I reached Joyce Maynard last month on the anniversary of the death of her second husband, Jim, and just a few days after fire destroyed her sauna.
“I was asleep and heard this roaring,” Maynard said. “It integrated into my dream. It actually didn’t register fully until the next morning.
“But a lot of things have happened in my life,” she added with a chuckle. “I’m pretty resilient.”
Maynard sat on her porch in Bennington, N.H., birds chittering in the background, wind blowing her hair, as we chatted via FaceTime to discuss her 17th book, “Count the Ways,” released Tuesday.
In many ways, this feels like Maynard’s most personal novel yet, with a story line that hits close to bone: A talented young writer drops out of college, falls in love, moves to a quiet New Hampshire farmhouse. She’s driven to create a perfect home filled with happy children, but is devastated when it ends in divorce.
Of course, the new book also contains dramatic elements straight from Maynard’s imagination: a horrific car crash, a transgender child, a devastating accident and brain injury.
“What’s similar are the themes: family, home, loss of home, remaking home, which I’ve had to do a few times,” she said. “I would not have chosen divorce as a theme of my life, but it is.”
Maynard has touched on these themes many times since her 1972 New York Times Magazine cover story, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” The Yale freshman’s essay and photo caught the eye of “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger, and Maynard dropped out to live with the 53-year-old writer, a story she told in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” She later met and married her first husband, with whom she had three children.
In many ways, it feels like Maynard, 67, has seen clouds from both sides now: “Count the Ways” portrays a marriage, its demise, acceptance. Ultimately, it’s a story about forgiveness.
“There are big chunks of me in this character, and chunks of my marriage and my divorce,” she said. “But it came from a different place: looking at it through the lens of now, which is very different than the lens through which I saw my life 30 years ago.”
When she divorced at 35, “The pain and bitterness were huge,” she said. “I was far less equipped to understand the degree to which it’s always two people. There’s always two stories. There’s no one villain.
“When I teach memoir, I always say: Attach your work to the engine of your obsessions,” she continued. “An obsession of mine was family. I wanted to make the family that I didn’t have growing up. But no one creates this perfect life. It’s a myth of Facebook.”
Maynard also narrated the audiobook. “This one felt like a book I wanted people to hear in my voice,” she said.
Outside of writing novels, Maynard has weighed in recently on the #MeToo movement, first in a 2018 New York Times essay and more recently in a Vanity Fair piece that compared Salinger with Woody Allen.
“The movement was not retroactive,” she told me. “If ‘At Home in the World’ were published tomorrow, the Washington Post would not call it ‘the worst book ever published.’ I didn’t need to spend the last 25 years revisiting the story of J.D. Salinger. I’ve said what I wanted to say. But as long as these things are happening, I feel a moral responsibility to not be silent.”
Maynard has also returned to Yale, nearly half a century after dropping out. “I’m studying everything I didn’t study before,” she said, adding that she also ticked off a bucket-list item by acting in a campus play.
“When I was younger, I would’ve been all about piping up. Who I am now is a listener,” she said. “That’s my role at Yale now.”
And what about the new book’s title, from the wedding-day-standard Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem?
“I wanted to convey how much we don’t know on the day we get married. It’s not difficult to fall in love. To actually make a marriage, endure, come out the other end together? That’s what’s hard.”
COUNT THE WAYS
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow & Company, 464 pages