The Originator, Not the Imitator
By Marion Winik
MARCH 30, 1998: I first encountered Anna Quindlen in The New York Times. I read her "Life in the 30's" and "Public and Private" columns as only a wannabe can - critically, jealously, and religiously. As if it weren't enough that she had a column in the Times, a real gift for thinking and writing, two published essay collections (Living Out Loud and Thinking Out Loud), and, from her own reports, a wonderful husband and children, she went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Oh! I could hardly see straight. Then she went one better. She gave up her column to pursue what was my own ultimate ambition: writing novels. Since then she has published three: Object Lessons, One True Thing, and a new book, Black and Blue. The latter is a tautly written, seamlessly imagined emotional thriller about motherhood and about violence in marriage which has been on the fiction bestseller list since its debut. So you can imagine my state of mind when I met her for lunch when she came through Austin on her book tour. We're talking arsenic on the chef salad. But I was immediately disarmed by her homegirl Philadelphia accent, her down-to-earth demeanor, and her genuine interest in sharing her insight and experience with other writers. She is not just a smart, successful lady, she's a nice lady too.
My competitive streak re-emerged for only a moment later that evening, when she signed a copy of her children's book, Happily Ever After, for my sons Hayes and Vince. As we left the bookstore with our purchases, Hayes looked up at me and said, "How come you don't write a children's book, Mom? I know you said you're a grown-up writer, but so is Anna Quindlen, right? And she wrote a children's book. So why don't you?"
I guess no matter what I do, Anna Quindlen will always be looming out there ahead of me. I'm not only used to it, I'm starting to like it that way.
Austin Chronicle: You know,since I published my first essay years ago, people have had an irresistible desire to compare me to you, as if the main question to be answered about a female personal essayist is "What sort of Anna Quindlen is she anyway?" I was the post-LSD Anna Quindlen, the Anna Quindlen with brass balls, the Jewish Anna Quindlen.... Anna Quindlen: Oh, you must have hated that. When I first started out, I always got "You remind me of Joyce Maynard." I wanted to shoot myself!
AC: And Erma Bombeck!
AQ: Yeah, I know, I'd write about gay rights and legal abortion and they'd tell me, "Oh, you're just like Erma Bombeck." With all due respect to Erma, the only thing we had in common was that we both wore panty hose.
AC: In the spirit of following in your footsteps, I wanted to talk to you about something that I have a selfish interest in, which is making the transition from nonfiction to fiction, from the essay to the novel.
AQ: I actually was a fiction writer before I became a nonfiction writer. I studied fiction at Barnard with Elizabeth Hardwick. When I was in high school, it occurred to me that you couldn't be a novelist and make a living. Originally I went into journalism only to make money to feed my fiction. And then I found out I loved it. I kept thinking I was going to leave to write a novel, but each time they [The New York Times] would give me a little bit better job, so I stayed and stayed. And it turned out to be fantastic preparation for being a full-time novelist. First of all, the discipline. People ask all the time about writer's block. Once you've worked at a newspaper, it doesn't really occur to you anymore. You learn to do more with less, learning to write to space. Which words matter, and which are just you in love with the sound of your own voice. You start to realize what dialogue sounds like. All that is what fiction is really made of.
AC: In some ways, then, the transition from reporting to writing novels is more direct than the transition from personal essay to novels?
AQ: Yes, because even when you're writing in the first person in a novel, you have to learn to take yourself out of it. You have to learn to channel somebody else. I don't know about you, but writing personal columns I often feel like I'm not creating a persona, but I am giving form to one. I mean, you know, it's never 100% about you anyway.
AQ: Yeah, I said I can't imagine writing a memoir because I can't remember things. That's the great thing about fiction, you just make it up. In many ways, my fiction seems more real to me than my nonfiction. In reporting, you're always dependent on the subject, how much they'll let you know, how much truth they'll tell, which is never 100%. In fiction, once you get characterizations, you can get to know the people down to the ground. There isn't any screen between you and them. It gives you a unique opportunity to tell the truth as you see it.
AC: Yet certainly in your column "Public and Private" you had the opportunity to tell the truth as you saw it.
AQ: But again, you're dependent on the press of events, deadline pressure, quite honestly, how much self-exposure you want to risk. It was one version of telling the truth as I saw in terms of trying to do good, which, not to be too Pollyannaish, is what I was trying to do in that column. In fiction, I feel like you have a bigger canvas, you can illuminate more themes and issues at once, and you can connect people with issues more directly. I don't think it's coincidental that the column that got the most reaction in the five years I was doing "Public and Private" was an intensely personal column I wrote about my sister-in-law having died, and about the fact that grief is the last unspoken emotion. That people are willing to talk about death, but not about the fact that there's a hole in your life for the rest of your life. It was a column that I wrote about what it means to be human that touched more people than anything else, and I think you can do more of that in fiction.
