face. Spending time with her among fellow-students on campus, I often forgot that she is older than my mother. For the reading, she had paired rose-printed cowboy boots with a skirt that concealed the scrapes on her knees. (She’d fallen off her bike during her daily commute across campus.) As we drove north, out of New Haven, she reached toward the front seat to adjust the radio, her fingers still smudged with paint from a week of art classes. She did not want to miss Kamala Harris’s questioning of Kavanaugh. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, one strong woman holding her ground could push this man over the edge,” she said.
In the basement of Wesleyan’s campus bookstore, where the reading was held, two dozen middle-aged men and women were waiting for Maynard. Many were longtime fans whom she immediately recognized—from previous readings, from the private memoir workshops she teaches, or from her large collective of online fans. Maynard was an early adopter of the Web, setting up her own site, in 1996, to communicate with readers. (Today, she has so many friends and followers on Facebook that the service no longer lets her add more.) As she settled on a stool in front of the crowd, Maynard asked the group their thoughts on the week’s national proceedings. She knew a thing or two, she said, about the sort of censure that Ford and Ramirez faced for challenging a powerful man; ever since writing, two decades before, about her relationship with Salinger, she had been the target of similar hostility. “I have been called a predator,” Maynard told the crowd, and rattled off some of the insults that had stuck to her name: “kiss-and-tell,” “leech woman,” “parasite,” “opportunist,” “exhibitionist,” “social climber,” “aging one-time nymphet.” “I admire the lofty types who say they don’t read the reviews,” she said, letting out an unruffled laugh. “Of course I read the reviews. And then I go on with my life.”
Maynard’s class at Yale was the third coed one in university history. The women on campus were often treated with ridicule. One woman in Maynard’s dormitory received countless phone calls from male classmates amused by her room number: 69. Maynard’s French instructor last semester, Ruth Koizim, was a graduate student at Yale in the seventies. “There were professors who would enter the room and make a point of saying, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ despite the fact that women were there,” Koizim told me. “I know for a fact that some women would walk into the dining halls and be greeted either by applause, if they were attractive, or by pig noises, if they were not.”
Institutional sexism was not foreign to Maynard. Her mother, a freelance writer for women’s magazines, had a doctorate in literature from Radcliffe College, at Harvard, but could never get a job at the University of New Hampshire, where Maynard’s father, a frustrated painter with no graduate degree, managed to secure a position teaching English. The couple instilled in their children a quiet ambition and a precocious facility with language. (Maynard’s elder sister, Rona, also went on to become a writer.) When Maynard was in her early teens, she began publishing work in magazines. As a senior, she transferred into the first coed class at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious high school in her home state, which she attended on a scholarship. During her first term at Yale, Maynard convinced Seventeen to fly her to Fort Worth, Texas, for a feature on the Miss Teenage America pageant. Upset that Seventeen had edited down her story, she sent a photocopy of the uncut piece, cold, to an editor at the Times, expressing interest in future assignments. A week later, the Times Magazine asked her to write a thirty-five-hundred-word personal essay on “what it is like to be eighteen years old in this country.”
Maynard’s only writing teacher at Yale was the novelist Leslie Epstein, an alumnus who was back on campus as a visiting professor. One day, in the spring of 1972, he entered the classroom and immediately sensed a tense energy around Maynard. “You could practically see waves of something, of envy,” emanating from the other students, he recalled, “the way on cold days you can see air being disturbed by radiators. I said to myself, ‘What on earth is going on?’ ” He soon had his answer: Maynard’s personal essay, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” was the cover story of that week’s issue of the Times Magazine. “The rest of the kids were all struggling to be writers, and so forth,” Epstein said. “And there was Joyce.” Anne Fadiman, who was a sophomore at Harvard at the time, recalled feeling “intensely envious,” both of Maynard’s achievement and of the fetching photograph that appeared on the front of the magazine, showing the young author sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Yale library. “I thought, Damn, but I also admired the essay and knew that I couldn’t have written anything nearly as good,” Fadiman said.
