The New Testament of Anna Quindlen: The Lesley Stahl Interview

Photo Courtesy of Anna Quindlen

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and No. 1 New York Times bestselling author on her new novel Every Last One, Obama’s presidency, uppity Catholic women and more …

LESLEY STAHL: We’re here to talk about Anna Quindlen’s gloriously written, fabulous new book, Every Last One, which I deeply, deeply love and recommend for everybody listening and reading. But interestingly enough, your central character, who you write in the “I,” in the first person, has lots of girlfriends and does rely on them, and she needs people to rely on. And I particularly love that part of the book because I know you and I’ve gone through this with our friends.

ANNA QUINDLEN: I don’t think that’s accidental at all. I mean, she has three teenage children and she’s been married for a long time to the same guy, and I think that after a while you realize that your husband can’t be all things to you and certainly you don’t want the kids to be all things to you, because that would be a terrible weight for them; and that where you really find solace a lot of the time is with your girlfriends.

LESLEY: Absolutely. What struck me when I read it, among many other things — and it ran a chill through me — was a truth we all know but don’t really dwell on, which is you go through your life, get into a routine, you become so secure, you make lunch for the kids, you worry about college, interviews, all of that, and then in a flash — in a flash, in an instant — everything is upended by the unforeseen.

ANNA: I think that’s absolutely true.

LESLEY: It’s the heart of this book, I think.

I mean, I think that we really fool ourselves about our ability to be safe and secure nowadays. We have so many mechanisms to do that. You know, we have seatbelts, we have mammograms, we go to the doctor, we have our kids assessed by learning specialists; we almost manage to forget that things happen that we don’t anticipate. You teach your 16-year-old with your heart in your mouth to be a good driver and none of that makes any difference when some drunk comes around a corner and runs a stop sign. And I really think this is a book about our illusions of safety and security and how, because we tried so hard to keep our kid safe, sometimes we don’t see out of our peripheral vision what’s coming right around the corner.

LESLEY: Well, you really couldn’t live your life that way. Then you’d be in paranoid, fetal position. We have to kind of put our blinders on, but it is a chilling thing to know that —

ANNA: Well, I mean, if you thought of all the options, in terms of raising children, the truth is you’d never have one.

LESLEY: Exactly. Exactly. You’d never have one.

ANNA: I mean, from that moment when you have a baby and you creep in to make sure … you know, “Please sleep. Please sleep. Please sleep.” “Oh, you’re sleeping. Are you still breathing?” to peeling them off you on the first day of kindergarten to those magical moments when they reach puberty and you think you’re going to go out of your mind. And, you know, even when we … we both have children who are now not children, they’re adults, and I just said to one of my kids the other day, “I hate it when you’re on a plane.”

LESLEY: Exactly. Every minute. You know, when you read such a powerful book by someone you know, or someone like you who’s been a public person through your New York Times column all those years, we wonder how much of a book like this springs from your own life. And because you write it in the first person you’re always wondering that about this book. So tell us: How much of this is you?

ANNA: Very little, actually. I think I’m like most novelists in that my books have gotten farther and farther away from autobiography the longer I’ve been writing them. So the most 2010_0419_Object_Lessons_Ballantine_119192547069396.jpgautobiographical of my novels is the first one, Object Lessons. But, for example, Black and Blue was also written in the first person, which is a novel about a woman who flees an abusive marriage. And I think that the reason that I use that is not because I’m culling from my own life, but because I think there are some stories that need to be told by a specific person as opposed to in the third person. So Mary Beth Latham, who’s the mom at the center of Every Last One, is somebody who’s not as driven as I am, not in lots of ways as focused as I am, and her kids are really, really different.

LESLEY: From your children?

From my own children.

She has twins.

ANNA: She has a daughter and then a 17-year-old daughter and then 14-year-old twins. And her husband is very different from my husband. So I think that the only thing that you could say is that a lot of this book is about motherhood and I know a lot and have written a lot and have thought a lot about motherhood.

