The RD Interview: Anna Quindlen on Her Proudest Achievement

The beloved author talks about midlife surprises, lifelong friendships, and her proudest achievement (it’s not her Pulitzer Prize).

anna quindlen illustration
Agata Marszalek for Reader’s Digest

With her warm tone, sharp eye, and finger on the pulse of American women, Anna Quindlen seems like a friend who both understands you and challenges you a little. Make that a very accomplished friend. Her six novels have all been bestsellers, as have many of her nonfiction books. She also was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her op-ed columns in the New York Times.

The main character in your new novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, has had a great career, but now she’s down on her luck. Does she embody your fears of the worst that could happen, or is she just a work of the imagination?

Definitely imagination. I’m interested in second and third acts in American lives. I wasn’t so focused on what she’d lost as on what she might learn. She has the opportunity to become a different person. I hate the notion that at a certain point, you’re done, you’re cooked.

Yes, that relates to a line I love in the book: “The problem was that at a certain point she thought she’d be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she’d been about it at various points in the past and how wrong she’d been.” What does that mean to you?

I think we tend to be kind of task-based, and then life teaches us how foolish that is. For example, I believed at some point that my kids would be finished and my work as a mother would be over. Clearly, that’s illusory! And that’s true of my work as a writer and as a friend. What I bring to my friendships now is different from 30 years ago.

How so?

Our friendships used to consist of giving each other advice about potty training and difficult bosses, and now we spend way more time than we’d like talking about illness, unemployment, divorce, and all the things that come along later in life.

One of your characters comments that men’s artwork is more of a closed statement, that if you look at an Ansel Adams photograph, it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t make you wonder what happens next, whereas women’s art invites conversation. Is that something you believe?

I’m not sure it’s gender-specific. But I do think there are certain people whose work makes you ask, “What happens next?” Those are the people who intrigue me most.

I have to admit: One of my favorite characters in the book is the dog.

Everybody loves the dog! It turns out that a dog is an easy character to write because most dogs have lots of personality, but there aren’t a whole lot of nuances.

So tell us—what’s the Reader’s Digest version of your career?

I’m an Irish kid, so I grew up on storytelling. When I was a journalist, I liked the idea of following writer H. L. Mencken’s directive: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” But I think my career’s overarching theme has been storytelling: in speeches, in novels, and in newspapers.

What is your favorite book?

That’s such a hard question. Each time you name one, you think of five or six you just missed. I like Charles Dickens’s Bleak House as much as I’ve ever liked anything. I love his ability to combine a rip-roaring story with questions about social justice and political systems.

Dickens was a wonderful writer, but he was so hard on his kids.

Having a father who’s a Great Man can’t be easy for anyone. But we all know there are children who’ve risen to the occasion. Some people see it as an invitation to attempt greatness themselves, and others just sort of lie down.

What would you say is your proudest achievement?

I’d say my kids, except that they have been so convincingly themselves from the beginning that I almost feel like my instructions were “Just add water.” I unexpectedly turned out to be a natural at motherhood, and that’s something I’m very proud of.

Your children are all grown now. The transition to an empty nest must have been a big one for you.

All three of my kids live in New York City, and they tend to bounce in and out of our house with some regularity. It’s not a very empty nest. My eldest child is writing a novel, and he comes here every day and works on it. He writes on the first floor, I work on the fifth floor, and we meet every day for lunch. It’s great.

This is a question we always ask our RD interview subjects: What’s your favorite word?

Flabbergasted. It’s a big word—I mean it registers big—and it sounds like what it is. You can use it only once every 18 months or so.

I’ve saved my toughest question for you until the end. Can you tell me a joke?

I love jokes, but I’m so bad at telling them. I always get them wrong; I can never remember them. Here’s the only one I can think of—I use it in speeches. So a man goes to see the doctor, and the doc says to him, “I’m sorry, but you need a brain transplant.” The man says, “Oh, my God! How will that work?” The doctor says not to worry. “I have two brains available right now. One is the brain of a man, and it will cost $50,000. The other is the brain of a woman, and it will be $5,000.” The man says, “Why is the woman’s brain so much cheaper?” And the doctor says, “It’s used!”

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