Scott Foundas spoke with Joyce Maynard about the novel and its adaptation.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: How did the story first come to you?
JOYCE MAYNARD: I was actually at a low point in my career. I had published a memoir, At Home in the World, which had been greeted with a huge amount of condemnation and criticism and put my career in a dark place for a number of years. My last couple of books hadn’t sold very well; I didn’t have a publisher; I didn’t have an agent. But I got a two-month residency at the MacDowell artists’
colony. This would have been the summer of 2008, and I spent the first six-and-a-half weeks of my eight weeks there writing a completely different book, a memoir, that I haven’t looked at since that summer. I had about 12 days left, and I had had such a glorious time, a really transcendent time, that I didn’t want to stop working. So I decided I would start a novel.
I did have some history with writing a novel in a very compacted period of time, because I had done that with my first book, Baby Love. I may sound like a bit of a new ager when I say this, but I believe that my creative mind does all kinds of good things at night when I sleep, and I’m a great sleeper. When I went to bed that night in my wonderful little MacDowell cabin in the New Hampshire woods—this was actually just before Labor Day weekend—I did exactly what I tell my students to do, which is that I thought about my obsessions, certain moments in my life and themes that I knew were powerful engines for a story. One certainly was my own many years as a single parent in a small New Hampshire town—the mother of young sons—and my
acquaintance with the loneliness of a single parent. Another was the correspondence I had had with a man in prison, when I was newly divorced and my mother had died. I should say another obsession of mine is that I teach pie-making, and that was in there somewhere, because it’s a sort of symbolic, ritualistic act for me.
Anyway, I thought about that man, about New Hampshire towns, about single mothers, and I thought about Labor Day. And when I woke up the next morning, there honestly was this boy’s voice in my head, and I started typing. It was one of the great writing experiences of my life. I almost felt as if I was just taking dictation for the story that this boy was telling me. I wrote it in those 12 days partly because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. And I do have this belief borne out from previous writing experiences—To Die For was another one where this happened—that if you give life to characters who are authentic, they tell you what’s going to happen. Twelve days later, I had Labor Day.
The film is an unusually faithful work of adaptation.
Very. I don’t mean to say that it’s always the right call for somebody to adapt a novel as closely as Jason did with mine, but in this case, I was actually almost describing a movie that I already saw in my head as I was writing it. I was being the camera myself. I’m very much a film person, and I’ve always hoped that I would one day make a film. So I really was being a filmmaker on a low budget, with my laptop. The film is very close to the novel, with some really brilliant inventions that are Jason. I was so moved by what he did. It’s almost an indescribable experience for a writer to see a story that has existed only in your head and on the page made manifest: a whole town transformed into the world of the town in the book. I can’t say a single thing about this film that I didn’t love. I saw it a few months ago with my husband and my sons, and at one point one of my sons—who actually cried during this movie, and he’s not one who easily cries—he called out during the pie-making scene, which is the sexiest pie-making scene ever: “That’s you, Mom!” Because that is exactly how I teach pie, and Josh Brolin’s pie is my pie. So in many ways large and small, it felt very true to what I had envisioned.
It’s a very sensual story, both on the page and on the screen. Food can be very sensual to begin with, but it’s sensual on other levels too—the way Frank ties Adele to a chair with scarves, the way he feeds her.
She’s a woman who hasn’t been touched for a very long time. The scene where he feeds her is, for me, more erotic than if they’d gone to bed together. One of the things that happens when you write—I think it happens with other writers too—is that you fall in love with your characters. Certainly, while I was writing this book, I fell in love with Frank, and I imagined all the things that he should do! Unlike what happens in real-life relationships, you get to have the man do exactly what you want him to. He’s certainly not a perfect guy, but he’s perfect for her.
It’s also very much a book about masculine identity. As the only child of a single mother myself, I found it uncanny how well you managed to get inside the head of a pubescent pre-teen boy desperately in need of a male role model.
Well, I’m not unacquainted with that. I really loved how much I became that boy. It’s actually kind of a funny story what happened. After I finished Labor Day, and I felt very good about the novel, I brought it to New York, and a succession of agents said they really couldn’t help me because my career was not in a good place, and my numbers were very low and all the things that are how you get judged in the world of publishing now. Then this one agent read the novel and loved it, but he said, “If you want me to sell this, you must take my advice and do everything I say.” And what he said was, “I’m going to submit this without your name attached to 10 editors around New York who I respect.” There was enormous excitement about the book and a little bit of a buzz, there was going to be an auction. And there was some gossip column item that said James Franco had written this novel! I regarded that as the greatest compliment—not because of James Franco in particular, but because it was perceived to be a story written by a young man. I really lost myself in that character, which is what happened in To Die For too.
Are Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin close to the characters as you saw them in your mind when you were writing them?
It’s very funny about Josh—and this obviously shows my vintage—but the person that I pictured when I was writing was Tommy Lee Jones as he was 30 years ago. And as you know, Josh played the young Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black III. Kate is a dream. She embodied this woman so without vanity and ego; she’s in no way glamorous, except that she just has this inner beauty. And I love the boy; I love Gattlin. I was initially a little worried about him, because among other things he’s such an athlete. He comes from this rodeo family, and Josh told me he really knows how to throw a football. He’s not at all like the boy in the story. But he was so touching. My favorite moment with him…he did manage to cry in the film, which is a tall order for many actors with more experience. I asked him how he brought himself to tears for that scene, and he said, “Oh, I listened to a song that really means a lot to me.” I asked him what it was, thinking I might know the performer, even though Gattlin is significantly younger than my younger child. But it was Garth Brooks! It was a dream cast. My only disappointment in the film is that they couldn’t shoot it in my home state of New Hampshire. That’s no fault of Jason Reitman; it’s the mistake of New Hampshire not to give film incentives.
Is there any chance you’ll be baking up some pies in Telluride?
Josh and I spoke about it, but I can’t believe that we’ll have the facilities. But I’m always ready to do that; I do travel with my rolling pin. I will say that the pies in the film are Josh Brolin’s pies. He’s one of the best pie students I ever had. He evidently baked pies all summer long, and what I love about the pie in the film—like so much else in the film—is that it doesn’t look like a pie created by some food stylist. It looks like a handmade pie made by a convict on the run, which is kind of what my pies look like. They’re very delicious, but they have a certain rustic air to them, and so do his.
LABOR DAY | U.S., 2013, 110m | Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Kate Winslet
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard