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Wolf Girls

Joyce Maynard's latest takes on Mt. Tam, serial killers and adolescent angst

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SLITHERING HEIGHTS Joyce Maynard consulted with real-life Marinites who came of age in the 1970s for proper color.
  • SLITHERING HEIGHTS Joyce Maynard consulted with real-life Marinites who came of age in the 1970s for proper color.

Mt. Tamalpais is known the world over as a destination for a dose of nature and spirituality. But in 1979, the mountain, about which Gary Snyder once wrote "[it] gives us a crystal moment of being and a breath of the sky, and only asks us to hold the whole world dear," became something else altogether: the hunting ground for a walking terror nicknamed the Trailside Killer.

It was this story, of a serial killer who roamed the mountain for more than a year and killed at least five women hikers, that provided the narrative spine for Joyce Maynard's latest novel, After Her.

Maynard's home in Mill Valley—where she lived before a recent move to Oakland to be with her new husband—looks out over the mountain. "It was a big presence in my life for 17 years," Maynard says of Mt. Tam, on the phone from a New Hampshire highway as she heads to a friend's wedding. "I had been aware that there had been a serial killer at large on those trails many years before, but I didn't live in California then. It was a haunting knowledge that stayed with me."

After Her is the fictional tale of two girls, ages 11 and 13, who live on the side of a mountain rocked by murders committed by the Sunset Strangler. The plot is loosely based on a true story told to Maynard by two sisters who attended a one-day writing workshop at her home. The sisters, now in their 40s and living in Ukiah and Novato, were the daughters of the homicide detective originally in charge of the Trailside Killer investigation, and they believed their father's early death of lung cancer was caused by his deep grief at being unable to ultimately solve the case. (The killer, David Carpenter, was caught in another jurisdiction and eventually sentenced to life in San Quentin.)

A former New York Times columnist, Maynard is probably best known for her 1998 memoir At Home in the World, which revealed her nine-month affair with J. D. Salinger when she was 18 and he 53. When Maynard sold the letters written to her by Salinger, she was roundly condemned for breaking an "unwritten law" and exposing the private idiosyncrasies of the famously reclusive author. At Home in the World is being rereleased by Picador on Sept. 3; Maynard appears at Book Passage on Aug. 26 and Copperfield's Books in Petaluma on Aug. 27.

"It's a book that's close to my heart," explains Maynard. "When it was first published 15 years ago, it was enormously battled and condemned. I'm very happy to see it reissued in a different climate."

Beyond the Salinger connection, Maynard has forged a sizable writing career. Labor Day, her bestselling 2010 novel, is currently being adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin by Jason Reitman, the director of Juno. Over her 40-year career, Maynard has authored 15 books and countless magazine articles, including "Domestic Affairs," a syndicated column that ran over the course of her first marriage, a relationship that produced three children but ended in divorce.

The 59-year-old author describes After Her as a coming-of-age thriller, with a theme inspired in part by one of her favorite movies, Stand by Me, and her desire to provide an opportunity for two girls to have a "wonderful adventure" along the lines of River Phoenix and his friends.

"I didn't really set out to do this, but adolescence is kind of a going-into-the-woods experience, and this book is very much about the combination of thrill, fascination, anticipation and fear of sexuality experienced by a lot of young girls at that age," she explains. Maynard drew on her own youth growing up in New Hampshire, describing herself as a "girl who was always looking for trouble," a trait shared by her latest novel's narrator.

Maynard's previous books have an East Coast setting; this is her first set in California. Her research included an immersion in the history and culture of late 1970s Marin, a much more economically diverse community than the privileged enclave it has become. Laura and Janet, the two real sisters, filled up a notebook with memories of their life on Mt. Tam—down to small details about the clothing and music that they loved—mixed with memories of their detective father. In the book, the main characters are children of a divorced household; they live with their mother, with little money, no television or parental guidance, and easy access to the wilds of the woods.

"I wanted them to have some sort of wolf-girl life," says Maynard.

In the end, while After Her takes on the complexities of family life and the sister dynamic, it's also deeply about place—specifically, the mountain that looms over Mill Valley and the San Francisco Bay.

"It's my homage to Marin County," adds Maynard. "I love the outdoors and the wilderness around the county, and I really wanted to bring that to life on the pages of my book."

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