LESLEY: Well, OK, it’s not autobiographical, but let’s talk about your biography. Tell us just a little. Tell us how you grew up, where you grew up, when you knew you were going to be a writer. Give us a little thumbnail.

ANNA: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and one of the things I like to say is that one of the biggest impediments I had to becoming a successful writer is I had a very happy childhood. I’m from a big Irish/Italian Catholic family. My mother was an incredibly loving mother. My father really, really pushed me to excel in a way that I resented for years and then realized had really worked for me. And I led a pretty charmed life until what would have been my sophomore year in college, when I had to take a leave from college because my mother had ovarian cancer, and I’m the eldest of five kids. And I think —

LESLEY: Let me interrupt. Is that when you decided … after she died, is that when you decided to become a writer, or did it happen more out of the happy childhood?

ANNA: I’ve always had a certain facility with words. People ask me all the time if I’m from a family of writers. The literal short answer is no, but my father and his brothers and sisters and his mother are all people who would sit around with a Tom Collins and tell stories that seemed to get better and better each time they told them. And I just … you know, I was a kid who sometimes got in trouble because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, which turned out to be an advantage when I became an opinion columnist. But the one thing that I always got positive reinforcement for from teachers, who really changed my life, was the written word. And I think when people keep saying to you, “You’re good at this,” you just keep doing it.

LESLEY: But I asked you that, about whether you thought it had flowed from the death of your mother because there have been studies on how great artists, if you go back and really study them, all — not all, but a huge number — seem to have had a traumatic death sometime in their youth, and as old as you were. I know my husband has written about this. It’s interesting that there’s some parallel between the traumatic death and the artistic … an urge to express yourself artistically.

ANNA: It certainly makes you rediscover the world. I like to say that my mother had a very ordinary life. From the outside it didn’t look like there was anything particularly special or wonderful about it, but when you watch somebody hold on to that life with both hands, it makes you think that life must be pretty damn good. And that’s what I took away from that. I also took away the sense of the wind being at my back. So I was very driven, very focused, very ambitious. I mean, when I look back on myself in my 20s, part of me just cringes. But I think what saved me, as a writer, is that there are really two breaking points in my life. One was when I was 19 and my mother died, and one was when I was 31 and my first child was born. And that sort of gave me a kind of rebirth that I think has been invaluable to me as a novelist, in terms of seeing the world anew.

LESLEY: And also, Anna, that your father encouraged you is huge. I think that a father’s encouragement of a daughter is greatly underestimated.

ANNA: It’s interesting because I think it originally grew out of the fact that my father expected his first child to be a boy, and when it didn’t turn out that way he didn’t let the fact get in the way of a good story. And, as I said, for years I used to think, “OK, why is nothing ever good enough? Why is no achievement ever big enough?” And then I got to a certain point and I thought, “Wow, so much of the way I’ve transacted my life … so much of the results that I’m happy about are because of what Daddy did.” And I actually said that to him at one point, so that he’d know that I’d gone from being vaguely ticked off to being really appreciated.

LESLEY: Well, with all those threads coming in, you eventually become one of the very first women to be given a regular op-ed column at The New York Times to express your opinion. And it was one of the most popular columns at The Times, when you walked away from it. I know all your friends — I’m sure all of New York was stunned by your decision to walk away, and you eventually turned to fiction. And tell us why you turned away — you really haven’t completely given up commentary; we’ll get to that in a minute — but why you decided to go to fiction.

ANNA: Actually I’d originally been at fiction. I studied fiction writing with Elizabeth Hardwick at Barnard when I was in college, and I always wanted to be a fiction writer, but I couldn’t figure out how you could be a novelist and make any money, which continues to be a problem for novelists the world over.

LESLEY: Well, all writers.

