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Joyce Maynard on 'How the Light Gets In'


Leonard Cohen died the day before the 2016 election, and many remembered these lines from his song, "Anthem."


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

SIMON: Those words and much more - including COVID, climate change, school shootings and January 6 - have stayed with Joyce Maynard in her latest novel, "How The Light Gets In." It's a sequel to her 2021 novel, "Count The Ways," about a family pitched into rifts and despair from a terrible accident. Joyce Maynard has been a well-known American writer, memoirist, novelist and journalist since she was 19 years old. Joins us now from Kansas City, Mo. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOYCE MAYNARD: Such a pleasure to get to talk with you, Scott. And I love that you started with a Leonard Cohen song and the brilliance of Leonard Cohen. I won't say he chose to die before that election, but it seems exactly right. And there was no other thing to call this book because everything that I believe at the age of 70, it speaks to what I know now that I didn't when I was young, which is that there's a crack in everything, and you can either grieve it and be crushed by it or find the beauty.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the family - Eleanor, who is a writer of children's books. And one of the cracks that her family has to contend with - a terrible accident involving Toby.

MAYNARD: Yes, the youngest of their three children.

SIMON: Toby almost drowns in a creek and is left with brain injuries. It's hard for any parent to live with that. Does Eleanor ever quite consider it really an accident?

MAYNARD: No. She holds her husband responsible. And actually, the accident that befalls Toby, really, as a result of his father's negligence, takes place in "Count The Ways," the first of the two novels. But one of the themes, really, that I wanted to explore is forgiveness. And it is something that Eleanor fails to achieve with her husband, and it really brings about the downfall of their marriage.

SIMON: May I say something in defense of her ex-husband, Cam? He's a wonderful father.


SIMON: Particularly when Toby needs him the most.

MAYNARD: Yes. And she recognizes this, and she accepts and forgives and has to forgive herself, too, which is part of the deal. You know, "Count The Ways" and now "How The Light Gets In" are not thinly veiled memoir, but they certainly explore themes and challenges that I have lived. I don't know a fiction writer, an honest fiction writer, who wouldn't say the same. I have been Eleanor. I have been that young Eleanor. I have been that young, angry half of a marriage that didn't survive and a single parent stretched to her limits and losing track of herself in the interest of trying to meet the needs of everybody in her family but herself.

SIMON: Eleanor - let me put it this way - she has an affair that could steam up the polar ice cap.

MAYNARD: Oh, God (laughter). You know (laughter), first of all, I should explain I never intended to write a sequel to this book. I thought I was done with these characters. I never have written a sequel before. And when the book came out, the first one, "Count The Ways," in 2021 - and I got so many letters from readers who were angry. And people were saying, gosh, when does this woman get a break? And I paid close attention to the fact that they didn't want to leave her in that place. So I made a decision to write a sequel. But I spent a full year thinking about what Eleanor should have in this next chapter of her life. And I felt she deserved a really great love affair.

SIMON: Yeah. I don't know whether to call Eleanor's family complicated or typical. Oldest child, Al, is a start-up success - has transitioned to being a man. Ursula, middle daughter, won't talk to her mother. She has three children with Jake, who seems swept up by a kind of Proud Boys-type movement. Maybe it is typical. I don't know.

MAYNARD: Well, what is a typical family? What is a good mother? Is there such a thing? Should we even try to think that we can be everything our children need us to be? No, I don't think so. I am not a sort of topic-of-the-year writer, and I'm not injecting these kinds of situations in my novel to make it topical and trendy. These are the kinds of situations that American families deal with.

SIMON: Let me shine some more light on Toby, the youngest son.


SIMON: His brain has been injured, but I find myself thinking he's an emotional genius.

MAYNARD: Thank you. Yes. You know, I try not to have favorite characters, and I do love them all, but Toby is probably the heart and soul of certainly "How The Light Gets In." Although his brain functions differently, his heart is very large and beating just fine.

SIMON: So many references to music - Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, Tracy Chapman, Hank Williams, Sinead O'Connor.

MAYNARD: And let's say John Prine. There's a lot of good music that's sort of playing in the background as there is, you know, the TV on and the radio and the news and the events large and small that are taking place in our country while we're, you know, living out our lives in kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms. I am sometimes criticized. I just read a review of - a woman had posted on Amazon saying, I always love Joyce Maynard's books, but why does she have to put politics in her books? And, you know, to which I would say I do have strong political views. I don't feel that that's why anybody pays 30 bucks for a novel of mine, and I don't inject them into my books. But my characters live in the world, and I can no more imagine setting a novel in the years 2010 to 2024 and not talking about the Trump years, for example, than setting a novel in Europe in 1938 and not talking about the war.

SIMON: And as you also say, the lessons aren't in our triumphs. They're in our failures.

MAYNARD: That's what the title is about. That's what Leonard Cohen meant. I will say of my own life - and I think most people at this stage in life would probably say the same - that things didn't turn out the way we imagined. I had all kinds of ideas about the vision of my family, the vision of my professional life but, most of all, the vision of my relationships. And I was aspiring to this sort of great normal thing, whatever that was. And (laughter), you know, life brings you to your knees. And if you're wise, you don't sit around grieving what you didn't have. You look at what you were given and celebrate that. And the lessons that I value most, probably in just about every case, have come from my failures, my losses.

SIMON: Joyce Maynard's new novel, "How The Light Gets In." Thanks so much for being with us.

MAYNARD: Wonderful to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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