Finding truth with words
A correspondence with Anna Quindlen
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer
In a way, all writing is translation: a translation of all that is in our
hearts and minds to the written word. Writers, such as Anna Quindlen perform this work
with a fluidity that, to the rest of the reading world, appears all but magical.
And it is one thing to simply communicate ideas and feelings and another
to do it with a voice that stops us in our tracks and makes us take notice. Such is the
skill of Quindlen.
This weekend Quindlen, 47, will come to Sun Valley to participate in the
6th annual Sun Valley Writers Conference. She recently corresponded with a reporter
via e-mail on a range of topics.
In the novel, "One True Thing"one of Quindlens three
best-selling novelsEllen Gulden, discovers, through the painful course of her
mothers bout with cancer, the truth of her life. And it is such clarity of truth
that Quindlen has sought out most of her writing life.
Whether through her best-selling novels, "One True Thing,"
"Object Lessons" and "Black and Blue," or her nonfiction essays for
The New York Times and Newsweek, Quindlen has demonstrated an ability to
discover truth and then write about it with compassion and common sense.
Quindlen started her career in journalism with the New York Post
when she was a student at Barnard College in New York City. In 1977, she moved to the New
York Times and worked as a general assignment reporter. Over the span of 17 years, she
held the position of metropolitan editor, wrote the columns "Life in the 30s"
and "Public & Private" and won a Pulitzer Prize.
. Leaving the Times in 1994, Quindlen devoted herself to novel
writing. In 1999, she joined Newsweek to write a column entitled, "The Last
Last week Quindlen took time out to discuss her life, writing and current
Mountain Express: Towards the end of "One True Thing" you
wrote (on journalism): "It was the idea of facing a future skimming the surface of
life, winging my way in and out of other people's traumas, crises, confusions, and
passages, engaging them enough to get the story but never enough to be indelibly touched
by what I had seen or heard."
What is your personal feeling on this? Was there ever a doubt in your mind
as to what you would do with your life?
Quindlen: The only thing I considered other than writing was medicine.
All writers say that. I'm not sure why. I suppose at base it's all about dissecting human
beings, and the choice is whether to do it literally or metaphorically.
Mountain Express: It is easy to see how journalism would play into and
inform novel-writing, but is the converse true?
Quindlen: Yes. I'm going to attach the file of a speech I delivered
last year in Washington to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It explains how and
why I think this is true.
An excerpt from the speech: I used to say, succinctly, that
theres not much difference between the two, but that really threw people into a
swivet. Threw me into a swivet, too, when I realized that I was speaking to their deepest
suspicions, which is the source of my deepest confusion. When I was writing about the
people I met and the places I went when I was in newspapers, people were always accusing
us of making it up. When I made things up as a novelist, everyone insisted I was using a
thinly disguised version of the facts of my own life. So the facts were assumed to be
fiction, and the fiction fact
But what I mean, when I say there's not much
difference, has to do with what makes for good writing-good writing of any
Because those things that lift prose off the newsprint page of one also lifts it
off the linenfold of the other
The truth is that I couldn't have had one professional
life without the other. There's a tendency to give hard covers respect that newsprint
never gets; we've all been guilty of that. But we do what we do really well, most of us.
Save the people who bottle and deliver milk, we deal with the most disposable important
product on earth and yet it's scarcely ever sour. I'm a novelist now, but I wouldn't be
one, or at least not as good a one as I think I've become, if I hadn't been a
newspaperwoman first. And always.
Mountain Express: What about fiction writing appeals to you that is
not a part of nonfiction work?
