Not only was Anna Quindlen practically born a writer, she seems to have come early to the intimacy with social nuance that permeates her fiction and propels her nonfiction. In sixth grade, she wrote her own autobiography, capturing two defining cultural icons of her 1950s childhood in its title: “From Formula to Coke.” “I never got around to a sequel, which I guess would be called ‘From Coke to a Grande Latte,’” she says via an E-mail interview.
When asked about the source of her deep sensitivity to people — their motivations, their worries, and their obsessive thoughts — she is momentarily stumped and remarkably humble. “That’s the first question I’ve gotten in a long time that’s both made me think and left me without a good answer. Maybe it was all those years as a reporter. Maybe I’m a practiced watcher. Maybe I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people do what they do. But the bottom line is that I’m not sure. In most ways that count I’m fairly average.”
Quindlen’s novels chart the reactions of her characters to serious life challenges, which sometimes leads critics to say that she writes about “issues,” for example, mercy killing in “One True Thing” and domestic violence in “Black and Blue.” But in an April 12, 2010, interview on BNStudio’s “Meet the Writers” series, Quindlen takes exception to this view. “The truth is that issues are just things that happen to people in sufficient numbers for us to pay attention,” she says. “So I really feel like I write books that are very character driven.”
Quindlen appears on Thursday, March 24, at Barnes & Noble, to read from her latest novel, “Every Last One,” in which she explores a marriage, relationships between parents and children, and human strength in the face of loss through the eyes of her first-person narrator, a mother named Mary Beth Latham.
“Every Last One” explores the moment when a parent’s worst fears are realized, when danger penetrates the home despite the parent’s best efforts to fend it off. “I’ve thought a lot in recent years, I guess since September, 2001, about our illusions of safety and security,” says Quindlen. “We can buckle our seatbelts, we can have our mammograms, we can put childproof caps on our medicine, and we fool ourselves into thinking we can keep everyone safe, and we forget that life is random, and various, and sometimes perilous.”
In a book whose most enduring image is of a mother and her child persevering in the face of great tragedy, many wonder how much of her own experience — which includes the loss of her mother as a teenager — is hovering on the sidelines. Her first response to a question about whether the plot of “Every Last One” grew out of any personal experiences might be motivating factors, is complete denial of any connection. “There’s no personal or autobiographical basis for that book. It was all invented,” she says.
But then the rest of her answer seems to belie her original statement. She says: “I don’t think I’m interested in violence or death. I’m interested in loss and grief. Well, figuring that one out is a big duh, right? Motherhood and loss. Double duh.”
In her columns Quindlen has no need for an objectivity that denies the personal, and in many of her best columns what her fans love is the way Quindlen as a human being shines through. One of her most memorable columns was about her sister-in-law’s early death from cancer, a haunting echo of the early death of Quindlen’s own mother. In the column Quindlen directly addresses the themes of grief and loss so critical in “Every Last One.” She questions why people don’t talk about death and concludes, “The world loves closure, loves a thing that can, as they say, be gotten through. This is why it comes as a great surprise to find that loss is forever.”
Then she muses about what it will be like for her two young nieces, who have taken on a burden she knows only too well. She writes, “My brother and I know too much about their future; both teenagers when our mother died, we know that if the girls were to ask us, ‘When does it stop hurting?’ we would have to answer, in all candor, ‘If it ever does, we will let you know.’”
It’s interesting that Quindlen herself claims to remember particular columns primarily because her readers mention them to her, but she does own up to a couple of favorites — all personal. “There’s one about being a motherless daughter, and one about my kids leaving the nest, and a couple about my daughter that I really like.”
But looking at what motivated her columns from a broader perspective, she says, “I’m proud of having pursued the path articulated by H. L. Mencken: I tried to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Quindlen’s telltale Philadelphia accent gives away the early influence of the city where not only Quindlen, but also her parents grew up. Her mother is from the mostly Italian neighborhood of south Philly, her father from the mostly Irish west Philly, and Quindlen herself spent most of her childhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. “My father was a management consultant, and a darn good one. My mother was a housewife, and a darn good one.”
Her family moved to New Jersey when she was a teenager, and Quindlen graduated from South Brunswick High School. Although she was only there for two years, her classmates seemed to have a good grip on who she was — her yearbook noted that her ambition was to write the great American novel.
