Joyce Maynard, COUNT THE WAYS

Joyce Maynard, COUNT THE WAYS

With the publication of her tenth novel, Count the Ways, Joyce Maynard feels she has said everything she wanted to about falling in love and the dream of making a family. The journalist, author, and teacher joined Zibby to discuss why she’s drawn to stories that aren’t being told, the ways in which fiction writing has allowed her to explore her real-life relationships, and what she tells the women who attend her memoir workshops to help them feel empowered in telling their stories.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joyce. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Count the Ways and, I’m sure, so much else. Joyce, would you mind telling listeners what Count the Ways is about?

Joyce Maynard: Oh, everything. This is my tenth novel, Zibby. I said everything I wanted to say about falling in love and the great dream of making a family and a home. The characters are a pair of young, enormously idealistic artists who meet in the seventies, the same moment, probably not coincidentally, that I made the marriage to the father of my children. They have three children. They make this idyllic-seeming life on a farm in the country. They lose sight of each other, as often happens, especially when you’re raising one, two, three children and pulled in many directions. A terrible tragedy occurs in the family. I won’t say what it is. The wife who is the central character, Eleanor, cannot see her way to forgiving her husband. They break apart. It’s the story of a marriage and a family and a divorce and the survivors of that divorce. I’ll never say they stopped being a family. They’re always a family. That’s what I always felt in my own life after my own divorce when my children were quite young. I think that’s an experience that you’ve known as well. My marriage ended thirty years ago. My children are very grown and out in the world. With the distance of time, I wanted to look at what it meant. I wanted to honor that experience. I think so often, we focus on the moment when the event occurs. Really, for me, so much of the story lies in how we deal with the after. The novel starts in the late sixties when our character is a teenager. It goes through 2009 to the wedding of one of the children.

Zibby: Which, by the way, I found so interesting that you had the wedding be a trans character and that Allie, her daughter, became Al. We don’t read about characters like that so much in fiction, and certainly not necessarily from the point of view of the mother. I found that super interesting.

Joyce: Part of what I wanted to do, Zibby, was not write a book about the experience of a child who transitions. That has not been an experience in my own life. I wouldn’t feel qualified. I want to populate my books with characters who have all kinds of situations and stories and not necessarily make the story be about that. It’s not about that. One of my children had, for his best friend in high school, a young woman who ultimately transitioned and became a really gloriously healthy and whole and high-functioning, great young man, now a father of two children. I’m not without some knowledge of this story. I wouldn’t presume to write about it if I had none. I talked a lot to him and his mother also, actually. The book is full of all the kinds of things that happen over the course of a life, parents who lose children, parents who drift apart, parents who have affairs with other people, Vietnam vets, and opioid addicts, but it’s about all of those things and none of those things. It’s really about what we learn over time. I remember somebody saying to me once, if you live long enough, everything happens. actually said it in Yiddish. I’ve lived long enough. I’m sixty-seven years old. I was twenty-three when I married. Those years are still very alive for me. I feel I have a lot to say to women who are still in it, in that time of life, from the perspective of somebody who was very much there and is now looking back on it.

Zibby: What should we know?

Joyce: So much falls away. That’s one of the things I want to say. In the days when I was raising my own three children — my daughter was born in 1978 and my youngest son in ’84. There was no internet. I published for ten years, a syndicated newspaper column called Domestic Affairs about the life of our family. It’s a piece of work I’m really proud of. It wasn’t just cheerful, funny stories about soccer moms and birthday parties. I tried to tell some essential truths about family life, many of which I revisited in Count the Ways. Over the course of those years, my marriage fell apart. My marriage ended. I had to keep telling that story. My mother died during those years. A lot happened. At the time, I was so raw. I actually stopped writing the column eventually because I had to be living my life, not writing about my life. I was definitely angry and bitter and resentful of my children’s father in all kinds of ways. I look back now on that woman, and I think she wasted way too much energy being regretful about what hadn’t worked. Count the Ways is very much a novel about forgiveness. As you might remember, it begins with a Hawaiian prayer that my daughter, my oldest child, told me years ago. She said, “If you’re ever having difficulty with a person –” I’m going to just read it to you. I should just know it. She said, “Say these four lines to the person with whom you’re having difficulty, in any order. You just have to mean it, and there will be a shift.” The lines are, “I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you. Please forgive me.” I could not have spoken those words in 1989. I can say them now. I can recognize that I don’t just need to forgive, I need to be forgiven. Most of us do. That’s the wisdom of a sixty-seven-year-old. Thirty-five-year-old, forty-year-old, you name it, all the young women who are still in the midst of it and couldn’t possibly have gotten to that place yet, but it would be my hope that you would, that they would.