Maynard’s essay pushed her into the public sphere. It roused the interest of many agents, editors, publicists, politicians, producers, and casting directors. (She was invited to audition for the lead role in “The Exorcist,” a job she lost to Linda Blair.) Part of the article’s charm was its premature world-weariness. Maynard dismissed the myths of her elders and the mores of most adolescents. Cape Canaveral, the Cuban missile crisis, the women’s-liberation movement—none of this quite moved her. Nor did the “disproportionate importance” of drugs among her peers. Her own idyll was isolation. “As some people prepare for their old age, so I prepare for my twenties,” she wrote. “A little house, a comfortable chair, peace and quiet—retirement sounds tempting.” In later years, Maynard confessed some regret about the essay’s “fundamental dishonesty.” Her attempts to contrive the voice of a generation had led her to efface the private trials of her own adolescence: her father’s alcoholism, her struggles with bulimia. (“I never supposed, in 1972, that anybody would have cared to hear the voice of the girl I really was,” she writes in “At Home in the World.”) But it was perhaps her essay’s affectations that most charmed the writer of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Like Holden Caulfield, who railed against phonies, or Franny Glass, the precocious liberal-arts student of Salinger’s imagination, Maynard seemed to have a knack for calling bullshit.
Salinger was one of many readers to send her fan mail. Since the fifties, he had lived in Cornish, New Hampshire, retreating from the reach of publicity and establishing the sort of life style idealized in Maynard’s essay. Though he continued to write fiction, he had not published any since 1965. (Salinger died in 2010. Last week, his son told the Guardian that he and his stepmother are preparing to release the author’s unseen work.) In his first letter to Maynard, in 1972, he praised her prose and struck the tone of a fatherly confidant. At a time when the literary élite was courting Maynard, Salinger urged her to spurn promises of success and profit. Her writing should be allowed to develop naturally, he said, without the officious influence of New York types. Salinger warned Maynard “in strictest privacy” that she stood to be exploited, adding that, if she could “bear it,” she ought to keep his advice confidential.
The pair’s correspondence blossomed. That summer, he visited Maynard in New York, where she apprenticed as an editorial writer at the Times. She spent a few weekends at Salinger’s ranch-style home in Cornish, and sometimes, at his suggestion, called in sick to prolong her visits. In September of 1972, after just one night back in New Haven, Maynard says, she left college and moved in with Salinger, where she was inducted into his rigid and reclusive routine. They ate a diet of nuts, vegetables, and studiously underdone lamb patties. (Overcooking food removed its nutrients, he explained.) A practiced homeopath, Salinger inveighed against doctors, musicians, feminists, politicians, and the publishing establishment. Though he continued to live off royalties from his œuvre, he disapproved of Maynard’s career moves, her first book deal, the calls that came from the city. The prospect of literary success had made her a “worldly, greedy, hungry person,” Maynard recalls him telling her, in “At Home in the World.” “You can’t stop loving all the foolish, empty, hollow attractions the world has to offer you.”
In March of 1973, less than a year after they first exchanged letters, Salinger brought Maynard to Daytona Beach, Florida, on a vacation with his children. The couple visited a naturopathic practitioner there who Salinger hoped could fix Maynard’s vaginismus, a condition that causes spasms of the pelvic-floor muscles, which had hindered their attempts at sexual intercourse. The treatment did not succeed. Later that afternoon, as Salinger watched his son and daughter lounge on the shore, he told Maynard that they were through. Before she boarded a taxi to the airport the next day, he handed her two fifty-dollar bills. She was to return to New Hampshire, clear her belongings from his home, and disappear.
