Anna Quindlen could have settled onto a nice, lofty career plateau in the early 1990s, when she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column; but she took an unconventional turn, and achieved a richer result.
Quindlen, the third woman to hold a place among the Times' Op-Ed columnists, had already published two successful collections of her work when she decided to leave the paper in 1995. But it was the two novels she had produced that led her to seek a future beyond her column.
Quindlen had a warm, if not entirely uncritical, reception as a novelist. Her first book, Object Lessons, focused on an Irish American family in suburban New York in the 1960s. It was a bestseller and a Times Notable Book of 1991, but was also criticized for not being as engaging as it could have been. One True Thing, Quindlen's exploration of an ambitious daughter's journey home to take care of her terminally ill mother, was stronger still -- a heartbreaker that was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. But Quindlen's fiction clearly benefited from her decision to leave the Times. Three years after that controversial departure, she earned her best reviews yet with Black and Blue, a chronicle of escape from domestic abuse.
Quindlen's novels are thoughtful explorations centering on women who may not start out strong, but who ultimately find some core within themselves as a result of what happens in the story. Her nonfiction meditations -- particularly A Short Guide to a Happy Life and her collection of "Life in the 30s" columns, Living Out Loud -- often encourage this same transition, urging others to look within themselves and not get caught up in what society would plan for them. It's an approach Quindlen herself has obviously had success with.
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To those who expressed surprise at Quindlen's apparent switch from columnist to novelist, the author points out that her first love was always fiction. She told fans in a Barnes & Noble.com chat, "I really only went into the newspaper business to support my fiction habit, but then discovered, first of all, that I loved reporting for its own sake and, second, that journalism would be invaluable experience for writing novels."
Quindlen joined Newsweek as a columnist in 1999. She began her career at the New York Post in 1974, jumping to the New York Times in 1977.
Quindlen's prowess as a columnist and prescriber of advice has made her a popular pick for commencement addresses, a sideline that ultimately inspired her 2000 title A Short Guide to a Happy Life Quindlen's message tends to be a combination of stopping to smell the flowers and being true to yourself. Quindlen told students at Mount Holyoke in 1999, "Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, 'It is never too late to be what you might have been.' It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world."
Studying fiction at Barnard with the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Quindlen's senior thesis was a collection of stories, one of which she sold to Seventeen magazine.
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From the September/October 2002 issue of Book magazine
Talking with Anna Quindlen as she prepares to publish her fourth novel, Blessings, it's hard not to think that the author herself has been blessed. Sixteen years ago, the New York Times plucked her out of obscurity, and she suddenly found herself writing "Life in the 30's," a column devoted to the lives of young urbanites. Four years ago, Oprah Winfrey anointed Quindlen's third novel, Black and Blue, as one of her coveted book club picks. A year later Newsweek tapped Quindlen to take turns with George Will filling its back page. And she's done it all while raising three children and cooking, according to one frequent houseguest, "endlessly."
Among Quindlen's admirers is Maureen Dowd, who took over her Op-Ed spot at the Times. "My mom asked me last week, 'Why haven't you ever written a book?' " Dowd says. " 'Look, Anna's written three. Are you lazy?' "
Quindlen describes herself as scattered. "For a variety of reasons, I've concluded that I probably have ADD [attention deficit disorder], which means I can concentrate on something that interests me for a finite period of time, but then I go off."
Her employers think the key to her success lies in her unique voice. "She has a remarkable ability to mix personal experience and personal observation with issues that are important for the society as a whole," says Newsweek Editor in Chief Richard M. Smith. "Quindlen writes in a way that connects with people, that is often much more powerful than [the work of writers] who are looking at the issues from top down."
It's that gift for being in touch with everyday Americans that led to Quindlen's appointment as a judge on the Book-of-the-Month Club's newly reconstituted editorial board.
"When we first thought of bringing back the judges panel, Anna was one of the first on our wish list," recalls Mel Parker, editorial director of Bookspan, the parent of BOMC. "Anna has her finger on the pulse of what people would like to read."
Dowd compares her to another female trailblazer: "She's a brilliant marketer in the sense that Madonna is. She sensed that there was room for one of the first personal columns in the world of yuppies who wanted to hear about their lives and what they were going through, and she seized that moment the way Helen Fielding did with Bridget Jones for 30-year-old women."
For someone with such a business-savvy edge, though, Quindlen's work exudes warmth and fuzziness, and at the heart of it are the people in the world she loves most. "I don't think you can read [my] books without thinking that family is central to my existence," she explains. To wit, Blessings is the story of the relationship between an ex-convict and a wealthy woman who form an alternative family of sorts to care for an abandoned infant.
