In this special episode (a live event for the Streicker Center!), Zibby speaks to one of her greatest literary role models, #1 New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen, about her latest book, Write For Your Life. Anna talks about how important it is to write – for our mental health, connection with others, and historical record – although it can be intimidating, even for her. She also talks about parenting and grandparenting, her years as a New York City reporter, the book she is currently working on (between bouts of procrastination), and the tattoo she got for her 70th birthday! Finally, the two exchange book recommendations and Anna answers questions from the virtual audience.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. Welcome back to another season of Women on the Move. I am Marjorie Shuster. I am very excited to have you listen in on a great conversation with our fortieth author. As always, I’d like to thank the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation for their support of this series. It is such a thrill and such an honor to introduce journalist and author Anna Quindlen, author of nine novels and thirteen books of nonfiction, including my personal favorite, Nanaville. She’s had a long and successful writing career that we are lucky enough to hear all about right now. Our moderator is author, publisher, and new bookstore owner Zibby Owens. As always, please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We will try to get to as many as we possibly can. It is now my great pleasure to welcome Anna and Zibby. Hello, Zibby. Hello, Anna. Thank you so much for being with us today. We really look forward to this.

Zibby Owens: Thanks, Marjorie.

Anna Quindlen: Good morning.

Marjorie: Have a wonderful conversation. I’ll see you at the end.

Zibby: Hi, Anna. How are you?

Anna: Hey, Zib. How are you? You’re busy.

Zibby: A little busy. It’s true, but that’s okay. All good.

Anna: When does the Santa Monia store open?

Zibby: It opens February 18th and 19th. Yes, called Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monia. I’ve lined up forty authors to come sign books, a couple authors each hour for Saturday and Sunday of that weekend.

Anna: I am very jealous. Someday, I want Anna’s Bookstore somewhere.

Zibby: Make yourself a home at mine. Come anytime. Do any events. Whatever you want. Thank you. This is such a highlight. I’m so excited to get to talk to you here today. There’s so much to talk about. We share a massive love of reading and writing. You have been a role model to me forever. I’ve been reading you since I read. The way you write about life, especially motherhood and loss and all of that, it’s just amazing, these short essays that you compile and weave through perfectly into your books and all of it. It’s been like a guidepost for me.

Anna: Thank you.

Zibby: Your latest book, Write for Your Life, why don’t we talk about that to start in case anybody here doesn’t know about it? They definitely should. Why don’t you tell everybody about Write for Your Life?

Anna: There’s lots of books out there about writing for writers or for people who aspire to be professional writers. It seemed to me that what we’d lost over the last fifty or sixty years is the sense of writing for ordinary people. A hundred and fifty years ago, the only way that you could communicate with people who weren’t in the room with you was to write them a letter. Most of the people who wanted to consider their own histories and their own thoughts wrote about it in journals or in essays. In the technological age, we’ve lost a lot of that. There’s a lot of writing, but it’s very evanescent. The text seems important at the time. The next day, you can’t even remember what you said in it. It seemed to me that one of the things that I needed to address was that need to pivot back to writing for ourselves, writing for our own mental health. One of the great things about writing a nonfiction book is that usually after the fact, in a variety of ways, you find out about the great material that you missed. For example, once Write for Your Life came out, the president of Barnard College, soon to become the first woman president of Dartmouth, Sian Beilock, told me about a study that she had spearheaded as a psychologist.

They took a group of students who had high anxiety about an upcoming math test. They divided them into two groups. One group went off to study for the math test. The other group sat down and wrote about their anxiety. Why this test? How did the anxiety manifest itself? What were they feeling? Across the board, the students who wrote about it did better on the math test. Sian told me about that. I thought, oh, darn it, I wish I’d had that when I was writing the book because it’s completely probative of what I’m talking about. The other day, I read the obituary in The New York Times of a psychologist who came up with this way of dealing with suicidal ideation in adolescents. She came up with it as a stopgap measure until real therapy could be put into place and asked them to come up with a written plan for coping mechanisms that they could use if they were really hitting the wall. What she found was that wasn’t a stopgap at all. Over and over again, people would tell that when they were really in trouble, they would pull out that piece of paper, and it would help. What more could you say than when people are really at the end of their tether, that there’s a piece of writing that can help get over that? I don’t want us to lose that. I don’t want us to lose that sense of connection and amelioration that writing can bring.

Zibby: I totally agree with that, by the way. I feel like writing is the only way to make sense of the thoughts in my brain. I feel like for so many people, there’s no better way. What do people who don’t write do with all these jumbling thoughts?