Maynard waited twenty-five years to tell this story. While living with Salinger, she adapted her breakout essay into a memoir, “Looking Back,” which does not once mention him. Readers of her first novel, “Baby Love,” from 1981, would not have known that the abrupt breakup one character suffers on a beach in Florida closely mirrored the author’s own. In the immediate aftermath of the split, Maynard used the advance from “Looking Back” to purchase a nineteenth-century farmhouse about fifty miles from Cornish, where she eventually moved in with her first husband. In the following decades, with no college degree to her name, Maynard became a radio correspondent, reported more for the Times, published books, and penned a syndicated column called “Domestic Affairs,” which more than a dozen newspapers pulled after her divorce. When journalists questioned her about the Salinger rumors, she demurred; she had promised to respect his privacy, she said. “Was it a love affair?” Charlie Rose asked her, in 1992, bringing up the subject when she appeared on his show to promote her second novel, “To Die For.”
“It’s not the only thing I’ve done with my life,” Maynard said, “or the most—”
Rose interrupted her. “No,” he said. “It certainly is not. I mean, you’ve got three kids, and you’ve had a marriage.” (Twenty-five years later, the public learned of Rose’s habit of making unwanted advances on much younger staff members. He has denied allegations of sexual misconduct.)
In “To Die For,” Maynard reimagined the true story of Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire woman who, in the nineties, was convicted of persuading her student lover and his friends to murder her husband. The book assumes the form of a mockumentary and reads like an engrossing, if sometimes predictable, popular crime novel. (Gus Van Sant adapted it into a film, starring Nicole Kidman, in 1995.) “There are some individuals I could mention that will probably tell you I’m some kind of cutthroat, ambitious bitch,” Smart’s fictional counterpart, the mercenary TV journalist Suzanne Maretto, tells the reader. Rather than mope about the possibility of a life sentence for her murder plot, she plans to spend the days before her bail hearing cutting back on calories and keeping a journal about her time in jail. “When it was all over,” she reasons, “I’d have some dynamite material to market.”
Maynard has often said that she decided to break her silence about Salinger only after her daughter turned eighteen, the age at which Maynard had first heard from him. When “At Home in the World” was published, it inspired disdain that verged on personal hatred. At Slate, Maynard’s former Yale classmate Alex Beam wrote that she had “hacked her way through three decades wrapped in a delusion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting.” Much of the publishing world was horrified that she had exposed Salinger’s intensely private personal life. Cynthia Ozick described her as someone “who has never been a real artist and has no real substance and has attached herself to the real artist in order to suck out his celebrity.” The critic Gerri Hirshey dismissed the author’s “icky, masturbatory eroticon” and “that busy Maynard mouth,” referring to an uneasy scene in the memoir in which Salinger pushes the young Maynard’s head beneath the sheets.
By the time Maynard published “At Home in the World,” she had learned of other women her age who possessed intimate, flattering letters from Salinger; at least one of them had received his missives while he and Maynard were living together. In a scene toward the end of the memoir, Maynard, now in her forties, returns to Cornish, looking for some sense of closure. She finds Salinger living with a new wife many decades his junior. In those days, it did not occur to much of the world to question Salinger’s choices, or to imagine that Maynard’s honesty might constitute not simply confessionalism but a brash kind of courage. Critics were quick to recast her openness as opportunism and Salinger’s stealth as divine, vulnerable introversion. Fewer wondered openly, if at all, whether the hermit might have something to hide.
Anne Fadiman’s spring-term seminar, Writing About Oneself, is a survey of British and American memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, and letters. The course is both hugely popular and notoriously selective; in a typical semester, Fadiman receives more than a hundred applications for twelve spots. Each week, she pairs a reading from recent decades with an older one on the same theme. For a class about loss, students read Elizabeth Alexander and Virginia Woolf; for one about “altered states,” Cheryl Strayed and Thomas De Quincey. Before Maynard’s visit each spring, the professor assigns eleven chapters of “At Home in the World,” alongside a portion of H. G. Wells’s autobiography that considers his extramarital affair with a younger university student. (The week’s theme is love.) One question implicit in Fadiman’s class discussions is whether first-person writing is inherently selfish. Fadiman believes the answer is no, but she playfully engages preconceptions of the genre. In scheduling weekly writing assignments, she divides students alphabetically into two groups: the Narcissists and the Solipsists.