Zibby: Thank you for the advice on behalf of everybody listening.

Joyce: I’m not a big advice giver.

Zibby: I know. When you said you had a lot to say, I thought I would ask you outright. Of course, you do include so much of those insights in the book in how you tell the story, how you even depict the different generations, the interactions, the regrets, the estrangement even from the start with the grandmother who hadn’t met her three-year-old daughter. Of course, you’re left wondering, why? What’s going on?

Joyce: This is a story that I think hasn’t been told. I’m seeing it more and more. One hat I wear is that I teach memoir. I mostly write. I’ve basically had one job for the last fifty years, which is writing books, essays, articles. I do, once a year, teach a week-long memoir workshop just for women in which they work with me on the stories of their lives, women of all different levels, sometimes no previous writing experience. More and more, I am hearing the story — this is really painful, and I can’t say that I’m without some personal experience of this too — of people who definitely weren’t perfect mothers, but mothers who really tried, who did their best, who did all the stuff that we’re told to do, who have become somewhat or deeply or totally alienated from an adult child, usually a child in their late twenties, thirties. It’s not something that women typically talk about because I think there’s a lot of shame about that. What did I do wrong? It’s always the mother’s fault, isn’t it? Listening to these women and knowing, as I say, some of the struggles that I’ve gone through in my life as a parent of adult children now and children who were all, I’ll say survivors of a difficult divorce — I don’t know what an easy one is — I wanted to explore that situation too, among many others.

Zibby: I am the child of divorce, actually, and the grandchild of divorce and now have been divorced myself, so I’m very well-steeped in the divorce rhetoric, if you will, and know some of the downfalls and the few perks that exist like having time to read more books.

Joyce: The other thing is that I think mothers get it in so many different directions, as you know. Because we are responsible, supposedly, for absolutely everything, if our marriage fails, then whatever bad things are going to happen in our child’s life is because of that. The truth is, bad things, difficult things, hard things are going to happen no matter what. A big piece of this story is the message of, when I say forgiveness, forgive others, forgive yourself. During the years, the period when I was looking square in the eye of divorce and terrified by what it would do — I would do anything for my children, and I couldn’t keep my marriage together. What was that? I would protect them from all these small hurts. A lost Barbie shoe, I’d tear my house apart, which is something that I gave to my main mother character. Her daughter gets a Crystal Barbie for her birthday and loses the shoe. The mother just kind of goes crazy. I couldn’t protect them from the worst pain they ever knew as children. During that period, there was a very popular best-selling psychologist who was on Oprah, Phil Donahue, all those shows at the time who was basically setting forth the view that if you got a divorce, your children’s story was written, and it wasn’t going to be a good one, not just immediately, but over years and decades. Of course, that was terrifying. That was like saying, you’re going to give your child cancer. I don’t believe it. When I look at the people that my own three children have become, I profoundly don’t believe it. I suspect you have some views on that too.

Zibby: I remember the very moment when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I was fourteen. They started citing all these statistics.

Joyce: That’s really helpful.

Zibby: They said at the time that they found that children of happy divorces were much more — I can’t remember exactly the term. You’re much better off being a child of a happy divorce than a child of an unhappy marriage.

Joyce: Wow. Was that helpful for you?

Zibby: I still remember it.

