Anna Quindlen gets things jangling. In the US, where her opinion column in The New York Times, syndicated in more than 30 papers across the country, ran under various guises for some 10 years, she is a household name who conjures all the love and loathing of an intimate public personality. Here, where her first British publication comes with her latest novel, One True Thing, phone lines have been buzzing and the book, published this month, sneaked its way on to several Christmas book lists ahead of time, its reviewers clearly bursting with discovery.
Her name crops up in odd places ‑ in a New York department store I hear two women in casual conversation: "So what's this I hear about Anna Quindlen going to be president or something?" whines one, before disappearing down the escalator. Speculation clings to Quindlen like envy, partly because, for all her down‑home persona, being the self‑styled custodian of the American social conscience, served up in twice‑weekly liberal homilies straight from the heart and hearth, inevitably smacks just the tiniest bit of complacency. And partly because Anna Quindlen is a woman who seems to have achieved everything she's ever wanted ‑ on her own terms.
A reporter since the age of 19, and by her own admission "incredibly driven" in her twenties, Quindlen lobbied for her first newspaper column, "About New York", normally handed out as a sinecure to distinguished veteran journalists, when still a stripling of 28. This may mean little to the punter but in the newspaper world where, according to Quindlen's colleague Frank Rich, "98 per cent of journalists want to be columnists," it made history. When she later resigned after the birth of her second child, she was offered a personal, domestic column, "Life in the 30s", written from her New Jersey home, which gathered a large following. In 1991, she published her first novel, Object Lessons, which made the bestseller list. Attempting to resign again, she was offered the more politically oriented column "Public and Private", which won her the Pulitzer prize and set the seal on her fame. Every step she's taken in the last several years seems to have had the huge, male‑dominated corporate structure of the NYT bending and stretching to accommodate her children's meal times and holidays. Besides having what has been described as "one of the most desirable jobs on the planet", she has also managed to be a stay‑at‑home mum, writing when her three children are at school or asleep. Her kids, she tells me proudly, barely know she works.
If Quindlen seems a little too good to be true, a woman who is having it every which way, she is at strenuous pains to deny it. Saying she hates the superwoman tag, she points to a column she once wrote called "Putting Up a Good Front", in which she talks about the fact that her jacket is smart but pinned on the inside, her couch is upholstered in a fashionable shade but there is trash under the cushions, and so on ‑ all very human, but the fact that she's making a virtue of imperfection does nothing to deter those who feel that her opinion of herself as a homemaker/mother/lover/political commentator tends to the self‑congratulatory.
This may be the columnist's curse. Aspired to for the prestige, the byline, the photo and the bucks, a column gives a journalist the licence to be themselves, to hold up their own opinions and identity as something worthy of universal consideration ‑ by its nature it presupposes a certain hubris. Quindlen was determined to avoid the "voice of God" tone of so many opinion writers, but she is under pressure to make judgments nonetheless, to comment on others from a standpoint of finer moral tuning ‑ not so much voice of God in her case perhaps as voice of the Virgin Mary. "She's regarded as very pious and politically correct," says the New York‑based writer Anthony Haden‑Guest, among whose elite media circle Quindlen is "routinely bad‑mouthed, to the point that I almost feel sorry for her". Trading in emotional honesty, Quindlen seems to have no emotionally honest response that is not politically correct. Her conscientiousness bugs people; the fact that she is now, according to a source at her publishing house, "studying to be a novelist" adds more fuel to their fire.
Since her grounding in "objective" reporting, Quindlen has made it her journalistic mission to bring a female sensibility to political opinion, rehabilitating the value of women's domestic lives, local reference points and emotional insights into the pompous business of covering "the great issues of the day", and she's no slouch at tugging heartstrings. This is Quindlen's brand of feminism, based on (emotional) amplitude and (intellectual) aptitude, embracing femininity in all its potential. "I believe it is not only possible but critical, not only useful but illuminating, for a woman writing an opinion column to bring to her work the special lens of her gender," she writes. Hence she chides the nation in homely imagery ‑ "America limps along, a superpower that, like a star high‑school athlete grown middle‑aged, ate too much but didn't exercise. It carries a paunch of second‑rateness" ‑ and offers feel‑good lines to traditionally low‑status mothers ‑ "Well, another year has gone by and still the Nobel prize has not been awarded to the inventors of the Snugli baby carrier. I can't figure it." The kitchen, in Quindlen's vocabulary, is as important as the Kremlin.