In the spring of Maynard’s freshman year at Yale, the Times Magazine published her essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” with a photo of her on the cover.
Among Fadiman’s past students, one of the memoir’s staunchest supporters was Marina Keegan, a Yale senior whose writings were published posthumously, in 2014, two years after she died, in a car crash, the week of her commencement. In an introduction to the collection, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” Fadiman writes that her former student was a vivacious contrarian with “strong opinions” about each assigned reading. “She hated Lucy Grealy even though most of her classmates loved her, and loved Joyce Maynard even though most of her classmates hated her,” Fadiman wrote. When Maynard read the book and happened upon her own name, she e-mailed Fadiman to propose a visit to the professor’s class, hoping that a face-to-face conversation would help win over her undergraduate detractors. When Fadiman wrote back, agreeing to the visit, she clarified that not every batch of students has a predominantly negative response to Maynard’s work. When I took the seminar, in 2017, the majority of my classmates adored “At Home in the World.” “Oh my, this is my soul sister!” one of my friends wrote in an e-mail to Fadiman at the time, hoping to secure a coveted seat at a dinner with Maynard after class.
When “At Home in the World” was first published, Fadiman tore through a hardcover copy. “I had loved Salinger’s writing when I was growing up,” she told me last fall, during one of our meetings in the office of her guest suite on campus. “I identified strongly with the Glass family, and reading Joyce’s memoir was therefore pretty painful. I still believe Salinger is a great writer, but I’ll never be able to look at his innocent young girls in the same way.” Fadiman considers Maynard’s memoir a “milestone” in the modern history of the genre, a book that, along with Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation” and Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss,” paved the way for a new kind of candor in personal writing. Fadiman told me that the criticism of the book has always baffled her. “Joyce’s memoir was clear, and it was powerful, and it was well written, and it was smart, and it was direct,” she said. “It didn’t show off, it got to the point, and I thought it had a tremendous amount of authentic emotional force.” She added, “I’ve been scratching my head for decades now wondering why this book has not been taken as seriously as it deserves to be.”
Promotional copy from Maynard’s publisher marketed “At Home in the World” as “the story of a girl who loved and lived with J. D. Salinger, and the woman she became.” Michiko Kakutani, who found the book “too solipsistic” to be a “first-rate memoir,” acknowledged, in her review for the Times, that this marketing gave the false impression of a “sleazy tell-all.” In truth, “At Home in the World” is a sweeping coming-of-age story, by turns stark, lyrical, eerie, and self-lacerating, with long sections that have nothing to do with Salinger. The book recounts Maynard’s lifelong quest to overcome a compulsion to please others, first as an overachieving daughter and later as a wife, a mother, and a divorcée struggling to support her children. “Her book meant so much to me when I read it in Anne’s class,” Allie Primak, the student who hosted Maynard on campus last year, told me. “I remember feeling very alone at Yale, especially because the promise of college is that you’re supposed to find your place so quickly. I thought Joyce articulately captured how it feels to want someone by your side.”
One of the memoir’s underappreciated themes is the hustle of life as a working writer. As Maynard grew her family, she served as the primary breadwinner, writing regular columns and taking on sundry editorial chores in order to afford the monthly bills. When she found time to work on fiction, she’d often rush through drafts in a matter of days, before more immediately remunerative gigs interfered. She produced “Baby Love,” about a group of teen mothers living in rural New England, in less than two weeks, writing in a “white heat of excitement.” Reading the bleak, provocative book, one might sense that it was written in a hurry; the plot is cluttered with a few too many secondary characters and narrative coincidences. The conclusion is a kooky cliffhanger. But much of the prose is powerful, and the story braves themes—the mundanities of single motherhood, the sexual fantasies and frustrations of young women—that still feel underrepresented in contemporary fiction. The novel was quickly picked up by Knopf, in 1980; in “At Home in the World,” Maynard recalls receiving notes of praise from Joseph Heller and Raymond Carver. She used her earnings from the sale to convince her husband at the time that they could afford to have a second child.
