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A Visit With Anna Quindlen

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"It's terrible to bite the hand that feeds you," says New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen about her boss. "But the man is sticking his finger out at the whole world." She is talking about the New York Times story naming the woman who claims to have been raped at the Kennedy compound, a story that also revealed traffic tickets the woman had gotten, that she was a single mother, and that her mom was a big shot's mistress before becoming the big shot's wife. Quindlen wrote a Sunday column berating her paper for running the story in the first place and for following in the footsteps of NBC News.

"The New York Times is saying if you're raped by someone well connected, then your life will be gone through with a fine-tooth comb--and so will your mother's."

Quindlen is at Kroch's on Clybourn. She has finished reading a chapter with a lot of swear words from her just-published novel Object Lessons and is now signing copies. She is sitting at a little table, a quart bottle of unflavored La Croix at her side. The store is bursting with fans, and Quindlen is telling anyone anything they want to know about her.

"She deals well with the thirtysomething crowd," says the manager of the store. "She's so good for this area." He means the area where the local grocery store looks like a multimillion-dollar house straight out of the Parade of Homes, and where people live in posh converted piano factories, converted schoolhouses, converted bakeries, and slick town houses on the sites of former warehouses. Kind of like Hoboken, New Jersey, where Quindlen lives with her husband and three kids in a rehab. "We got our house when the getting was still good," she tells the group of women, who understand exactly what she means.

Looking out at the mass of women waiting to meet her one on one and to get her signature, Quindlen suddenly says, "Yesterday everyone was with their husbands. It was so different. It was a very married crowd."

In the 80s people were fascinated by "Life in the 30s," Quindlen's old column in the New York Times. She was Living Out Loud, the name a collection of her columns was published under. She had a job that required her only to stay home and write about herself. She wrote about things like the pros and cons of a certain nightgown she wore to bed with her husband, her mink coat, receiving a dress as a baby present when her son was born because one of her friends thought Quin was a girl's name, some of her best friends who had AIDS, some of her best friends who had amniocentesis, some of her best friends who had abortions, going to the health club and doing Nautilus, getting her husband a beer, children's cereal versus vegetables, keeping her maiden name, the time her dishwasher leaked, and the time she had to wear nice brown boots instead of nice brown shoes because she had to wear her husband's cashmere socks instead of her designer panty hose, which happened to be stuffed inside a doll.

Readers who followed her life and were moved by her prose loved her. But some were intimidated by the fact that she did it all and had it all and told it all. They called her column the "Anna Quindlen I have everything don't you wish you did?" column. She let everyone know about her attorney husband who loved her, her perfect kids who loved her, the New York Times who loved her, the readers who loved her--and her nice house, nice car, nice clothes, nice office in the house, nice reputation, nice appliances, nice figure, nice friends. And nice paycheck. (Jealous reporters at the Tribune, where she ran in syndication, would hang up her column and circle and tally the Is.

Lorimar even commissioned what Quindlen calls "a fabulous script" based on life in her columns. "It was about a columnist writing at home and how her husband and kids are affected by her work," she explains. "It bore such a resemblance to real life. God, it was a great pilot. Everyone at ABC said, 'This is a great pilot.' But they decided to do a series about a crime-fighting professional wrestler instead. I went, 'Are you guys crazy?' Now I hear it's going around as a possible midseason replacement."

Quindlen took time off two and a half years ago to have a third child, vowing in her final column never to write about her personal life again. She returned a year and a half ago to the Times's op-ed page with her opinions on world events rather than the glories of domestic life. Twice a week, she's right there with Tom Wicker and Abe Rosenthal.

In her spare time over the last five years Quindlen, who's half Irish and half Italian, wrote a novel about a large Irish-Italian family, the Scanlans, and about one summer in particular that changed their lives. She hints to the crowd at Kroch's that Random House, which published her column collection, wasn't too thrilled about her package deal--if it published the columns, it had to publish the novel. But Quindlen also hints that Random House has been pleasantly surprised.

"I have discipline, the ability to tell stories, and the ability to hold readers' interest," she says. "And I have readers who will buy the book."

One woman wants to know if Quindlen hopes to make her novel into a movie, and if so, whom she would like to see in the roles.

Without missing a beat, Quindlen comes up with Jason Robards, William Hurt, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. But she's not sure the moviemakers would remain true to her story line. "If I deeply care about what I have, then I have no business selling to the movies. But then I think about the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm hopeful again."

A lot of the women are interested in tips about getting their own columns.

"Except for Bill Safire--who worked for Richard Nixon first, which I would never recommend--newspapers trust and reward their own people with their own columns," she states. "Be a reporter first--and show you're a little different than everyone else. It's like art. You shouldn't do nonrepresentational art without doing still lifes and nudes first. You learn form doing still lifes and nudes."