ANNA: And I’d been the editor of my high school paper and won an award from my local paper and gotten a job as a copy girl there one summer. And so I decided to pursue newspaper reporting, and what I found when I started doing it was that — I mean, I can barely communicate in words how much I loved it; how much I loved going to a different place every day and asking people questions and meeting people I never would have met otherwise, and being in situations I never would have experienced. And so I just sort of stayed and stayed and stayed. And it wasn’t until after my second child was born, when I was on a maternity leave, and then writing a once-a-week column called “Life in the Thirties,” that I had the time to return to fiction writing; and that’s when I wrote Object Lessons. And when I was writing the op-ed page column, that’s when I did One True Thing. But the truth is that when you’re writing a novel you’re really living in it; you’re living in the house, and you’re living in the town. And I kept having to jump in, jump out, jump in, jump out. And after five years as an op-ed page columnist I thought, “I just want to live in the next novel full time.” And so that’s why I gave up the column and went to work full time on Black and Blue.

LESLEY: Tell us how you write, how you do it – the process. I’m so intrigued by the different ways novelists go about it. Some outline every single detail before they even start writing the book. I even read about one – I can’t remember who it is, it’s a famous novelist, who writes meticulous biographies of all her main characters before she writes a single word of the book. How detailed is your outline before you start writing? Other writers let the novels take them. I know my husband, for instance, he’ll sit down and he’ll just let it take him; it takes over. How do you do it?

ANNA: No outline. No outline. The closest thing to an outline is, because my memory is so bad now, if something occurs to me that I think might be important or pivotal, a lot of times I’ll scribble notes down somewhere until I can get back to the book. Of course half the time I look at those notes the next morning and think, “What was that about?”

LESLEY: I’ve done that.

ANNA: I do a lot of mental work before I ever start writing. What usually happens is that when I’m nearing the end of one novel a vague idea about what I want to do next begins to present itself to me in terms of theme. And I would say over about the next six to eight months, usually as I’m out power walking in the morning, or when I’m cooking at night, or when I’m driving in the car, the people who might embody those themes take on a sharper and sharper focus. And there comes this sort of critical mass moment when they actually start to do things in my head. Oh, my God, this so sounds like I’m crazy, but I do think there’s some aspect of being a novelist that is a little crazy making. And usually at that point I have a pretty good idea of how the book is going to begin, and then I do. But a lot takes place while I’m walking around, when it looks like I’m doing other things, and in advance of actually writing the first sentence.

LESLEY: I love it. But you haven’t given up journalism. You did write a column for Newsweek, which you also gave up, but you’ve been writing essays for Newsweek every now and then. So you’re keeping your oar in. Let me ask you a couple of current-events opinion questions. You mentioned that you’re a Catholic. Tell us your take on how the Church is handling the sex abuse scandal, from your own perspective as a person who goes to church and I’m sure cares deeply about the institution.

ANNA: Well, first of all I’m delighted that my friend and former colleague, Maureen Dowd at The New York Times, is writing such sharp columns on this. I mean, this is deplorable. And one of the reasons it’s deplorable is because on social welfare the Church does so much good around the world – nuns running schools and homeless shelters, priests ministering to people who are in crisis. I mean, the Church does an enormous amount of good, and it carries one of the most valuable messages imaginable – that you should love your neighbor as yourself, and that if you have two coats you should give one to the man who has none. I really feel like I’m a liberal because I’m a Catholic, 2010_0419_shutterstock_new_testament.jpgbecause I took the words of the New Testament to heart. But I’m a Catholic of the New Testament, I’m not a Catholic of the hierarchy. And I think at every moment in the last probably 100 years, when the institutional church had the opportunity to do the right thing, they did the wrong thing. They’re a dying institution in many parts of the world because they refuse to ordain women or married people. And now they’re a dying institution because some of their members did enormous harm to young people and instead of responding aggressively with humility, and with love, and with the confession of wrongdoing, they tried to spin it as though they were a political party, and that’s just deplorable.

LESLEY: So why does someone who feels this way, obviously loves Jesus Christ and loves the teaching, but why does someone stay in the institution? Why does the church — why does someone like you go to church instead of praying at home?