Anna: Except, lots of people are intimidated by the idea of writing. Guess why? Because writing is hugely intimidating. I’m intimidated by it every day. I sit down and think, oh, come on, does anybody really care about what I think or feel about this particular issue? You have to get over that sense of intimidation. I think it’s slightly easier if you’re writing for yourself because you don’t have to worry so much about the audience. If you’re writing a letter, of course, it’s usually an audience of one. Although, letters have a way of hanging around and informing generations to come about how we live today. One of the things that’s in the book is a letter from a nurse who has just had a patient die during the pandemic, except the pandemic that she’s dealing with is the flu epidemic. It’s 1918. As I read that letter, I thought, are we going to have these kind of records of COVID? If not, that’s an enormous tragedy. We really need these ways of remembering what we lived through.

Zibby: It’s so true. What are some personal things you’ve written lately? What’s the last letter you wrote to someone or the last journal entry you didn’t show anyone or something like that?

Anna: Gosh, I’ve been doing copyedits on a new novel. That’s all I can think about. Am I going to write stet — if I were to get a second tattoo — I got a tattoo for my seventieth birthday of a little woman upset that my grandson had drawn. If I were to get a second one, it might say stet, which of course, as any of us who have done books know, means, no, copyeditor, we’re not changing that. That’s going back to the way I originally said it. However, I try to remind myself that first draft writing is often imperfect writing and that therefore, saying stet too often means that I’m being what I tend to be in the editing process, which is a big, honkin’ baby, and that I should sit back and consider that maybe some of the suggestions a copyeditor has made are valid.

Zibby: Could we go back to the part about you getting a tattoo on your seventieth birthday?

Anna: Yes.

Zibby: Is this in an appropriate place to show on Zoom, or is this hidden away somewhere?

Anna: I’d have to stand up and the side of my leggings.

Zibby: Okay, forget it.

Anna: It’s a pretty great tattoo, I’ve got to say.

Zibby: What inspired that?

Anna: I grew up as a very well-mannered, on the surface, Catholic girl of a certain generation. Over time, I learned to unlearn all the folded-hand stuff, in part by being a newspaper reporter. There’s nothing that is more antithetical to the way I grew up than inserting yourself where you’re not wanted and asking questions people don’t want to answer. I sort of tried to become slightly more of a renegade, slightly more of a renegade, slightly more of a renegade. Around fifty-five, I started saying to the kids, “You know, if I get to be seventy, I’m going to get a tattoo.” In the beginning, they all laughed because they thought I was kidding. I think around sixty-two or sixty-three, they realized I meant it. I went with my heavily tattooed second child, my son Christopher, who’s also a writer, to a tattoo parlor that he liked and got a tattoo. The guys kept insisting that they were concerned about the pain factor. I finally said to them, “Listen, I’ve had lip fillers. This is nothing compared to lip fillers.” We’re letting it all hang out here at the Streicker Center.

Zibby: Don’t hold back. Of course, anyone who’s read Nanaville will not be surprised that you did such a huge gesture of love for your grandchild. Tell us a little bit more about your relationship and Nanaville. Is there’s a postscript now coming for that?

Anna: That’s a little bit problematic, Zibby. When I wrote Nanaville, I only had one grandchild, my eldest, my grandson Arthur. Quin and Lynn were expecting Ivy, who has since burst upon the scene. She’ll soon be four. Chris and Azara hadn’t even begun to think about Jake, who is now two and a half. It reminds me a little bit of when Maria finally got old enough — that’s my third child — to take a look at the columns in Living Out Loud, which is a collection of my columns that appeared in The New York Times under the rubric Life in the 30s. Maria was astonished and enraged to discover that she is not in Living Out Loud. I had to say to her, “That’s because you hadn’t been born yet.” Instead of making things better, the idea that her brothers and I had had a life apart from her having been born made her even angrier. Luckily, she was around for my op-ed page column and my Newsweek column, and so appeared in those from time to time. Ivy and Jake haven’t shown up yet. Although, I hope someday in some future writing they will.

Zibby: I went back and reread Living Out Loud and some of the essays in there, which is still just so — it could’ve been written today. It’s just amazing, the way you write about your own mom and how all of us, as we become moms, sort of have to reconcile with our own mothers as they parented us and the passing of time and all of that. If I could just read a little paragraph from that if that’s okay.

Anna: Sure.

