Set in a quiet New Hampshire town, Labor Day is the story of single mom Adele (Kate Winslet), her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and Frank (Josh Brolin), a fugitive that the two initially house against their will. As they begin to see more of his true character, he starts to fill in the role of husband and father. Based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the film is written and directed by Jason Reitman.
With her novel “To Die For” previously adapted into a film by Gus Van Sant, Labor Day marks the second adaptation of Maynard’s work. She was recently seen discussing her relationship with J.D. Salinger in the 2013 documentary Salinger, which she has also written about.
I sat down with Maynard in a roundtable interview to discuss her perspective of the film adaptation, how the original story came to her, her love for New Hampshire, and more.
Labor Day opens nationwide on January 31.
What is it that interests you about writing adolescent male characters?
Well, I’ve raised two adolescent boys. I think it actually goes to a deeper place. I feel very tenderly toward that age and that struggle. Everybody thinks about girls being so vulnerable, and they are – but look at the girl in Labor Day, she’s the tough one – but it’s the boys who tend to pull at my heart more. They have to seem like they are these big strong tough guys, and they’re really not. And one of my all-time favorite movies is Stand By Me. I think about that movie often, actually.
When you wrote this a few years ago, your sons were already in their 20s. Were you like emailing them about their own adolescent experiences?
If you just talk to me 12 hours before I had written this book, I would have said “I don’t have a clue what I am going to write next.” But then I woke up in the morning, and that boy was there. And he was talking, and I could barely type fast enough to take down all that he said. He was just in me, and I was along for the ride. I always say that when I write, the first reader I think about is me. It was like seeing the movie already, so it’s kind of come full circle to now be a movie. I was watching a movie in my head, and I was just typing it. I wrote the book in record time, about ten days, because I had to find out what was going to happen; I was worried. You might think that I would be in control, but I actually I felt like they had taken on lives of their own, and i had to see what was going to happen.
And when the book was finished, it was a very low point in my own career. I had published my much-condemned memoir, and I was not the hot girl on the block, that’s for sure. [I was] 55 years old at that point, and nobody would buy my books, and I didn’t have an agent. So I brought my book to New York, and a number of agents turned me down, and another read it overnight and loved the book. He said, “Yes, we can sell it, but we need to take your name off of it.” It was submitted to ten big editors in New York on the basis of my agent’s reputation without my name. And it created a bidding war. There was a gossip column item that said there was a hot young male first novelist … they thought it was James Franco! And when it was discovered it was me, a bunch of them bailed. So this is my ha-ha moment [laughs].
How different is it for you to write young male characters compared to young female characters?
“To Die For” also had a very important 15 year old boy. I don’t really think about male or female, I just think about that character. Who is he? Who is she? My novel “The Usual Rules” has a 13 year old girl, and my new novel “After Her,” the main character is a 13 year old girl, and she becomes a woman in a crucial event. I think a lot about age 13. That was just a big age for me, and I think it was for a lot of people. I am really interested in sexuality and the shaping of it, and the idea of a young person simultaneously discovering his own sexuality while his mother is discovering hers, pretty uncomfortable. And I was myself a single parent for most of the years of the raising of my children. And though I am not that woman, I did raise my kids in a small New Hampshire town, and I know plenty about the loneliness of giving out without someone taking care of you. My older son did actually give me a “Husband for a Day” book. But this is not my story.
Do you think 13 is the most vulnerable of ages?
It’s on the cusp. It’s just leaving childhood, and it’s entering adulthood. It’s both, and it’s neither. It’s trying to make sense of the world. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the great coming-of-age books are about that age. The formative book in my own young age was “Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank.
When you see the actors, what do you see of your characters in them?
Well, now it’s hard for me to imagine them any other way. I had been picturing in my head as I was writing Frank to be played by Tommy Lee Jones, which as we know Josh Brolin later played [in Men in Black III]. I love that Kate Winslet is not the ethereal dancer that you may have thought; she is a real woman. I like the realness of these characters.
Was there a lot of discussion about fatherhood with writer/director Jason Reitman?
Not so much fatherhood, but more son-hood. His parents were married, but his father was often gone. We talked about him being the boy, home alone, with his mother. I think he really related to that.
You have distinct cultural elements in the film’s recreation of New England. When you were helping crafting it in this film, were there aspects of the culture you wanted to take away because they might be too much?
I wanted it to be as New England as it possibly could be. But I certainly didn’t want them to have New Hampshire accents. It just does not work. But I would have loved for it to have been filmed in the state of New Hampshire. I started out this tour in Keene, NH; New Hampshire people would notice the difference. And I like the idea of people all over the United States seeing a town like that. Fewer and fewer kids ever get to ride their bicycle the way as seen in the film. But it’s in the same way that I want people to know what a real pie tastes like, and I’d like them to know what a real small town looks like. I feel so grateful to have been able to raise my children in one.