"She writes with an urgency without being wonkish [i.e. talking in Washington policy speak]," says Frank Rich. "She cuts through that fog." "You know how you try and get inside a voice and see if you can inhabit it?" says a regular reader, American writer Leslie Garis. "Well, I feel I can inhabit hers. She's never pretentious, never pedantic, never parades her knowledge the way a lot of men do. She seems to be such a polymath; she encompasses so many different aspects of the world, both personal and political. She brings to very large problems like what's happening in Bosnia the same personal sympathy that she does to her immediate concerns."
Quindlen's immediate concerns have now changed with a new climax in her one‑jump-ahead career. One True Thing, the story of an ambitious young journalist summoned home by her controlling father to nurse her mother, who is dying of cancer, made the bestseller list in the cutthroat autumn season, has been optioned by Universal and sold all over the world. No sooner was it published in the US than Quindlen, who was tipped by many for a top editorial job at the NYT, coolly announced that she was leaving journalism to be a full‑time novelist, having exhausted, she felt, the confines of a 740‑word column. "I found writing this second novel so challenging," she says, "and when I reread the manuscript I thought, 'I can do this.' Not 'I can try to do this,' but 'I can do this,' and that simple act of faith really pushed me towards making this decision."
The rumour mill went into overtime, speculating on an internal power struggle, a hidden agenda (even, it would seem, a bid for the presidency). "The scuttlebutt here is that she left because she went for the managing editorship and didn't get it," says one NYT insider. "But whether that's true or whether she just got antsy and the paper couldn't come up with anything tempting enough to keep her, I don't know. The truth is probably somewhere between the two." The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" broke the news with a certain relish, concluding that "Her fans may be secretly pleased to know that even Anna Quindlen can't do it all." "You know that there is always a certain spin that gets put on stories?" Quindlen asks me wearily. "The spin on me was that I had it all, and the spin on me now is that I gave it all up, and neither of them happens to be true."
I catch up with Quindlen on the last leg of her American publicity tour for One True Thing, at a reading in a Manhattan bookshop. As I browse downstairs before the big event, a shop assistant squeals, "She's here! She's here! She just went up the escalator! Oh, I m going to miss her column so much." Half an hour before liftoff, the designated corner between classics and thesauri is already packed out, and the taller of the men in the audience pop their heads up over the "New Age" signs at one side. Among the waiting crowd ‑ middle‑aged women in sweaters, young men, women with babies in slings ‑ a certain Quindlenishness infects the air. People quip in loud asides. One woman rebukes a man who fails to say "excuse me" as he passes, "This is a literate audience." A sense of righteousness prevails; these are people who pride themselves on their engagement and conscience.
Quindlen appears, plumper and earthier than I'd imagined, and reads a passage from the novel in which the narrator Ellen, boiling with protective fury at her new insight into her father's infidelities, is put right by her increasingly feeble mother. “Ellen, she said, struggling to turn toward me, her hands like pale claws on the railing of the bed, her legs scissoring away the white sheets, 'listen to me because I will only say this once and I shouldn't say it at all. There is nothing you know about your father that I don't know, too." She reads in a slow monotone, with squashed "old New Yawk" vowels, but the moment is poignant. Then she confidently fields questions for 15 minutes before the serious business of personalised inscriptions begins.
The next day in Quindlen's office at the NYT ‑ up on the tenth floor, with an expensive view, her name well‑advertised alongside that of the former "butcher of Broadway" theatre critic Frank Rich (now also a columnist) ‑ she is still coping with the mass of letters responding to her resignation. One of her assistant's main tasks is handling Quindlen's mail, which roughly divides into one third hate and two thirds fan, and for which she has a graded selection of response cards, which include such lines as "Even if you can't agree with me, it's helpful to know what you and others are thinking." (In personal replies, Quindlen opts for the more buoyant phrase, "Wow! You made my day.") "When you are a feminist, a Catholic, a mother of three," Quindlen tells me, "who believes in the right to a legal abortion, and who has been a public champion for gay rights, you become a lightning rod for a whole lot of different groups that do not like who you are and what you stand for, and you become a lightning rod for a whole lot of people who say 'Keep on doing it!"
