Before she was a beloved novelist, Anna Quindlen was a beloved journalist. (Yes, journalists can be beloved.) She began writing for the New York Times in 1977 and in 1981 became a columnist — only the third woman to have a regular presence on that paper’s op-ed pages. She won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1992 and left the paper three years later to write novels.
Quindlen has said that writing journalism and writing fiction are not all that different — good writing is good writing, though journalism taught her some things: mainly, to always carry a notebook, to look for the telling detail, to pay attention to how people really speak.
Several of her novels have become bestsellers, and three have been made into movies. Her new book, “Still Life With Bread Crumbs,” is about a photographer whose career is on the wane. She sublets her New York penthouse apartment and rents a cabin, sight unseen, in the countryside. And then — oh, but that would be telling.
Quindlen will speak and sign books at an event on Wednesday, sponsored by the Bookcase of Wazyata. Here, Quindlen talks about the buzz of the newsroom, her fondness for a certain series of books set in Mankato, and why she almost never goes out to lunch.
Q: What, if anything, do you miss about journalism?
A: I miss newsrooms. I love newsrooms, the buzz, the camaraderie, the gossip. And when a big story breaks, I miss being at that epicenter. I loved pretty much everything about being a reporter except the pay scale, and even that didn’t bother me that much because I loved pretty much everything else.
A: How autobiographical are your novels?
Q: I think most novelists begin autobiographically and become less and less so as time goes on. I think you see that in most people’s work. It’s certainly true of mine. “Object Lessons” is the most autobiographical of my novels. “Still Life With Bread Crumbs” mines much of what I know — the city, the nature of art — but Rebecca Winter and I are quite different.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: Top floor of the townhouse, 64 stairs up from the front door, overlooking the terrace garden. Two desks, one for writing, one for correspondence, both with assorted nun paraphernalia thanks to Chris Krovatin, son and fellow writer.
Framed Pulitzer certificate and Brenda Starr strip that mentions me because, hell, why not. Mac book and paperweight that was once a doorstop in my grandparents’ house. Writing chair, reading chair. Not fancy, really comfortable.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: I have to have a zone from about 9:30 until around 3, which is why I say no to most lunch invitations except lunch on the fly downstairs with my eldest son, who is also writing a novel in his boyhood room.
I sit down and pound for a while. Occasionally I look up and see that two hours have gone by in a flash, but that’s on a very good day. Sometimes I just eke out a page here, a page there.
Q: How do you get past writers’ block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A: As a former reporter I don’t really believe in writer’s block. You sit down and string words together whether you want to or not. Left to my own devices I would do nothing but read, watch TV and make slow cooker dishes, so I write despite my disinclination. Which is omnipresent. Butt in chair. That’s my mantra.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: The Betsy-Tacy series, set in Deep Valley, Minn., which I’m told is actually Mankato.
Q: What books do you reread?
A: I reread “The Forsyte Saga,” and I just reread Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “Cazalet” chronicles. Every summer I reread one big Dickens novel, although I’ve decided to [go big] this summer and do both “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield.”
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: I’m at my desk. The rhododendron leaves are furled tight in the garden outside my window because it’s so cold, although I guess I have some nerve telling that to an interviewer in Minnesota.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Ian Rankin, “Saints of the Shadow Bible.”
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: Boy, that’s a tough one. I did an event at the public library in Kansas City a year or two ago that was really nice, and I’ve done some at Barnard, my alma mater, that naturally were warm and friendly.
But they are uniformly pretty terrific events. Years of sitting in a little room, and finally you’re sharing.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: Dickens has been huge for me, that combination of a great yarn and a social conscience. Jane Austen, not just because she’s genius but because she existed at a time when women, especially well-bred women, weren’t supposed to be writers. Mary Wesley, the British novelist whose first adult fiction was published when she was 71, is a hedge against despair.
Q: Why did you move from Irish Catholics to wealthy New York Jews in this latest book? And how do you know … ?
A: I’m Irish Catholic, but I live in a city that is full of wealthy Jewish men and women, some of whom are good friends. You soak things up. And you make things up. And at the end, if all goes well, you’ve got a novel.
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