There’s this great Doris Kearns Goodwin story — I think this story comes via Doris — about LBJ and about somebody who was in the administration that everybody thought was not such a good soldier. And Johnson said something along the lines of, “I’d rather have them in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” I mean, it’s my tent … it’s my tent. And, you know, I’ve been struggling with this the last couple years. I’ve really been struggling with the notion that every time you put your body in the pews you’re ratifying those guys, and I don’t want to ratify anything they’re doing right now. But on the other hand, the New Testament has had a really powerful effect on how I write and how I live my life. So it’s a … we’re tortured, a lot of us, believe me.

LESLEY: You mentioned Maureen. What do you think about the church going after her?


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ANNA: They did the same thing to me. I think there’s nothing that makes them crazier than a Catholic who shines light on the malfeasance and misfeasance to the church. When civilians do it they can take it because they can dismiss them. But particularly Catholic women — I mean, every time I wrote about a —

LESLEY: Uppity Catholic women.

ANNA: Exactly. Uppity Catholic women. And I was writing about abortion at The Times and practically everybody who read my column knew that I had three very, very beloved children, and that I was married, and that I was Catholic. And so that whole thing didn’t compute with what they liked to think, which is that supporters of reproductive rights are secular, not maternal, not religious; that a couple of times a couple of cardinals wrote some real zinger letters to The New York Times about this column.

LESLEY: Let’s change the subject. Let me ask you one more current-events question, then we’ll get back to the book. The president. There have been an array of new polls that have come out very recently that seem to indicate that he, instead of getting a bounce out of the health-care so-called victory, the polls are continuing to slide for him. And I wonder: If you were writing your op-ed column today what you would be saying about the condition of this presidency, the state of his stewardship/leadership and if you’d be giving him any advice?


LESLEY: Oy, that’s hard.

ANNA: Well I think it’s really problematic at this point. I wrote a column a year after Election Day saying that while liberals had embraced Obama as someone who had left-wing progressive ideas, the truth is that by personality he’s a very incremental guy. He’s the kind of guy who likes to do things by inches, he’s the kind of guy who likes to build consensus and compromise. I happen to believe that in the current congressional atmosphere consensus and compromise may be vainglorious and that you should just take your electoral victory and the congressional majority of the Democrats and run with it. 

LESLEY: He should have listened.

ANNA: I think we now know the limits also of intelligence and rhetoric. The president presents as kind of a cool character, and I think that that’s his natural personality. Americans like warm characters. It’s why, no matter what he did in the early days, they kind of resonated to Bill Clinton because he seems like a guy that you could sit down and have a burger and a beer with. It’s even why, despite the fact that he sometimes seemed to be not firing on all cylinders, lots of them still like George W. Bush — because he seemed like the kind of guy you could have a burger and a beer with. Obama doesn’t seem like a burger and a beer kind of guy. I have to say, I don’t find that problematic at all. I love having a president who I think is smarter than I am. That’s really what I want in a leader; I want somebody who’s really, really smart. But you’ve got to combine that, at some level, with a common touch and I think he’s been really, really challenged on that.

Yes. And wouldn’t you agree, mainly and above everything else is the job’s picture. And if that — which I question whether it’s possible — but if that improves, his poll numbers are going to reverse. Even Ronald Reagan, in his recession, his poll numbers were much lower – maybe ten points lower in his recession. And, of course, he was warm and he had that personality, but when his recession reversed, his poll numbers bounced back like a rubber ball. You know — boom!

ANNA: I’ll tell you the thing that Reagan didn’t have to deal with, and actually fought against in a way that defined his presidency. I think Americans suspect, without even being able to articulate it, that we’re at the end of the American century; that we’re at the end of the 100 or 125 or 150 years when we were the undisputed arbiter and leader of the world. That in the same way the Brits had to get used to the idea that the sun had set on the British Empire, I think that there’s the subrosa feeling that we are at the end of the American century, and I think that’s very, very hard for Americans to take. And to some extent, I think, given his global reach, and given the way in which he has reached out on the international stage again to build consensus and compromise, some of the dis-ease with that could coalesce around the president.

