Anna Quindlen: Her New Novel, Old Jersey Memories and Women in Journalism Today

Anna QuindlenIn early 1999, I was 30 years old and new to New York. I knew nothing about the city and the media world within it when I was hired as an assistant to the Editor in Chief of Newsweek magazine. But I knew who Anna Quindlen was, and when months after I was hired it was announced that she was about to start what would be a ten-year gig there as a “Last Word” columnist, I shared in the excitement that filled the executive office.

I met Quindlen briefly at her welcoming bash at the Four Seasons back when newsweeklies could still throw those kind of events. I wanted to tell her that I had always admired her work, that even my mother – a Republican – loved her work, and that I once worked with her sister at a bookstore in San Diego. But, still new to New York and the magazine that would become my home for almost 11 years, I was too shy to do much more than say hello.

Years later, when I was the editor of the magazine’s letters column, I corresponded with Quindlen about every other week (the “Last Word” column alternated weekly between Quindlen and George Will), when I would send her the letters readers wrote to praise – and occasionally complain about – that week’s column. She was always gracious and quick to respond, and never let any of the less kind (to put it mildly) letters get under her skin.

Quindlen wrote her last column for Newsweek in 2009, and since then, she’s published one work of non-fiction and three novels. The last one, “Miller’s Valley,” was released earlier this month to rave reviews pretty much all around.

On April 28, Quindlen will be in Montclair to discuss “Miller’s Valley” as part of the Montclair Public Library’s Open Book Open Mind series (see more information below). She spoke with me recently about the new book, the state of journalism today, and the Long Beach Island she knew as a young woman. What follows are excerpts:

Is fiction writing your real love?

I wouldn’t say it’s my real love but it’s my job now. I don’t think of myself as a reporter now and many of my readers now don’t know that that’s something I did. They think I’ve always been a novelist. I may in the future write some nonfiction work but my intention is to concentrate on fiction.

How did the idea of this novel come to you?

I almost always start with character. It’s really what interests me. It’s the fulcrum of all of my novels. What usually happens is that over the space of 6-7 months I spend my walking-around time building up a character in my mind: What she looks like, birth order, what her parents are like, where’s she’s grown up, what’s she’s doing, what she wants to do. Little by little the details present themselves to me. With Mimi Miller, I wanted to chart the enormous changes of women in small towns who were insulated from some of the more obvious upheavals in America over the last 60-70 years. For the first time, I wanted to chart a course that took place over a greater span of years, starting with a little girl who saw few options for herself and winding up with an older woman who had enormous opportunities. One of the things I started to think about a lot was that in order to see some of those opportunities you have to leave home. It made me think of the notion of home and how it lives with us, even though for all intents and purposes, it’s gone. I thought of all the towns and villages that have disappeared, mainly through benign neglect. I wanted to write a particularly American novel and one of the things I wanted to reflect was the way America has neglected its past – we are a country that tends to disappear its past.

What made you set the novel in Pennsylvania?

That was a natural setting for me. We have a weekend house in that area, and it’s an area I know better than most. I tend to ping pong between New York City and semi-rural areas (in my writing). This was no exception.

You spent part of your childhood in New Jersey, graduating from South Brunswick high school in 1970. What are your fondest memories of your time in this state?

That’s a loaded question because I think one of the things it taught me unequivocally is that I’m not cut out for the suburbs. I’m very much a city girl. When I arrived at Barnard at 18, I looked around and thought ‘this is where I’m supposed to live.’ But my family spent summers on LBI, when it was much less developed than it is today. Whole stretches had one or two houses on them. You could bike the whole 18 miles from Barnegat Lighthouse to the end. I have a real soft spot for LBI, but it’s not the LBI of today. The LBI I know ceases to exist. But in my heart and mind it will live forever.

Who are some of your own favorite writers, particularly female? What was the last great book you read?

The last great novel I read was “Stoner” by John Williams. It was originally published in 1965, and it’s been reissued by New York Review Books. The New Yorker called it the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of. It’s absolutely superb and stands with the best books of the 20th century. NYRB also reissued “Lolly Willowes,” a book by Sylvia Townsend Warner that was great; I was so happy I read it.

I venerate Jane Austen – duh. I was asked to give keynote to the Jane Austen Society of North America. My kids were like, ‘Mom, if you were paid by the hour to give this speech you would make a fortune.’ But I didn’t do it for the money. I also love Edith Warton, Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Wesley. I love Alice McDermott, and I love the work of Amy Bloom. Also, “The Little Red Chairs” by Edna O’Brien.

In your last Newsweek column you wrote about reading news clippings of young journalists, observing that “reading such essential and beautifully rendered accounts of life in America and around the world, I felt certain of the future of the news business in some form or another.” Do you still feel this way?

Absolutely. I think we shouldn’t confuse change with destruction. We do that all the time. Look, when paperback books came out, there were innumerable pieces about how hard covers were going to die. When TV came out, they said the same about the movies. We have different forms now, but the truth is, as a consumer of news, you are better informed than anytime in American history. Every night my father would read one newspaper, and one TV show, “Huntley Brinkley.” You can’t do that anymore. The truth is, you shouldn’t have to. Now you can become your own aggregator and read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, get material from the BBC, The Guardian, local blogs and newspapers. And they’re less slavishly in the tank than before.

I started at the New Brunswick newspaper. We were not in the business of publishing anything negative of Johnson & Johnson. It was the company that kept New Brunswick alive. You published what elected officials told you and “rah rah” news. You don’t do that anymore. Pro Publica tells you who’s polluting the rivers, the New York Times tells you what elected officials really say. Between the Panama Papers and Edward Snowden, we know we’re looking at the tip of the iceburg, but there are many more opportunities to get below that tip now.

What new media do you read?

All of it. I’m all over everything. I have the Apple News app, Flipboard. I don’t tweet myself, but I have a backdoor into Twitter, so I’m always reading new media of one kind or another. You have to know what you’re getting. If you’re flipping between MSNBC and Fox, and feel like you’re head is going to explode, you have to know where it’s coming from. But that’s a great opportunity. You can pull a bunch of opinions together and come up with your own sense of current events.

How have things changed for women in journalism since you wrote that women filled a “quota of one” for women writing opinion columns?

It’s better, but it’s still not good enough. So many of media outlets would be better if they had many more women’s voices. I was only the female columnist at the New York Times. Now we have 1.5. women. That doesn’t seem to be much progress in 20 years. Newspapers, TV, radio, blogs – they all ought to look like America and be 50-50. And the 50 on one side should be paid the same at the other from one side.

You have an Oprah-like quality to you in that women everywhere seem to love you. What does that feel like?

It actually doesn’t have much to do with my family life about 98 percent of the time. One of the great things about being a writer is that I’m not usually visually identifiable. People think we went to high school together or went to a Lamaze class. Most the time, I’m trying to figure out if anyone is going to read me. When I’m out there in the world, it’s great. You walk into the room and discover you have a whole group of girlfriends you’ve never met before. I think women feel we’ve been having parallel lives. People ask me how my kids are. It’s the kind of connection that women are so great at fostering, and we root each other on. It’s a fantastic feeling – not of ‘I’m special’ because I’m so not, but it’s much more a feeling of ‘look at how we’re connected,’ when we feel so isolated from one another.

For the April 28 event, Quindlen will be interviewed by Montclair’s Elisabeth Egan, books editor for Glamour, journalist and author. The event will begin at 7:45 at Mt. Hebron Middle School and will be followed by a book signing. According to MPL, online registration for the event has closed, but there may be seats at the door the day of the program. For more information, visit the MPL website.

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