The WD Interview: Anna Quindlen: Balancing Act

Nice work if you can get it.” The lyrics of the famous George Gershwin tune might be the perfect summary of Anna Quindlen’s impressive list of journalistic and literary creds: Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, columnist for Newsweek, Oprah-anointed novelist. What writer wouldn’t want even one of Quindlen’s gigs?

It’s not all awards and acclaim, however. Known for her strong opinions that lean toward the Left, she gets her fair share of hate mail. Her reputation as a pro-choice advocate led to a protest against her speaking at a university commencement speech. That commencement speech—mailed to a fan—got published as the phenomenally successful A Short Guide to a Happy Life.

Quindlen’s not one to rest on her impressive backlist and awards. She’s the epitome of the working writer. Her fifth novel, Rise and Shine, the story of orphaned sisters—one a Katie Couric-like anchorwoman, the other a New York City social worker—hits bookstores this fall.

As for balancing writing fiction and journalism, her approach is characteristically simple and straightforward: “I have a novel week, then a column week,” she says.

So read on—Quindlen offers a career’s worth of practical advice and inspiration to writers, whether you’re practicing fact or fiction.

Rise and Shine features a celebrity news anchor, and the narrator is her sister, a social worker. How did you go about researching these roles to get the details right?

I don’t do research for my novels. I never have, even for Black and Blue, which is the novel most people seem to believe I reported as well as created. Let me use an example from this book to illustrate: The copy editors at Random House asked if there was actually a restaurant called Française (a restaurant in which two of the characters dine). Maybe there is. New York is a big city, after all. But if there is, I don’t know it, haven’t been there, have no clue where it is. This is my Française. And that’s how I think of my characters, who they are, how they behave, even what they do. Obviously, in my other line of work as a reporter and a columnist, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know both social workers and TV talk-show hosts. But I didn’t do research specifically for this book.

Who was your inspiration for the golden girl, anchorwoman character Meghan Fitzmaurice?

There’s a Sondheim song about two women, Lucy and Jessie, one young and innocent, one older and sophisticated. “If Lucy and Jessie could only combine/I could tell you someone who would finally be just fine” goes a lyric. I think if you took a cleaver to my life and character and created two equal parts, you’d get the Fitzmaurice sisters.

Does material from your column ever show up in your novels?

Material from my life shows up in both my columns and my novels. A writer is always working with whatever she’s managed to store in the brainpan or puzzle out about the world. So to that extent, I’m always drawing from the same pool, no matter what form I’m working in. But directly, no. Domestic violence advocates seem to think that I was an Op-Ed crusader before Black and Blue [her novel about domestic violence] appeared. Not so. The closest I’d ever come to writing about the issue was during the O.J. Simpson trial. Obviously I’ve written a fair amount about the poor in New York City as a columnist. But I don’t think you can divine a direct line to that reporting in the Bronx portrayed in Rise and Shine.

You quit The New York Times in 1995 to pursue a career as a novelist. What persuaded you to go back to column writing in 1999 for Newsweek?

The Newsweek column fit much better with life as a novelist than the Times column had. In fact, I’m not sure how I managed to write One True Thing while turning out two columns a week (and caring for three little kids). Even once a week interferes too much with the ability to live in the fictional world of a novel. But luckily, the Newsweek gig is every other week. So I have a novel week, then a column week and so on. It’s worked beautifully.

You won a Pulitzer for a collection of your columns in 1992. How did that affect your outlook as a writer?

Don’t get me wrong: Winning a Pulitzer is about as good as it gets professionally, and, as Russell Baker once wrote, you know exactly how the first paragraph of your obit will read. But it didn’t change my life as much as it has for some others. Some people use it to move up the newspaper food chain; I was already at the Times and already had the best job the paper has to offer. And some use it to expand their reach; I was already at work on a second novel and had a collection on the bestseller list. And it didn’t make me have a higher opinion of myself, thank God. I always feel like you’re as good as your last sentence. And your last sentence is never quite good enough.

Is there any difference in your mental state depending on whether you’re writing journalism or writing fiction?

The only difference is that you can get rid of the column. It’s a little like staying at a hotel; you get used to the shape of the room, and then you’re gone. With a novel you move into town and stay for a long time. That’s both comforting and terrifying. With the column you get immediate gratification—and up-to-the-minute hate mail.

Any writing quirks you’d like to share with us?

When I write a novel, I have what I think of as an icon that helps get me into the world of the book. For Blessings, for instance, it was a very old Hamilton wristwatch that doesn’t work any more and whose face is a deep, mottled sepia color because it went into the water even though it’s not waterproof. It’s exactly the sort of thing my main character would wear, and when I look at it, I can see her arm and her sleeve and then her face. I still keep it on my desk. For Rise and Shine, it’s this big snow globe of the skyline of New York.

You’ve been in the journalism game for three decades. Can you comment on changes you’ve witnessed in the profession?

Obviously the rise of the Internet, which most of us in print were very slow to fully appreciate and understand, has been an enormous change. I can’t begin to predict how news will be delivered to readers in, say, 100 years. But I do know one thing that hasn’t changed: Whatever the delivery system, whether it’s a magazine, book or blog, people like vivid writing, strong stories and credible people. So while the venue is changing rapidly, human nature isn’t, which I find soothing.

You wrote a book called How Reading Changed My Life. What has reading meant to your development as a writer?

Let me say first that reading is my favorite pastime, bar none. If I couldn’t read, I don’t know what I’d do. But as a writer, it’s both a blessing and a curse. You absorb technique as you go along. You begin to understand what makes Lily Bart or Elizabeth Bennet come alive on the page. You internalize pacing and rhythm. But then you experience despair. Not long ago, my elder son, who’s working on a novel of his own, read The Sound and the Fury for the first time. And he asked me, “How can you even think of writing a novel once you’ve read this?” And that’s a very, very good question. You just have to push your own inadequacies to the back of your mind and get on with it.

Your book A Short Guide to a Happy Life basically sprung from a commencement speech you weren’t even able to deliver due to an anti-abortion protest. Any thoughts on that?

I was scheduled to give the commencement speech at Villanova and then stepped aside when it looked as though the ceremony would be disrupted or at least marred by anti-abortion protesters. But I sent the text via e-mail to a young woman who wrote telling me how sorry she’d been about the uproar. Apparently she sent it to some friends, and they sent it to some friends, and within six months, all kinds of readers were saying how much they liked it. So we decided to do it as this little book. And 1.3 million copies later, I find myself very, very glad that certain people thought I was an unacceptable role model for young people. Sometimes I hear that someone quoted it in a commencement speech, or even that a priest used it in a sermon. And I feel quite content. Not to say smug. Well, yes, let’s say smug.

You’re known for your down-to-earth point of view. So what practical advice would you offer other writers?

It all comes down to the Nike slogan. Just do it. So many people tell me, well, I’m thinking of writing a book. Does anyone say I’m thinking of performing surgery, or I’m thinking of designing a building? Writing seems to be the only profession people imagine you can do by thinking about doing it. No. Put your butt in a chair and write. And never mind feeling blocked. Everyone feels blocked all the time. Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) once said, “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”

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