Joyce: You probably remember, one of the scenes that’s very important to me in this book is the scene where the parents sit the children down on the couch and say they have something to tell them. The children think they’re going to get baby goats. They think they’re going to have this wonderful adventure. I, of course, remember my own true-life experience of being the parent who delivered that news. It’s like you’re going to throw cold water on their heads, but so much worse. They’re different people. They’re stronger, more resilient people in some ways. Certainly, they’re two very distinct things. One would be raising children in a happy, loving household with a partner that you had a really good thing going with. The other would be the alternative of raising children in a household where there was enormous strain and tension and where love was not modeled very well.

Zibby: When you said in the book that you hadn’t even noticed — not you. Sorry. Eleanor had not even noticed that her relationship with Cam had been falling by the wayside. It was a side effect of the whole thing. I think you referenced it a minute ago. She was busy in the chaos, in the day-to-day that she didn’t stop to see what was really lost. Then when you said a minute ago about all the busy work of Barbie’s shoe, that’s just so classic. The perfectionism, you sometimes can’t perfect a relationship, but you can perfect a playroom.

Joyce: I was the crazy woman who, in the middle of the night, crept into my children’s bedroom to sort the Legos into the bins, the things you can control.

Zibby: Yes, when so much is out of your control. Even the giant tree that splits in the center destabilizing the whole landscape, things happen. You can’t do anything about them. People cope with uncertainty in all these different ways. I think it’s so interesting that you explore in fiction, that one particular mom and how she deals with it. There’s no right answer.

Joyce: In many ways, there were many very hard, sad things that I explored in this book, and a few funny ones. There’s a scene where the woman goes — I had a version of this experience too. She’s alone at Christmas, which I was every other year because, you know. She chooses that day to go on a blind first date with a man who is a single father. Of course, she’s a person who’s desperately trying to reclaim family. Here’s this man who, he has his own version of this. He’s raising two sons alone. She shows up at his apartment on Christmas Day with her pie. She’s made this deadly sweet potato marshmallow casserole. The children are holding — what’s that plant where you have to kiss under it?

Zibby: Mistletoe.

Joyce: Yeah, mistletoe. They’re holding mistletoe over her head. It doesn’t go well. They’re not going to go off into the sunset together. Ultimately, what I came to and what my character comes to is that you carry on. You make your own new version of family. Family can look lots of ways.

Zibby: Eleanor also had her own trauma with her parents in the car accident. Car accident? Plane accident? What was it? She finds out at boarding school.

Joyce: I wanted to explore — I know nothing of this kind of relationship because this was so not me. She is the daughter of two parents who actually were more interested in each other than her.

Zibby: Yes, I thought that was interesting too.

Joyce: There are families like that. I was too interested in my children, probably, and lost sight of my marriage. She was always the one who was sort of left out. In fact, that’s why she wasn’t in the car accident. She was left out.

Zibby: I know, I can’t even imagine that sort of intensity and feeling like a third wheel in your own home, but then also being so young and being completely abandoned in the world the way that she was and feeling like the people that she would’ve gone to to deal with the loss were gone. That was it.

Joyce: And probably would’ve been very successful at addressing her issues had they been there. This is my tenth novel. It’s my longest novel by far. It’s over four hundred pages. It’s the biggest story that I’ve ever told. A lot happens. One of the things that I wanted to do in the book, and for roughly, probably, the aging generation of these children, so it might have resonated for you, I hope, I wanted to set it against the backdrop of so many of the things that happened during those years, not just the big events, but the odd, small ones that were part of our lives, and the toys and the music, for sure. It’s a book full of the music of various eras and certain events. The Challenger disaster actually becomes, as you know, a pivotal moment for the family. It’s the moment that not only does the Challenger blow up, but so does the couple’s marriage. There is a child who, very much like my own daughter in January of 1986 when it happened, sort of pinned these huge dreams on Christa McAuliffe and the reach for the stars. Every child of a certain age in elementary school during those years was sitting in front of the screen at school watching this thing happen. I’m fascinated, I always have been, by the intersection of the personal and the global and the experiences that we all share but have shared in our own very particular places.

