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For Joyce Maynard, art usually imitates life.
Memoirs aside, the New Hampshire native’s fiction is often drawn from her personal life. Classic Maynard hallmarks: loss, grief, divorce, the struggles of parenthood, house and money woes, a woman trying to find herself.
While her eleventh novel, “The Bird Hotel” — centered largely at a woman-owned hotel in a small Central American village — does indeed check every one of those boxes, it’s also a rare case of life imitating art.
Maynard has opened her own Bird Hotel. Kind of.
The part-time Bennington, New Hampshire resident also has a home by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where she hosts guests for retreats. Spending the early months of the pandemic there not only yielded this novel — but Casa Paloma.
Described online as sitting “just outside the Mayan indigenous village of San Marcos la Laguna on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlan,” Casa Paloma is a hotel and retreat center where people can “explore the Mayan world and the natural beauty of the area, practice yoga, swim, kayak, hike or simply relax.”
At 18, Maynard dropped out of Yale to live with then 53-year-old J.D. Salinger in New Hampshire, a story she told in her pre-#MeToo memoir “At Home in the World,” and for the New York Times in the #MeToo era. In 2018, she returned to Yale some 50 years after dropping out.
This book was born during one of her retreats. (More on that below.)
The novel in a nutshell: Little Joan (named after Joan Baez) is born to a freewheelin’ single hippie mom, but by 1970, must change her name and identity. As “Irene,” she and her grandmother move around the U.S. After a horrible accident, Irene is ready to end her life. The novel’s opening line: “I was twenty-seven years old when I decided to jump off the GoldenGate Bridge.”
Instead, she hops on a bus and eventually finds herself in a small Central American village where she checks into the titular hotel. Her second chance — her rebirth, really — is delivered via a cast of characters, in a tale spanning decades.
“I wanted to give readers a hopeful story, about a woman who survives great loss, rather than being crushed by it. That’s my story, too,” Maynard tells me.
She starts “The Bird Hotel” with a disclaimer of sorts: “The country where this story takes place…is an invention of the writer. So too are …the inhabitants of the village.… You might call this story a fairy tale, or a fantasy, or just a dream.”
If you’re a die-hard Maynard fan looking for a classic Maynard book, don’t let that scare you off. While some aspects require a stretch of the imagination — a newborn survives a volcanic eruption — I can’t quite call it magical realism or fantasy.
The only major difference between “The Bird Hotel” and other best-selling novels by New Hampshire native — say the Vermont-set “Count the Ways” or New Hampshire-set “Labor Day”— is that it takes place largely in Central America.
Maynard’s opening disclaimer may be explained by her closing acknowledgments, where she writes, “Ten years ago, or even five, it’s highly unlikely that any issue would have arisen over the idea that a Caucasian writer (myself) might write a novel set in a Central American country. But times have changed.”
Adding, “In the fall of 2021, when I first sent the manuscript of this novel out into the world, I was told again and again that it would be viewed as ‘appropriative’ for a non-indigenous, non-LatinX writer like myself to write about the world in which this story takes place…I won’t hold forth here on all the reasons why this new brand of cultural correctness strikes me as narrow-minded and wrong-headed.”
With three upcoming New Hampshire readings — July 15 in Peterborough, July 18 in Concord, and July 20 in Canaan — I caught up with Maynard to talk Guatemala, Boston, and her work as a “midwife” to women’s stories.
Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.
Q: You’ve had a house on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala for 22 years. What finally sparked this novel?
A: In March of 2020, I hosted my annual memoir workshop for women [there.] Eight made it before the world closed down. When the workshop ended, I decided to stay rather than fly home. I invited two of the youngest students, both 32, to stay.
I figured we’d be there for a few weeks. In the end, [we] stayed almost six months—but not because we were stuck. We were having one of the most precious and meaningful experiences of all our lives.
Every day we each got to work on our separate projects. [I worked] on “Count the Ways.” Every night we made dinner [then] I read out loud the chapter I’d finished that day.
After a few weeks, I’d finished “Count the Ways,” but we weren’t ready to go home. The girls said, “Write us another story.” I did. That became “The Bird Hotel.” The chapters are short because each served as a kind of adult bedtime story.
Q: I was interested in what you wrote in your acknowledgments. What was the initial reaction to the book? Did you have trouble pitching it?
A: “The Bird Hotel” is written from the point of view of [a North American] woman. In no way do I appropriate the voice or point of view of the Latinx community, or those of Indigenous heritage. But in our current world, it appears, a writer must confine herself to stories set in the culture of her origins — and none other. I, as a white writer raised in New England, can no longer tell a story involving characters who come from different backgrounds from my own.
We’ve just seen another version of this with Elizabeth Gilbert [who pulled her upcoming Russia-set historical fiction.] To me, and to every writer I know and respect, this is madness.
A small U.S. publisher finally agreed to publish “The Bird Hotel,” so it was published under the radar in the U.S.
Q: You’ve written, both your memoirs and novels, about grief and loss — what sparked the character of Irene? Is there any of you in her?
A: [Irene] survives vast loss to create a good new life. It’s about resilience. That part, no doubt, comes from my own experience, as a woman who’s experienced vast loss more than once in my life, as so many of us have by the time we reach the age I’ve gotten to. And one who has gone on to make a rich, full life.
Q: I love that you host memoir workshops for women. How did that start?
A: When my memoir, ”At Home in the World” was published in 1998, I was almost universally criticized and condemned for having told the story of a relationship I had, at the age of 18, with a powerful and revered much-older man [Salinger]. I was called a big mouth and a predator.
In the 25 years since, I’ve committed myself to helping other women tell the stories of their lives they may never have dared explore, or ones they’ve been told they are not allowed to tell. I think of myself as a kind of midwife to women’s stories, and over those years, I’ve probably helped many hundreds of women do this.
Whether or not they publish, I believe that being given permission, and space, to explore the truth of our lives is life-altering. That’s how I came to create my Write by the Lake workshops.
Q: You now have Casa Paloma. When I reached out before, you said you were hosting a group for grieving parents.
Q: After “Count the Ways,” I started receiving letters from women who identified with Eleanor, a devoted mother whose [adult] daughter cuts off contact. I came to create a weeklong retreat called Healing by the Lake for those going through this. I’ll be hosting another group this January.
Q: So growing up in Durham, New Hampshire, what are your ties to, or memories of, Boston?
A: A highlight was riding the bus to Boston a couple of times a year— visiting Filene’s Basement, the public gardens, Cambridge. I still remember the thrill I felt, coming up out of the subway at the Harvard Square stop, when I was 14.
I saw Joan Baez play in Boston when I was around 13. The next day I spent every penny of my babysitting money on a Gibson guitar.
I spend my summers in southwestern New Hampshire and still get to Boston now and then. I love sitting on the terrace of the Gardner Museum. I love the glass flowers at the Peabody Museum.
Q: I love that.
A: When I was 17, I got a job with Breck’s of Boston — a catalog company that sold flower bulbs and novelty gifts. I wrote copy for the Breck’s catalog, describing novelty items for their catalogue: golf tees shaped like naked women, toilet paper featuring a joke on every square. I rented a room on Pinckney Street. For some reason, I chose to wear a platinum blonde wig to work every day. That fall I quit my job to begin my freshman year at Yale. I’m unsure where I learned more: Yale or Breck’s of Boston.
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