"I am devoted to my kids and spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out with them for someone who is supposed to have other things to do," Quindlen says. "I'm sort of hyperdomestic in a lot of ways." Ultimately, what sets Quindlen apart seems to be her ability to do what so many others strive for: have it all.
From the October/November 1998 issue of Book magazine
A little girl flung legs akimbo in a great chair, head lost in a book: That is how Anna Quindlen, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, novelist, mother, will always see herself. When Quindlen was young, reading was far more than an idle activity, it was her escape hatch, her dream machine, her wormhole to a parallel universe. "In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself," she writes in her latest work, a book-length essay titled How Reading Changed My Life, (Library of Contemporary Thought, September 1998).
It's not as if Quindlen had much to escape from. Hers was the kind of wholesome, plain vanilla 1950s childhood that inspired Saturday Evening Post covers. "I sometimes joke that my greatest shortcoming as a writer is that I had an extremely happy childhood," she says. The eldest of five children, Quindlen, 46, grew up close to the bosom of her large Irish-Italian family, which was rooted in a middle-class Catholic neighborhood in Kendall Park, N.J., (near Philadelphia). Her father was a management consultant, her mother "a sort of a world-class mother. She seemed to believe that on the eighth day, God created the five of us," quips Quindlen.
After graduating from Barnard College in '74, Quindlen started out as a reporter at the New York Post in 1974. But it was at The New York Times where her career took root and blossomed. In the time some people take to get their own bylines, Quindlen had her own column called "About New York." By 1990, she was The Times's Golden Girl, the only female columnist on its op-ed page, pontificating alongside legends such as William Safire and Russell Baker. In her esoteric opinion columns, Quindlen stitched together the personal and the political in elucidating and sometimes brilliant combinations. By 1992, she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper writing and had pundits speculating that Quindlen was in line for a deputy editorship.
But although Quindlen had achieved spectacular success in journalism, she wasn't working full-time at what she truly longed to do: write fiction. "I went into newspapers originally to support my fiction habit," she explains. "There's a steady paycheck in reporting, and there simply isn't one in fiction writing." As a result, she ended up leading "a triple life," caring for her three young children (she found time to marry her college sweetheart, lawyer Gerald Krovatin, during her rapid ascent at The Times) and writing fiction when she wasn't busy with her day job.
In the blur between childrearing and newspaper deadlines, Quindlen somehow managed to turn out two bestselling books of fiction, Object Lessons and One True Thing. Confident that fiction was where her future lay, Quindlen decided to quit The Times in 1995 to become a full-time novelist. Earlier this year, Quindlen's move paid off when her third book of fiction, Black and Blue -- a moving portrayal of domestic violence -- received her best reviews yet.
Earlier this year, we interviewed Quindlen, who spends her summers in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and her three children, Quin (15), Christopher (13) and Mary (9). Anna discussed How Reading Changed My Life:
You said that when you were young, you admired people with libraries and always dreamed of having your own. Do you have a library now?
Virtually every room of my house has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. One room, the den, has no real walls, just shelf after shelf of books. But it's never enough. I'll have to build more soon. Carpenters see me coming and smile.
Do you have any reading rituals, certain foods you eat when reading, music you listen to?
As for eating and reading, my habits have become horribly narrow and parsimonious since my metabolism has slowed to a dead halt. I'm afraid I mainly drink Diet Pepsi while I read. But my ideal reading meal is good coffee and a piece of shortbread. I listen to Stephen Sondheim's music both while reading and while writing. I also often have on what my family calls "chick music": Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair, Shania Twain, Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alanis Morrisette, Patty Loveless. I suppose I should say I listen to classical music when I read. I love classical music. But it tends to put me to sleep.
Where's your favorite place to read?
Of course I read in bed. Every night. Every single night. I am congenitally incapable of falling asleep without having read at least a few pages. And I do have a club chair in my bedroom in the city where I read much of the time, and a wicker rocker here in the country. But I can read almost anywhere, anytime. I read on the subway, on buses, on airplanes. I frequently read in coffee houses in New York City, which used to seem romantic and bohemian before the advent of a Starbucks in every shopping mall in America. I try not to read at the dinner table, but occasionally I succumb.
Of all the books you've read, which one have you reread the most?
I would have to say I've probably reread A Christmas Carol more than any other book, simply because we read it aloud as a family on Christmas Eve and have done so for 20 years. On my own I've reread Pride and Prejudice and The Sound and the Fury more than any other books. The restraint and the irony in Pride and Prejudice are a kind of professional guidepost for me, while the virtuosity of Sound makes me consider challenging myself in new ways as a writer. Finally, I just love them both. It's like eating a good meal, reading those books.