Zibby: Prior to this paragraph, you had been talking about your own mom and your relationship. Then you said, “Perhaps those conflicting emotions help us reconcile ourselves to our mothers, make us able to apprehend the shadow of a human being who was just raising other human beings the best she can beneath the terrible weight of the concept. In the beginning, it is difficult. I have envied my friends who have had their mothers to help them with new babies, then felt the envy evaporate at the distress and doubt my friends sometimes felt about who was really the mother here. No girl becomes a woman until she has lost her mother, someone once told me. There was the proof, women reduced to children again in a way I never could be. Yet it is having children that can smooth the relationship too. Mother and daughter are now equals. That is hard to imagine, even harder to accept, for among other things, it means realizing that your own mother felt this way too, unsure of herself, weak in the knees, terrified about what in the world to do with you. It means accepting that she was tired, inept, sometimes stupid, that she too sat in the dark at two AM with a child shrieking across the hall and no clue to the child’s trouble. Most of this has little to do with the specific women involved.” Then you said, “It has to do with mother with a capital M, someone we are afraid to be and afraid that we can never be. It has to do with a torch being passed, with finding it too hot to hold, with looking up at the person who has given it to you and accepting that without it, she is no valkyrie, just a woman muddling through. Much like me. Much like you.” It makes me cry. It’s so good.

Anna: And so true. I hope it’s made me incredibly open and nonjudgmental with my daughters-in-law about how they do the very difficult job of raising other human beings. We just have to give people grace and space. If we’re going to judge them, we should go into the shower and wash our hair. As our hair is being cleansed, we should say, in a very small voice, I don’t think she should do it like that. I wouldn’t have done it like that. It’s not good to do it like that. Then we should rinse and condition and get out and not do that again.

Zibby: I did not know that was the trick. This is the secret weapon, the shampoo and condition treatment of mother-in-law-hood. That’s amazing.

Anna: Rinse, repeat.

Zibby: I have found lately, it’s really hard because so many shampoo and conditioner and body washes, the type is so small that I’m having trouble seeing because I have to wear reading glasses.

Anna: Zibby, you’re getting older.

Zibby: Now I’m the shower like, um…

Anna: Gee, I just washed my face with body scrub.

Zibby: If I ever come out with a line, I’ll make it really big on the thing. What you said, also, about being a journalist — I have Loud and Clear here also. That analysis, that observational habit that you developed from being a reporter for so long kicks in all the time, even for things like — not even for things, but especially for things like 9/11, which you wrote about in the book, and how you could take something like your son saying, “I just want to hear your voice,” and turning that into copy. This is sort of a Nora Ephron-ism, essentially. Talk a little bit about that and even that moment in your life.

Anna: The thing that is really great about being a reporter, and particularly about being a general assignment reporter in New York City, which is what I was for a number of years, is that it really requires you to see things. In our daily life, our eyes go past. Our eyes glaze over. I feel like I got the world’s greatest double-whammy as a reporter in New York and doing a column called About New York, which required me to come up with whatever I wanted twice a week. I had to really look at the city. I had to really look at the billboard. I had to really look at what was in the gutter. I had to really look at the buildings. Above all, I had to really look at the people. Then the second part of that that so enlarged my life and really enlarged my life as a writer was becoming a mother. Of course, when you’ve got little kids, they really are looking at everything. They’re seeing everything for the first time. For most of your adult life, you haven’t looked twice at an anthill until you have a toddler. Your toddler is all bent over and staring into the ground and watching the ants go in and out. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, you’re doing it too. That double-whammy of having learned to see the world as a street reporter and then having reexamined, reimagined, re-seen the world as a mother of young kids, it just was invaluable as a writer. Of course, really good writing is filled with telling details, but telling details only emerge in your writing if you’re apprehending them. That’s what those two jobs did for me. It just made an enormous difference.

Zibby: Of course, having all those details also makes your fiction writing that much stronger. Tell us about this new book you have. What is this? You just casually threw that in there.

