Anna Quindlen: kwind-len
In three separate interviews Anna Quindlen discusses her 2007 novel, Rise and Shine, her inspirational nonfiction book, A Short Guide To A Happy Life and her 2012 memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
Best-selling author Anna Quindlen takes us on a video walk through her New York City town house as she discusses Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (2012)
A Conversation with Anna Quindlen about Rise and Shine
Scroll past this first interview to read a separate interview with Quindlen about "A Short Guide to a Happy Life".
Q: We love the premise of Rise and Shine - two sisters, New York City, and two very different career trajectories. In dreaming up this novel, what came to you first: the sisters, the setting, or Megan's on-air slip? And how did your storyline evolve from there?
Anna Quindlen: I always begin a novel with a theme. Black and Blue, for instance, began with the theme of identity, Blessings with the theme of redemption. Rise and Shine grew out of constant thoughts about the disconnect in modern American life between appearance and reality. The more I thought about that disconnect, about how we've all come to believe that what looks good is good, the more I thought I should write about someone famous. That's where the dissonance is greatest, it seems to me, and the public interest weirdest. And then I thought that the story would be best told by someone on the outside looking in. (Yes, I have read "Gatsby." Many many times.) That's where the idea of the sisters eventually came into play: one the doer, the other the watcher. And over time I realized that in doing that I had given the story, which is essentially a comedy of manners, greater resonance than it might have had otherwise. I find that I almost always make the right decisions for purely accidental reasons.
Q: Bridget and Meghan's relationship seems to strike a realistic chord with readers - they are each other's number one fan and critic. Do you have a sister of your own, or any siblings? Did your experiences with them help shape Bridget and Meghans relationship? How?
AQ: I have a sister and three brothers, who fall between us on the birth order ladder. My sister and I agree that our relationship bears little resemblance to that of Bridget and Meghan. I am not that controlling, and she is not that compliant. Perhaps the one aspect of their relationship that is taken from our lives has to do with our jobs. My sister is a public school teacher. She makes far far less money than I do, and gets almost no public attention for her work. Yet I believe what she does is infinitely more important and more difficult than what I do. And certainly that mirrors Meghan's feelings about Bridget's job as a social worker.
Q: Do you believe in the birth-order convention, that the eldest child is a natural leader, who strives to please others and can be controlling, while the younger child is charming, but irresponsible, and looks to others for guidance and discipline? Did the study of birth order influence you in writing about the Fitzmaurice sisters? Does birth-order ring true in your own experience, or, do you think it's a bogus label?
AQ: Well, I recently got an email from a very irate reader complaining that I was perpetuating birth order stereotypes in a way I would never dare do about gender, sexual orientation, and the like. So I'm more equivocal about answering these questions now! But my experience, as both the eldest in a large family and the mother of three, is that certain birth order conventions frequently apply. But maybe it's more useful, and illuminating, to put it the way Aunt Maureen puts it in the novel: that successive children fill the spaces not already occupied. So if extrovert, or leader, or wild child, or whatever is already taken by one of your siblings, you may feel compelled--or free--to shape your identity otherwise. That's certainly what happened with the Fitzmaurice sisters.
Q: Do you share any qualities and/or characteristics with Meghan? Bridget?
AQ: I am like both Meghan and Bridget. For years I had the sort of laser focus that Meghan had, and I have some of her rather cynical attitudes about the affluent around her. But, like Bridget, I have always been interested in trying to do something about the situation of the poor and disenfranchised in New York and the rest of America, in my case through the columns I've written.
Q: There are several interesting male characters in the book: Irving, the gritty cop, Edward, the smooth operator, Evan, the seemingly reliable yet duplicitous husband, and Leo, the upbeat, loveable young man. Who is your favorite among them, if you can pick one? And what qualities do you find most (or least) attractive in men in general?
AQ: Most female readers of a certain age seem to fall hard for Irving Lefkowitz. I can totally understand that; we've had it up to here with the sensitive man, and Irving is pure retro. He also really really likes women, and he really likes Bridget. I assume the reader shares that sentiment; I certainly do. But if I had to pick just one male character in the book as my personal favorite, it would be Leo. Some critics have suggested that he's too good to be true, but I've met a fair number of teenage boys like him: smart, self-deprecating, truly inclined to do the right thing. Obviously one of the reasons I love him so is that he's based, in part, on both my sons.
