Skip to main content


July 24, 2009

Joyce Maynard: Chance Encounter

Posted by webmaster
Reading groups have been known to foster camaraderie and forge friendships. Today, novelist Joyce Maynard shares a true-life tale about how a book club brought her together with someone who is now a close friend --- a chance encounter since neither ever attended the group again.

Joyce is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel
Labor Day, on sale this Tuesday, August 28th. It's the story of Henry, a lonely and friendless teenager living in New Hampshire, whose life is changed when a mysterious man arrives on the eve of Labor Day weekend.

Joyce also runs the Lake Atitlan Writing Workshop in Guatemala.

It was the summer after I'd published a novel called The Usual Rules, and I was living --- then as I am now --- in my house on the side of a mountain in Northern California, a beautiful but somewhat solitary spot. I received a call from a woman who'd read the novel, to say she was a member of this really special book club whose members had been getting together to share books for close to fifteen years. They were reading this new novel of mine, and since I didn't live all that far away, they wanted to invite me to join them for the night they'd be discussing it.

Now, I liked this idea. The one part about my life as a writer that really doesn't fit my temperament and nature is the way a writer has to be alone all the time, to write her books. One thing about a book club is that a writer gets to be with other people. People who love books.

And I’m a talker. Also a listener, mind you. To me, there's not much that's more fun than being in a roomful of intelligent, curious women (men too, but that's not so likely to happen at book clubs), talking about reading, and all the other topics --- love, loss, joy, sorrow, work, children, food, home, our bodies --- that conversations about books so often open up. If the book they're talking about is mine, of course, that's the best of all.

What I love about book clubs is the way they get us past the small talk and open up discussion about the things that matter most in life. A good book has a way of raising as many questions as it answers. A good book club is a place to go to share them. Which is just what a person like me longs for, in a life where sometimes days may go by during which I hardly get to see another human being, and the only voices I may hear come through the telephone, or from my characters on the pages I write. Those, and that of the UPS man.

I told my caller I'd be happy to accept her invitation. There was just one problem. Her book club met an hour’s drive from me, and I'm a terrible driver. No problem, she said. Her friend Susan lived near me, and though she didn't normally attend the book club, they'd ask her to come down with me and serve as my chauffeur. So, an hour before the appointed meeting time, this woman showed up at my door to take me to Burlingame.

Now, a little background here. Another aspect of a writer's life that I've gotten used to over the years is that for the vast majority of fulltime writers (particularly one like me, who relies on her writing for her livelihood), things can get a little dicey in the financial department on occasion. That particular summer, for instance, I had felt the need to rent out my house, to cut expenses, and was living in a basement apartment under my own home. This was where Susan showed up to bring me to the book club.

Our destination was one of the more affluent communities surrounding the San Francisco Bay area, and in fact, I knew --- from her car, and the general look she had of being significantly less rough around the edges than I was --- that Susan herself lived a life considerably different from mine. I had selected an outfit for the evening that was meant to make me look like the sort of person who hangs out in Burlingame, but I don't think I had succeeded all that well in concealing the fact that I'd fit in better at a square dance in New Hampshire, or at a market in Guatemala, than in a 4,000-square-foot home located down the street from a golf club.

Susan was married to a man she adored, and was the most passionate dog-lover I had ever met. I'd been divorced (and dogless) for many years, with a spotty relationship history that had featured a pretty diverse assortment of characters but none who'd worked out for the long haul. Susan and I shared a love of art, and a certain kind of unfussy but good cooking --- she made soups, I baked pies. She grew roses. Though in my New England days I'd grown vegetables, I had no garden.

She loved staying put with her husband. I travelled now almost as much as I was home. She was organized, practical, and realistic. I was impulsive, messy, and a hopeless romantic. My children were grown. She was the stepmother of a teenage daughter, and in fact, it was this --- the recognition that my novel was one she could share with a fifteen-year-old with whom she had a complicated relationship, at times --- that had made her so passionate about my novel in the first place. None of this mattered. What I recognized, within the first four minutes of our drive, was that I'd found a wonderful friend.

Topics we covered over the next forty nine minutes: Her relationship with her stepdaughter (big surprise: it was complicated); and mine with the daughter I gave birth to (also far from easy). Her years as a single woman, before meeting the man she called her soul mate; my own ongoing search. We were not even close to the exit for our hostess's house by the time we'd gotten to sex, money, aging, and food. If I'd been the one driving, we might have had an accident, we laughed so hard. But among our many interesting differences was the fact that Susan’s a much better driver than I.

