It’s been nearly 50 years since Joyce Maynard was a freshman at Yale University, when she wrote her 1972 cover story in The New York Times Magazine. “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life” was a personal, generation-defining essay that led to a relationship that would soon upend her young life and shadow her own long and accomplished career.
J.D. Salinger, the celebrated-yet-reclusive writer of the touchstone classic “The Catcher in the Rye” and other works, had seen the Times article and began an intimate correspondence with the teenager. At the end of her first year at school, Maynard dropped out of Yale — and abandoned her scholarship — to live with the writer in New Hampshire. Less than a year later, Salinger would coldly sever the relationship, and the shock and aftershocks of that abandonment would resonate with her for years.
Amid many personal and professional struggles, Maynard persevered. She raised three children as a single parent; authored 18 books including novels, memoirs and best-sellers, including “To Die For” and “Labor Day,” both which became starry films. She also established herself as an inspirational writing guru, especially for women who wanted to share their stories, too.
“But I always deeply regretted leaving Yale,” says Maynard. “I never imagined going back.”
‘Unfinished Business in New Haven’
At 67, Maynard still has a long-haired, wide-eye look of intelligence, sensitivity and engagement, reminiscent of the Times cover photograph taken of the pretty, lithe freshman — and the image that first attracted Salinger.
From her cozy, art-filled Wooster Square apartment, the New Hampshire native talks about how her return to Yale was spurred by a chance read eight years ago of a slim volume of essays by another young woman from Yale writing on big topics.
That’s when she came across “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, a promising writer who was tragically killed in an auto accident days after graduating Yale and just before starting work at The New Yorker.
“Suddenly I saw my name mentioned in the introduction to the collection, written by Anne Fadiman, a writer I deeply admire who teaches at Yale and who taught Marina.”
Fadiman recounted that she taught Maynard’s 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World” in her writing class at Yale — “and hearing that just grabbed my heart because the book had been condemned and scathingly dismissed when it was published and it was so costly to my career,” says Maynard. “I am so proud of that book.”
Many of Fadiman’s students bought into the literary establishment view at the time; they thought that by writing that memoir Maynard violated Salinger’s privacy by including their relationship. “But Marina Keegan, this bright young woman, had been my defender.”
Keegan saw Maynard as a teenage girl manipulated by a predator, a much older, esteemed and powerful man, and defended Maynard’s right to tell an important part of her own life story.
Maynard wrote to Fadiman, thanked her, and offered to visit her class any time. That offer was accepted and Maynard’s class talks became annual events. On one of the visits, Fadiman told Maynard, “You have unfinished business in New Haven.”
At that time, Maynard was newly married, had just moved to California and, though her husband was ill, she wasn’t yet prepared for the fact that it would lead to a wrenching decline and death from pancreatic cancer. She wrote about it in her 2017 memoir “The Best of Us.”
“After Jim died, the whole world looked different,” says Maynard, “but I knew I just couldn’t curl up in a ball. I needed a big challenge.”
Maynard sometimes wondered what she lost in making that fateful decision in 1973 to leave school and scholarship. So, at the age of 65, she applied to Yale through the Eli Whitney Students Program, established for those who have interrupted their college career.
Maynard says her goal is not to complete the four-year cycle and get a degree — “First of all, it’s very expensive” — but rather to get some semblance of the Yale experience that she missed.
Closing the Circle
Maynard’s return to Yale has been filled with academic stimulation and personal delights, but it’s also been bittersweet.
“There was some ‘closing of the circle,’ but there are some things you cannot now claim from your youth,” she says. “I’ve never been more aware since I’ve been back here of what I lost.”
For this return, Maynard has embraced the school’s many extracurricular activities, part of Yale’s cultural swirl where students are encouraged to take on activities beyond their path of studies. “I especially loved performing in plays,” she says. But because of the limits of her age, “I can’t be on a sports team and I can’t be a dancer and I can’t do a lot of things I would have been doing when I was 19.”
She also discovered much had “refreshingly changed” with Yale and the city — but some things haven’t. In 1971 when she first arrived, hers was just the third class since Yale went co-ed for its undergrad program. She still remembers the stings of discrimination and dismissiveness young women then faced from male classmates and especially the professors. Some of that remains, she says.
But overall students have changed for the better, she says: They’re more diverse, more LGBTQ, more challenging.
“They’re so sensitized now,” she says of her classmates. “I was talking to a couple of young women the other day and one of them was describing a famous musician who came to Yale to perform. She was assisting him and oh, the things he did. ‘Now he would have been Title IX-ed so fast,’ they said [referring to the law protecting people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities receiving federal financial aid]. That’s an expression that wasn’t around when I was here.”
Maynard is especially appreciative of the personal connections she’s made with many of her fellow students, most of them many decades her junior.
“I really love being around them and they’re so sweet,” she says. “I host many of them at my home here in an informal writing group. They write and we talk about what they’ve written. I sometimes get an email from a student who asks if we could have lunch and they usually want to talk about their writing and I just love that.”
Maynard’s Yale experience was upended last year when the pandemic struck.
In March 2020 during spring break, Maynard was in the Mayan village of San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala teaching her annual memoir writing workshop there for women. “Personal storytelling has been a big part of my life that I’ve been teaching for years.”
With Yale shut down and people quarantined around the globe, she and several of the women decided to remain in Guatemala, which at that time had been minimally affected by the virus. It was natural refuge for Maynard. Guatemala was a special and serene place for her since she visited decades earlier when she joined her daughter who was traveling there for Spanish language instruction.
“I just intended to spend a few weeks with her but Guatemala had this heart-grabbing effect on me. It was the first year I had no children at home and I rented a little house on the shores of Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by volcanoes. I wrote a novel that had nothing to do with Guatemala but I felt very inspired. It’s one of the most extraordinary and beautiful places on the planet.”
At that same time, she learned she lost her savings due to a disreputable investment advisor — “and suddenly I had nothing. So I put a notice on the internet that I would be having a writing workshop. I had to figure out some way to do something. I housed them. I did the cooking. I did everything. And that was the beginning of the workshops that attracts about 30 people a year — now just women. In the absence of men, they tend to tell more intimate stories.”
While in quarantine there, she finished her latest and perhaps most ambitious novel — and one of her most personal, “Count the Ways” — which will be released in early summer, published by William Morrow. It follows a woman and her family from the ’70s to present day, dealing with marriage, parenthood, divorce and changing times.
And because her life sometimes makes it ways into her writing, a book about her return to Yale is in the works and is expected to be published next year, marking the 50th anniversary of her Times essay.
“I look back at the last four years, when I watched a man I adored die slowly and excruciatingly, and I could not have imagined I would be here now,” she says. “It gives me — and I know it would have given Jim — enormous pleasure that I made a good life.
“I love New Haven. I ride my bike everywhere. I love the farmers’ markets. I’m a country person basically, but this city works for a small-town person. I never think about retiring, but if I were a retiring type I would much sooner see myself here because there is so much to take in and it’s so nourishing of the spirit.
“I don’t ask myself where I am going next but you know there was actually a house that was for sale on Court Street and I thought, ‘Hmmm,’” she says laughing with a shrug, “But now these places cost a fortune.”