Anna: I have a new novel coming probably this time next year. It’s called After Annie. It won’t be any kind of a spoiler to say, because it happens in the first sentence of the novel, that it’s about the death of a young woman in her mid-thirties and about the year after that and how that year is negotiated by her eldest child, her daughter, her best friend, and her husband. It is about loss, obviously, but in some sense, it’s about how loss is a bit of a bait and switch. If I had to guess who most readers will find the most tangible, knowable, understandable character in After Annie, it will be Annie herself, even though she dies in the first sentence. I do think that in some profound sense, people we love and know become more real to us when they’re gone. When all we have of them is our memories, our past, our anecdotes, those become as vivid as anything on a page or on a screen. That’s one of the things that I wanted to communicate in the book. Her best friend, Ann Marie, at one point sort of feels someone at her shoulder the way this someone has been at her shoulder for, really, her entire adult life. She thinks, if this is haunting, I’m all for it. I do think that is the thing that gets us through loss. They don’t die. They just live inside of us. That’s really what the novel is about.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. Where did that come from? What was the germ of that idea, or it just came to you?

Anna: Ideas don’t really come to me in fiction, or themes or anything like that. Although, after a while, they become quite clear, I hope. Often, they become quite clear after the book has been published when readers tell me what I’ve written about. I think sometimes you’re so in it when you’re writing a novel that you have no perspective on it. Then some wonderful woman comes up to you at a bookstore and says, isn’t this really about…? You think, oh, yes. How did I not notice that until now? What I always start with are characters. I just had this very clear sense of Annie Brown in her kitchen keeling over, honestly, which is how the book begins. I just had a really clear sense of her. From her, I knew about Allie, her daughter, and Ann Marie, her best friend, and Bill, her husband. I always start with a single character. Then because of what I know about them, I begin to know about who they would surround themselves with. It’s a little bit like the domino theory. You get birth order. You get line of work. You get where they live, what they like. It leads to another thing and another thing and another thing. That’s how the novel gets built.

Zibby: In Loud and Clear, you talked about all of your procrastination and how back then, it was Tetris and I don’t even know, some computer game I had never heard of. Do you still find it hard? Do you still find it hard to get into the writing day and all that? Are you sliding into it more easily now?

Anna: I have a series of things that I do in order not to write. I can’t right now because I blew out my knee. Thank you, Hospital for Special Surgery. You’re always there for me. I tend to walk four miles every morning. I have to communicate to people who want to write for a living that I find it so challenging and so difficult that I would rather exercise than do it. There’s always breakfast. There’s always reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. There’s always that four-mile walk. There might be laundry. The problem is that I’m an early riser, and by about nine or nine thirty, I run out of things to do. That’s the moment when I say, oh, well, guess I should sit at the computer and think about stuff. The idea that I fly upstairs with light heart and say, “I have ideas,” I’m seventy years old, and that hasn’t happened yet, which makes me think it’s never going to.

Zibby: Yet you keep doing it, though. You could say, I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. There must be some part of it that gets —

Anna: — I must say, when both Philip Roth and Alice Munro said, “I’m done –” both of them did it at eighty — said, “I’m done,” my heart did miss a beat. I think the thing that doesn’t get said enough about writing for a living is it is for a living. I talk about this in Write for Your Life. There’s this kind of mystique that grows around it as though we do it because it’s just wonderful. The truth of the matter is, for most of the writers I know, part of the impulse is, mortgage got to get paid. I think there’s too little said or written about the fact that we really do this for a living. I do it for a living, but also — I was doing a speech. I’ll always remember where I was. I was at a girls’ school in Baltimore giving a speech. The next morning, my grandson was born, which is how I remember exactly where I was. This young woman stood up in the balcony. She said, “Uh, I think I might like to, to, to be a, a, a –” She’s stammering. I’m totally empathizing with her because she looks to me like she’s sixteen, and I’m remembering myself at sixteen. I put up my hand. I said to her, “I want you to say this sentence. I am a writer.” She said, “I am a writer.” The way she said that sentence was in a completely different tone of voice with a completely different affect than she had had up until that moment. I’d like to think she will remember that moment in the same way that I remember the moment when, in eighth grade, Mother Mary Ephrem said to me, “Miss Quindlen, you are a writer.” That’s why I continue to do it. It’s not what I do. It’s who I am. I am a mother too. There isn’t a moment where I can say, you know what? This has been exhausting. They’re in their thirties now. I’m done. I think some of us, when we have a three or four-year-old, think, when they’re in their thirties, it’ll be done. It’s just different.

Zibby: That gave me chills, your description of the writer. I can’t wait to see what happens to her. I hope she writes this great American novel and we get to give a standing ovation to you for that. I know we were going to trade some book suggestions. What have you read lately that you’ve loved?

