Joyce Maynard talks pie crust – and ‘Labor Day’

January 31, 2014

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Joyce Maynard admits that her favorite scene in Jason Reitman’s film of her novel “Labor Day” is one that wasn’t in the book.

“I wish I could take credit for it, but that’s all Jason,” she says, of a moment late in the film – a confrontation between a teenager and his mother and a bank teller. The scene, not to give too much away, involves telling a truth so outrageous that it’s taken as a joke, playing upon a notion expressed earlier that the best lie is the truth.

“There’s nothing so compelling as telling the truth,” Maynard notes. “That’s how I believe in living life. Let’s just name it, because nobody expects you to tell them the truth.”

Maynard has been telling the truth since she burst into public awareness as a teen: While a freshman at Yale, she wound up on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with an article titled “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.”

Now 60, she’s pleased with the film Reitman has made of her book, as she was with Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film of her novel, “To Die For.”

“I’ve been lucky twice,” Maynard says in a phone interview. “They’re very different kinds of stories. ‘To Die For’ was a dark comedy. ‘Labor Day’ doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. It’s an old-fashioned love story. You’re talking about a movie without a single car chase or explosion. It’s a quiet love story.”

The film, told from the point of view of then-13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), is about the holiday weekend that he and his agoraphobic, depressive mother Adele (Kate Winslet) helped a stranger. The man, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), turns out to be an escaped convict, a convicted murderer, who changes their lives by romancing the divorced Adele and developing a fatherly relationship with Henry.

Maynard tends not to get involved in the filmmaking on movies of her books: “I wouldn’t want anyone to stand over my shoulder when I’m writing, either,” she notes.

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Still, when it came to a scene at the film’s center in which Frank instructs Henry and Adele in the secrets of a great pie crust, Maynard took a personal interest.

“That was my big contribution,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted it to look like a real pie. I’ve probably taught 2,000 people how to make pie – and you learn a lot about a person doing that. I worked with Josh on that. You’ve got to have a certain kind of risk-taking joie de vivre when you’re making the crust – and he had just the right style.

“With the crust, it’s not about the recipe. You can no more learn to make pie crust by reading a recipe than you can learn how to make love from a book. My novel has my instructions on how to make it on page 64 – and there’s not a single measurement provided.”

Sort of a metaphor for life itself?

“I’m glad you said that and not me,” she says. “I’d say that the forgiving nature of pie is a metaphor for life, too. That’s the way life is. You patch it together like a crust; it’s an imperfect thing that happens to taste very good. It’s the joy of a simple thing.

“Look, if you want to be cynical, this is a movie you can be cynical about. But if you are, you probably also buy your pie crust at the store.”

Maynard’s life has been neither simple nor particularly private. The 2013 documentary “Salinger” reminded people that, shortly after her Times Magazine article appeared, she received a fan letter from writer J.D. Salinger. They became correspondents, until she dropped out of Yale after her freshman year to live with him for 10 months.

While she agreed to be interviewed for the “Salinger” film, she hasn’t seen it because, as she notes, she not only lived it but wrote about it herself, in a memoir called “At Home in the World.”

“I know the stuff people are saying but it’s inaccurate,” she says.

Her subsequent career has included stints writing for magazines, working as a reporter for the New York Times and writing a collection of books – fiction and nonfiction – that occupy her time. She is, was and always will be a writer first, she admits.

“I’m starting a new novel, so I get up early to write everyday – I don’t even check my email,” she says, then laughs and says, “Well, OK, I do check my email.

“I’m not going to boo-hoo that I gave up a full scholarship at Yale. I like where I am now. I haven’t stopped writing in 42 years. It hasn’t always been comfortable but it’s the way I made sense of life. It’s the one thing that hasn’t changed. If it felt too comfortable when I was writing, I wouldn’t be doing it right.”

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