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For the week of August 23 through 29, 2000

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 Quindlen’s three best-selling novels—Ellen Gulden, discovers, through the painful course of her mother’s 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 Word."

Last week Quindlen took time out to discuss her life, writing and current issues.

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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 there’s 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 sort…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. Finally—let's

face it—someone in my position takes a certain pleasure in making stuff up!

 

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 preceded you?

 

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 matters—both of my female predecessors had covered foreign affairs—I 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 I’d 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 you—that 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 children?

 

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? Something else?

 

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. I’m not locked into anything. At some point I’d like to do a couple of years in the Peace Corps. I'm not sure I've served my quotient of public service.

 

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