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Interview: February 25, 2016

Joyce Maynard is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous titles, including LABOR DAY and AFTER HER, as well as a memoir, AT HOME IN THE WORLD. Her latest novel is UNDER THE INFLUENCE, a poignant story about the true meaning --- and the true price --- of friendship. Like most of her books, UNDER THE INFLUENCE has an authentic, ripped-from-the-headlines appeal, and here, Maynard talks to The Book Report Network’s Norah Piehl about how her fiction intersects with her real life. She also discusses addiction, single motherhood, and the joys and horrors of online dating.

The Book Report Network: Some of your previous works have been inspired by real-life crimes or news stories. Were any elements in UNDER THE INFLUENCE inspired by real people or events?

Joyce Maynard: UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a story about betrayal in a friendship. Like most women I know, I’ve had the experience of losing a friend, and finding out that a person I trusted was not who I believed her to be. The story I tell in my novel is a product of my imagination, but what fueled it was the memory --- still painful after all these years --- of breaking up with a friend. I’m guessing many women will identify with that one. I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t had the experience, somewhere along the line, of discovering that a person she trusted and loved was not her friend after all.

Another aspect of the new novel has to do with my narrator’s addiction to alcohol. Although I never got a DUI --- as my central character, Helen, did --- I am the adult child of an alcoholic, and I have had my own complicated dependence on wine over the years, as my way of dealing with sorrow or stress.

Writing this novel, and having the experience of putting myself in my narrator’s head --- and my ability to do that as well as I did --- actually served as the impetus for my decision to give up drinking. I had one of those “socially acceptable” drinking habits that had gradually snuck up on me, to the point where I could imagine myself getting into trouble, as Helen does. 

There was more of me in Helen than I liked to admit. As I write this, I’ve been off the wine for just six weeks, but I’m feeling strong about my choice, and --- though I won’t ever point a finger at those who drink and love wine --- I am hopeful that my novel will open up some worthwhile discussion about the role of drinking --- specifically, wine drinking --- in women’s lives.

TBRN: In your author’s note, you mention a handful of inspirations for the novel, including a generous gift of writing space that prompted you to meditate on the nature of friendship. How would you define friendship? 

JM: In my novel, Helen believes her friends Ava and Swift accept and love her without conditions, but she discovers --- painfully, and at great cost --- that their friendship comes with strings attached. 

A real friend doesn’t look for repayment of kindness or keeping score. By the time Helen understands this about Ava and Swift, she’s thrown away the love of a good man, and her eight-year-old son has been placed in great jeopardy. She realizes who her true friend was, but only after it appears that she has lost him.

TBRN: Because of her failings, Helen occasionally finds it easy to think of herself as a bad or inadequate mother, and she is reluctant to push for full or even more equitable shared custody. What were you trying to say about motherhood, especially single motherhood, with Helen and Ollie’s story?

JM: Oh, leave it to a mother to believe that whatever is wrong in her child’s life, she’s to blame. Multiply that by 10 if the mother is a single parent, as Helen is, and as I was for most of the years I was raising my own three children. 

Women are so programmed to believe that it’s our job to make our children’s lives good, and that whatever sorrows or problems our children experience are a direct result of our failures. Part of Helen’s journey over the course of the novel is her growth from someone who lets life happen to her to one who takes action and, ultimately, stands up for herself and her son. Even if the cost is great.

TBRN: Ava is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a mysterious accident years earlier. Besides its role in the plot, why did you choose to make Ava a paraplegic? Did you imagine readers might make assumptions about her character because of her disability?

JM: I wasn’t making any point whatsoever about individuals with disabilities by putting Ava in the chair. Really, my choice had to do with the mystery surrounding how she got there. In my novels, I go back again and again to the theme of family secrets with profound consequences over time. Ava’s injury, and how she got it, is one.

TBRN: You write with humor and authenticity (sometimes uncomfortably so!) about Helen’s misadventures with online dating. How do you think the prevalence of online dating has shaped attitudes toward love and romance in recent years?

JM: First, I’d better make it clear: I spent years as an intermittent online dater. (One time I remember remarking to a friend, with shock and a certain measure of pity, that certain men whose profiles kept popping up on my feed had been there for a decade. My friend gently reminded me: I would not have known this if my own profile hadn’t been up there just as long.)

