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Reader’s Guide: A Conversation between Anna Quindlen and Meryl Streep

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Quindlen_Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake Happy on sale day to Anna Quindlen. Her candid memoir LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE is now available in paperback. Be sure to pick up a copy for exclusive Random House Reader’s Circle material including the full conversation between Anna Quindlen and Meryl Streep and discussion questions for you and your book club.

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A Conversation Between Meryl Streep and Anna Quindlen

Meryl Streep and Anna Quindlen have been friends for many years. In 1998 Meryl was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Kate Gulden in the film adaptation of Anna’s novel One True Thing. In 2011 Meryl was honored by the Kennedy Center and Anna wrote the program tribute. They sat down for a lunch of pasta and salad at Anna’s home in New York City. The following is an edited version of their conversation on November 27, 2012.

Meryl Streep: What do you say to people who say, “Anna’s vision of aging is too relentlessly upbeat”? This is related to my conversation with my older friends the other day, who are really much older than we are. How do you respond to the ones who go, “Well, it’s too rosy; Anna puts a happy spin on everything.” The reason I’m asking you this question is that I think, even in the direst circumstances, you have a choice of how to look at it. In the book, you do circle certain very profound and cavernous subjects—dying—but you don’t go deep into the spelunking of it.

Anna Quindlen: I think I made an attempt to speak to some of those deeper issues in the last two chapters of the book. But I consciously decided to look at life not from the perspective of the end of it but from the near-to-the-end of it. From the beginning of the book I’m clear: “I’m sixty, and sixty is somewhere different than it used to be.” I mean, fifty years ago, sixty was more or less the end. And now, it’s the beginning of a different stage of life. You know from your experience with your own parents—eighty-five, ninety, it ain’t necessarily pretty. But that’s not exactly what I wanted to tackle. I totally accept when people say I have a very optimistic take on things. I always have had; I probably always will have. And I do think I have a very different attitude about getting older, based on being the daughter of a woman who never got to get old. I think there’s something profound that watching someone you love die young does to you, and if you have half a brain, one of the things it does to you is to say—

MS: Grab life.

AQ: Yes. Wake up, even in the darkest days, saying, “Boy, is this better than the alternative.” There’s this wonderful quote from Carolyn Heilbrun in the book where she says something like, “Since we did not wish to die, surely we must have wished to grow old.” And sometimes our antipathy toward aging seems to me to deny the alternative.

MS: When I read what you write, I keep thinking, Oh, here’s somebody who’s writing what I think. And she’s doing the work for me. It’s sort of, I think, why people undervalue in some ways what women write. Because they speak not just for themselves, but they speak for the rest of us who can’t say these things. You’re speaking something true. And that made me think about the point in the book when Quin says: “Well, Mom, your subject was motherhood.” And that propels somebody to think in a different way, too. It just does. Having children is an optimistic act.

AQ: Absolutely. But I also think that for us as women—women growing older—having children can affect how we
see ourselves. Especially having female children. I may be outing you here, but I mention in the book that I have a very well-known friend who says that the way to make herself invisible is to walk down the street with her daughters, who are young and beautiful—and you and I both know who that is.

MS: My friend Jane called me: “Anna wrote about you!”

AQ: So having those daughters, who are young while we’re getting older, takes us in one of two directions. Sometimes it takes you toward resentment: “I am not that anymore.” Sort of a grasping resentment that leads some women to dress much younger than they should.

MS: Forgive me, but I always thought—and you wrote this, so we agree—but I think that’s the problem of girls who grew up and their card was “pretty.” So when “pretty” goes away, that’s the central tragedy, and that is the thing that rankles with their own daughters. When the pretty goes away just as it’s emerging in the daughters.

AQ: That’s true, that’s true. But I think if you process life as you’ve been living it, which is really a hat trick if you manage to do it, one of the things you see with your girls is that they’re going through the stuff that you went through in your twenties that you never want to go through again. All that stuff that you can see clearly now, so that you think, Oh my God, I can’t believe I wasted a nanosecond of my precious life thinking, Does my hair look okay? and, Is my stomach flat enough? And of course when they’re twenty-three or twenty-four, their hair looks great and their stomachs are flat enough! But I do think having kids gives you a kind of perspective on aging that’s different from that of my friends who don’t have kids.

MS: I do, too. And that’s maybe the group you’re not speaking to. Do you know what I mean? That’s hard. People look to you. They look to you, as sort of an emblematic figure of our generation, to speak for all of us. But you only know what you know.

AQ: You can’t be all things to all people.

MS: But do you feel the burden of that? Do you feel that clamoring? Because it exists from people that—what’s the word? See, I’m not a writer—but even the women for whom you’re not speaking, who have not shared your experiences, want you to speak for them. Because, just because. You’re one of the few who is willing to stand up. You’re willing to stand up and say stuff about living, and what it costs, and what you pay down, and what you don’t ever get back. You know, all that stuff. You’re willing to talk about it. And that’s just a really brave thing. It is.

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