Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Joyce Maynard talks about AFTER HER, working through a story problem, using a true story, why she sets her novels in other times than our own, and so much more

Joyce Maynard became famous at 18. That’s right, 18. When she was a freshman at Yale, she published “An 18-year-old Looks Back on Life” in the New York Times, which caught the attention of J. D. Salinger. Known for her extraordinary honesty, (I've never met anyone with such an open heart), she’s the author of fifteen novels, including To Die For, and her stunning memoir, At Home in the World, has been reissued with a new preface, and recorded by Joyce for the first time in its entirety. Her novel Labor Day will soon be out as a major motion picture directed by James Reitman. Joyce teaches writing workshops, performs as a storyteller at The Moth, and her work has appeared just about everywhere. (I know, you’re asking, is there nothing this woman can’t do?) 

Her newest novel, After Her, is about the loss of innocence, the enduring love of sisters, and the persistence of hope. Based on a true story, After Her follows two sisters living in an area where a serial killer is at large, their determined homicide detective father, and the killer himself.

I'm so honored to have Joyce here. Thank you so, so much, Joyce.

I love the story of how you came to write this novel, and how you changed the original story to craft something so dazzlingly original. Can you talk about this please?

I was hosting one of the memoir workshops i teach now and then in the living room of my house in Marin County, California.  Among the women who'd shown up that day to work with me that day were two sisters, now in their forties. Laura and Janet. 

I liked these two women right away, and I felt moved by something about them that was both very strong and very vulnerable at the same time.  I felt, immediately, the extraordinary closeness between these two. I knew something had happened to them, when they were young, that had made them very, very close. As one of two sisters myself, I felt I was in the presence of a rare and powerful bond. 

My living room--where we'd gathered to work on the true life stories of the group--looks out on a pretty dramatic view.  My house , which is situated about ten miles north of San Francisco, sits very close to the peak of a mountain known as Tamalpais.  It’s a beautiful place, but haunting too.  And it is this mountain that I'd seen first every morning when I got up, for over fifteen years, and that I’d seen throughout my writing day, from the window over my desk as I write.  I hike a lot , alone on this mountain.  It’s a big presence in my life.

I had been aware for years that a series of murders of women had taken place on the hiking trails of this mountain, back in the seventies and early 80's.  More than thirty years later, people who lived in the area were still haunted by the two-year period in which the killer had remained at large.  But the story of those long-ago events took on a new power for me that day at my writing workshop, meeting those two sisters, Laura and Janet, when they told me that back when they were young--age 13 and 11-- their father had been the homicide detective in charge of the investigation of those killings.  This was known as the Trailside Killer case.

The two sisters spoke that day of the weight their father had felt, and the sorrow, as months passed --and then years--in which he failed to apprehend the Trailside Killer.  Eventually, the killer was arrested by a different police officer, in a different jurisdiction, and brought to trial.  But it was the belief of the two sisters that their father had never gotten over that case.  He died, in his early forties, not long after the trial. 

Though I love a good story (and try, with every novel I write, to give one to my readers ), I am not a writer of crime fiction. And I am not ultimately as interested in the mind and actions of a psychopath as I am in the lives and relationships of so-called ordinary people:  Husbands and wives.  Parents and children.  Brothers and sisters.  Or…sisters. 

But the moment I knew I wanted to tell this story --a fictionalized version of it--occurred in my kitchen, later that day, as I was washing dishes after the workshop.  The other people who’d come to my house that day had gone home, but Laura and Janet had stayed on after , to help clean up.  This was when Laura told me the story of how--years after the death of her father, when in her forties--she had written a letter to the prison where the killer remains incarcerated , asking if she might visit him. 

Her goal for that visit sounded like that of a very young girl.  She had this dream that if she went to see the killer on Death Row in San Quentin, she might actually extract from the killer the confession her father (and all the other police officers) had never managed to gain from him. More simply, she told me, she wanted to look into his eyes, see what her father had seen, and maybe --by doing this--locate some understanding of her father's experience in those last years he spent, chasing the man. 

And she went to visit him, on Death Row in San Quentin.  And the experience had not provided any of the answers or resolution she’d sought.

I imagined what it would be like, to be haunted, into adult life, by events that had taken place decades before. Well, in fact I know a thing or two about this feeling—as, in some form or other, I think many of us do.  I wanted to imagine how a person like Laura, but a fictional character, created by me, might, in a novel I’d write, locate the resolution real life had failed to provide for her.