“I’ve always viewed myself as a kind of journeyman,” she told me. “And I think there’s no shame in that—just the opposite. I’m proud of the fact that this is my craft. Some people lay bricks. Some people paint houses. I write.” In 1999, when Maynard rekindled criticism by selling Salinger’s letters at auction, part of her motivation was to raise tuition for her children’s college educations.
Perhaps the least acknowledged virtue of “At Home in the World” is that it takes pains not to frame Salinger as a villain. (The author arguably comes off much worse in “Dream Catcher,” a memoir published, in 2000, by his own daughter.) In Maynard’s narrative, he emerges as something of a philosophical foil, haunting her life choices long after their relationship’s end. “For over thirty years,” she writes, Salinger has “sought his protection in privacy and silence.” Maynard, on the other hand, comes to find her “greatest protection” in self-disclosure: “It’s shame, not exposure, that I can’t endure; I’ve lived with so much of it. It’s the things people don’t talk about that scare me.” If she narrates her own insecurities, she reasons, who in the end can threaten to expose her? “I am surely not the only woman who made herself throw up everyday, or flew into a rage at her children, or who felt abandoned by love,” she writes. In one scene in the book, on a quiet hike during the early days of their relationship, Salinger provides Maynard with prescient advice, which she reproduces without comment:
“Some day, Joyce,” he says to me, “there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true.”
Maynard’s second husband, Jim Barringer, died of cancer in the small hours of a June morning, just days after his sixty-fourth birthday, as she lay with him in their bed. The first thing Maynard did was get up, brew a pot of coffee, and begin to write. “The Best of Us,” published in 2017, charts her short marriage to Barringer, a divorced lawyer whom she came to consider “the first true partner I had ever known,” decades after discounting the possibility of love. “I had been, at the point our story began, a writer of fiction, and in the writing of fiction, it is well understood that for a story to hold the reader’s interest, conflict must exist,” Maynard writes in the first chapter. “I might have told myself otherwise, but for years I think I carried that belief into my life off the page.” The book portrays Barringer as a gracious, humane companion who prioritizes pro-bono work, pursues a second degree in environmental law, and defends his wife against criticism, creating a Facebook persona called Epicurious George to “offer devastating rebuttals” to the mean comments that inevitably came her way.
Not long after “The Best of Us” was published, Caitlin Flanagan wrote a pan of the book in The Atlantic. Titled “The Queen of Oversharing,” the review seethed with sarcasm and repeated many of the well-worn claims against Maynard: “She is the Joyce Carol Oates of women’s confessional essays, firing them off in such rapid succession that she will probably begin and finish one in the time it takes you to read this paragraph.” (Maynard, who seems to relish engaging with her critics, responded with a letter to the editor.) Flanagan also raised some more carefully argued criticisms of Maynard’s work, pointing out that the author can underestimate the disconcerting effects her revelations have on readers. Maynard “loses the crowd,” Flanagan writes, when she devotes a chapter to her wishful decision to adopt a pair of sisters from Africa, and her choice, a year later, to find them a new home. “When she describes meeting her future husband just six months later and having the time of her life with him,” Flanagan writes, the reader remains fixated on the plight of the girls.
It’s true that Maynard’s less successful writings can telegraph a lack of self-awareness—a play for sympathy and exoneration that is perhaps more apparent to readers than to the author herself. In “The Best of Us,” Maynard presents the devastation of her failed adoption as the unfortunate consequence of a leap of faith—a second attempt at family-making not unlike, say, her decision to remarry. On her first date with Barringer, Maynard describes her trip to retrieve the girls from an orphanage in Ethiopia, her tormented attempts to connect with them back in California, and her search, once those attempts had drained her strength, to locate a more stable family. In response, Barringer urges her to forgive herself, and the reader, by extension, is invited to do the same. (Though she has written about the incident on her blog and discussed it on the radio, Maynard told me that, out of respect for the children’s privacy, she preferred not to address it further.) A “Modern Love” column she wrote for the Times, a few years before, culminates with similar tidiness. In it, she chronicles her choice to spy on her twenty-two-year-old daughter’s e-mail account. In the end, Maynard writes, “She managed to forgive me—not only forgive me, but allow me to tell this story.” (Responding in Slate’s now defunct column Modern Love Revenge, Maynard’s daughter, Audrey Bethel, wrote, “I knew how much she wanted me to tell her to go ahead with the piece, especially since it would be good publicity to coincide with her new book coming out.”)
