Anna Quindlen is beloved by all readers and book clubs alike! From her “Last Word” column in Newsweek to her irresistible New York Times bestselling books such as Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and One True Thing (to name a few!), Quindlen has truly captured the minds of of her readers.
We are so happy to share this Q&A between Anna Quindlen and Kate Medina, her editor, with you in anticipation of her upcoming novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?
I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an off handed comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, and on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape, doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.
People love to know where the inspiration for a novel comes from. Would you say something about Still Life with Bread Crumbs in this regard?
It’s not one thing. It’s never one thing. I’ve thought a lot about the nature of art, and why women’s art, particularly if it arises from domestic life, is minimized, or denigrated—why, for instance, we pay less attention to the work of Alice McDermott, a genius miniaturist whose novels reflect the quiet everyday, then we do to the more sprawling, outward-facing work of Philip Roth. Some of my thinking on that is embodied in Rebecca’s photography and public reaction to it. I’m 61 years old, and I’ve thought a lot about aging, and the stages of a woman’s life, and that’s in there, too. From a purely mechanical point of view, I try to do some essential thing in each novel that I haven’t done before. In this book it was twofold: I’ve never written a love story, and I haven’t written a book with a happy ending, and this material lent itself to both.
We’ve been working together for 25 years, on a wide range of your books—fiction, nonfiction, memoir. We are both often asked about the editorial process between writer and editor. Might you comment briefly about that process? What is the heart of it for you?
Oh, Kate, you broke me in. I cringe when I remember the first draft of Object Lessons. You said the writing was lovely, and the characters memorable, but not much happened in the course of the book. And I replied, “That’s how real life is.” You said, so sweetly, “And that’s why we call this a novel.”
The heart of the editing process is a fresh pair of sensitive and informed eyes. By the time I’m done a draft, I have no clue. Is it the best thing I’ve ever done? Is it a complete disaster? Depends on which day you ask me. But more than that, I am so close to the material that I not only can’t get out of the weeds, I can’t figure out where they are. That’s where you come in. You read and read again and then send me your long memo, which always begins “I love this book!” Then come the buts—about murky character development, fallow areas, missed opportunities. I’m not going to go into detail and thus illuminate my own dopiness, but sometimes you ask a question about something I’ve done, or failed to do, and I want to smack myself in the head, it’s so obvious.
Of course, a critical part of this process is the trust between us. You speak fluent Quindlen and you don’t try to edit me into someone else. And once our dialogue begins, I become more confident about my own work in that I know where you are right about changes, cuts, amendments, and where I disagree and will leave well enough alone.
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