Now to the question: Online dating allows a person --- particularly a lonely person, who may feel trapped in real life --- the opportunity for fantasy. At any hour, day or night, you can log in and --- who knows? --- maybe this will be the day you find your soulmate.

Online dating is a comforting escape, but of course it also opens a person up to the potential for being hurt. To be an effective online dater, you have to put yourself out there and say, “This is who I am.  This is what I want.” The more honest you are --- and I was always honest --- the more vulnerable. And that’s a theme of this novel: trust and vulnerability. And violation of trust.

I have to add that as many terrible and humiliating experiences as I had over the years of online dating (some of which are fictionally memorialized in UNDER THE INFLUENCE), I still believe it’s one of the more sensible ways to meet a potential partner. Just over four years ago, I responded to the profile of a man named “Jimbunctious.” (My moniker was “Likes Red Shoes.”) We’ve been married almost three years now.

TBRN: In UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Helen’s relationship with Elliott --- one in which she is entirely at ease in his company but quick to notice his flaws in public --- rings particularly true. Is this a phenomenon you’ve witnessed or experienced? Do you think people, especially women, let romantic ideals get in the way of happiness?

JM: I’ve done it myself. First a person wins your heart, or a piece of it anyway. Then, all of a sudden, you’re hearing the voice of your so-called friend in your head, saying, “Shouldn’t he be a little taller?” or “Can you believe it that he wears white socks?” We let other people’s idea of what constitutes a good partner interfere with our own instincts and feelings. When we do that --- as Helen does --- we become, ourselves, the betrayers. Of the good person wearing the white socks. Of our own tender hearts.

TBRN: As in several of your previous novels, you set UNDER THE INFLUENCE in your home state of California, and you write with great affection about the landscapes of California, and of Lake Tahoe in particular. What aspects of California’s natural beauty inspire you as a writer?

JM: I love so many spots in Northern California. Mt. Tamalpais, Point Reyes, Mendocino, Sonoma. But actually, though I have lived in California for 20 years now, I still name New Hampshire as my home state.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon, for me, to set a novel on the west coast. I did that with AFTER HER, and part of THE USUAL RULES was set in the west. But my more typical territory has always been small-town New England. 

I have to live in a place a long time before I feel I know it well enough to set a work of fiction there. The territory I wanted to explore, in this one, was affluent, privileged, mostly white California --- a place where one set of rules applies for the wealthy people like Ava and Swift, and a very different one for the Guatemalan maid, Estella, and her daughter, Carmen.

It’s a world where people like my narrator’s new friends throw crazily extravagant birthday parties, like the one Ava puts together for Swift on the night of the catastrophe. A place where one might suppose that money can buy anything. And for a while, at least, this appears to be so.

TBRN: One of the characteristics that helps humanize Ava is her genuine love and affection for her dogs. Do you have pets? If so, how do they fit into your family?

JM: I don’t have a dog because I travel too much to be a good companion to a dog. (Notice I do not say “dog owner.”) But I’m a dog lover, alright. And I love putting dogs in my books, for the same reason I like putting children in my books: so I get to spend a little time with them.

As for Ava, she’s definitely a dog lover. If only she treated her friend, or her maid, as well as she treated her dogs.

TBRN: Tell us about your writing routine. Do you aim for a certain number of hours or words per day?

JM: My husband and I live on a wonderful piece of land in a canyon about 45 minutes by train to San Francisco, but still so rural and quiet that you can see the stars at night and hear the owls calling to each other. I’m a New Hampshire person. I love cities, but really, I want to live in the country.

My writing day begins very early --- 5am, if I can. I start out playing some music meant to get me in the mood of my story. Then I make sure my computer is offline, so I won’t be tempted by email. Email is the death of a writer, once it takes hold of you --- a whole new form of substance abuse to explore, maybe. It doesn’t work to write under the influence of email, or Facebook. They’re a form of addiction, I think.

One more thing: I have to get some exercise every day. Partly this is to stay in shape, but partly it’s about making my brain stay lively and engaged. I’m lucky that we live in a place where I can go for long walks. When I do, I am always thinking about my characters and my story, and what should happen next.

TBRN: Can you give us an idea of what you’re working on now?

JM: I wish I could, but I don’t want to jinx it. I can tell you that the new story --- like all my books --- will be about families, and secrets.