So--knowing they had no further interest to write about this themselves--- I asked Laura and Janet if they'd be willing to let me write a work of fiction that would portray some of what they'd experienced (but with a lot of invention, too.)  They gave me their blessing.  And over the course of the nearly two years that followed, while I was writing After Her, they tirelessly offered their assistance . 

In the novel I wrote, I wanted to look at how the lives of two young girls--at a crucial moment in their own coming of age--would have been affected by growing up in the shadow of a series of serial killings in their back yard.  I wanted to explore their relationship with their father, a handsome and utterly charming, irresistible hero figure (a man I would have fallen in love with myself, in fact, if I’d known him), whom they watched slowly being crushed by the weight of his failure to resolve this case.  

And I wanted to explore the inner life of a thirteen year old girl, who actually believes (as only a thirteen year old can, perhaps) that she possesses the power to channel the feelings of the killer , to identify who he is, and then to trap him.  Using herself as bait.  

I wanted to understand the bond of these two sisters, and their deep love for their larger-than-life and deeply-flawed father.  And I wanted to go deep into the world, and sexuality, of young girls , at the moment they're trying to make sense of so much in the world around them.  Sex being high on the list. At its core, that's what my novel is about:  girls trying to make sense of the dark, sometimes violent world around them.  And to make sense of their own sexuality. 

The novel has this unsettling and growing power that keeps you in its grip. In fact, while reading on the train, I was so upset, the conductor actually came by and asked me, "Are you all right?" And I wasn't. Because of your book. How did you figure out the structure of the book so that it would slowly and powerfully grab readers like that? Was it a totally conscious choice on your part, or did it surprise you, too?

First off, Caroline:  I want to say I love it that I pulled you so deeply into my story.  As a writer, it's my goal to take a reader so far outside of her own self that she might inspire a train conductor to ask if she needed help.  

As for how I accomplish the suspense in my novel:  It's never a consciously constructed thing.  Although I name many writers among my friends, who plan out every beat of a story, my own way when writing is to bring to life the most authentic and moving characters I can render on the page, and then let them determine what they will do.  I know this may sound a little crazy, but I often end up feeling (and did, writing After Her) that I am not so much constructing a story as experiencing it unfolding, in the voices of my characters.  Often this involves watching a story unfold in ways I could never have predicted. 

The novel is also stunningly filmic. Having had your novels turned into films, do you feel that you are more conscious now of story as it translates to film--or does that never enter your mind?

Well, just the other day I got to sit in a dark movie theater and watch the first-ever screening of the absolutely terrific film adaptation of my novel Labor Day.  (It won't be officially released until Christmas Day, but there was this advance showing of the movie, and people were just loving it .  You could actually hear people weeping, in the theater, at a couple of places in the movie (an actually , though I'd seen the film before,  I wept a little myself.)

Did I set out to write a story that would be adapted by film, or sit down and say to myself “Go write a role for Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin”? 

No.  But I saw this movie in my head, before I’d written the first line.

I don't consciously set out to write novels that could be turned into movies.  But I certainly love a good story, and I am a lover of movies.  So when I write, I am actually describing the movies I imagine, projected inside my head.  (I am the screenwriter.  But I am also the director.  The lighting person.  I compose the soundtrack.  Imagine the wardrobe choices of my characters.  I hear the soundtrack.  And of course, I am the editor.  And I am the woman who buys the ticket and sits in the front row as the projector begins to roll.

The budget for these movies in my head is just a whole lot lower than the budget for even a small indie film, by the way.  I have said this before, but it's really true:  I am sitting there at my keyboard, typing as fast as my fingers can go, to keep up with the movie going on in my head. I am right there with my reader:  longing to find out what will happen. 

There are so many unexpected reveals and revelations in the book, that I was as unsettled as I was stunned. How much of this is planned out in advance?

None of it.  I let my instincts and knowledge of human nature direct me in my writing. 

I'll tell you a story here, about a place where I got stuck for a while in the writing of After Her.  I need to tell you this without giving anything away for your readers who haven't read my novel yet, because of course I hope they will want to.  But you'll understand what I'm talking about, as will any reader of the novel, when she gets to a certain point in the story. 

So….There is this point in the story where the two sisters --having worked to lure the killer to a place where they might actually confront him—do in fact encounter the murderer.  Only they get more than they  bargained for.  They find themselves totally alone on this mountain, with a serial killer coming towards them--a man who has killed many times before, and one who would have no problem doing so again. 

