Anna Quindlen — whose new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, was published by Random House last week — is a woman of many accomplishments. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Beloved novelist. Sought-after public speaker. The only author to ever have books on The New York Times‘ fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists.
She’s also my mother, which she’d tell you is her greatest accomplishment (along with being the mother of my younger siblings, Chris and Maria). I thought, since her new book is filled with reflections on motherhood and family, who better to ask the right questions than someone who’s been around for much of the journey her memoir describes?
So I asked if I could interview her about the book and the stories behind it, and she said yes (of course). But as we sat down to talk, she was the one with the first question: “Isn’t this so weird for you? I mean, did you ever imagine that someday we’d be sitting here at the dining room table, talking about my life?” In truth, the experience was a little surreal — and nerve-wracking. We’ve had plenty of conversations about her work before, but this was different; I felt the pressure any interviewer feels, to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. But it turned out to be so much fun that we both quickly forgot about the unusual occasion and the tape recorder between us.
– Quindlen Krovatin
The Barnes & Noble Review: I thought we’d start with the title because I know you had a lot of difficulty arriving at a title for this book. I was hoping you could talk about the different titles you went through prior to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Anna Quindlen: I’m not sure that any one title had traction for more than an hour when I first started writing this memoir. The problem is that the book is about so many different things. About motherhood, about friendship, about how we grow older, about how we care for ourselves and our families while we grow older. There wasn’t one title that covered the waterfront. And what I realized at a certain point was that I wanted a title that communicated, for lack of a better word, the joyfulness of the book. The exuberance. I was walking across town to have dinner with my friend, the mystery writer Linda Fairstein, and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake just popped into my head. Full bore. I immediately e-mailed it to my agent. She loved it. She forwarded it to my editor. She loved it. We all felt that it really captured something about the book. It captured the age aspect, but also the joyfulness. And that was the duality that we really wanted to get front and center.
BNR: But I know at one point you’d been thinking of calling it Later. Something that communicated the period of time in your life that you’d arrived at.
AQ: Right. And at one point there was some sense that we would call it Gray because of what was going on with my hair. But none of those titles seemed to cover all of the book. I mean, the book isn’t just about the later years of my life. It’s about how the earlier years have informed those later years. I remember at a certain point my agent seized on something in the book and said, “Why don’t we call it Is 9:30 Too Early to Go to Bed?” [Laughs]
AQ: The answer, of course, being “No!” [Laughs] But that was just before I came up with Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and we were set.
BNR: Hadn’t there been talk about using another line from the book, I’m Too Old to Die Young Now?
AQ: Actually, when I first wrote the proposal for the book, I called it Too Old to Die Young Now, which is what I said to your sister when she was worried about something happening to me. And I really do think that in some ways it’s the quote that set me working on this. A tangible, spoken sense that I’ve crossed a line on the continuum of life. But, while I still think that’s a pretty good title, there was a sense that having the word “die” in the title didn’t necessarily work.
BNR: But even earlier, when you were first imagining the book, I remember you talking about it as Mistakes Were Made: A Memoir of Motherhood. When did…or how did you decide to move beyond motherhood to a more multi-faceted view of your life?
AQ: It was a combination of speaking that sentence to Maria — I’m too old to die young now — and then once I’d done the research that showed that in the year I was born, 1952, average life expectancy was 68. Every time I say that, even to people who pride themselves on being well informed, there’s an audible gasp. Are you sure about that? Did you double-check that? The answer is, I am absolutely sure. I triple-checked. But the idea that that was how long you got to live then, and that you get to live twelve years on average longer now, made me think about the differences in the lives of people my age from those of the generations that came before. And that seemed to me to be broader and deeper than motherhood, although clearly that’s a pivotal part of this book. It seemed to me to cry out for an explanation and an exploration of what we’re doing with this time and how our lives are defined by the fact that we’re going to live longer than any generation previously in history.
BNR: You may even live forever.
AQ: Not forever. Please, no.
BNR: Back to the title Mistakes Were Made. If you reflect on your time as a mother, what mistakes were you thinking of when you conceived of that title?
AQ: I can’t even begin to count all of the stupid, ham-handed things that I did. I mean, there was the time when your first Easter came around, and I put soaps and washcloths folded in the shape of bunnies in a basket because I didn’t want you to have chocolate.
BNR: Were you worried about my teeth?