Here's one thing about putting two women in a car together for a long drive: If they're book club types --- which is to say, women who've already identified they'd rather talk about things that matter than things that don't --- they get right down to it. So by the time we pulled up in front of our hostess's house to join the rest of the book club, I felt as if Susan and I had known each other all our lives. Or rather, that we would.

The book club was also good, though more formal. As I'd anticipated from my conversation with its organizer, this was a group of dazzlingly well-read women whose questions got me thinking about aspects of my story I'd never considered before. The ninety minutes flew by. So did the drive home with Susan.

That was five years ago, and we are the best kind of friends now. Two very different women who share a common sense of values, sense of humor (crucially important), and intense appreciation and interest in the world, in stories, and each other's lives.

We've lived through a lot since then. The novel that brought us together that night sold well enough to get me out of my basement apartment and back upstairs into my own home, where I went on to publish another three books since --- the latest of them, a novel called Labor Day. (And, by the way, it's a perfect book club selection, in my opinion. Also --- though she's been known to disagree with me plenty over the years --- in Susan's.)

Our friendship is one of the better stories in my life. For all those years her marriage has remained steady and good, I've gone in and out of more than a few relationships (my current rule being to run any prospective sweetheart past my friend before things get serious, her instincts being clearly superior to mine in certain crucial ways.)

When I'm in a writing jag, and holed up at my house for days on end, Susan brings by jars of her root vegetable soup, with stock made from scratch, and flowers from her garden. I bring her pies and odd carved or painted renderings of dogs from third world places I travel (where she can never accompany me, because the sight of hungry dogs there would upset her too much). When I need to go to New York City and look presentable, she leads me into her closet and picks out an outfit for me. When I come home --- having managed to get a stain on the front --- she forgives me. She's younger than me by two years, but what she says is that she's my mother figure, and since it's been twenty years since I had one of those, this is welcome news.

In all the years of our friendship, there was only one time, ever, when our friendship was truly, sorely tested. It was the fall of Hurricane Katrina, and Susan had been suffering so much over the knowledge that hundreds of dogs had been abandoned there, and were wandering the streets looking for food --- that she volunteered to go to New Orleans to help feed them. I came along, partly to write about what was happening and partly to offer support to my friend, knowing that for her, the sight of a suffering dog would be almost unbearable.

I'd gotten an assignment from a newspaper to cover what was going on there with the dog rescue operation, and so there was a photographer following us around. And in the course of our days together I'd also witnessed some actions on the part of the well-meaning dog rescue groups that seemed, to me, irresponsible and extreme. I wrote about those things. And Susan, reading what I'd written, was incensed. Maybe what I'd described was true, but she believed that my publishing this would not be good for the dog-rescue people, and where, for me, the bottom line had always been to write the real and true story (even when it's not the one you want to hear), for her the bottom line was always: what's best for the dogs?

Late one night, in the streets of that hurricane-ravaged city, at the end of another twelve-hour day of wandering the streets feeding packs of abandoned pets, we had it out. Both of us cried. Then we had a drink at one of the few bars that remained open, and flew back to California. I changed my story enough that it didn't make a problem for her, and didn't compromise my standards either. Though in the end, I chose the friendship over total, unblinking journalistic objectivity. And harbor no regrets that I did.

What all this has to do with book clubs may not be readily apparent, but in fact, it is thanks to a book club that I owe the existence, in my life, of one of my dearest friends --- one of the two women I would call first if anything ever happened in my life where I needed someone at my side right away. Wherever Susan was at the time, I know she'd get to me if I needed her. We weren't even members of the book club that brought us together, of course. It was a terrific book club, but neither of us ever returned.

Still, it is not a coincidence that we met on our way to a discussion about books. Because neither one of us would have been in that car that day --- Susan as the driver, me as her passenger, both of us talking double time and laughing our heads off --- if we hadn't shared an abiding love of stories, and the way that talking about other people's stories (people who may not even be real) allows us to see our own in new ways, and to connect with the stories of others.

That's why Susan reads. That's why I write. To make the connection. Here is my story, I'm saying, on every page. Now let me know what you think.

---Joyce Maynard