Memoirist Maynard gets real

Literary bad girl Joyce Maynard, who has been publicly spanked by her numerous critics during the year since she published her memoir “At Home in the World,” spoke at Kelly Writers House on November 2. Her memoir deals with growing up in an alcoholic family, the expectations put on her by her brilliant parents and the affair she had, as an 18-year-old, with famed writer J.D. Salinger. It was her writing about this last item that drew vociferous criticism; many believed that the private life of Salinger, a known recluse, should not have been revealed.

Maynard, an energetic woman, who, at 45, still bore a strong resemblance to the young girl on the cover of The New York Times Magazine who attracted Salinger’s attention, addressed her audience in a black tank top, often waving her arms for emphasis. She immediately noted some of the criticism of her book: The Washington Post called it “the worst book ever published” and The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd called her a “leech woman,” among other published epithets.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the woman who wrote the book about J.D. Salinger,’” Maynard said. “I did not write a book about J.D. Salinger. I wrote a book about myself, about my life, which J.D. Salinger happened to enter in to — by his own choice.”

Maynard, who is also the author of “To Die For,” “Where Love Goes,” and “Domestic Affairs,” among other books, then backtracked to talk about the evolution of her writing life.

“Before I could physically write, I was giving dictation,” she said. Her parents expected her to be successful, so she was always driven to achieve. When she was 18, in 1972, and a freshman at Yale, The New York Times asked her to write a fateful article about growing up in the 60s. The result was a cover article for the Times Magazine, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.”

“My life was transformed within 24 hours,” she said. “Everything I thought I always wanted in terms of recognition and success was laid at my feet.” Among the letters from fans, detractors, TV and movie producers, and magazine and book editors, was one from the 53-year-old Salinger, who wrote, “You and I are kindred spirits.”

The correspondence with Salinger continued through her first and only year of college. At the end of that year, Maynard traveled to New Hampshire to meet Salinger, and thus began a relationship that lasted less than a year but left her devastated.

Maynard remarked that her first memoir, “Looking Back,” which she wrote while living with Salinger, failed to deal with her alcoholic family, her eating disorders or the fact that she had dropped out of college to live with her middle-aged lover.

“I didn’t tell any lies in that book,” she said. “I just didn’t tell the whole truth.” Her recent memoir, she said, attempted to address those evasions.

Originally published on November 11, 1999