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Joyce Maynard, Salinger Lover and Labor Day Novelist, Teaches Josh Brolin How to Bake

Joyce Maynard admits that Labor Day requires a certain level of emotional buy-in, both for the film version from director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and for her own 2009 novel that inspired it. After all, it’s a story about a vulnerable single mother and an escaped convict who form a romantic bond, in part, over a freshly baked peach pie.

Yet if some of the specifics seem far-fetched, she argues, why are so many elements in this tale borrowed from Maynard’s own life, and from those of other women she’s met? Take the pie making. Baking could have become a second career for the 60-year-old author. It’s a skill Maynard gleaned from her late mother, and perfected in the few months before she died of a brain tumor more than 20 years ago.

“That summer, when I was taking care of my mother, when she was dying, a lot of her friends came to see her, and I made pie every single day,” Maynard said during a recent stop in Dallas. “I had grown up watching her make pie and I breathed it in. I didn’t have a recipe, but it’s not about the recipe. It’s about how you handle the dough.”

Even if that’s not intended as a metaphor, it applies for Maynard, whose personal dough includes a few months as a live-in muse for J.D. Salinger during her teenage years in New Hampshire. After their relationship ended, she became a journalist and novelist. Her divorce in 1989 left her as a single mother to three children.

“I’m in every one of my books in different forms, but this one is a very personal story to me,” Maynard said about Labor Day. “I wanted an adult love affair, with somebody who had some miles on her. I hadn’t seen that story told. But I also wanted a realistic story. I wasn’t going to write a fairy tale.”

Taking place in New England in 1987, the film follows Adele (Kate Winslet), whose divorce has left her as a recluse caring for a precocious yet socially awkward 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith). Their lives are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Frank (Josh Brolin), a stranger who pleads for their help during a routine shopping trip.

After they reluctantly take him home, Frank reveals his true identity and his need for a place to hide out. Rather than being frightened, however, Adele finds his kindness and his companionship alluring. Frank tries to seize his opportunity for redemption by gaining their trust even as the manhunt closes in.

“I want you to get to the point where you can accept something that would have seemed unacceptable,” she said. “Life doesn’t necessarily go in the way it was supposed to. So-called good guys can turn out to be the bad guys, so maybe somebody who looks like the bad guy can turn out to be the good guy.

“I’m not Adele, but the situation of a single parent raising children and trying to be a good mother, and carve out a little of her life for her own needs and yearnings, that’s a story that I know and that other women know. This is for them.”

Labor Day is the second big-screen adaptation for Maynard, whose novel To Die For provided a breakthrough role for Nicole Kidman in 1995. This novel, which Maynard said she wrote in just 10 days, is told from the point of view of the teenage boy. Once the rights to the book were sold, she kept her distance from the film project. She was on set for just two days, and didn’t have any veto power when she was shown drafts of the screenplay. But she was pleased with the changes in the finished product.

“I always am describing the movie that I’ve seen in my head. I entrusted it to Jason Reitman with the knowledge that I had to let it go,” she said. “He was very respectful of me and the book. My big contribution to this film was that I taught Josh Brolin to make that pie.”

The film opens on Friday at area theaters.

Photo credit: Dale Robinette (c) MMXIV Paramount Pictures Corporation and Frank’s Pie Company LLC