AQ: It was a purist kind of thing. There you go. Purism often got in my way. I banned you all from watching The Simpsons for a number of years, which was clearly an error in judgment. There was the time your sister came running up to me and said she’d gotten a 98 on her test, and my response was, “Which one did you get wrong?” There was the time I ordered the food at the McDonald’s drive-thru window and then drove through without it. And there were serious times when you all got older when I responded in stereotypical ways to situations. I think that’s the biggest danger in being a mother: The impulse to massage your kids into some kind of homogenized, universally accepted form, which, if you’re smart, you know intuitively will result in nothing much down the road. But in the moment it somehow seems easier than individuating, than giving them their head, than getting out of their way.
BNR: I forget which author we were talking about, but it was an author who said that all of the books she writes are really about one theme.
AQ: Amy Bloom.
BNR: Right. Of course. I actually forget what the theme was.
AQ: I think she said love.
BNR: And you said that yours was motherhood. I think that’s absolutely true. I was going back through that box you assembled for each of us of the first editions of all of your books, and I was struck by how it’s always motherhood troubled by violence, or illness, or even just circumstance like in Blessings.
AQ: I actually think my theme is a combination of motherhood and loss, and clearly anybody who knows anything about my personal history knows where that comes from. My mother died when I was 19. In novel after novel, that emerges as a theme, most dramatically in Every Last One. It’s actually not a theme of the novel I’m working on now.
BNR: Is the protagonist a mother?
AQ: She is. But it’s not as important a part of her character as it is for most of the women I’ve written about in the past.
BNR: Because I was thinking about how even in Rise and Shine, which is one of your more lighthearted novels, Meghan Fitzmaurice’s relationship with her son, Leo, is fraught.
AQ: It’s not so true in my first novel, Object Lessons, which is more of a young person’s novel. But then once you get to One True Thing, it clearly takes hold, this dual theme of motherhood and loss. I think it was something I had to explore until I felt like I’d explored it to its fullest. And if you look at my novels, Every Last One, the most recent one, is about as far as I could go in exploring that, which is why the new one doesn’t need to be about motherhood as much.
BNR: That makes a lot of sense. How do you think having your Mom die when you were as young as you were affected how you approached being a mother?
AQ: I think it made me bound and determined to be there as much as possible. It had a lot to do with why I quit my job at the New York Times when I did, when you and Christopher were small. Which turned out to be an opportunity in disguise because that’s when I started to write my column, Life in the 30s. And it’s why I quit that column when Maria was born and took a year off with the three of you before I started the Op-Ed page column [Public and Private]. I just felt like life was short and I needed to be there. And I was haunted by the fact that my sister, your Aunt Theresa, was nine when our mother died, and she literally remembers nothing about her. And so I would look at you three, who were so central to my life, and think, I’m not even written on their DNA yet. I’ve got to be there as much as possible. I think it made me a very engaged and attentive mother.
BNR: Did your Mom’s style of being a mother, her approach to motherhood, inform how you raised us? Did you try to emulate her?
AQ: I did, but that was an interesting challenge. In terms of our characters and what was going on in our lives, my Mother and I were vastly different. Which was something that I struggled with because I loved her so much, and the idea of being different from her made me feel a little less in her eyes when I was younger. She was not a particularly educated woman. She wasn’t intellectual. She was just really good at making all five of us feel like we’d hung the moon. And that was the thing that I tried to emulate. That sense of each of your kids at various times thinking that they’re the favorite.
AQ: Not that there was no favorite. But that they were the favorite. I think I tried to be as patient as I could. On sort of a cursory level, there were things I clearly tried to emulate. Having what, for my time, is considered a large family. Cooking constantly. The laughter. As I’ve written before, making my mother laugh was the be-all and end-all of my existence. You guys have cracked me up so much over the years that I feel like that’s a pay-it-forward kind of thing.
BNR: When we were growing up, she was an almost beatific figure, smiling out of black and white photos. Obviously, I never knew her, but she felt like a powerful force in our lives.
AQ: But that’s actually an unfortunate thing that we do to the dead. We turn them into plaster saint versions of themselves. We almost take away their individuality in our quest to make them perfect. So instead you get Saint Prudence of Spaghetti and Meatballs. [Laughs]
BNR: [Laughs] That’s so funny because the other day you had those old pictures out, and I don’t think I’d ever seen a picture of Grandma Prudence old before. With glasses. Because the pictures around the house are of her at her wedding. Or her holding you when you’re an infant. So seeing her as an older woman was very strange.