Quindlen says she got into the newspaper business because she didn't want to be a poverty-stricken novelist. "I didn't want to starve in garrets. But I found I loved it [reporting]. It was good for fiction and good for my personality, which is gregarious."

At 18 she became a copy girl at a small daily in New Jersey, and in college she baby-sat for people well connected in the business. She got her first big job at the New York Post, and when her editor went to the Times, she went too--to help the Times satisfy the terms of an equal-opportunity lawsuit it had lost. She moved up quickly through the ranks. "I owe my career to the women a generation ahead," she says.

Quindlen says her novel started out like a newspaper story. "I knew the beginning, and I knew the end--and I sort of knew what was going to happen in between. I had a schedule, but some weeks I couldn't do anything.

"Journalism helps fiction. You learn to observe telling detail. I learned to write dialogue because I wrote so many quotes through the years. I deal fairly well with editing--and always have--which is needed for rewrites. And when you're used to only 700 or 800 words in order to get a point across, it gives you an ability to be incredibly evocative. Half of what's floating in my head is useless. It's like walking into a big house with lots of rooms. You finally have to concentrate on being in just one."

At first she had trouble giving her novel a title--she called it Untitled Work of Fiction #1. "I'm getting better with that, since I write my own headlines for my column. It's so reductive." Finally an editor named it for her. After running around the house with the title in mind for a while, she called the editor and said, "I like it. Object Lessons. That is what the book is all about--object lessons."

Quindlen drinks her La Croix, and more people come up to pay homage. "I sent my friend your 'nesting' column," one woman says about an early piece that dealt with women feathering their nests. Quindlen thanks her with a big smile and tells her she hopes she enjoys the book. Then she says to some young girls standing nearby, "Hope you get a chance to look at the books in your section."

A youngish guy tells her he uses her columns in teaching his high school English class. Quindlen tells him she always tries to visit high schools. "I always try to do that because kids always think writers are old dead people. This is a coming-of-age book," she says, handing his signed copy back to him. "So it might be good for your class."

A very Irish-looking young woman steps up. "My mom died when I was 20," she says.

Quindlen somberly casts her eyes downward. "I know," she says, showing the woman she understands. "I was 19." There is an unspoken bond. Quindlen is particularly well known for some heart-wrenching columns full of hurt and anger about her mother dying young of ovarian cancer and leaving Quindlen, her father, and a housekeeper to raise Quindlen's younger siblings.

Another woman steps up. "I'm so thrilled to meet you. I missed you yesterday, so I called your publisher in New York. I love you and didn't want to miss you."

Quindlen brightens up again. "You really worked hard chasing me around!"

Suddenly Quindlen is telling another woman that she's having problems toilet training her youngest, Maria, because her two older children are boys. "She stands in front of the toilet, grabs her crotch with her hands, and then goes between her legs."

A lot of women ask how her kids are. "They miss me, and they're mad at me for being away. I go out so seldom, so when I leave like this it really throws 'em for a loop. I told them that I have to go out and sell this book, and Quin said, 'Why can't you go outside and sell it?' They think I'm standing behind a cash register selling the book."

She tells a few people how good the service is at the Mayfair Regent, where she is staying. "I don't even drink, but when I got to my room, there wasÉ" Her voice trails off.

She disparages Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris for what she sees as their gimmick of writing their novels together. "It's just a little too precious," she says. Then she asks the Kroch's people if Erdrich is as pretty as she looks in her pictures. "Yes," she is told. "But you are too."

And she is. She's dressed in black stretch pants over black stockings, big black flowing jacket, big bright orange blouse, and black patent leather pumps, her makeup and jewelry as tasteful as can be, her skin and hair perfect. One more aspect of her life that's better than most people's.

"Yesterday I was on with Kathy [O'Malley] and Judy [Markey] on WGN, and Judy said 'She [Quindlen] looks good for 38.' And Kathy said, 'She looks good for 32.' And we were being so gross," Quindlen says in her confident New York accent. "We were looking at guys [out the window of the ground-level Michigan Avenue studio], and we were saying, 'Oh, there's a cute one.'"

I am eavesdropping on Quindlen's conversations with her fans, hiding between book racks so as not to intrude on their good time. Suddenly I hear a voice that is very familiar.

"You're my favorite writer," the woman says. "I save all your columns in a little box--so they don't get yellow. I really love them."

It's my mother. I had no idea that she would ever buy a book that wasn't used or at least discounted at Crown. And of course it had never occurred to me that Quindlen, and not me, was her favorite writer.

Later I tell Quindlen that the woman who keeps all her columns in a little box was my mother--and that she keeps the things I write in a big messy pile under the bed.

"My dad stashes all my columns under his bed," she says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Wilson.

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