For Joyce Maynard, author of 13 books and a serious baker, it’s all about the pie.
Maynard had several conditions for screenwriter-director Jason Reitman when he optioned her novel “Labor Day,” about a reclusive single mother (Kate Winslet), her 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith), and the escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who hides out in their rundown house, creating an unorthodox family — at least for a long weekend. Maynard wanted the film to be shot in New England (the book is set in Maynard’s native New Hampshire) and she needed to show Reitman how a peach pie should be made for a pivotal scene.
Maynard may be an expert pie maker — she arrived for her interview with the Globe having just demonstrated her skill turning out a crust on a local TV show — but the scene in “Labor Day” in which Winslet, Brolin, and Griffith plunge their hands into a bowl of fruit has produced some amusing commentary. (Anthony Lane wrote in his New Yorker review that the completed pie “seethes and heaves. Yeah, baby, yeah!”)
Maynard is having none of it. “It’s the sexiest pie scene ever in a movie, but it might also be one of the best food scenes,” she says. “I am the mother of sons — strong, macho guys — and they cried when they saw this movie. If it seems over the top, I wanted to give a strong alternative to the techno-everything we’re surrounded with. What do you do with overripe peaches besides throw them out? Is there still something we can do that just uses our hands? . . . It’s been easy for people to make fun of [the scene]. I call them cynics; the ones who would buy store-bought pie crust.”
Of course, in both book and film, the pie is more than just a pie. “Pie connects a lot of people with their mothers and grandmothers,” says Maynard. “I started making pies and teaching pie [baking] when my mother died. That was my way of honoring my mother, who was a great pie maker. . . . So when I watch that scene, I think of my mother, who died way too young, and what a gift for her to see that pie, her pie, in the movie.”
Reitman read “Labor Day” in galleys, says Maynard. She was such a fan of his films that she needed no other offers. Besides agreeing to shoot the film in New England — Massachusetts subbed for New Hampshire because there are no film incentives in the Granite State — Reitman was on board with a pie scene done in complete earnestness.
“For me, the peach pie was completely sensual and dramatic. But I don’t mind that you wanted to laugh,” Reitman said during an interview at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival last fall. “I wasn’t trying to be tongue-in-cheek, I actually meant a certain amount of sincerity to the peach pie scene. I think it’s probably just because I made four movies where I’m poking fun at tropes and I’m a little more cynical that you read it that way.”
“Labor Day” is a coming-of-age drama (and a romance and a thriller) that some might call a chick flick — or a chick flick on steroids if you’re especially cynical. It’s a departure from Reitman’s edgier films, such as “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” but he sees a connection. “ ‘Labor Day’ and ‘Up in the Air’ are about the same thing: They’re about the closeness that happens with strangers. That is something that I am apparently obsessed with. . . . [T]hey’re about characters who bond closer to strangers than to the people they know best.”
“Labor Day” is the second Maynard novel to hit the screen: Gus Van Sant directed Nicole Kidman in “To Die For” in 1995, from Buck Henry’s adaptation. Maynard liked that film, but says shooting it in Toronto didn’t work for such a New England story (it was based on the Pamela Smart murder case in New Hampshire).
“Labor Day” was shot in Acton, Shelburne Falls, and other towns around the state. The location scout even found a Friendly’s in Western Massachusetts that looked convincingly circa 1987 for a key scene.
Reitman says the Bay State provided the perfect setting for a film that uses all-American symbols. “When I’m in Massachusetts I feel like I’m connected to things like pie and Red Sox games and long summer weekends and barbecues and kids on bikes and all that stuff I associate with that state,” says Reitman, a California native. “And the roads — all these routes that were completely foreign and new to me.
“I remember when Joyce read my script she said, ‘You wrote a great script but I have to correct you on something.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘It’s not the 91. It’s 91.’ She said, ‘You guys on the West Coast, you hero-ize your highways. The 405. The 101. It’s just 91. It’s a road.’ ’’
Even though she’s lived in California for the past 17 years, Maynard’s deep New Hampshire roots have long been part of her identity and her literary life. Her 1999 memoir, “At Home in the World,” dealt in part with her relationship at age 19 with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who was 53 and living in Cornish, N.H. The book garnered enormous publicity but largely negative reviews; some critics accused Maynard of exploiting Salinger. “There are people for whom [Salinger] occupies this godlike status,” she says. “It has to do with the age people are when they form that attachment to [‘The Catcher in the Rye’].”
Maynard is now sanguine about the fact that, at some point in any interview, she’ll be asked about the revered author, who died in 2010 at 91.
‘For me the peach pie was completely sensual and dramatic. But I don’t mind that you wanted to laugh.’
“I used to fight it. I just recognize now that it doesn’t matter what I do, what I publish, whatever else I accomplish in my life, there are people who will identify me with one thing that happened 41 years ago, and there’s not a day in my life when it doesn’t come up. So I’ll talk about it. I’m in that bad Salinger movie [the 2013 documentary “Salinger”] because the alternative would have been to let them tell it wrong. I wanted it to come from me.”
Her memoir, she says, “was almost universally condemned when it came out. I would do it again, but it cost me dear in my career.” But in something of a revenge fantasy, it was the fallout from the memoir that led to her success with “Labor Day.”
“After my memoir, I was persona non grata in the literary world. I had no agent, no book contract. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I wrote ‘Labor Day’ and brought it to New York. I was 55 years old and had published 10 books. I showed it to agents and they all said ‘No, we can’t help you.’ It was pretty crushing,” says Maynard. “An agent recommended by a friend read the book overnight and said ‘I think I can sell this book. But you must . . . let me submit it without your name attached. The manuscript was sent to 10 pretty big-name editors. There was a bidding war; there was enormous excitement for this mystery novel. There was actually gossip speculating that James Franco wrote this hot novel going around town. When it was found that it was me, a number of those editors withdrew those offers or cut them down.”
With two films produced from her books, Maynard says she’d like to try adapting one of her novels herself. “Maybe my new novel, ‘After Her,’ since that would be more an independent film since it doesn’t have a big role for a Kate Winslet,” she says. “I’m only 60. I have to think of something for the next few decades.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Janice Page (email@example.com) contributed to this article.