Under the Influence with Joyce Maynard

By Regina Walker 02/28/16

Joyce Maynard talks to The Fix about being six weeks abstinent from alcohol, thanks to her new book, as well as eating disorders, and her relationship with J.D. Salinger.

Under the Influence with Joyce Maynard
via Author

I was a bit nervous as I prepared for my interview with Joyce Maynard. Maynard has been receiving recognition for her work since her early teens. She wrote regularly for Seventeen magazine and was published in the the New York Times Magazine at age 17. In 1971, at 18, she dropped out of Yale University after completing her freshman year and entered into a relationship with J.D. Salinger who was 53 years old at the time. During the 10 months they lived together, Maynard completed her first book, Looking Back.

Maynard resists absolutes, including the idea that she will remain alcohol-free for the rest of her life.

Maynard is a prolific writer who has published fifteen books during her career. Her most recent book, Under The Influence, was published by William Morrow this week and is already receiving rave reviews.

Earlier this month, Maynard published the first of a three-part column in the Huffington Post in which she described how she came to realize that she had a drinking problem through the process of writing Under The Influence, which includes a character who struggles with alcohol abuse. Maynard does not describe herself as an alcoholic, but eloquently writes about the relationship she has had with wine and the role, both positive and negative, it has played in her life. She shares with readers that it is her intention to give up drinking and experience life without the buffer of her nightly ritual of wine.

I spoke with Ms. Maynard by phone on the eve of the publication of Under The Influence. She was in Guatemala, where she both facilitates a writer’s workshop and maintains a home. She said she had not yet been back to her home in California since making the decision to abstain from alcohol six weeks ago.

I asked how she became a writer: “I was raised in a boot camp of writing. My mother was the most passionate lover of language I have ever known and the most demanding editor.”

Though her mother died 26 years ago, Maynard describes her as her greatest influence. “My mother is very much alive when I teach memoir writing.”

In describing her upbringing, Maynard acknowledged the presence of alcohol in her life. “I grew up in an alcoholic family. A spectacularly verbal communicative family in which we talked about everything except one topic—the fact that my father got drunk every night.”

Though her father found sobriety for a time and became “an inspirational speaker,” he eventually relapsed at 71 years old and “died of drink, he died of pneumonia.” 

When asked about her relationship with Salinger, Maynard was understandably dismayed. “It is an ongoing source of frustration that whatever I do in my life—and I have done plenty since the age of 18—his name is endlessly linked to mine.” Though she penned her first book, Looking Back, while living with Salinger, “he was withering in his condemnation of my desire to publish my work.“ She found it “significant that he ended the relationship just before it was published.”

“I wrote it (Looking Back) while I was with him, and talk about silences and subjects not being addressed. I had some affection for that book but in the 160 pages of my first crack at a memoir, you will see no mention of the fact that I had grown up in an alcoholic family, that I had dropped out of my Ivy League college to live with a 53-year-old man who happened to be Salinger. And at the time I was writing the book, I was suffering from some pretty severe eating disorders.” Maynard continued, “All of that speaks to the person I was then who couldn’t name the painful, shameful subjects and a good portion of my life since has been about becoming a person who could.”

Maynard recalled receiving a crucial message from Salinger: “Be true to who one really was and not selling that person out.”

Maynard took it to heart. “The first time I embraced that was when I wrote At Home In The World, which no doubt horrified him.” For Maynard, the book is an expression of freedom. "[It] was me finally saying, this is who I am, this is what I have lived and I should be free to say it.”

Maynard became acutely aware of her own increasing problem with alcohol while reading over Under The Influence. I asked how long alcohol has been a problem for her. “With my background, always.”

“I grew up in an alcoholic family so, of course, I have been very aware of addiction all of my life. And I am also a person who has dealt with eating disorders for years and I don’t think those are ever gone. You have that in you, like you have alcoholism in you forever, but I was aware that for the last year and a half, really since my husband’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, that I was using alcohol in a different sort of way. And it was not a good sign that I tried to quit many, many times and did not succeed. That in itself was a message.”

Initially, the essay for the Huffington Post was written rather differently. “I wrote a piece about my relationship to drinking that had a different ending. When I first wrote it, the ending was that I was vigilant and aware I had the potential for a problem, and I was still drinking.” In this initial version of her essay, Maynard is pulled over for possible drunk driving, passes a sobriety test, and learns her lesson, vowing to be more vigilant of her drinking. “I was speeding and I gave the officer reason to pull me over. But I concluded that I would not drink and drive and I was very aware that I had to be careful.”

But this did not read as authentic to Maynard. “I saw a woman in denial. Reading my own writing revealed to me what was going on in my own life.”

Maynard sees a definite connection between her eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) and alcohol abuse. “One is about control and the other is about releasing control.”

I asked Maynard her thoughts about the concept of alcoholism/addiction as a disease. “My father had a disease. My way of finding compassion for my father’s drinking, which caused so much sorrow and so much trouble in our family, was to say he had a disease. It wasn’t that he was being selfish or being unkind or unloving, which would have been a much harder thing to deal with. He was in withdrawal from an addiction. I guess I will call it a disease.”

Maynard said that remaining abstinent has been difficult, but “not as difficult as I thought. I am sharper. I look forward to writing this way.”

She joked that the essays in the Huffington Post were “my form of Antabuse,” as they reveal how her insights about herself now make her accountable to act on those insights. “I have a hard time calling myself an alcoholic, but then I decided, does it really matter if I am or not? I have a problem and I could become one. And by some people’s definition, I already am.”

Maynard resists absolutes, including the idea that she will remain alcohol-free for the rest of her life. “I do not think of abstinence forever, nor do I not.” She continued, “It is hard to imagine being in Paris and eating cheese and drinking mineral water, but I have no plans to drink and maybe never will.”

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.