Q: Your portrait of New York is loving, yet you see the cityand its residentsfor what they are. What do you love about the city? What do you hate? Can you ever imagine leaving New York, or is it home to you?
AQ: I made New York City a major character in this book because I thought it would make my task as a novelist easier. I've covered New York for more than 35 years as a reporter and columnist, and I know from long experience that it's a story teller's dream. It's so polyglot, so vivid, so sharply drawn, that writing about it is as easy as finding a cab outside the Carlyle (or finding crack on certain corners in certain parts of the Bronx). But like any great character, part of its greatness, part of its power, is in its manifest flaws. New York is a city where it's particularly hard to be poor, not only because everything costs twice as much as it does elsewhere but because over-the-top affluence is part of its identity. Yet it's a city, as the novel makes clear, where affluence and want exist almost side by side. I hate the ways in which the rich are too often blind to their own conspicuous consumption. With what some East Side women spend on Botox and fillers a year, they could put a kid through parochial school, which could change a life completely. What I love is the flip side of that: that there is such enormous generosity. And I love other things, too, of course. I love that you can always get a decent Ethiopian meal. I like the places in Central Park in which you can feel as if you're on top of a mountain, not in the middle of town. I like the way the subway can take you to the beach in a half hour, then back to the roar and glare of Times Square. New York is just more alive than any place else I've ever been. People never really leave. I can't tell you how often in promoting this book, in Atlanta or Orlando or Minneapolis, someone has said to me, "I'm a New Yorker." They may have lived elsewhere for most of their life. But they're still New Yorkers.
Q: Meghan goes off the radar in Jamaica. What do you do to go dark and have time for yourself to get away and regroup?
AQ: We have a house that's in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. I spend the entire summer there. It's a good place to write because there's really nothing else to do. After the third time rowing across the pond in the canoe, I think, well, hell, and I go inside and work. Occasionally there will be a bear or eagle sighting to break up my day. But it's pretty easy for me to be off the grid in Manhattan, too. I'm not visually identifiable as Meghan is, so I don't get much attention in the city. New Yorkers are so accustomed to the truly famous that they are very cool about it. Usually they just smile. It's interesting for me to go to cities that have a small clutch of well-known writers. In those places they are a BIG DEAL. Here no one cares.
Q: Have you ever had a career-defining moment, either positive (like Meghan's first big scoop), or negative, like Meghans on-air gaff? How did you grow from it?
AQ: I had one fairly substantial setback as a reporter when I was much younger. There was the perception that I had blown a major major story, although the truth was much more complicated than that. But, like Meghan, I came to understand rather quickly that the truth was less important than the spin. The perception was that I had certain glaring deficits as a reporter, chief being that I could write a pretty feature but was a washout with hard news. Over the space of several days I tried to scope out assignments that could exorcise that perception if I filled them in a satisfactory fashion. In this way I became a member of the New York Times City Hall bureau for two years. It wasn't my dream job, but after two years of Council hearings, budget reports, and the like, many of which ended up on page one, there was no longer the sense that I couldn't do hard news.
Q: CNN anchor Kyra Phillips left her microphone on as she chatted in the ladies room. What did you think of this story, which broke the same week Rise and Shine went on sale? Did you imagine such a thing could happen as you wrote the book?
AQ: I always say that if you can imagine it, it can happen. While several interviewers were skeptical about Meghan blurting out an obscenity into a "hot mike," I was certain such a thing was possible. Of course, after the CNN blooper, interviewers kept asking me whether I'd had it in mind when I wrote the book. Illustrating the simple fact that even well-connected reporters don't understand the nine-month lag time between finishing a novel, and publishing one.
Anna Quindlen discusses A Short Guide To A Happy Life
This book was inspired by a commencement speech you
gave to a graduating high school class. Why did you choose the topic of
happiness, as opposed to more familiar topics, like civic achievement and
academic excellence? Is the advice given in the book something you think you
needed to hear at the same age in your life?
I know lots of people of great accomplishment who seem to take precious little pleasure in that accomplishment. And I know people of achievement who seem to have let friendship and family fall by the wayside. So I believed that young people were growing up in a culture in which they heard over and over again that they would want to accomplish great things but were not hearing enough that they would want to appreciate the small ones. It's a lesson I learned early in life, but which I've kept on learning. In fact one of the things I said to the graduate was that they might not appreciate what I was saying as they sat there, but that perhaps my sentiments would come back to them at some time when they really needed them. Their parents, however, came up to me afterwards and said they wished they'd heard this message many many years before.
