A novel approach

Writer: For 'one ordinary woman,' novelist Anna Quindlen has struck a remarkable balance of fiction, journalism and family.

April 29, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun Staff

Before giving a speech to 500 people in Baltimore recently, the acclaimed writer Anna Quindlen reached for her cell phone and called her 12-year-old daughter, Maria, for a lively chat that ended with "I love you" and a promise to see her softball game the next day.

Then she went out and held audience members' attention for more than an hour telling them, as the talk was titled, "How Reading Changed My Life," skipping freely from movable type inventor Johann Gutenberg ("one of my favorite people") to the pleasure of seeing Maria read Quindlen's own childhood favorite, "Anne of Green Gables," while rocking in a hammock: ("I was a happy woman.")

Speaking of a favorite book heroine, she mentioned a column that began with a question every woman she asked could answer: "Quick, who is Jo March?" (Men did not fare so well on this pop quiz.) Jo, the tender-hearted tomboy sister who aspires to be a writer in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," was a fictional friend Quindlen clutched closely. Later, D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" helped make her a writer.

If any American writer has held her fiction, journalism and family in a miraculous balance, it is Quindlen.

The former New York Times writer, now 48, cheerfully described raising three children with her husband Gerry Krovatin; crafting a biweekly opinion column for Newsweek and creating works of fiction-- three best-selling novels and two children's books, all published in the 1990s-- because she needed a larger canvas.

She is now at work on her fourth novel, which she does at her home on New York's Upper West Side.

She's a homebody at heart, but every so often, she leaves the comforts of family and friends to travel. When she ventured here to deliver the Anne Healy Centennial Lecture at the Roland Park Country School, it was for a good reason: "I love speaking to girls' schools," she declared, a statement she later repeated to the audience of students, faculty, families and alumnae. "I never met a writer growing up. It shows one ordinary woman did it. It's hard work, but you can, too."

In other words, there's some sisterhood going on here. A sisterhood of letters, if you will, a sorority that has no pledge except that you have or will read all of "Jane," (as in Jane Austen) and further, that you know Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized that. Jane Austen, the parson's daughter who was alive and writing 200 years ago, is Quindlen's "close second" favorite writer -- second to Charles Dickens.

On the train that day, she was reading a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France in the 12th century. In fact, biographies of female historical figures are a big part of her repertoire. She drew laughs when she said she learned about sex from Mary McCarthy's "The Group," and followed up with a simple declaration identifying herself: "a feminist and a writer, two things I'm very pleased to be."

Then there's also the debt of gratitude to single-sex education. Had she not gone to a women's college, Barnard College in New York, Quindlen declared, she could not have become an opinion columnist, with the confident assertions and crisp edges that go with it.

Of life at this point, she said, "Sometimes it's running in place for a good cause." With her eldest parting to go to college, a certain sense of vindication comes through in the wry smile. The choices she's made along the way, the good jobs and perches she's given up, the hard labor involved in writing fiction rather than reporting or observing things as they are, well, they've worked out for the former Catholic schoolgirl from Philadelphia who always had her nose in a book.

No regrets about that wrenching break from the newsroom in the mid '80s and certainly not that decision to withdraw from giving a graduation talk at Villanova University in 1999 after rumblings about her being a pro-choice Catholic. There is some luck of the Irish in that tale: Quindlen's speech, "A Short Guide to a Happy Life," was well-received on the Internet and published last year in a small hardback of the same title, selling half a million copies.

Quindlen exudes an expansive ease with most anybody she happens to meet at a dinner gathering, laughing loudly, talking as if they had met before. Her brown shoulder-length hair is no-nonsense straight and her green eyes meet the world in a direct gaze.

She describes her willingness to speak at every school or college her children might apply to: "Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, I'm there!" On a short walk after dinner, she reports this latest protest from one son on the home front: "I have to separate from you!" It might have happened sooner, she said, save her sons saw her as a powerful person in the world outside home.

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