Quindlen: It is simply a larger canvas, which I very much like after a
life spent churning out 750 word bites of prose. And sometimes it is easier to explore
themes by grounding them in an array of characters instead of the few usually available in
a newspaper or magazine article. Finallylet's
face itsomeone in my position takes a certain pleasure in making
Mountain Express: Was it difficult breaking into the Op Ed page of the
Times? Did you ever feel the weight of tradition or style or perspective that
Quindlen: I eased onto the Op Ed page, which was a great gift. First I
did a cityside column called "About New York," which relied on reporting but let
me develop a strong narrative voice. Then I created a column called "Life in the
30s," which allowed me to work in the first person. So I had more practice than your
average person elevated to the ranks. Nevertheless it did indeed feel like an elevation,
as it should when your peer group is composed of Russell Baker, Tony Lewis, and Bill
Safire. I felt the weight of it quite keenly in the beginning, but it seemed to me that as
the first woman writing on general interest mattersboth of my female predecessors
had covered foreign affairsI had better get over tradition and get on with finding
my own niche. I think I'd done that by about year two.
Mountain Express: I know you wrote quite a bit about Anita Hill and
Clarence Thomas. Do you think Hill's efforts had any effect on the people it was intended
to enlighten or was the whole thing lost on them? You were at the Times before and
after the event. Did you see any change there?
Quindlen: I think the American mindset was changed irrevocably in ways
subtle and mysterious, ways we don't usually associate with the Hill debacle per se. I
think we made a quantum leap in our acceptance of the verisimilitude of sexual harassment.
I think we came to understand how intractable could be the he said/she said effect. And I
think, oddly, it was a good thing for the country from a racial perspective because, after
a while, these two well-spoken, well-educated
professionals became, at base, just
another man and woman. When we talk about the case now we talk about gender, rarely about
race. Which is a very interesting aftereffect of the whole thing. By the way, I still
believe she was telling the truth.
Mountain Express: Do you miss the frenetic life of the newsroom?
Quindlen: I have three children, ages 16, 15, and 11. I have
replicated the frenetic life of the newsroom in my own home. No, seriously, I miss the
chemistry of all those smart and interesting people in one place, knowing things. But
Id lost it long ago. I really left the newsroom in 1985, when Christopher was born.
All my journalism jobs after that were done from home.
Mountain Express: What do you think will be the big issues to resolve
in the near future?
Quindlen: I think abortion will continue to be huge. I think the
disparity between rich and poor in America will grow into a front burner issue. Since we
have had so few useful debates about race, I hope that is something we discuss more. The
reach of technology and how it will affect both privacy and intellectual property will
clearly be important. So will the continuing issues surrounding freedom for women, whether
men will begin to participate more in the lives of their families and whether the
workplace can be reformed to be more conducive to having a life.
Mountain Express: Are there specific topics that strike a nerve with
youthat you feel most at home writing about?
Quindlen: I can write about feminism with my eyes closed. Gay rights.
Welfare. Economic disparity. Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, as someone
(I'm not sure who) once said.
Mountain Express: With the advent of the Internet and cable news, do
you perceive any basic changes in journalism taking place?
Quindlen: I think caveat emptor becomes more critical every day. You
have to consume as much news as you can manage. You have to know the players and where
they're coming from. You have to compare and contrast point of view and bias.
Mountain Express: You captured well in "One True Thing" that
torturous and delicate and meaningful time when a parent is disappearing before one's
eyes. Has your relationship to that experience changed over the years?
Quindlen: I hate it as much as I ever did, and I remain keenly aware
that it was the making of me as a human being. That, and raising the kids. I suspect I'd
be some designer husk without the two.
Mountain Express: Has it affected your relationship to your own
Quindlen: I think the decision to follow a career path that would
allow me to write and also to be more or less a full-time mother was because I thought
life was too short to miss the good stuff. Also I never knew how much time I would have
with them. I'm sure my mother thought she would dance at her grandchildren's weddings. You
learn not to take anything for granted. Especially not love.
Mountain Express: I know the title of your next book, but that is
about all. Anything you can tell me about it?
Quindlen: I can't, really. It's in that mushy middle stage when I can
barely stand the thought of it.
Mountain Express: Future plans? More novel writing and essays for Newsweek?
Quindlen: I think I'll just keeping doing what I'm doing now for a
while. On days when we're tired and discouraged my best friend and I sometimes talk about
opening a needlepoint shop. Our husbands talk about opening a bait shop. Im not
locked into anything. At some point Id like to do a couple of years in the Peace
Corps. I'm not sure I've served my quotient of public service.