Throughout A Short Guide to a Happy Life, you mention many people, but in particular your mother. Why do you think it was the loss of you mother that taught you about true happiness, and how do you think you pursued happiness before her death? What role does family and close friends play in a happy life?
I have attended several memorial services in recent years at which family and friends noted that the deceased has understood what really mattered in the face of terminal illness. That's so sad. That's a knowledge we would have long before we get a bad biopsy results. But of course I know that that's how I understood the importance of living life to the fullest, from watching my mother lose it by inches. She wasn't clinging to life so that she could write a bestseller, or make a million bucks. She just wanted to watch the sun come up one more time, or to hug my little sister, or to listen to "South Pacific" on the stereo. And that teaches you something. It teaches you that so much of what you take for granted is the bedrock of happiness. You know, one of the most affecting scenes in any play for me is when Emily is watching the mourners at her own funeral in "Our Town." And she asks the other dead around her whether living people ever understand how wonderful life is. And one of them replies, "That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years." I refused to live with that inevitability.
Who are the people in your life who have informed your thinking on what's important in life most?
Well, certainly my mother, who was a humble woman with a great capacity for unconditional love. And now my kids. Because you can reexperience the world through the eyes of your kids, whether it's the first time they catch a fish or dive off the board, or read "To Kill a Mockingbird." I feel infinitely more alive and aware of the world since I had children to show me the way. I could never do enough to repay them for that. (And, no, honey, you can't have a motorcycle!)
Several times in the book you quote writers, like Gwendolyn Brooks, and you incorporate their wisdom about life into your own. Which writers and books have influenced you the most and helped you to form your own philosophy about living?
Reading is another thing that has made me more human by exposing me to worlds I might never have entered and people I might never meet. Actually it's poetry that more than any other form makes me feel the quiet overwhelming joy that points the way to emotional satisfaction. Yeats, for example, whose poem I used for the dedication to "Thinking Out Loud." Elizabeth Bishop. William Carlos Williams. John Ashbery. Robert Lowell. Sometimes you read a novel and it's like a symphony playing in your head, Anna and Vronsky and all the rest, the rich Tapestry of Faulkner's language. And it takes the one of two perfectly placed words in a short poem to pick out the truth on the strings of your violin-heart. How's that for an overwrought metaphor?
How has your own writing contributed to your happiness and satisfaction with your life, both in a day to day way and in general?
There's no greater happiness than doing something every day that you love, that you feel you do in a satisfactory fashion, and which both supports and gives you time to support your family. I felt so lucky to have all that. But I am also happy that it provides me a measure of immortality with the people I love most. When I am gone my children will be able to sit down and read "A Short Guide to a Happy Life" and remember me, and remember what I cared about and held most dear. That's enormously soothing.
Beautiful, happy, and uplifting photos appear throughout A Short Guide to a Happy Life, and they capture what you are saying perfectly. When choosing these photos, what were you looking for? What role has art played in your own life, and how do you think it contributes to the pursuit of happiness?
Louis Armstrong once said when someone asked him to define jazz, if you have to ask, you'll never know. I just knew that these pictures belonged. Call it a chemical reaction. Their emotional content just seemed consonant with that of the book.
Many of these photographs are of beautiful landscapes or people surrounded by nature. What role has nature played in your understanding of happiness? Why do you think it is such an apt metaphor for rediscovering the wonder of life?
There's an Emily Dickinson poem - now that I'm on the subject of poetry - that ends with the words, "How much can come/and much can go/ and yet abide the world!". That has something to do with it, that sense of clinging to what will remain after we are gone.
In the book, you stress the importance of women realizing and being thankful for being alive during such a healthy, prosperous and peaceful time. Women now seem to have more opportunity than ever to pursue their dreams. Of what importance are issues of womens' rights to you? Has your involvement in women's issues in the community contributed to your own happiness?
I've been a feminist since I was a teenager, but originally it was because I wanted to make the world a better place for me. Now I just rejoice in the opportunities for so many. What could make you happier than to make a better world, a world that is fairer, more egalitarian, that works better for all.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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