Anna: All fall, I was tub-thumping, which is a term I really love, for two novels. One is called Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning, which is a wonderful historical novel about marble miners in Colorado. Really, it’s a coming-of-age story of this woman. Oh, my gosh, it’s so beautifully written. It’s so vivid. The very best books, you know this, you don’t read them; you live in them. I totally lived in that book. The second novel is called The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks. It’s about the Lindbergh nanny, who I’d never even really thought of before. Again, it’s a historical novel. It’s about the young woman who was taking care of little Charles Lindbergh when he was taken from his crib and subsequently died. I think most of us know the broad parameters of that story. What she does so beautifully is to, again, make it feel lived in, the day-to-day of taking care of this little boy. The other thing that I loved was — the stories are always about the Lindbergh baby. First of all, he wasn’t really a baby at that point. He was really kind of a toddler. Second of all, it makes him kind of nothing just being the Lindbergh baby. One of the things the book does is really brings this little boy to life in a way that, of course, makes what happens truly, truly heartbreaking.

Those were the two novels that I loved. Coming up is really a wonderful book. I’m sorry, if you’re out there and you’re female. It’s going to make you furious. It’s called The Exceptions by Kate Zernike, who is a very good reporter at The New York Times. It’s about a group of women scientists at MIT, of all places, toddling along and doing that thing that we women do. You don’t get the promotion. Well, it’s just me. You don’t get the assignment. Well, it’s just me. It’s a moment when this group of women scientists come together and start talking and realize, it’s not just me. It’s all the women at MIT. Eventually, MIT is forced to admit that it has systematically discriminated against its female faculty. It’s a terrific book about women and science. It’s a terrific book about doing science. It’s also a terrific book about the small and nuanced ways in which we women get sidelined. It’s called The Exceptions. It’s really, really good.

Zibby: Wow, those were fabulous recommendations.

Anna: Zib, what about you?

Zibby: Mine are a little lighter-hearted. One is called I’m Wearing Tunics Now: On Growing Older, Better, and a Hell of a Lot Louder by Wendi Aarons. It’s so funny. I just thought this was hilarious.

Anna: I’m wearing tunics now too.

Zibby: That’s great. This is sort of a shameless plug because my publishing company is publishing this. It comes out next week. It’s great. It’s called My What If Year by Alisha Fernandez Miranda, about a woman who is just not that happy with her life, even though she’s a CEO and has twins and blah, blah, blah. She takes a year off and tries four internships she always wished she’d tried.

Anna: That’s a great idea.

Zibby: Theater, exercise, hospitality, and in the art world. That’s coming out soon. Then this one is also really funny.

Anna: Will you send me a copy of that?

Zibby: I would love to send you a copy of this.

Anna: Even if we are really happy in our lives — despite everything I’ve said, I am happy in my work life and very happy in my personal life. I think every one of us has thought about that road not taken. Gee, on my really bad days I always say I should’ve taken the MCATs. , oh, boy, that sounds like a really interesting job. If I had another life, I would do — this is like, I’m going to try to have a little piece of another life and see what it feels like. That’s a great idea.

Zibby: It’s great. She’s so funny. Inspiring. This is also funny, international best-seller, Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey. It’s about a woman in the aftermath of her divorce and how she and her friend group make sense of life and how she picks herself back up. This is called Really Good, Actually; My What If Year; and I’m Wearing Tunics Now. Then maybe they could put your recommendations in the chat also.

Anna: There’s The Exceptions. What I will say about all three of yours, among other things, is titles are so hard, and all three of those books have kick-ass titles. You read the title and immediately start to laugh and then think, yeah, I want to — Really Good, Actually, I mean, how many times? Really good, actually.

Zibby: Meanwhile, you’re recommending the most intellectual. I’m like, okay, well…

Anna: We all need both.

Zibby: We all need both. That’s true. We have so many questions. Should we turn to those?

Anna: If you’d like, Zib. It’s up to you. You’re the boss.

Zibby: I hear this is what we’re supposed to do. Many are asking to repeat the titles of the books.

Anna: Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning. The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks. The Exceptions by Kate Zernike. Those are my three.

Zibby: My three were My What If Year, Alisha Fernandez Miranda; I’m Wearing Tunics Now, Wendi Aarons; and Really Good, Actually. There are six more books for you aside from Anna’s book.

Anna: So much great stuff to read and reread.

Zibby: So much great stuff.

Anna: I like to reread. I reread a lot of nineteenth and early twentieth century stuff. I like to reread Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens and Tolstoy. A couple of years ago, I discovered Theodore Dreiser and Ford Madox Ford. I was an English major. There you go.