Zibby: I was home sick that day. I remember seeing it, oh, my gosh. I can see where I was, where I was standing. So Joyce, fifty years of writing books, the only thing you can do, what is the secret here?

Joyce: Wait a second. Give me a break. It’s not the only thing I can do.

Zibby: That’s what you said. I would never say that.

Joyce: Did I say that?

Zibby: Yes.

Joyce: It’s the thing I can do that people will pay me money for.

Zibby: Okay, okay. I would never presume to say that.

Joyce: I make a fine pie. Increasingly, I love to help other women write. Yes, it is the one job I’ve held since I was fourteen years old, actually. I was writing for Seventeen magazine from when I was in junior high.

Zibby: I had the same thing, by the way. I published my first essay in Seventeen when I was fourteen.

Joyce: I know. I read about it.

Zibby: You did? You’re so sweet.

Joyce: Seventeen was a launching place for lots of people. I think Meg Wolitzer wrote for Seventeen, Perri Klass. There’s a list. I feel very grateful for having had that opportunity. I was a small-town girl from New Hampshire. My dream was to get to New York City. I would ride the bus to New York and meet with my Seventeen editor and pitch my stories. Sometimes I got the assignment. I think I was sixteen when I got the assignment to interview Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of the president then, at the White House. He was not my idea of the president I wanted, but I was going to the White House. My mother got out a pattern and sewed a red, white, and blue dress. I went to the White House that day. Because of the years we’re talking about, I was not allowed to ask Julie Nixon Eisenhower about the Vietnam War or impeachment, which was coming. I asked her her favorite recipes. That’s what I was supposed to. Increasingly, I was frustrated by that. I wanted to tell more serious stories. I outgrew Seventeen and moved on, but that was a really important launching place for me.

Zibby: Then how did you go from there to writing ten novels?

Joyce: Actually, it’s also a story about Seventeen. In one of these meetings with my editor, I suggested that I write about the Miss Teenage America pageant. I was myself seventeen. No doubt I wanted to write a kind of catty, cynical piece about the Miss Teenage America. Secretly, I would’ve probably envied those girls. I was never going to be one. They said, “We would only have a story about Miss Teenage America by somebody who was a participant in the pageant,” by which they definitely meant, like, Miss Teenage New Hampshire. I don’t know how I did this because I couldn’t have talked to a boy at that age, but I called up the pageant offices. I got the phone number from information. I called up the pageant offices in Fort Worth, Texas. I lowered my voice an octave. I said, “This is Joyce Maynard with Seventeen magazine. We would like to do a story on your pageant, but I would need to be named a judge of the pageant,” and I was.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Joyce: Once again, my mother took out her sewing machine and remade an old dress of hers from the forties. I flew to Fort Worth. I was a judge. I filed my story. I was really proud of this story. It had a kind of detail that I don’t now believe in so much, a bit making fun of those girls. It was smart, new journalism of the time. They cut out all that stuff. They ran a very bland story. I was so upset that I took the original version of the story, I was still just seventeen, and I mailed it to the editor-in-chief of The New York Times. I said, “I should write for you.” He wrote back and said yes. I got an assignment to write a story about the only story that I could tell at that point, what it was to grow up and be me in the 1960s. I filed the story. They said, “We’d like to take your picture.” They sent a photographer to the Yale campus. I was a freshman. Six weeks later, there I was in full color on the cover of The New York Times magazine section, an image that, if you were older and were in an East Coast college in the spring of 1972, you would remember because it was everywhere, this picture. That, for good or ill, and kind of both, launched my career and launched some difficult personal things in my life and brought about my departure from college. Fifty years later, I’m back at college as an undergraduate.

Zibby: I just read that. I couldn’t believe it. You’re back at Yale?

