PW: What led you to choose 9/11 as the backdrop of The Usual Rules?
Joyce Maynard: The work that I had been doing before didn't make sense anymore. I couldn't imagine embarking on a project that didn't in some way speak to what all of us in this country had just lived through. I didn't know what that would be, and I didn't think about writing a novel about September 11, and I don't really think that's what this is. I wanted to explore some of the feelings that were being felt, chief among them being family and loss. In one of the Portraits of Grief in the New York Times, there was a mention of a woman who had died, who had left an 11-year-old daughter and a much younger son by a second husband. Her daughter, in addition to being devastated by losing her mother, was going to leave her little brother and her stepfather to live with the natural father. For my fictional purposes, what was important was a family broken apart. I wanted to explore that not just in the context of September 11 but in all the other ways that I knew it.
PW: In the novel you show different types of families. You have a boy who is looking for his brother, you have a young mother who has a newborn baby and has problems with her mother. What, to you, is a family?
JM: I grew up with a very narrow picture of what a family was. I learned from television, actually. I pictured a mother, a father and children, and everybody's happy and nobody's getting drunk [laughs]—which was not like my family. I married with that kind of picture in my head, and my life did not go on to match it. Over the years, I have greatly expanded my picture of what a family can be. I guess at the core of it, it's about people who are thrown together who might never know each other for any other reason, and they have to figure it out.
PW: The text of the book lacks quotation marks for the dialogue. Why did you choose that style?
JM: It was something that was debated. I wanted a certain kind of simplicity. I wanted the dialogue to be a part of the whole big wash of everything else she's taking in. It's a very sensory book—it's the Madonna song she's playing, and the smell of Josh's brownies in the oven, the rattling of the subway, and whatever's going on—and I wanted it all to be part of this wash.
PW: You seem to be quite fond of Davis, California, where the novel is partly set.
JM: [laughs] A friend of mine, Mark, is a bookseller who I met years ago on a book tour, who has a little independent bookstore in Davis, California. I gave a reading there, and it was the best reading I've ever done. It's this little bookstore, but he filled the store, and I was so touched that he did. I will certainly go to Davis again for this book. He's not a character in this book, but the store is his store, and it was my little homage to the independent bookseller.
PW: Do you think people might think that you are exploiting a national and personal tragedy?
JM: Yeah. I don't know. I think that probably will happen. I've sort of accepted that people are going to say many things. To me it's always a better thing to talk about the hard experience in my life than to maintain silences. I was raised with silences, and I lived with silence on a number of very important experiences in my life. I don't believe in them. But I'm not cramming this book down anyone's throat either. If somebody finds that experience too painful to relive it, there's a very simple solution: not to reenter it. We all experienced September 11, in the world, in this nation. There's a smaller group that's New Yorkers that experienced it in a much more intense way than other parts of the country. And then there is the real core group who lost something. I would not presume to know how this book would be to them. I hope that I hear.