Zibby: I was a psychology major. I like to reread Anna Quindlen, so there you have it. Not even kidding. Diana asks, “Help us understand, what are the tenets for good writing? Not everyone writes well, so what makes the difference in good or great authorship?”

Anna: There’s a big difference between good writing and great writing. Good writing can, in large measure, be taught. Keep it tight. Say what you mean. My poor children got so tired after a while of me saying, there’s a lot of throat clearing in this. There’s a lot of throat clearing in a lot of writing, which is people edging up on saying what they are then going to say. Spit it out. Good writing also has a voice. I think a lot of people internalize, either from school or just in general, this idea that your writing voice has to sound different from your speaking voice. It has to sound vaguely British, very grown up. That’s completely wrong. My writing voice sounds like a cleaned-up version of my speaking voice. I always say that with the best writers at The Times, for example, if you took their byline off of — if you took Gail Collins’ byline off of Gail Collins’ column, you would know it was Gail Collins because she has a very specific kind of narrative voice. A really useful exercise for good writing is, write the piece, find out how long it is, and then have someone say in your head, okay, you got to cut three hundred words from it. Some of the best writing I do is cutting because a lot — no, not a lot. Some of what I do is me in love with the sound of my own voice. My editor, Kate Medina at Random House, who has been my editor from the very beginning and who is an excellent editor and whose editing work, again, I will say I’m a big baby about, will send me back my manuscript, and there’ll be a page where she has gone like this, , through the whole page. She means, cut all of this.

I’m reading, and I’m thinking, there’s some beautiful writing here. What she’s saying to me is, you’re stopping the action of the novel to put this in. Cutting sometimes will tell you what you’ve put in that’s not necessary, that slows things down, that is, in fact, throat clearing. The reason I made the distinction between good writing and great writing is because I think that good writing, competent writing, communicative writing can be learned and taught. I don’t think great writing can. I think for whatever reason, there’s about ten percent at the top that is baked in in certain people. To my mind, people either have it or they don’t. I know people find it very discouraging when I say that sometimes. On the other hand, when you find somebody — people hand me at book signings and send me manuscripts all the time. I always have to say, listen, I’ve figured out that I can either do my own work or I can read people’s other work, but I can’t do both, necessarily, so I’m going to have to pass on doing this. Every once in a while, someone sends me a manuscript, and I think, . I start to read. I get about twenty or thirty pages in, and I go, they’re a real writer. There’s nothing that makes me happier than being able to say, particularly to a really young person, it’s not perfect, it needs work, but you’re a real writer. You got that ten percent.

Zibby: Wow, that was awesome. Susan says, “As a former Catholic girl, I am going to follow your lead on my upcoming seventieth birthday this July.”

Anna: Get that tattoo. It doesn’t really hurt that much, particularly if you’ve gone through childbirth.

Zibby: Or lip fillers. Olivia asks, “Many writers have taken to teaching. Any possibility you would consider leading writing workshops?”

Anna: I taught for five years at the J School at Columbia, the basic reporting and writing course. I absolutely loved it. It was a little challenging because I think I did it between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. Given the fact that it’s a graduate program, some of my students were older than I was. A lot of them have gone on to very distinguished careers in the business, which makes me really happy. Once the kids came along and then there was the column and then I was trying to write novels, something had to give. It was the teaching that had to give. At this point, I sit on a couple of boards because I figure if you have a certain kind of public profile or notoriety, you kind of have a moral obligation to use it for some greater good than your own sales. I sit on a couple of boards. I do have these grandkids. I will be picking people up at school later this week. I’m trying to begin the work of a new novel. I think the one thing that might still go by the board is teaching.

Zibby: Can’t do everything.

Anna: You’re trying to do everything, between the store, the podcast, things like this, and the publishing house. I don’t know, Zib.

Zibby: I don’t know. I’m nuts. It’s an addiction at this point. Anyway, Dena asks, “Does your family ever get upset with things you’ve written about them?”

Anna: First of all, I did a column that was largely about my sons called Life in the 30s when they were little. It is not coincidental that I gave up that column at a certain juncture. One was that my water broke, and Maria was born. The second part was that Quin was learning how to read. I really worried about writing a column that somebody would pivot back to in ten or fifteen years and say, wow, our mom spent our childhoods turning to us and saying, can I use that? Once they were older and I was doing the op-ed page column and then the Newsweek column, I never wrote about them without letting them see it first. They never said, no, I don’t like this one. If they had, I would’ve killed it. Books come and go. Your kids are forever. That was the bottom line. Other extended members of my family — my first novel, Object Lessons, was my most autobiographical book. I must say, my father, who was still alive then, was remarkably Zen about saying to people, “Oh, she makes it all up,” when they assumed that it was based on my large Irish Catholic family. The rest of them have been really, really good about it and really, really good about seeing it as fiction because, in fact, it is. People will say, oh, that reminds me of so-and-so or so-and-so. It is like politics, like making sausage in that everybody you know, everything you are, every experience you’ve ever had is grist for the mill, except it really does get all pulled together and ground up. There’s tiny little pieces of things here and there, but none of those big chunks that are in, say, a roman à clef.