I needed to get these girls out of this terrifying situation.  But I didn't want to have some big strong man with a gun saving the day. I wanted them to be the architects of their own survival, and triumph over the killer.  

But how?  I racked (WRACKED? SP?) my brain for weeks.  Months, I think.  Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night, to try out some new scenario on the  endlessly patient man lying next to me, who was my boyfriend at the time.  (He's now my husband.  We got married this summer.  He didn't run the other way, even after being awakened in the night more times than I can remember, to talk this through.)

But my breakthrough in figuring this out came when I was all alone, renting a little cabin on the Russian River this last winter.  I'd gone there to work on After Her, and I was stuck on this problem of the girls on the mountain with the killer. 

It was the middle of the night.  I'd been up in the night once again, trying to figure out not simply "a plot device" but what two girls like the sisters in my novel might actually do in a situation like the terrifying one in which I'd placed them. 

And then it came to me.  You know what they do, of course. I won't say it here (because I want the people reading this to read my book).  I will just tell you that the action they took came directly out of a game the two real sisters, Laura and Janet, had told me about, that they used to play a lot, growing up.  The kind of game a couple of young girls would not play in the year 2013, if they were spending their lives texting and going online, instead of being out on their own, cooking up their own adventures as my two  characters do, living in an era that predated all this technology. )

And when I came up with this solution for my girls, I have to tell you what i did .  In the middle of the night, in the darkness of my little cabin, I burst out laughing.  It was so perfect for these two.  It felt like just what an eleven year old and a thirteen year old would cook up , if they were facing a serial killer.  (This eleven and thirteen year old, at least.)  

And so I burst out laughing. 

What's obsessing you now, and why?

I always want to tell a good love story.  There's a great one in my novel, Labor Day, and actually--though this is not the central story in my new novel--there's a love story that made me cry a little in After Her too.  I go back and back to love. And to families, and family secrets.  And the longing I think we all feel , or felt , if we didn’t have this growing up, to be part of a happy family. 

My obsessions don't change, in fact.  They resurface in every novel I write --just in different forms.  

You know, there's this image that appears, in some form or other, in several of my novels (as it does, in this new one.)  I didn't even realize this until I sat down a few months back, with my first bound copy of After Her in hand, and read it start to finish for the first time.  It's the image of a character looking through a window somewhere, and imagining that the people on the other side of the glass are having this wonderful, happy life.  

I remember doing that myself, when I was young.  (Or maybe as recently as a few weeks ago?  )   Looking in a window at night, maybe, at this warm and glowing scene….

In After Her, my two young girls engage in a variation on this behavior.  Children of divorce, whose mother has checked out, whose father is off somewhere with a woman who isn't their mother, and left to their own devices, they actually position themselves on a hillside, outdoors, at night--huddled together under a blanket-- and look in their neighbor's picture window, to watch soundless reruns of The Brady Bunch.  And imagine what it might be like, to be those characters.  

That a was me, at their age, more or less, though the television shows I watched, and the fantasy families I pictured myself part of, came from an earlier time.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 

You can ask me why my last four novels have been set in times other than those we live in now.  (After Her takes place mostly in 1979 and 1980.  Labor Day is largely set in the year 1987.  The Good Daughters goes from the fifties to the present , but my main characters are young in the sixties and seventies.   And The Cloud Chamber is set in 1967.)

Here's why:  Although in my daily life I avail myself of the usual technology (laptop , iPhone, iPad), I find these devices singularly soul-less to write about.  There's something brittle and cold about a scene in which a character--instead of talking with a character, or picking up the phone, or writing a letter--sends a text.  And there is nothing remotely dramatic, or visual, or romantic--nothing to get the heart beating faster--about a character sitting at a desk somewhere, typing on a keyboard. 

I want to get my characters out into the world, in nature, on a mountain, under the stars.  I wanted to give the characters of my two sisters the kind of adventures few young people get to have any more.  I think, here, of one of my favorite movies of all time:  Stand By Me.  In some ways, I wanted to write a real life Little Red Riding Hood tale.  I wanted to write a story with some of that feeling, of setting young people out into the world --one not wholly safe, or free from anxiety, but a real world--and then watch how they navigate their way out of the woods.  The darkest woods being the territory of sexuality, of course. That's the place they're wandering around in.  It's a place of beauty and terror, all at once.  I wanted to capture both . 

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