Portrait of the Artist as Joyce

updated 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE NOTE ON JOYCE MAYNARD'S FRONT door says the buzzer is broken and invites visitors to just walk in and yell. It might as well read: Here's my world and welcome to it! Maynard, 38, bustles into the hallway. Within minutes, in between phone calls about her book-promotion tour, she has introduced Lauree, "my personal trainer and friend," Ron, "my romantic associate and legal adviser," and served up a cup of spiced coffee to take the chill off the morning in Keene, N.H.

For Maynard, it's never too soon to let you in on her life—or her take on it. It's been 20 years since her ruminations on growing up during the tumultuous '60s—a cover story in The New York Times magazine titled "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life"—made her an instant media celebrity, the pundit-waif. Then she vanished just as spectacularly into the New Hampshire woods with the 53-year-old hermit-king of American literature, J.D. Salinger. Resurfacing in the '80s, Maynard was supermom, chronicling every detail of life with children in her syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs—and opening herself up to criticism that nothing was too personal to be shared. "I know I'm a person a lot of people love to hate," admits Maynard. "People say I think everybody's fascinated with every part of my life. I don't, and I won't be overly defensive about it."

In fact, in her new novel, To Die For, Maynard has abandoned personal journalism to tell a story inspired by Pamela Smart, the 23-year-old New Hampshire school aide who seduced her 15-year-old lover into killing her husband. "I wanted to write about ordinary people because I'm fascinated with popular culture—supermarkets, TV, PEOPLE magazine," she says. "And I wanted to write about a family that was not as it appeared."

Maynard's family had its own dark secrets. Her father, Max, an English instructor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, was an alcoholic and chronically dejected about forsaking his painting career; her mother, Fredelle, held a Harvard Ph.D. in English but devoted herself to raising Joyce and her older sister, Rona. "I felt an intense obligation to make my parents happy and redeem their disappointments," says Maynard, who wrote her own newspaper at age 8 and moved on to Seventeen magazine while in high school.

During her freshman year at Yale, Maynard sent her clips to The New York Times. It was at an editor's suggestion that she wrote the "Looking Back" piece, in just a weekend. Many of her peers were jealous. Others found this tale of little Joyce at sea in the bewildering culture of sex and drugs and politics cloying and disingenuous. But the media immediately crowned her spokesperson of her generation. TV, radio and book offers flooded in, so did sacks of fan mail. Amid the deluge was one extraordinary missive. "It was a cautionary letter, a warning about the perils of success," says Maynard. "And it was signed, 'J.D. Salinger.' "

Within a few months Maynard dropped out of Yale and moved in with the recluse at his New Hampshire home. "The moment I finally got all I wanted—success, achievement, recognition—was the moment I fell in love with someone who regarded all that as dangerous," she says. Maynard's decision to pursue success and expand the Times piece into a book ended the relationship after one year. "I was only 19, but I felt the world didn't work for me anymore," says Maynard, recalling her feelings after the split.

She retreated to an isolated farmhouse in Hillsborough, N.H., for three years before hauling herself to New York City to work as a Times reporter. A year later she married painter Steve Bethel, chucked her job and returned to Hillsborough to have babies. Her life—home births, changing diapers, apple pies—became the grist of her column, and to the 4 million readers who followed her every word, Maynard was earth mother of the perfect family.

It wasn't until 1989, when doctors determined Fredelle had a brain tumor, that Maynard saw the cracks in this appealing facade. While spending the summer in Toronto tending to her mother, Maynard came to feel that her life, like Fredelle's, had been too invested in giving her family—and not herself—what they needed. That fall, the week Fredelle died, Maynard and Bethel agreed to divorce. The breakup was documented in Domestic Affairs, prompting several newspapers to drop the column. Last June, Maynard decided to stop writing a public diary.

These days Maynard describes herself as a happy woman. After living with Bethel for nearly a year, the children—Audrey, 14, Charlie, 9, Willy, 8—now live with her in Keene. The separation, she says, "helped me understand the kids don't owe me their lives, and now I don't so completely drain blood from my veins for them." She has a five-month-old romance with Boston trial lawyer Ron Shwartz, 39, whom she met through a personals ad she placed in Boston magazine. And she's already at work on a book about Fredelle's death. "I have taken on this lifelong assignment of telling my story," she says. "Mine is the only one I have license to tell."

From Our Partners