KIRKUS REVIEWS interviews Joyce about Labor Day

KR: You've said previously that you like creating "characters you care about" and "people you'd love to hang around with."   I'm curious about the characters in Labor Day and how they came to be, and what it was like during the writing of the book--did you enjoy spending time with them?

JOYCE:  I loved spending time with the characters I brought to life in Labor Day.  It’s not a prerequisite that every character I create should be someone I’d invite to my house for dinner, but in one way or another (with the possible exception of the fame-obsessed would-be television anchorwoman in my novel To Die For) I tend to populate my fiction with people for whom I feel affection. 

The mother in this novel, Adele, bears certain definite similarities to myself—not only her her odd fascination with Jacqueline du Pre, and wanting to play the dulcimer and her fierce devotion to her son (though I’ve got three children myself), and not only because she’s a single mother raising a child in a small New Hampshire town (as I was, for many years, when my own kids were young.)  Like me, she’s a romantic, with her own odd style of somewhat over-the-top parenting.  I share her love of dancing (though not her skill; on the other hand, I’m a much better cook than she is), and, thankfully, I possess no trace of the agoraphobia that paralyzes her.  I’ll hop on a plane heading to some unfamiliar place at the drop of a hat.  I am responding to your questions, in fact, as you know, from a little cabin overlooking Lake Atitlan, Guatemala , and the volcanoes on the other side. (And as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll be diving in.)

On the matter of Adele’s obsession with and love of babies—well, the title of my first novel was Baby Love, and though many years have passed since the publication of that one, I remain no less fascinated with the incomparable adventure of having and raising children than I was, at age twenty seven, when I wrote that one.  I also once poured an entire bottle of milk on the kitchen floor to make a point, by the way.  Though over the years I’ve learned that writing is probably a more effective form of communication.

As for the other characters in my new novel:  I have a weakness for that bad boy type of man, so long as he’s in possession of a good heart. (He can throw a baseball, and fix cars, but he also loved his grandmother and knows how to bake a great pie.)  The bad boy in my new novel, of course, is Frank-- the troubled character who comes limping into Adele’s life on a rare foray out into the world, on her labor-day-weekend back-to-school shopping trip with her son, Henry. 

I have asked myself, often, why it is I keep returning, in my fiction, to adolescent narrators, as I do again, in Labor Day—a story seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy and the thirty one year old man he eventually becomes, looking back on that one beautiful and heartbreaking Labor Day weekend. I guess I never stop being moved by the period of life, between childhood and adulthood, when a young person is leaving childhood, discovering all the things his parents do badly,  and first discovering the world of sexuality.  This boy, in particular, carries a huge weight of responsibility to look out for his fragile mother.  I have to admit that one of my sons, when very young—witnessing my own frustration at not having a man at my side to assist with some problem or other—did present me with a “Husband For A Day” coupon he’d made.  He just wanted so badly to fix things—as Henry does, for his mother.

KR:  You are also quoted elsewhere noting that at some point in raising your own kids you realize that "there was no protecting them. They had only their own strength to see them through."

It seems that in the process of the story we watch as Henry's strength is tested, develops, matures.  Eleanor, on the other hand, doesn't develop that strength, bringing to mind the question of why some kids do, some don't. . .Given Adele's style of parenting, it seems there is more to the equation than just parental guidance?  It would appear, too, that Adele requires a balancing act for you as a writer; she can't cross the line and be too neglectful or erratic. . .

One of the gifts, and nightmares, of having had the opportunity to write fiction over the years, is the way putting characters on the page who in one way or another contain elements of myself has allowed me to step back and see myself in new and sometimes terrifying ways.  Adele makes awful mistakes as a mother, as I did. But unlike Eleanor—who has been abandoned and neglected by her parents, I think—Adele’s son never doubts her love, or her passionate interest in him, or her loyalty.  I think a child can survive a lot, when those things remain clear. Eleanor starves herself, and draws the “cut here” line on her wrist—and, ultimately, engages in a devastating act of betrayal—because she has been starved and betrayed, herself. Her mother may not do some of the odd things that Adele does.  But her mother’s absent.

KR:  I found myself wondering if you had to choose sides, would you go with fate or free will?  The beginning of the story, with Frank finding them, really brought this question to mind for me.

. . .and I was struck at the incredible effect unfortunate timing can have on one's life--Frank's mother's stroke, the death of the hamster. . .Lives changed in a moment.

You've noted that "Cloud Chamber" has a "theme that has been centrally important to me all my writing life: family silences, and the damage they do."  Do you see that theme emerging again in "Labor Day"?

Having grown up in a family in which the one great issue facing us all—my beloved father’s nightly rendezvous with the vodka bottle—remained unmentioned, I know I’m haunted by the theme of secrets and silences.  I tackled it in The Cloud Chamber, and The Usual Rules, and certainly it was a central theme of my memoir, At Home in the World.  In some ways, Labor Day is a novel about the opposite of silences.  Henry’s slightly crazy mother, Adele, talks with him—inappropropriately, no doubt-- about all kinds of things mothers aren’t supposed to discuss with their children.  At night, through his bedroom wall, he hears his mother making love with Frank in the next room.  But as he says, near the end of the novel, he comes to discover that the worst thing for a person to hear is not the sound of lovemaking in the night.  It’s the absence of that.

KR:  And selecting "Labor Day" as the pivotal weekend.  Not the Fourth of July, not Memorial Day or Columbus Day. . .what drove that the choice?

Well, Labor Day weekend always seemed like a particularly poignant time to me—signalling the end of summer, the dying of the garden, the coming of winter. 

Of course, there is another meaning to the word “labor”—the act of giving birth.  Births—tragic and redemptive—run all through this story.  I also happened to begin writing this novel right before Labor Day weekend, last year—during a gloriously productive residency at The MacDowell Colony, in my home state of New Hampshire.  The novel was written in something close to real time, over final weeks of my two months at MacDowell.  My daughter Audrey—now age 31—celebrated its completion by climbing Mount Monadnock with me on a perfect day, that September. Like Henry, she’s the child of an imperfect mother and a survivor of a hard and painful divorce.  Like the child if divorce in my new novel, she has forgiven her parents and grown into the most open-hearted kind of adult, and not—as some experts would warn us, about “children of a broken home”—irretrievably damaged and depressed. The story I tell in Labor Day is painful, but it’s hopeful too.  And I’m a hopeful person.