Well, let me just remind everybody that Ronald Reagan was the president after Jimmy Carter. And Jimmy Carter … Carter’s presidency had brought us also — although he never used the word malaise — to a sense of malaise about ourselves; really, really more about the presidency itself, that the presidency was a worn-out institution, and that no one man could run the country. And Reagan reversed that rather quickly. And just in terms of perception, I agree with what you’re saying, but all these things I think are cyclical.

ANNA: Absolutely.

LESLEY: Alright, I want to get back to your book, though, which I want to repeat again – I thought was so beautifully written. There were pages that I was reading out loud to my husband because the writing is so good, and you build suspense. I want to discuss several points of view. But first and foremost, your protagonist is Mary Beth Latham, the family is the Lathams. That’s my husband’s name, Anna.

ANNA: You know, I told you Lesley, I have this weird psychic wall. I mean, as you know, we both knew a wonderful man, sadly now deceased, named John Scanlan, and I wrote an entire novel in which I named one of the characters John Scanlan and never even thought about that connection until Scanlan said to me, “Hey, Quindlen, what did you do?” And it was ditto with this. I think the book was in galleys and I was sending it to you and Aaron when I thought, “Oh, my God.” It’s as though they are so real to me that that kind of connection with something like a name doesn’t occur to me until after the fact.

LESLEY: Yes, you did say something to me, and I’m laughing. I think that’s wonderful, and it’s a lovely family on top of that, although bad things happen. One of the issues you explore so well is having a troubled child and dealing with a troubled child with a mother, when you yourself are troubled. And that horrible conflict — and you’re right inside her — it’s so real the way you do it.

ANNA: Well, thanks. I think one of the hardest things about doing a book like this in the first person is that to a certain extent each day, when you begin to do your work, you’re climbing into somebody else’s skin. And it’s invaluable to be able to compartmentalize, which I learned to do a long time ago when the kids were small, and I sort of had to shake off my work at 2:30 before I went to school to pick them up at 3:00. And I really had to do it with this book because if the emotions had seeped into my daily life too convincingly, it would have been really challenging for me personally.

LESLEY: But you must have. You so embody this book; it’s so completely palpable. You know, you can feel what she’s feeling. You build suspense in the book. I kept thinking, “This is going to happen to her.” There were … more things were bad that were going to happen to her and I worried about her. You brought me to that level of caring. It’s really good. And here’s something else that surprises me about you, because I know what a sunny person you are.

ANNA: I know. It’s true, isn’t it?

LESLEY: It’s really true. You’re an optimistic, funny, funny person. And virtually all of your books have a darkness in the middle somewhere. Where does that come from, do you think?

ANNA: You know, I don’t really know. I mean, maybe it’s that I’m trying on the roles that I don’t play in life, because the truth of the matter is I do tend to be almost kind of Pollyanna-ish person.

LESLEY: You are.

ANNA: I’m very optimistic. I think if you would describe me, my pretty consistent affect is that I’m a pretty happy person.

LESLEY: This book – I won’t give anything away, I don’t think, to say that it involves a very brutal murder.

You know, here’s the thing, Lesley, I think books in which people are really happy and things are going well are probably the most challenging novels there are to write, and there are very few of them. Novels are usually built on conflict, sometimes very, very difficult conflict. It’s why men write war novels — because there you go, there’s the conflict writ large. There’s a wonderful writer who died way too young, named Laurie Colwin, who wrote many wonderful novels, but one of them is called Happy All the Time, and I always felt like that hat trick that she performed was to write about people who were having a pretty easy time of it, but to plumb the small fault lines in their lives. I think the interesting thing that I tried to do in this book is that there are small fault lines and during the course of the novel the fault lines get bigger and bigger and bigger. And that’s when, as you said, you start to worry that something bad is going to happen to Mary Beth.

LESLEY: Yes. Well, I want to congratulate you and wish you all the best on your book tour, which starts right now, and best of luck. I can’t wait to find out what new characters are talking to your head right now as you go on your power walk.

ANNA: Thanks so much, Lesley, and you know where I’m going to be every Sunday evening – watching “60 Minutes.”

LESLEY: Thank you, sweetheart.

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