Zibby: There’s a very loud fire engine. Sorry. “Where can I find that quote on motherhood that Zibby just read? I have three daughters, and I want to send it to them.” That’s from Living Out Loud, which you can find probably anywhere. It’s also available on Kindle and I think on audiobook. Living Out Loud. Olivia says, “I want Anna to know that her phrase from Nanaville, “Arrange your face,” has become a mantra for me in my life. At least twice a week, I share this extraordinary wisdom with friends and strangers. Anna’s plain wisdom has enhanced the lives of all her readers.”

Anna: Thank you very much. There are many occasions on which you have to arrange your face. I must say, the line from Nanaville that seems to get the most traction with people — I always say my very best lines come from other people. I have this remarkably wise and wonderful friend named Susan Parent — yes, Parent is her last name — who taught my boys in elementary school and who, since then, has become both a neighbor and a very good friend. Susan is the person who, when I was bloviating one morning about how my eldest son and his wife were — there was a long pause. Then Susan said, “Did they ask you?” It was one of those moments where a light went on in my head. I thought, that’s it. That’s the line. From here on in, did they ask you? If they didn’t, go into the shower. Lather up your hair. Paula Span, who has written about grandparenting for The New York Times, gave me a way of thinking about this that I didn’t have before. This is a mediated relationship, which means you got to get through somebody else to get to it. I have to go through his parents and her parents to get to Arthur, Ivy, and Jake. If I give them, in any way, shape, or form, the idea that I am judging them harshly, they can decide not to mediate.

In fact, unfortunately, when Nanaville was published, I would hear sometimes about grandparents who were having that experience for one reason or another. The other thing that I say in the book — you communicated it through the section from Living Out Loud that you read — is that suddenly, I’m an expert in raising children. I’m thinking back to Anna thirty years ago who had no clue and every morning, was just trying to make sure no one was bleeding and people consumed food, even if it wasn’t really nutritious food. Then suddenly, you get to be a grandmother, and you think you know all of this. I’ve heard more than one grandmother say to me, you know, I have successful raised… Just put those thoughts away. Put yourself back to where you were when you were trying to potty train or when you were wondering whether phonics was getting any kind of traction in that little head. Try to reserve judgement because arranging your face and waiting for them to actually ask you makes all the difference in that so-called mediated relationship.

Zibby: Excellent advice. I’m storing this away. Susan asks, “You said you sit at the computer. Do you ever write by hand instead of the computer?”

Anna: It’s interesting. I ruminate a little bit about this in Write for Your Life because I have found a number of very accomplished writers who write by hand. I would say exhibit A in the book is Jennifer Egan, who most recently had The Candy House as a huge success and who is a wonderful novelist. Jenny actually writes by hand on legal pads then types whatever she’s written into the computer without changing any of it and then — I think I’ve got this right — and then prints that out and writes over it and then puts — it’s a process so broke that I was astonished not only that she’s ever written anything, but that she’s written a whole string of wonderful novels. I can’t do that. The synapse from my mind and my imagination has run through my fingertips for so long. I started writing short stories on my typewriter in my dorm room at Barnard many years ago and went right to the newspaper business where we were briefly on typewriters and then went to computers. I think it’s where there’s this odd synaptical firing that goes, that for Jenny, goes by moving her hand over the page and for me, goes with moving my fingers over the keys. The answer is I never write by hand. I always work on the computer. I used to work on the typewriter. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that anymore because when I mess up on the computer, when I mess up big time, let’s say — I have this consistent inability to remember whether the Random House style on gray is G-R-E-Y or G-R-A-Y. When I finally figure it out, I can just “select all” in the document and change them all. It’s sort of axiomatic that if it’s A-Y, I’ve used E-Y.

Zibby: Shelli asks, “Who are your favorite authors?”

