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Book Corner

by Ellen Meister

Under the Influence of Joyce Maynard

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f you only know Joyce Maynard as the memoirist who wrote with raw honesty about her love affair with J.D. Salinger, you’re missing out on one of our most captivating contemporary novelists. Her latest book, Under the Influence (William Morrow), explores the fallout from a moment of reckless misjudgment by the mother of a seven-year-old boy. Alone and vulnerable after she loses custody of her son, Helen slips under the spell of a glamorously wealthy couple, who become a surrogate family for her. Blinded by their generosity, she misses critical cues when she needs them most, and very nearly sacrifices everything. It’s a gripping yet poignant story about motherhood, love, friendship, and the power of loss. One of the most magical aspects of this book–and indeed of all Maynard’s fiction–is the tenderness she brings to her very troubled characters. “I think that’s a theme of my work,” she told Long Island Woman, “locating compassion for deeply flawed individuals ... which is really the whole human race.” I was particularly struck by her treatment of Helen, a woman so Photo: James Barringer vulnerable she abandons almost everything for the toxic friendship provided by “I think Ava and Swift Havilland, the extravagantly rich couple that that’s a takes her in. “Helen is a woman who hungers, who yearns for family,” theme of Maynard explained. “And they seem to provide it.” my work, This is not a new theme for Maynard, who focuses on this issue in many of her books. “If you read through my work, locating would see that I am obsessed with family and what I compassion you couldn’t hang onto in a conventional way. That’s an endurfor deeply ing theme for me–putting a family back together.” I asked why she thought it was important to explore a flawed character so damaged she continually makes bad choices. individuals “My job as a writer is to take the reader on a journey she didn’t think she could go on, to find her herself in the shoes ... which of somebody who is not herself. This character is a woman is really who is wiped out. She lost her marriage, she never really the whole had parents, she lost her child ... then along comes this magical couple saying ‘we will rescue you.’” human Maynard was careful to point out that while she relates race.” to the core of the character’s pain, the story is not autobio12 • Long Island Woman • March 2016

graphical. “I never lost custody of my children, but I think that to a divorced parent that is a very real experience on one level or another. Even if the children physically remain with you, there are all these layers of grief and defensiveness. And when I write fiction, I tend to go to where my nightmares would be–my child looking at me with this blank gaze. I can imagine that.” While Helen may have been inspired by her own fears, the character of Ava was “really an invention.” Maynard explained further, saying, “Or course, every fiction writer draws on every person they have ever known. I have known people who appear to be so extraordinarily generous and giving, but for whom the generosity was weighted down with obligation and a sense of entitlement and ownership.” In the book, we meet Ava many years after a car accident damaged her spinal cord, leaving her in a wheelchair, but fiercely determined not to let it interfere with her life. “I wanted to give Ava a big dose of pain that maybe explains some things. As a writer, I also like to find new challenges, and that was a new challenge.” If you’ve read Joyce Maynard’s memoir, At Home in the World (and your correspondent recommends listening to it on audio book so that you can experience the author telling you her story), you know the kind of humanity she brings to her writing. She presents her own failings with unflinching honesty, and she exposes the complexity of feelings in everyone around her with meticulous grace. This kind of emotional authenticity carries into her fiction, as well. When I noted that she treats even her most villainous characters with compassion, I asked if it was fair to say she couldn’t bring herself to hate them. “Absolutely, it is,” she said. “It’s the way I believe people are. And when I teach writing, I always say it is crucially important to locate the goodness within every character.” Since I’m recommending Under the Influence as a perfect book club pick, I asked Maynard what question she hopes these readers will discuss. “One of the things I think will be very rich territory, is talking about their own experiences of lost friendship. As I worked on this book and told people it was very much about the loss of a friendship, it opened the floodgates more than if I said it was about heartbreak or a love affair. So my hope is that it inspires people to talk about and share experiences of their own life.” Joyce Maynard hopes readers do more than talk about the loss of friendship, she wants them to put these feelings to paper. In fact, she has launched an essay contest, and the winner will receive a life-changing package that includes a week at Hunsaker Canyon Writers’ Retreat in California, private mentoring from Joyce and more. You can read about it on her website, joycemaynard.com. l To advertise: 516-505-0555 x1 • ads@liwomanonline.com


LIW March 2016