The fact that Quindlen is not going to keep on doing it has inspired letters almost as scary as the message she keeps on her wall, scrawled over a column she wrote on health policy, with her picture marked with an X: "American medicine is the best! If you don't like it, move to Russia!" "Please don't leave us!!!!!!!" cries one bereft correspondent. "How can you desert me? It is impossible to swallow a morsel of food since I read that you will soon retire…" "I have loved your column since you started at The Times," says another, "and therefore you." Quindlen confesses that she is disconcerted by this kind of attention. "There is a sense of ownership that people have of me that is at once very flattering and kind of frightening," she says. People know a lot about Anna Quindlen. Looking around her office, with its family photos of her two sons, daughter and lawyer husband, the novels on the shelves and the Hoboken baseball poster on the wall, is like piecing together a jigsaw of familiar references and remembered phrases.
Facing the next challenge in her career, Quindlen is indefatigably bright and breezy ‑ in her valedictory column in mid‑December, she wrote that journalism, far from making her cynical, had only strengthened her idealism, and ‑ hurrah! ‑ that the human heart is indeed fundamentally good (this interwoven with the beatific lyrics of Christmas carols). She frequently and volubly counts her blessings, conscientiously honours the public (and not just her public) and has that disconcertingly un‑English habit of not deprecating her own talents. “I am really good at seeing all sides to an issue, she will say or, "I have nothing left to prove to myself about my performance as a newspaper reporter and columnist." She has a broad, dimpled face, an irrepressible smile and a warm and direct manner which one can only assume must, for one in her position, be to some extent a matter of discipline. Though more highbrow and pointedly literary in conversation than in her writing (she refers repeatedly to Pride and Prejudice in relation to her own life and novels ‑ Sense and Sensibility might be a more useful title), she also sprinkles her sentences with hokey slang, telling me she's done "a bang‑up job" of raising her children, using homely phrases like "bottom line is..." and referring, mysteriously, to some of her political sources as "hot dogs".
Quindlen's 20‑plus years of reporting may have been a novelist's gift in groundwork, but the use of personal experience in her journalism makes it harder for her to hide her fictional sources. In Object Lessons the narrator, 12‑year‑old Maggie, "olive‑skinned, with thick, heavy hair and curiously opaque green eyes, catlike and surprising", is the daughter of an Irish‑American father and an Italian mother, just like Quindlen, and much of the novel's colour comes from the racial interplay and the disapproval among her father's family of the marriage. A fairly standard coming‑of‑age novel, its most successful material is what could be described as its more journalistic content: the documentation of social change in the American suburbs, change which undoes those who cannot surf it, out of frailty or complacency.
The central theme of One True Thing, the death of a mother through cancer, is also a fact of Quindlen's life: her own mother died at 40, when Quindlen was 19, leaving Anna and four younger children behind her. Even Quindlen's agent, Amanda Urban, agrees that "her second novel is not just one step up from her first; it's a whole flight of stairs." The story shows a certain schematic strain. ‑ the ambitious daughter who has rejected her mother's homemaking life is forced to recognise and value her mother's virtues in an overly neat reversal ("I intentionally set Kate and Ellen up in some sense as a metaphor for the women's movement over the last 20 years," says Quindlen) ‑ and a few topical issues, such as euthanasia and homosexuality, are thrown in for good measure, but nothing detracts from the rawness of a slow bereavement. "My bottom line with this book was I would not try to write those terminal‑illness scenes if I did not know what that really looked like," says Quindlen, who found the novel painful to write. When she was asked to read a passage on a Minneapolis radio station in which Ellen has to help her ravaged and mortified mother out of the bath, two thirds of the way through she, the presenter and the engineers all broke down.
This is indeed Quindlen's bottom line, and one which gives her such success at word‑of-mouth level, while critics sometimes carp. In the words of her book editor, Kate Medina, "She has a very deep tunnel down to what people feel, and she's able both to convey it and elicit it, without in some sense distilling it away. I've never had so many calls from booksellers who read the novel at galley stage and just wanted to talk about it." Though there is manipulation in One True Thing, triggers, buttons, diagrams and a lack of dense literary fabric, you forgive these flaws and ride with the book's one overwhelmingly true emotional thing.
Quindlen may have stepped down from a powerful platform, but any fear of her retreating into the quiet life of a lady novelist beavering modestly away in her attic is evidently a false one. She has plans for her third novel: "I am so interested in relationships within families and how they unravel over time. I'm thinking a lot about the possibility of writing a novel that covers three generations in an American family from the early Fifties until the Nineties." Meanwhile her agent, Amanda Urban, has a few ideas up her sleeve. "I have a large Manila folder on my desk in which I've been stashing away all the offers that have come in for her. I think she'll be surprised by the range of opportunities available to her. She's great on TV, she's great on her feet. There's practically nothing Anna couldn't do if she wanted to."