Anna: Gosh, there’s so many. The writer that’s been a touchstone for me virtually my entire life going back to when I was actually a kid is Dickens. That combination to tell a really human story and yet have it suffused with social and political moment is something that’s been really important to me and that I really love. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of women who do what I do who don’t mention Jane Austen or George Eliot. Middlemarch is pretty much a perfect novel. Edith Wharton. I already mentioned Dreiser. Contemporaries, there’s so many great people. I love Amy Bloom’s work. I think her novel Away is a very small novel that has a universe within it. It’s almost a perfect book, to my mind. Her most recent book, In Love, which is a nonfiction book, it’s just astonishing. I love Alice McDermott. I think she stands head and shoulders above her contemporaries. Again, someone who writes very tight and yet has worlds within it. I mourn the recent death of Russell Banks. The Sweet Hereafter and Continental Drift are two wonderful novels. Don DeLillo. I do think that Philip Roth, despite his many shortcomings, was robbed of a Nobel. Speaking of Nobels, you can’t go wrong reading Toni Morrison over and over again. The fact that Toni Morrison’s novels, particularly, The Bluest Eye, keep being suppressed in libraries in part of this country shows that America still possesses a deep strain of anti-intellectualism and denial about the racial divide. That continues to make me sad. Everyone should read Toni over and over again. I know I’m forgetting someone because there’s so much good work.

Zibby: That was a really good answer. That’s one of the best answers. You had that all at the ready.

Anna: There’s so many people to admire, so many.

Zibby: Charlene asks, “What if you are very good at painting pictures with words, but for the life of you, you can’t think of a plot? Do you have a future as a writer?”

Anna: You certainly have a future as a nonfiction writer. You don’t have to have a plot, unless the plot is your own life. Here’s what I will say about plot. Plot and I have a very fraught relationship. I write this first novel, Object Lessons. This is when we were still working entirely on paper. I bring it in to my editor, Kate Medina. She reads it. I sit across from her. She says, “This is a beautiful book. The characters are so resonant. I can see and feel them. The writing’s beautiful, but nothing really happens in the book.” I say to her, “That’s just like real life.” She looks down and says, “And that’s why we call this a novel.” I went home all full of annoyance at being asked to craft a plot. What I’ve since discovered, because I am a very character-driven novelist — so are many of the novelists I just mentioned, by the way. Jane Austen is a completely character-driven novelist. Jane Austen sat there feeling Elizabeth Bennet before she wrote a single word, as far as I’m concerned. If you put the right kind of characters in the right moment in time together in a room, what happens among them becomes plot, inevitably becomes plot. That’s what it took me at least one book to learn. One True Thing had, clearly, much more of a plot trajectory. It’s always been my challenge. What I want to write about is people going about their everyday lives. A good novel needs some of that, but it needs them going about their everyday lives under conditions that make the reader say, and what happens next? What happens next? It doesn’t have to be an “aha,” but that really is what plot is. I got to say, I was resistant to it for the longest time and had to really learn how to bring the people together in a way that inevitably led to things happening.

Zibby: Anna, I know that Marjorie wants to come back on.

Anna: Wait, can I just say something?

Zibby: Sure.

Anna: The fact that there are people on this call, I know that sometimes people think — every once in a while, I plod through the kitchen with a cup of coffee and turn to whoever’s there, usually one of my kids who’s stopped by, and say, it’s a glamorous life, but someone has to lead it. Most of the time, I’m all by myself in leggings. Actually, I’m in leggings right now, but you can’t see that. All by myself in a little room. I genuinely am looking at the computer screen thinking, will anyone care? When people actually show up who read books, it’s pretty thrilling for those of us who write them. Thanks.

Marjorie: Thank you both. That was, without doubt, the most outstanding discussion and one of our highlights of this series. I must say, Anna, now you’re not only my hero in being an author, but being a mom of thirty-year-olds, being a grandma. I may have to be calling you. I may have some questions. Thank you very much. A lot of people in the chat wrote a similar thing. Thank you. Thank you very much for being with us. Maybe we can entice you to come back in person when we open this up for in-person. We hope so. Zibby, as always, thank you very much. Everybody enjoyed it. This was terrific. I do want to say, next week in this exact spot we have Pam Jenoff, and the moderator will be Christina Baker Kline, which will be a very wonderful interview as well. Hard to top this one. Thank you both. Thank you, everybody, for being with us.

Zibby: Thanks, Anna.

Anna: Thanks, Zibby. Talk to you soon. Get some rest.

Zibby: Okay. You too.


WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE by Anna Quindlen

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