Joyce: I’m back at Yale. That was the beginning of my publishing life. I published my first, ostensibly, memoir the following year, a book called Looking Back in which I did not mention many of the truest things of my life, that I had grown up in an alcoholic family, that at the time I was writing that book I was suffering from pretty severe eating disorders, or that I, this youth spokesperson of America, had dropped out of my Ivy League college to move in with a fifty-three-year-old old man who happened to be J.D. Salinger. Those were some things I didn’t get around to. Salinger had written to me after he saw that article. He’d sought me out. That really formed the foundation of my belief in the importance of truth telling in writing, whether it’s memoir or fiction. It took me years to be myself. That’s a loon, incidentally, that you’re hearing.

Zibby: Wow.

Joyce: Do you hear that sound?

Zibby: Yes, I do.

Joyce: It’s not screaming. It’s a loon. It took me twenty-five years before I could tell the particular true story of what had happened to me when I was eighteen. That was my memoir, At Home in the World, a much-debated and condemned-by-many book. It also set me free, telling the truth. This novel, although it’s not memoir, this is my truth. This is my hard truth about marriage and about family. My children, very often, don’t read my work. That’s really okay. Readers can read my work. I’m not looking for my children to be my fans. I don’t need them to buy books. I’d actually give them one. I also record my books as an audiobook. In fact, this is a good tip for your readers. Moms don’t have time to read, but they might go to the gym and listen to the audiobook. I have to say, I make a great audiobook. I used to love to read out loud to my children. Now I love to record my books. My hope is that they will listen to this book. If they do, I think it will bring them some comfort and resolution about our family. They maybe don’t need comfort anymore. They’re okay. It’s a very loving story about, actually, all the characters.

Zibby: First of all, I have to go back and read At Home in the World immediately. I wish I had read it before we talked. I’m sorry I haven’t.

Joyce: It was such an embattled book at the time. This was pre-Me Too. The idea of a woman presuming to say that J.D. Salinger was not this ultimate hero, spiritual guide, that he was a human being, just that — I say no terrible things; I simply told my story — was regarded as so, so completely forbidden. Maureen Dowd called me a predator, called the girl a predator for telling the story. That is, of course, what happens to women. Women get attacked for telling the truth about what men do.

Zibby: Wow, I’m going to get that book immediately. It’s so funny, too, because in two days, I’m interviewing Joanna Rakoff who wrote My Salinger Year about reading his fan mail. Now here I am talking to you. Life is so crazy.

Joyce: What a wonderful, rich opportunity you have to speak to this vast array.

Zibby: Yes. It’s for everyone else to listen to. I’m not hoarding it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Joyce: Oh, gosh. One would be to read, of course, as you know. Interestingly, reading was always a challenge for me. I only learned when I went back to Yale that I have extreme ADHD. Reading is actually really hard for me. Yes, read. Be fearless. The most common concern that women have when they come to my writing workshops — I’ll be teaching one this summer. I’ve already started hearing from women who say, I don’t know how I could ever tell this story without hurting my mother’s feelings, my husband’s feelings, my children’s feelings. Men don’t raise these issues, ever. Men are just brave if they’re telling the truth. Women are the caretakers and the protectors of everybody else. I would say to women listening to this, there’s one thing. You may not have freedom in so many other ways. You may not have time, money, space, health, I don’t know, but you get to tell your story. Your story, you own. If you tell it unblinkingly honestly and with compassion, not revenge, which I think I achieved in At Home in the World — it’s not a bitter book. There are no villains in any of my stories. There are just a lot of flawed human beings. I’m one of them. If you do that, it will set you free. It will set you free.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. Joyce, thank you for this chat. I feel like we only skimmed the surface. There was so much more.

Joyce: There always is.

Zibby: There always is. I know.

Joyce: Those are the best conversations, when you have that feeling. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this, Zibby. I knew I would. Actually, I was looking forward to this.

Zibby: Thank you. I was too. Thank you so much. I hope we can stay in touch.

Joyce: I would love that.

Zibby: I will talk to you soon. Thank you for this great read, Count the Ways.

Joyce: Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Joyce Maynard, COUNT THE WAYS

COUNT THE WAYS by Joyce Maynard

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