Interview with Anna Quindlen

Posted by Goodreads on April 5, 2010
Anna Quindlen wins over readers with her frank style, whether she's discussing the oil crisis, the emotional toll of cancer, or the challenges of raising children. While juggling a burgeoning career as a novelist, Quindlen made her mark as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and later penned the popular "My Turn" column for Newsweek for a decade—always using her lens as a woman and mother to inform her take on current events and modern life. Outside of the news cycle, Quindlen's books are frequent best-sellers, such as A Short Guide to a Happy Life and One True Thing (also a movie with an Oscar-nominated performance from Meryl Streep). In her new novel, Every Last One, a mother confronts the chaos of raising three teenagers. Quindlen talked with Goodreads about motherhood, feminism, and why it's getting harder to find her keys.

Goodreads: You have mentioned that you often begin a novel with a theme—such as identity in Black and Blue or redemption in Blessings. Did a certain theme inspire Every Last One?

Anna Quindlen: For a long time I've been thinking about American illusions about security and control. I remember reading a quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It may be apocryphal, but it is said that when she got a dire cancer diagnosis in her early 60s she said, "If I had known this was going to happen, I wouldn't have done all those sit-ups." In other words, we take our vitamins, we go to exercise class, we put on our seat belts. And then something blindsides us and gives the lie to our carefully constructed facade of safety.

I think this is especially true of how we see our children today. A big element of so-called helicopter parenting is the notion that children must be protected from everything: hurt feelings, loss of self-esteem, middling grades, any sort of failure. I happen to believe this is not only illusory but wrong; some of the most important lessons I've learned have been from stumbling, and I am deeply grateful that my parents allowed me to fight my own battles.

So this is the theme I began with when I started Every Last One, the notion that keeping kids safe is sometimes a delusion. The world is a perilous place. Sometimes the kitchen is a perilous place.

GR: Your novels debate complex issues ranging from euthanasia to domestic abuse, and now parenting and teenage depression in Every Last One. What sort of discussion do you hope this new book will provoke?

AQ: Honestly, I never think about issues when I'm working on a novel. Issues are things that happen to people in sufficient numbers to elicit widespread attention; in other words, they're just life happening. That's what I think about: life, and telling a story. Frankly, I'm mainly telling the story to myself. Thinking about audience is too daunting, and worst case, invites you to homogenize, to soften the hard edges of things. I hope readers will do what I do when I read a novel I like: talk in ways that will illuminate their own lives.

GR: The main character, Mary Beth Latham, tells the story of Every Last One through first-person narration, but she does not always reveal all to the reader, or perhaps to herself. Why did you choose this type of narration for the book?

AQ: Mary Beth doesn't have the opportunity to reveal all to the reader because the book is written in the present tense. She's learning about most of the action of the book at the same time we are, which was an absolute necessity here. So was the first person. This is the story of one woman's life and the moment when it went awry. It never occurred to me not to have her tell it. That was the best way to tell the story and to connect with its emotional truth.

GR: Every Last One raises many questions about the consequences of parenting styles. A seemingly small decision made by an adult can have a big impact on a child or teen. Would you say Mary Beth is a good mother?

AQ: I think Mary Beth is a wonderful mother, sensitive, attentive, and loving. But the whole point of this book is that sometimes that's not enough. There are a million moving parts to raising kids, and you can't always anticipate them all, especially when they are teenagers and their peers play such a huge role in their lives. If you offer independence, there is one kind of pitfall; if you shelter them too much, there is another. And sometimes you do everything right and something bad just happens. It's as simple, and as scary, as that.

GR: Is there anything you miss from your days as a journalist and columnist? Off the top of your head, if you had to pick a current event or topic to write a column on this month, what would it be?

AQ: I still write the occasional essay for Newsweek, so my news-junkie fix gets fed. If I were writing now, I'd be writing about health care reform and the distortions and misinformation that accompany it. I'm going to live long enough to live in an America that will assume universal health care is a basic right. That will be amusing and terrific.

GR: We asked your readers for questions and selected a few to include here. Goodreads member Rebecca asks, "In [Quindlen's] fictional writing, who is her favorite character? I know that might be like asking a mother to choose her favorite child, but is there a character that stands out in her mind?"

AQ: Thanks for reading, Rebecca. For some reason my favorites are always secondary characters, maybe because my work has been influenced so much by that of Dickens. I love the English teacher in One True Thing and Cindy in Black and Blue. Sunny, Lydia's Blessings's brother, is a real favorite, and I still have a soft spot for Irving Lefkowitz in Rise and Shine. Sometimes your faves sneak up on you. Dr. Vagelos in Every Last One started out as a very minor character. As his role grew, he became more and more a moral center. I also like Mary Beth's college friend Alice, as much for her flaws as for her gifts.

GR: Goodreads member Lisa Vegan says, "I'm curious whether she's writing only fiction now or whether she'll consider more autobiographical essays such as those in her books Living Out Loud and Thinking Out Loud."

