“Nobody likes the arbitrariness of art,” sighed Anna Quindlen at the recent sold-out annual Words Alive Author’s Luncheon. “I once told Edgar Doctorow I was getting ready to go on tour, and he said, ‘Oh, now you’ll have to pretend you understand why we do what we do.’”
More than 550 readers filled the Marriott Marquis ballroom to hear the Pulitzer Prize-winning author pretend to understand why she does what she does. But Quindlen doesn’t pretend. Warm and down to earth, she was open and humble about what she calls the “unconscious” part of her writing process.
Interviewed onstage by UC San Diego professor Seth Lerer, she shared personal stories about her children, her latest novel, “Still Life With Breadcrumbs,” and her own love affair with reading.
“My favorite activity in the whole world is reading,” Quindlen admitted. “If I never wrote another word, I would be fine with that. But if I couldn’t read, I don’t know how I could live.”
She revealed that there’s nothing she enjoys more than talking about books with her three grown children, all of whom are devoted readers — even if they don’t always see eye to eye on them.
“My oldest son loves Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, both of whom are cool, more cerebral writers,” she explained. “But ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Moby Dick’ just don’t resonate with me. I prefer warmer, emotional stories. I love Edith Wharton, and ‘House of Mirth’ is one of my favorite books.”
Quindlen believes that reading is never about the book itself; it’s actually about the reader. She rereads a Charles Dickens novel every summer, and is convinced that re-reading books at different stages of your life offers a different experience each time.
“For example, I read Anna Karenina in college and felt dreadful for Anna,” she said. “She was married to this dry bureaucrat, but she had fallen in love with the seductive Vronsky and couldn’t just go off with him so — spoiler alert — she jumped in front of a train. When I read it after I had children, I thought, ‘This is a novel about a woman who is vain and self-obsessed enough to leave her son.’ That would never have occurred to me at 20. But, at 37, with three kids, that was the only way I could see it. And it’s the only way I’ve been able to see it since.”
Because reading and her children are so closely intertwined, Quindlen has often handed her kids books when there were subjects that were challenging to talk about or that needed to be enlarged.
“My son went through puberty early and I couldn’t say to him, ‘I know all this stuff is going on and it’s making you feel like a totally twisted puppy,’” she said. “So I just gave him ‘Portnoy’s Complaint.’”
Books have been a vital part of Quindlen’s life since she was a child herself, and she credits “Little Women” for making her believe she could actually become a writer.
“What’s so powerful about that book to someone like me — other than the fact that Jo is such an outlier and doesn’t want to play by the rules — is that she wants to be a writer, her family just assumes she’ll be a writer and she becomes a writer,” said Quindlen. “For a girl growing up not knowing anyone who was a writer, there wasn’t anyone I could turn to in that way. The closest thing, to me, was Jo March.”
Because she loves to do school visits and show young people that they, too, can become writers, Quindlen spent time with the teens at the Lindsay School.
Here’s what she wrote about it on Facebook: “I have to pay tribute to the students I met at the Lindsay School in San Diego on Friday. Residents of that city may know Lindsay as a school for teenaged mothers; I saw it as a place filled with serious, curious, poised young women who were engaged and engaging in conversation. Whether questioning the ending of my novel ‘Black and Blue,’ wondering how to sell their own writing, or asking to have a book signed for their children, they were aces. Difficult pasts for many of them, for sure, but I’m betting on the future. It took me back, to see those babies napping and toddlers playing in the day care center and the one young mom nursing in the back row in class. Dawn Miller is their teacher, and she proves every day what I always say: Teachers are the most important professionals in America because they change lives. I was so happy to spend part of the day with her and her students.”
The Lindsay School is the site of one of Words Alive’s flagship Adolescent Book Groups. The mission of Words Alive, a San Diego-based nonprofit founded by Leslye Lyons in 1999, is to open opportunities for life success by inspiring a commitment to reading. It does this by providing volunteer-led reading experiences for children and youth, education opportunities for parents, scholarships for continuing education, and access to and ownership of quality reading materials.
To learn more and to join the mailing list for next year’s Author’s Luncheon, visit www.wordsalive.org.