The problem, when it comes to Maynard, is that the critics have been so emphatic, for so long, that it has become hard to separate the valid skepticism from the ad-hominem attacks, and the superior work from the middling. Maynard has come to see herself as a permanent outsider in the literary world. She likes to recount a story from 2008, when she brought the recently completed manuscript of her novel “Labor Day” to a number of agents. The one who agreed to represent her, David Kuhn, submitted the manuscript without her name, though he and Maynard remember the circumstances differently—she told me that the strategy was “his proviso,” while he recalls that it grew out of her own concern about preconceptions of her work. In any case, a bidding war ensued. An item appeared in the New York Observer speculating about the anonymous author of the hot new novel; a rumor suggested that it might be James Franco. After her true identity was revealed, Maynard recalls that interest in the book cooled. (Kuhn, who does not remember much cooling, said, “One bidder definitely converted a hardback offer to a paperback one.”) Though the novel went on to become a Times best-seller, and was adapted into a film in 2013, Maynard confessed to me that she still fantasizes about publishing new books under a pseudonym.
Elizabeth Wurtzel is a friend of Maynard’s, and another controversial writer on Anne Fadiman’s syllabus. She also studied at Yale later in life, earning a J.D. from the law school in 2008. Maynard, Wurtzel told me, is someone who “always needs a new adventure.” “Joyce has an experimental life,” she said, adding, “If it’s truth or dare, she takes truth and dare.” Wurtzel believes that distaste for confessional writing like “At Home in the World” is more often than not a consequence of simple misogyny. When Wurtzel published “Prozac Nation,” a raucous, provocative account of the highs and trials of atypical depression, her extreme candor attracted accusations of solipsism not unlike those that would be aimed at Maynard a few years later. “Men who make the rules tend to dismiss memoir, because they’re just not as good at it as women are,” Wurtzel told me. “Their capacity to be truthful is limited by the fact that they’re the ones with power. And it’s not useful, if you are the ones with power, to tell the truth about yourself.”
Last September, Maynard published an essay in the Times that proposed a rereading of her own story for the #MeToo moment. “What does it say about us that a woman who speaks the truth of her experience should be dismissed for telling more than the world feels comfortable hearing?” she asked, addressing Flanagan’s review and a lifetime of opprobrium. When a writer like Norman Mailer or Karl Ove Knausgaard “confesses intimate details of his life,” she wrote, he’s considered “brave, fearless, even brilliant.” Like “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” the essay electrified her Yale classmates; a number of my peers who did not know that I was writing about Maynard texted me the link. But the piece possessed a straightforward sense of conviction that Maynard’s essay in the seventies had lacked. Its most pointed question came up front, in the headline: “Was She J.D. Salinger’s Predator or His Prey?” Online, hundreds of strangers weighed in, many of them with apologies for having written off Maynard in the past.