AC: Writing about being human and writing about issues - I see both of those in your novels too. Even in your novels, you remain topical.
AQ: Your last two books were both memoirs, right?
AC: Essays and memoir, and now the new one coming out really is kind of an Erma Bombeck thing about my kids. But now I've been struggling with a novel, and finding that what I've done so far is too voice-driven, too autobiographical, and that I never really figured out something to write a story about. Maybe what I'm trying to do is more parallel to what you did - successfully - in Object Lessons. Take a family and a situation somewhat like my own, then make things happen that didn't really happen. I'm not there yet.
AQ: What didn't work for you?
AC: Well, I didn't have a plot. I have these great characters, but nothing happens.
AQ: This is just like what happened with Object Lessons, I gotta tell you. I wrote the first draft, and I handed it in and my editor, Kate, was like, "This is so beautifully written and I love these characters, and it's so engaging but, um, nothing happens." And I said, you know, life doesn't really have plot. Life is about people and I'm always going to be a character-driven writer. And Kate said, you know, the difference between life and a novel is that a novel does have a plot. Think of the memorable occasions in your life when something did happen - as opposed to the memorable occasions in life when nothing happens, which are many. She made me bring it up, just a little, and then she made me bring it up a little more, and in the end, though it's still a pretty quiet novel, a lot happens.
AC: That's encouraging. You know, I had just re-read Portnoy's Complaint when I started this novel and I was very influenced by it, too influenced by it, in fact.
AQ: It's interesting - Portnoy is one of the only novels ever written that manages to exist almost entirely on voice. That's all it is. But he has perfect pitch. Also, you know, the kind of manic sexuality of that book is very testosterone driven. I just gave it to my 14-year-old son.
AC: That's great!
AQ: You know, I just could tell, he was hanging around his room a lot thinking I'm the most perverted, twisted guy in the world, and I thought, this is the way to show him that all this stuff that he can't even talk to me about is perfectly normative. And I had this great bonding experience with him because at one point I walked by the room and I heard him going heh-heh-heh and I stuck my head in and said, "The liver scene?" And he said, "Mom!" But I could tell by the way he looked - it was wonderful. I remembered how much I loved that book, and how much my mom hated it.
AC: This is a great parenting tip.
AQ: My husband said something really great when I was worried about publishing Living Out Loud, worrying that the boys would read it and feel that their privacy had been invaded. He said don't you remember how the biggest mystery of life is figuring out what your parents really think or feel about anything. They'll be able to pick up this book and know that, know you in a way that kids almost never know their parents. It was so liberating for me, such a cool thing to say, and it turned out to be true. The only person that's really aggrieved about it is my youngest, Maria, who was born the day I wrote my last "Life in the 30's" column and didn't make it into the book.
AC: Do you miss that form?
AQ: I don't, really.
AC: But you're the great avatar of the personal essay, the Pulitzer Prize winner, the Anna Quindlen we all get compared to. How can that be?
AQ: Well, I did it for such a long period of time, and I got about as good at it as I was ever going to get, and I sort of like to shake myself every couple of years, and that's what I did. You know, writing novels for pay is pretty great. I mean, I could be in insurance, you know.
AC: After you did Object Lessons and you had to be coaxed into making something happen, what was it like the next time? Was it easier?
AQ: It was. But I sort of knew full-blown what that novel was going to be about. I started with wanting to write about the triangle that I think always exists between mother, father, and kids, and how parents sometimes use their kids to fill up the blank spaces in their marriage. I knew I was gonna have to do that in a way that would illuminate the triangle, and the way to do that would be at a moment of great crisis. And one of the great crises I know best is having Mom die, that's what I went with. It came with a lot more plot attached to it than Object Lessons. I had learned a lot.
AC: What about research? Does that play a big role in your fiction?
AQ: You know, at first everyone was determined to read autobiography into everything - so when my husband read the manuscript of Black and Blue, he said, "Oh man. Thanks a lot. This is gonna be a day at the beach." But fortunately, people found themselves incapable of reading it that way, so they prefer to think I reported it. But I didn't. I made it up. You find that you know almost everything you need to know just from living, from human nature.
AC: When Martin Amis was here he said much the same thing. That research is so much less important than people think it is. That he's a novelist because he likes to make things up.
AQ: I love his work. He is the best novelist in England right now by a long shot, and that's why they're all so mean to him.
AC: Oh, what about movies?
AQ: Well, I've just gotten a deal. And they just finished a movie of One True Thing, fantastic director named Carl Franklin who did Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Renee Zellwegger, Meryl Streep, and William Hurt.
AQ: Yeah, maybe I'll be the first writer in New York who loves her editor, her agent, and the film version of her novel.
AC: That sounds good. Maybe I could be the second. In Texas. With brass balls.
AQ: Hey, with my compliments.
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