AQ: Did Random House plant this question, Lisa? The answer is yes. I'm working on a memoir about aging that will be published around my 60th birthday. Years ago I wrote a column called "Life in the 30s," the columns that appear in Living Out Loud, and people always wanted me to go back to those kinds of personal observations. So I guess this is life in the 50s, otherwise known as "Where the hell did I leave my keys?"

GR: Goodreads member Linda asks, "I would love to ask Anna Quindlen what she considers the top feminist novels or books to read—especially from the heyday of 1960s/'70s feminism. I know she has spoken about The Feminine Mystique before—what else?"

AQ: In terms of nonfiction books, Linda, Sisterhood Is Powerful is a good bet, although it feels more dated than The Feminine Mystique. Susan Faludi's Backlash is absolutely first-rate. With novels, The Golden Notebook and The Group are obvious choices, but I often think that the most feminist novels long predate any sort of movement for equality. The House of Mirth, for example, is the story of a smart and charming young woman trapped by the expectations of a society that equates female status with marriage alone. It's heartbreaking to consider what Lily Bart could have been if she'd been born a hundred years later.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

AQ: Hugely influenced by Dickens and the notion that it is possible to combine a good story with an interest in social welfare. At opposite ends of the spectrum, I admire Jane Austen for her sense of restraint and irony, and Faulkner for his fearlessness and emotion. For more modern writers, I love Alice McDermott, Don DeLillo, and Russell Banks. I think all my work is influenced by growing up Catholic, not necessarily in terms of content but in terms of themes and values. Blessings, for instance, is a novel about redemption. Actually, in some fashion all my novels are about redemption. I know exactly where that comes from.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AQ: My most pronounced writing habit is trying not to write. My closest friend is a book reviewer, and we talk every morning. I walk for an hour every morning, too. I would rather exercise than write—there's a damning fact. But by about 10 a.m. I just do it. I always have music on unless I'm reading aloud, which I always do before I hand anything in. It's the only way to know if a sentence really works, without clunks or cul-de-sac clauses. It's also the only way to know if dialogue sounds like human speech. I've read Every Last One aloud twice, once after the first draft, then after the last. I had to give up after that second time because I was so wiped from weeping. My elder son, who is a whiz at grammar, did the final copy edit so I wouldn't have to look at it again.

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

AQ: The aforementioned son insists that I am wrong about Moby-Dick, and it is one of the great novels of the canon. So I am rereading it in tandem with a terrific nonfiction book called (what else) The Whale. I'm actually beginning to think [my son] is right about Melville. When I'm revising a novel I can't read literary fiction, so I only read mysteries (although increasingly some of them are quite literary). My friend Jean just introduced me to a Scandinavian novelist named Karin Fossum, whom I really have taken a shine to. Her entire backlist is in a stack on my bedside table.

GR: What's next?

AQ: The aging memoir. If I can remember what to put in it. What's my cell phone number again?

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Monique (new)

Monique Anna, Your writing is wonderful and I love your fearless defense of liberal values and points of view. Please keep writing!

message 2: by Lois (new)

Lois Anna, I just ran across some old newspaper articles I saved that you wrote (in the 90's) about losing your mom. They touch me just as deeply each time I read them. I love all your books, too. Keep 'em coming! Thanks!

message 3: by Patricia (new)

Patricia As a fan of Anna, and as someone who has worked hard to keep a family together under the cloud of mental illness, I am very interested in reading her new book. She is always insightful and
true -

message 4: by Sue (new)

Sue Ms. Quindlen,
Inspired by one of your statements on parenting and the latest issues, I have started a Quotes to Remember file. Keeping issues in perspective is important in living a balanced life. I also was heartened by what you said about parenting. Sometimes we do our best and things just happen. I'm looking forward to reading Every Last One. Thank You.

message 5: by Carmel (new)

Carmel Sounds great - can't wait to read it!

message 6: by Jan (new)

Jan Anna-
I've been a fan of your writing since your earliest columns in the "Chicago Tribune,"(syndicated from the
"NY Times?") and have read all of your books.
So happy to know that you have another, and continue to share your wisdom and clarity.
Jan in Burr Ridge, IL

message 7: by Lfb1942 (new)

Lfb1942 So glad to read these answers to questions put to you - saw you in Cooperstown a few years ago and was fully vindicated in my previous assentment. APRIL 16 LU BU

message 8: by Julie (new)

Julie M I've been a fan of AQ since the '80s and have loved (and agreed with) most everything she's written. Thanks for the interview, GR!!

message 9: by Mary (new)

Mary Craven I'm thrilled to see a new AQ novel! I ordered it on my Kindle immediately. I'm pleased to read her son is a grammarian...what a lost art! :-)

message 10: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I was a Paul girl too. And that's when I knew I'd read everything that you wrote.
Kidding aside, both my husband and I are big fans of all of your books.
I look forward to 60 with you.


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