Among those to reconsider her work was Leslie Epstein, Maynard’s writing professor in the seventies. Though he was one of the first adults to recognize and encourage her early talent, he had bristled at the publication of “At Home in the World.” Like many others, he feared for the sanctity of Salinger’s reputation. (Some on Yale’s faculty today still seem to: not long after Maynard sat in on one of my English seminars during her visit last year, the professor said, flippantly, to our class, “That bitch ruined J. D. Salinger.”) In the nineties, Epstein’s reaction to Maynard’s “exposé” was admittedly visceral. “When I first heard about the book, I thought, ‘How dare she!’ ” he told me, explaining that at the time he could not bring himself even to read the memoir. “I said to myself, ‘A student of mine? I guess I didn’t teach her anything.’ ”
For more than three decades, Epstein directed the creative-writing program at Boston University, where he still teaches. It was only in 2017—after his daughter, the writer and producer Anya Epstein, told him that she was adapting “At Home in the World” for the screen—that he decided to open the book, albeit with lingering suspicion. “I’m not a #MeToo-er. I’m a Deneuvian,” Epstein said, referring to the French actress Catherine Deneuve, who made headlines last year for denouncing the excesses of the American movement. In the end, Epstein told me, reading Maynard’s memoir surprised him. “I was—I still am—a huge Salinger fan. With that said, Joyce’s book got to me. It’s a good book. And it strikes me as an honest book. I was affected by it sufficiently to sense the coördinates of my earlier feelings shift just a bit.”
A writer, Maynard says, “must forget about what her parents, or anybody else, will make of her work.”
In December, once classes had ended, Maynard spent an afternoon packing up her things in the art studio where her figure-drawing class had been held. Earlier in the semester, I had watched her use India ink and newsprint to create a collage of the day’s nude model. “It was a great liberation to make work I don’t have to think about having to sell,” she told me, as she reëntered the building. Custodians were coming to clear the space in several hours. The walls were nearly bare by then, and half-filled cups of paint and coffee littered the concrete floor. Maynard stooped to pick up a thumbtack. “This is Yale students at their worst,” she said, laughing. “It sort of offends me—the idea that there must be people waiting to clean up after the brilliant ones.”
Maynard led me to her workstation. One by one, she unfurled drawings from her portfolio, and I held down the corners of each as she sprayed on a fixative meant to prevent smudging. Maynard’s favorite piece from the semester was an ebullient pastel portrait of the family of a close friend named Melissa Vincel, who also works as Maynard’s assistant, organizing an annual memoir-writing workshop she teaches in Guatemala. Maynard mentioned that neither her classmates nor her professor had been crazy about the portrait. “But I love this piece,” she said. “It does everything I want it to.”
Maynard and Vincel first crossed paths in the nineties, when Vincel, still in high school, won a national literary award; during the prize ceremony, at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., Maynard delivered the keynote address. “Write like an orphan,” she told the crowd, before shaking the young girl’s hand. Years later, the women crossed paths—but did not immediately recognize each other—on the shores of Lake Atitlán, where Maynard has owned a home since 2001. Vincel just happened to be travelling in the area. She placed Maynard only after they got to talking about writing, and the author repeated familiar advice: “Write like an orphan.” “What I meant is that a writer, especially a writer of nonfiction, cannot constantly be worrying that her mother might read about her having sex, or that her father might judge her decisions,” Maynard told me in the art studio. “She must forget about what her parents, or anybody else, will make of her work.”
I helped Maynard roll up the rest of her work to carry home. Later, in the kitchen of her cozy one-bedroom apartment, she prepared us some dinner, placing a pan of Brussels sprouts in the oven and a pot of soup on the stove. If Maynard ends up completing her degree at Yale, she told me, she might write a memoir about it—for one thing, she’ll need the money to pay off her student debt. Fadiman had often pointed out that returning to school would make for fabulous material. But Maynard told me, emphatically, “That’s not why I’m here.” For the time being, she is focussing on fiction. She has begun and then abandoned a number of novels in recent years. One was a fictionalized version of the story of Michelle Carter, the young woman who, in 2017, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and became a target of public outrage, for urging her boyfriend to commit suicide. Recently, Maynard completed the first draft of a new novel, which sat in a fat stack of pages on her kitchen table. She had walled off the room with a whiteboard and plastered the countertops with Post-its that she intended to fill in as she continued work on the project. It is an ambitious family saga, the story of a New Hampshire couple’s marriage and divorce told over forty years. “I’m not a ten-day-novel girl anymore,” she told me. Now that her finals had ended, she planned to reread the draft and begin a revision.