AQ: Well, that’s one of the interesting things about our attitudes towards aging because my mother was 41 when she died. And at the time I was both hugely bereaved but also conscious of the fact that she had lived a rich, full life. And only when I got older did I realize that she had died incredibly young. Now that I’m almost 60, I just feel like it’s tragic. I say in the book that ever since I was 19 I felt, at some level, like I was living for two. That I had to embrace every day of life because I knew that my mother would have killed to have it. And so I think my attitude about aging has been different from some of my friends because I knew the alternative.
BNR: And now that you’re beyond the age that she died, who do you turn to as a model for motherhood.
AQ: Honestly, the people who teach you how to be a good mother are your children. And one of the biggest challenges of being a good mother is to listen to them. The trick is, you can’t listen to their words. You have to read between the lines of how they’re behaving, what they’re saying, what they’re doing.
BNR: One thing I remembered in my reading of the book was that when we were growing up you would bake these incredible cakes for our birthdays. And I wanted to talk a little about the most challenging of those cakes.
BNR: Was it from year one that it was important to you to make such a big deal out of our birthdays, or did that come about later.
AQ: Actually, the cakes were much more baroque when you were babies.
BNR: Like scalloped edges or…
AQ: Not the decoration. More the baking. Cakes with hazelnut mocha frosting. Very very complex cakes. Totally unnecessary.
BNR: And lost on the individuals eating them.
AQ: Although there always was that moment, because you know I was never a junk food mother, there was always that moment when one of you would dig into your cake, put a fistful in your mouth, and give me a look like, you’ve been holding out on me.
AQ: It was kind of magical. But I think the birthday parties were emblematic of something else. My birthday is July 8th, which meant that I didn’t have much of a birthday celebration. If you can’t take a box of cupcakes to school, it’s almost like your birthday doesn’t exist. And the irony is, my birthday cakes were almost always presented at a restaurant down the Shore where we used to spend the summers, and they always had a sparkler in them because it was right after July 4th, which is why the sparkler on the cover of the book is really apropos. So at some point I decided that you guys would have wonderful birthdays. And as I say in the book, I took it to the limit, far past the point where the people involved were enjoying it. There were those parties with the hayrides and the clowns. There was the party I threw for Maria where I took her and her friends to the beauty salon. And the cakes only became cakes again, and not art projects, when you guys finally said, “That’s enough.”
BNR: Which was harder to decorate, the Jurassic Park cake or the Ghostbusters cake?
AQ: [Laughs] Definitely the Ghostbusters cake. Because I had to get Slimer in there in addition to the logo with that ghost in the red circle.
BNR: But who first asked not to have an elaborate cake?
AQ: You did. I remember one year I asked what you wanted on your cake. And I would always ask with trepidation because Maria would say something like, I want Belle dancing with the Beast in a ballroom with Lumiere holding a candelabra, and my heart would sink. But I asked you what you wanted on your cake, and you said you didn’t want anything, and that felt like the beginning of maturity.
BNR: How tough is that as a mother, those kind of moments? Is it bittersweet or a feeling of relief or…
AQ: It’s hard. Less hard when you have more than one child. Knowing that Christopher was still going to ask for vampires on his cake was some solace. Also, if you don’t get mired in the moment, there’s this incredible kick you get when you realize that your kid is becoming an adult. That they have really interesting opinions about books you’ve both read. That they have interesting insights into human behavior, even your own behavior, that hadn’t occurred to you before. Unless you get too invested in power and control, that notion that your son or daughter is becoming an adult is thrilling.
BNR: Now Mother’s Day is coming up soon…
AQ: What day is Mother’s Day?
AQ: You have no idea!
BNR: No, no. I do. I think I do. May 12th?
AQ: May 13th. I actually have to fly to Traverse City, Michigan that day to do a gig for this book tour. And I’m trying to get them to change the travel itinerary so we can at least have brunch that morning.
BNR: Because it’s one of the definitive Public and Private columns, right? “The Days of Gilded Rigatoni”. When you were away for Mother’s Day.
BNR: Now, just a little background, you were on book tour?
AQ: I was on book tour, and it didn’t occur to me until the schedule was locked in that I would be spending Mother’s Day in a hotel room in Seattle.
BNR: And it was upsetting for you.
AQ: Very upsetting. No mother should be eating a room service breakfast on Mother’s Day.
BNR: Well, at least you got to eat all of the breakfast.
AQ: I got to eat all of the breakfast, and I got a column out of it. But I would have preferred to spend it with you guys. Even if that meant you ate all of the bacon before I even picked up my fork.
Quindlen Krovatin is an editor at The Barnes & Noble Review. He previously worked as a reporter in the Beijing Bureau of Newsweek Magazine. He loves his Mom and promises to get her something nice for Mother’s Day.