In your book, you describe reading as an almost transgressive act. Why is that?
There is still the feeling that people who like to read all the time are somehow suspect. Whether it is that we are assumed to be antisocial, or overly intellectual, or convinced of our own superiority, there remains an undercurrent of suspicion. "Nose stuck in a book," "bookworm" -- even the common cliches are faintly pejorative.
What would you like your readers to come away with when they read your novels?
I think those of us who write fiction, and those of us who write nonfiction pieces and essays as well, are all aiming for the same thing. We want to enlarge the reader's understanding of the human condition. I would like a reader to finish Black and Blue, for instance, and feel that she had both recognized herself within its pages, and learned about selves that she had never known existed. That impulse to connect to others, to their own innermost feelings and a world heretofore unimagined outside of themselves, hasn't changed from century to century, form to form. That's the writer's impulse. People read to know they're not alone. People write for the same reason. It's like putting a message in a bottle.
With over 350,000 new books added to the Library of Congress in 1995 alone, do you think that perhaps too many books are being published now? Is it too easy to get published?
No, it's too difficult to get published, as any talented first novelist can tell you. And let's not look at that 350,000 in a vacuum. Let's consider, for example, the number of people in this country, and, perhaps more importantly, the increase in the number of literate and highly educated people.
It's also important to consider what sorts of books would never have gotten to first base say, 50 years ago. Books about sex. Books about various kinds of spiritualism. Significant numbers of books in translation that were originally published in foreign countries. Books by black writers. Books by women. The boom in books mirrors a kind of democratization of reading, not to mention publishing, that I applaud. Are there lots of silly books being published? Sure. Each year when I weed out the chaff on my bookshelves for the school Christmas fair, I'm reminded of just how many books have a shelf life somewhere between cottage cheese and milk, to paraphrase Calvin Trillin. But I think the more books, the better. For readers, for writers. For everyone.
Do you consider certain types of reading -- for educational purposes, for example -- more legitimate than others?
No. I read the back of cereal boxes. I consider all reading, of every sort, a good thing.
Are the books that constitute today's core college curricula appropriate, in your view?
Oh, I think it depends on the college. Certainly there's more awareness that the dead white guys are not the only way to go. There's more Jane Austen, more Virginia Woolf, more James Baldwin in today's curricula. And I do think it's important to have read many of the classics: The Odyssey, a fair number of Shakespeare's plays, Milton, Chaucer. But I think it's also important to have a curricula that encompasses a range of styles and subjects. That's more likely to happen today than it was, say, 25 years ago.
What do you feel about book censorship, especially when it comes to your own children? Are there books you wouldn't want them to read?
Luckily a lot of this is determined by the intellectual acumen and reading ability of the child. I mean, you don't really have to worry about an eight-year-old reading Ulysses or Tropic of Cancer. They just can't do the job.
I'm doing everything I can to see that my sons are insulated, at least for now, from what I think of as hardcore porn, mainly photographs, some written material. I police their Internet use pretty strictly. But I've actually given them some other books that people think are objectionable. I gave my elder boy Portnoy's Complaint when he was 13 mainly because I thought it would help him understand that he was not the only person in the world on testosterone overload. (I should add that he's a pretty sophisticated reader and thinker.) Plus I think it's a helluva book. So did he. We talked about it a lot afterwards, which I think is the key. He recently read The World According to Garp, which his father recommended after Quin joined the wrestling team. I knew he'd love it, and he did, but since I think there's a powerful strain of misogyny in Irving, I spent a lot of time discussing it with him afterwards. My second son just read The Chocolate Wars as an assigned book in seventh grade, and we talked about why that has been banned so often, and what he thought about censorship.
As I said in How Reading Changed My Life, the really wonderful librarian at their school has designed a whole lesson around the notion of banned books. I just think that's much more useful than withholding reading material. Read Catcher in the Rye and then discuss why it upsets adults so much. At the end, your kids have read a great book and learned a little trick of channeling the other known as empathy. I mean, it doesn't get any better than that.
Do you agree with futurists who claim that -- thanks to television and computers, among other things -- the end of books is nigh?
No, I would daresay the amount of time many of us spend at our computers was once equalled, if not surpassed, by the time spent cleaning and carving quill pens. I think so far it appears that people like the book itself. If it were only a matter of receiving information, computers might suffice. But there is something leisurely and companionable about a book that a machine cannot replace.
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