Anna Quindlen on What She’s Reading (and What Drives Her Nuts on Downton Abbey)
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You might call Ann Quindlen a trendsetter.
Before countless bloggers started chronicling their lives online, she was keeping up a steady stream of writing about life, home, and family – blended with opinions on cultural and political trends – in “Public and Private,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning column in The New York Times. Long before Buzzfeed began feeding us daily listicles on every subject imaginable, Quindlen was publishing her own top-10s (such as “10 Mystery Novels I’d Most Like to Find in a Summer Rental”) in How Reading Changed My Life. And since before social media ever existed, she has made a habit of noticing how people stay connected (and don’t) in relationships.
Quindlen has packed her new novel – her 7th, Still Life With Bread Crumbs, published last week – with the generational observations for which she has become known. As in her last book, the essay collection Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, her latest addresses the theme of aging, this time in fiction. Its protagonist is Rebecca Winter, a onetime famous photographer now low on funds and confidence, who leaves Manhattan and takes a rental home in the middle of mountainous nowhere in order to figure out the next chapter in her life.
In anticipation of her visit to Nashville as part of the Salon615 series on Wednesday, February 5, Quindlen sat down for a dozen-question lightning round with our editor, Mary Laura Philpott.
1. Last book you read on your iPad:
Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin
2. Two books that are on your nightstand:
Someone, by Alice McDermott, and Andrew’s Brain, by E.L.Doctorow
3. Books you’d recommend most to someone at various decades of adulthood:
20s –The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis
30s –The Cazalet Chronicles, Elizabeth Jane Howard
40s –Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
50s –The Camomile Lawn, Mary Wesley
Any age –Bleak House, by a guy named Chuck
4. Oh, I loved Life After Life! What in life are you happiest to have behind you?
Oh my God, adolescence, when I thought the diameter of my thighs was an actual real-life problem. And, by the way, the diameter of my thighs at the time was excellent.
5. What are you most looking forward to?
Grandchildren. Easy answer.
6. First section you gravitate to in a bookstore:
Literary fiction, new releases. So predictable. Then mysteries.
7. Best reason you’d give someone who doesn’t read poetry to start:
8. To touch on a question Rebecca struggles with in Still Life With Bread Crumbs: What do you think is the greatest challenge to those in creative fields – art, writing, music – to staying professionally relevant?
If you can put the question of money aside – a stretch, I admit – being professionally relevant is seriously overrated. Being professionally relevant seems to consist largely of being written about by people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or want to be doing it themselves so are shirty about you. I think if you can look at your own work and say to yourself, self, that is good work, you’re on the right track.
9. Rebecca’s most famous photo was an image of her kitchen counter after a party. If someone took a photo of your kitchen counter today, what would be in the picture?
The empty takeout containers from the Thai food Quin and I had at lunch. Three different bottles of olive oil. A Lavazza espresso maker. A bowl of apples. A bowl of onions. A ceramic container shaped like an eggplant filled with chopsticks. “Still Life With Coffee Machine.”
10. What topic is most overplayed in the media right now?
The Kardashian family.
11. Let’s say you have an hour to kill, and there are no books available – just a TV, but with only four channels to choose from. Which do you watch?
a) Downtown Abbey
c) The first hour of Bridesmaids
d) Discovery Channel documentary about porpoises
I put on Downton Abbey, but when Lady Mary starts one of her patented tight-lipped bitch fests or Lord Grantham begins to discuss how much money the estate is losing, I switch to Bridesmaids for a few minutes, then head back to see if Edith can make this cockamamie marriage deal work.
12. True or false: Anna Quindlen gets her 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
True if we consider salsa and the raspberries in Graeter’s Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream under the heading. (Bonus points for the caffeine in the chocolate chips, which studies have linked to enhanced cognition!)
MLP: Thank you for your time!
AQ: Thanks so much – this was fun. And I don’t say that lightly.
Anna Quindlen is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of such books as Rise and Shine, Blessings, and A Short Guide to a Happy Life. She speaks Wednesday, February 5, at Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University as part of the Salon@615 series,a partnership among the Nashville Public Library, Parnassus Books, Nashville Public Library Foundation, and Humanities Tennessee.
The author talk begins at 6:15 p.m., with a book signing to follow. This is a ticketed event. A limited number of advance tickets are available online for a $2.50 service fee per ticket. Advance tickets guarantee your seat up to 10 minutes prior to show time, at which time empty auditorium seats will be filled with stand-by guests. (A limited number of extra tickets will be available onsite. We recommend you arrive early for the onsite ticket line.)
