A CONVERSATION WITH ANNA QUINDLEN
Question: Where did you come up with the idea for such a complex story? How did you do your research on the medical and legal aspects of the novel?
Anna Quindlen: Odd as it may seem to some readers, I wanted to write a novel about the lives of women at the end of the twentieth century, in light of the modern feminist revolution. To me, Kate and Ellen represent the two polar ideas of women that arose at that time: the traditional woman, who embraced life as wife and mother alone; and the new woman, who rejected those roles in favor of a life in the world. Of course, as we all know now, what works for so many people is a synthesis, something closer to the center. And I wanted to explore a series of events that would take Ellen there, or at least place her closer to some more balanced sense of what it means to be female. Originally I had the idea of the mother and daughter; it was only after some consideration that I decided to introduce the notion that the mother was dying, and the mystery about how she ultimately died. The ﬁrst was an attempt to sharpen the characters of all involved. I believe that in ﬁction, as in life, people become most themselves under pressure. The second was to explore the notion of that traditional woman, and the probability that beneath the surface there was more steel and strength than met the eye. I did no research on either the medical or legal aspects of the story. In fact I have never done any research for any of my novels. In this case I knew a lot about issues surrounding cancer and euthanasia, and it was helpful from a legal standpoint that my husband is a longtime trial attorney.
Q: How did you create the members of the Gulden family? Did you know from the beginning how their characters would take shape?
AQ: I was pretty clear on Kate and Ellen from the very beginning, although in the natural order of things you always learn a great deal about your characters as you move along. It’s a little like a friendship; you understand much more at ﬁve years than you do at one year. George developed over time. I think hugely nurturing people sometimes create monsters around them: they give and give and so produce people who know only how to take. And then of course, the Oedipal triangle encompassing mother, father and daughter means that qualities developed in each that I tried to illuminate. My greatest challenge as a writer was to not make Ellen too likable. I don’t think, especially in her earliest incarnation, that she’s a particularly likable person. It was difﬁcult to channel her because of that, and I might have despaired had I not known that she was going to grow, learn and soften. But in the early days I kept having to rewrite scenes in which I’d lapsed into making her nicer. I suppose that’s a stereotypical female response. Or maybe it’s because I knew the reader might see her as my surrogate.
Q: Was it hard to write about such a painful topic? How did you balance the difﬁcult aspects of the story (Kate’s illness, the deterioration of Ellen’s relationship with her father, the trial, etc.) with the overall hopeful message?
AQ: I think readers who are familiar with a bit about my life assume that the book was more difﬁcult than it was. Sometimes they will come up to me and say, “Oh, I loved the book about you and your mother.” It is true that my mother died of ovarian cancer when she was forty and I was nineteen, and of course that made it easy to evoke many of the details of Kate’s illness and death. But I used that in the way you might use a city you’d lived in as the backdrop for a story, or give a character a profession you’d once practiced. It was useful and important, but I don’t think of it as what the book is about. It probably would have been painful had I tried to write this a short time after my mother died, and I can say unequivocally that I would have been unsuccessful, both because I would have lacked the emotional wherewithal to work with the material and transform it properly and because I wasn’t introspective enough to tell a story of this sort. But One True Thing was written twenty years after those events in my own life. There were scenes that were quite draining. The scene in which Kate is in the bathtub was pretty terrible to write. I wept through most of it. But I did the same with emotionally charged scenes in all three other novels as well. I tend to be an optimistic person and writer, but in this case if there is a hopeful message it is with good reason. Ellen has been well-mothered, and I know enough about the world to know that that is both relatively rare and absolutely pivotal. So I think she is going to be able to incorporate the life of the mind that her father bequeathed her and the full heart her mother left her and be a whole human being.
Q: You’ve written ﬁction and nonﬁction, news columns and novels–what is the most difﬁcult to write? The most fun? The most rewarding?
AQ: I have been a journalist for so long and have written so many hundreds of columns that it is just easier for me than writing novels. Columns are also bite-size; one of the things that makes a novel so challenging is that there’s so much of it. Having said that, if I had to choose a single form tomorrow, I would choose novel writing. I’m lucky; I don’t have to make that choice.
1. One True Thing begins with Ellen in jail. What do you think about the book beginning this way? Did it affect the way you read the rest of the story, knowing (to some extent) how it would end? Looking back, do you think that scene in jail ultimately adds or detracts from the mystery of the story? How?
2. What was your ﬁrst impression of Ellen? What did you think of her when you ﬁnished the novel? It’s clear that she changes over the course of her mother’s illness and in the wake of her death, but in what speciﬁc ways?
3. Kate Gulden seems to be the archetypal “perfect mother.” Was she? How were her relationships with her sons, Jeff and Brian, different from her relationship with Ellen?
4. What did you think of George Gulden at the beginning of the book? Were you surprised as you learned more about his relationship with his wife and children? How did your opinion of him change, and why?
5. Ellen reﬂects, “No one knows what goes on inside a marriage. I read that once; the aphorism ended ‘except for the two people who are in it.’ But I suspect that even that is not the truth, that even two people married to each other for many many years may have only passing similarities in their perceptions and their expectations” (p. 106). What do you think of this statement? How does it apply to George and Kate Gulden?
6. Describe Ellen’s relationship with Jonathan. Why does she remain interested in a man who does not treat her well? How does Ellen’s relationship with Jonathan compare and contrast to her relationship with her father? Were you surprised by Jonathan’s betrayal? Why do you think he turned on Ellen?
7. In reference to her father, Ellen says: “He divided women into groups . . . the intellectual twins, the woman of the mind and the one of the heart . . . I had the misfortune to be designated the heartless one, my mother the mindless one. It was a disservice to us both but, on balance, I think she got the better deal” (p. 281). Discuss the meanings, and implications, of these categorizations.
8. Discuss the reactions to Kate’s cancer diagnosis, and the progression of the disease, both within the Gulden family (Kate, Ellen, George, Brian and Jeff) and in their small town (the Minnies, etc). Were you surprised by any of the reactions? How and why?
9. Against Ellen’s wishes, Dr. Cohn sends Nurse Teresa Guerrero to help care for Kate. How does Teresa ﬁt in with the Gulden family? Do you agree with Ellen, when she thinks that Teresa helped her as much, if not more, than she helped Kate? How?
10. When Kate died, what did you think happened? Were you surprised to learn about the morphine overdose? Before you learned the truth, did you think it was Ellen, George, or Kate who had administered the lethal dose? Did you ever think it could have been an accident?
11. Mrs. Forburg, Ellen’s former English teacher, bails Ellen out of jail and lets her stay at her home during the indictment media frenzy. Why does Mrs. Forburg take such a risk?
12. Were you surprised by the grand jury’s decision? If you thought Ellen would or would not be indicted, explain why. Do you think the jury’s decision was realistic?
13. At the end of the novel, Ellen sees her father for the ﬁrst time in eight years. About the death of her mother, she says, “Someday I will tell my father. Someday soon, I imagine, although there is great temptation to leave the man I once thought the smartest person on earth in utter ignorance” (p. 287). Do you think Ellen will tell her father what happened? Why or why not? Would you, if you were in her shoes?