After graduating from Barnard College in 1974, Quindlen became a journalist, attributing this decision to the fact that she couldn’t figure out how to be a novelist and make a living out of it. But once she was inside the New York Times, starting in 1977 (after three years at the New York Post), her career trajectory can easily be described as a meteoric rise from reporter to op-ed columnist. She was a general-assignment and City Hall reporter from 1977 to 1981 and did two stints as a columnist before her op-ed position: “About New York” from 1981 to 1983 and “Life in the 30s” from 1986 to 1988, with three years as deputy metropolitan editor in between. In 1990 Quindlen started to write her regular op-ed column, “Public and Private,” only the third woman in the paper’s history to do so. And her “compelling columns on a wide range of personal and political topics” won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Quindlen, however, shies away from any superstar characterizations and instead views her career success more pragmatically. “I got hired by the Times because they had settled a class action suit and were required to hire a lot more women; in other words, I was an affirmative action baby. I was a reporter, then a features columnist, then an editor, then a lifestyle columnist, all of which led to the op ed page. But every step of the way the Times needed more women in front row positions, and I got a front row seat because six women were brave enough to bring that suit.”
Having published the first of her six novels, “Object Lessons,” in 1991, while she was still writing columns for the New York Times, she took the plunge and became a full-time novelist. “I was trying to write two columns and raise three children while also writing fiction,” she says. “It was just too much. I chose the path that scared me most, and that was writing novels. So far, so good.”
Quindlen’s husband, Gerry Krovatin, is a trial lawyer in Newark who has been defense counsel in many high-profile state trials, most recently representing State Senator Joe Coniglio. They live on the upper west side in Manhattan and have a second residence in northeastern Pennsylvania. Their three children are Quin, 27, Chris, 25, and Maria Krovatin, 22.
Quindlen’s experiences as a reporter stood her in good stead as a novelist, as she points out in a September 23, 2002, article in the New York Times. First of all, she learned how to find the details that move a story forward. “At a time when more impressionistic renderings of events were beginning to creep into the news pages, I learned to look always for the telling detail: the Yankees cap, the neon sign in the club window, the striped towel on the deserted beach. I learned to distinguish between those details that simply existed and those that revealed. Those telling details are the essence of fiction that feels real.”
Reporting also taught her how people really talk. “I learned that syntax and rhythm were almost as individual as a fingerprint, and that one quotation, precisely transcribed and intentionally untidied, could delineate a character in a way that pages of exposition never could.” The NPR review of “Every Last One,” written by Jane Ciabattari, makes this observation: “(Quindlen’s) journalistic eye for authentic dialogue and detail bring the ring of truth to every page of this heartbreakingly timely novel.”
Of course in her years as a reporter, she learned from cutting, cutting, and cutting some more to make every word count. She also learned about writer’s block. “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.” A reporter, of course, has to write on deadline, whether or not the actual words on the page meet personal standards. “Some days you plod, some days you soar, but always you churn out copy on demand, whether you feel the muse or not,” writes Quindlen. And, back before the Internet, she could always be assured that by the next day’s edition any substandard copy would be dead and gone.
Having given up the plum job of New York Times columnist in 1994, Quindlen was not quite ready to lay down her op-ed pen, and in 1999 she joined Newsweek as a contributing editor, and she writes a biweekly column.
Quindlen describes her daily writing process in a typically Quindlenish way, starting with the “not writing” component: “I spend several hours desperately trying not to write. I read the newspapers, powerwalk for an hour, talk to my best friend on the phone.”
When the procrastination is spent, she finally gives up and goes upstairs or outside to her office, depending on whether she’s in the city or country, and settles down to work. “If I’m working on a novel, I write maybe three to four hours. After that my imagination goes fuzzy,” she says. “I fill the rest of the day writing speeches, returning E-mails, or surfing the web.”
“Of course,” she adds, “I’m not counting all the hours when I’m thinking about characters and situations, but I can do that while doing other things: getting a manicure, say, or cooking dinner.”
Summarizing her daily battle with the written word, she concludes, “I hate writing, and I’d like to whine about what a tough life it is. But as you can tell, it’s not heavy lifting.”
Quindlen’s current project is a memoir about aging, to be published in 2012, when she will turn 60. “I have a variety of pretty terrible titles so I think I won’t share those,” she says.
As a person who is regularly asked for advice, Quindlen has developed a degree of wisdom that she has shared in commencement speeches and in two bestsellers, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” which has sold more than a million copies, and “Being Perfect.” Her advice comes from her own deeply felt life experiences, and she pretty much practices what she preaches. She says, “My life is purposeful now to the extent that I don’t do many things I don’t really want to do, and I try to have as much fun as possible. My family and friends are the greatest priority in my life.” Then, perhaps in a nod to that nagging sense of mortality that permeates her new novel, she concludes, “I really love my work, and I am grateful for it, but if I had six months to live I’m not certain I’d write a word except maybe letters to my kids.”
Author Event, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Thursday, March 24, 7 p.m. Anna Quindlen, author of “Every Last One” appears for reading and booksigning. A former columnist for New York Times and Newsweek, she has written five previous novels. Seating begins at 6 p.m. 609-716-1570. www.bn.com.