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A version of this article also ran in the February 3, 2014, edition of The Tennessean.
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This entry was posted in Authors In Real Life.
“I wanted to write a novel about America,” Anna Quindlen says of the inspiration for her latest, Miller’s Valley. “Big things happen in this country and then we promptly forget about them. America papers things over and then starts over again anew. That’s very exciting and allows for reinvention, but we forget our history."
What is at risk of being papered over in Miller’s Valley is the title’s namesake: a rural town in Pennsylvania where narrator Mimi Miller’s family has lived for generations.
The novel opens in the 1960s as the government makes plans to divert the river and turn low-lying Miller’s Valley into a reservoir. At first, valley residents are adamant in their refusal to accept the government’s buyouts and participate in their valley’s disappearance. The buyouts mean certain death to the only way of life most of their families have known for generations. But as years pass and the valley suffers flood after flood and the threat of an eminent domain takeover looms, the buyouts begin to look less like death sentences and more like life rafts. One by one, valley residents sell.
“It covers everything,” Quindlen says about why she chose water to represent America’s serial amnesia. “It’s as if the past doesn’t exist.”
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Quindlen had little idea when she began Miller’s Valley how many submerged cities—drowned towns, they’re called—actually exist in the U.S. Utah, Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Oregon, Colorado, New York—name a state and chances are it has at least one.
Drowned towns: a term-of-art that is as poetic and matter-of-fact as Miller’s Valley and its winning narrator. We meet Mimi as a dutiful 11-year-old living the coarse and unadorned life of a mid-century farm daughter. She sells corn by the side of the road, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations through the heating vent in her bedroom, delivers dinner to her shut-in aunt Ruth, hands over her corn profits to her charismatic, aimless older brother Tommy who promises to pay her back but never does. Mimi is compliant, mannered, and without a trace of vanity or self-importance—ironic given that her name is pronounced “Mee-Mee.” Her company is refreshing in the age of iEverything.
We witness Mimi’s maturation, her gradual disillusionment with her family, and the series of losses that define her adolescence: aunt Ruth to her reclusiveness, whose vice grip becomes only more white-knuckled with age; her father to a stroke that leaves him unable to communicate or care for himself; and Tommy to the Marine Corps and then the Vietnam War, the horrors of which he never recovers from.
“I have a strong affinity for Tommy, and a deep sadness,” Quindlen says. She calls him “one of the lost boys of the 60s and 70s,” referring to the Vietnam veterans America promptly abandoned.
The losses in Mimi’s life are counteracted by her discoveries: of work, love, sex, science, her own intellect. She marches steadfastly into the future, one that is made possible for her by the burgeoning women’s movement.
“Changes loom large in this novel for American women,” Quindlen says. “Mimi has certain expectations and aspirations when she is a girl because of the restrictions on her. Thanks to the women’s movement, she is able to dodge those restrictions.”
Like Mimi, Quindlen herself was a “conspicuous beneficiary of the women’s movement,” something she says she was always keenly aware of. After her mother died when she was 19, Quindlen assumed her role, caring for her four younger siblings before she left home for New York City’s Barnard College. From there, she took advantage of the doors that were opening for women in the 1970s and carved out for herself a successful writing career, first as a reporter and columnist (she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992 for her work at the New York Times) and then as a bestselling novelist.
Mimi’s trajectory is similar to Quindlen’s. Mimi alters her college plans to care for her father until, thanks to an encouraging teacher and scholarship money, she finally leaves Miller’s Valley for the University of Pennsylvania. She becomes first a doctor and later, a wife and mother. “So much of Mimi’s success was right place, right time,” Quindlen says, just as hers was. “She is triumphant. I love the idea of her taking that leap, which came upon her so unexpectedly.”
Reading about real-life drowned towns, Quindlen discovered photos of sunken cities whose infrastructure—steeples, roofs—broke the water’s surface during dry spells. This eerie imagery underscores Quindlen’s message that we cannot completely paper over history and is an apt metaphor for Mimi’s eventual return, decades later, to Miller’s Valley. Though she is a completely different person and the valley is a completely different place, the events, people, and artifacts of her childhood still lurk. As Quindlen says: “No matter how you change and grow and prosper, the past lives inside you.”
Lauren Lavelle is a writer based in New York City