What inspires a female writer whose work runs the gamut from a Pulitzer Prize-winning column to best-selling novels to thought-provoking essays? Anna Quindlen says she admires a number of female writers.
“Where do I begin? With Jane Austen, I suppose, but there’s also Edith Wharton, Mary Wesley, Elizabeth Bowen, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, and Maud Hart Lovelace,” Quindlen writes in an email interview. “And some of my contemporaries consistently blow me away, like Alice McDermott and Amy Bloom. Alice Munro won the Nobel. Nuff said.”
Quindlen’s list focuses on novelists, and in fact that’s the direction she has chosen for her career, which began in reporting before she became a columnist. But life and work don’t always carry us in expected directions; Quindlen’s most recent book prior to Still Life with Bread Crumbs was Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, a collection of essays on aging.
“The strategy is meant to be that I write fiction fulltime,” she explains. “But as I investigated the new aging in our society, in my own life and those of my friends, I decided I wanted to mull it over in print. Hence Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. It just happened.”
"When the notebook is your imagination, it’s often harder to decipher."
She’s back on track with Still Life with Bread Crumbs, which is an exploration of aging through the experiences of a photographer whose life has been lived in the public eye. Rebecca Winter’s iconic photograph “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” made her famous and brought the kind of money that allowed her to comfortably dwell in her upscale Manhattan apartment for some time, even after her husband split. But Winter’s funds are dwindling, so she sublets her apartment and moves to a cabin in rural New York.
Quindlen says she can relate to Winter’s struggle to balance art and commerce. “I think every writer feels she is one book from irrelevancy. It’s such an uncertain way to make a living: no regular paycheck or pension, no healthcare plan or regular hours. We’ve all watched great talents fall in and out of fashion, and that could happen to any of us,” Quindlen says. “That’s why it’s so important to do what Rebecca learns to do: judge yourself by yourself. At a certain point at the very end of a book, I read it over and have an interior conversation: Self, I say to myself, this is good work. It’s no substitute for being able to pay the gas bill, as Rebecca knows well, but it helps to insulate you against the fickle opinion of the world.”
Like Winter, Quindlen has houses both in New York City and the country, but she says the city is home. “New York City and I have the same metabolism. I’m like cockroaches; I’m here for the duration.” But the more meandering pace of country life is certainly reflected in the novel. Still Life utilizes shorter chapters, each with telling titles, and the story isn’t always linear.
“I decided I wanted to deconstruct the conventional novel. We absorb the notion that backstory should fit seamlessly into present action, that every aspect needs to be spun out into lengthy observation. I decided to take the sandwich apart: ham, cheese, bread. Current action, backstory, supporting materials. The chapter titles are mustard, I guess. (Now I’m hungry.),” Quindlen says. And we should expect to see echoes of this approach in the future: “I really enjoyed doing this; it’s gotten under my skin and is definitely coloring the novel I’m working on now, although it’s quite different.”
Though she draws from the same well of talents whether she's reporting or dreaming up fiction, Quindlen says fiction challenges her in very different ways than journalism. “Not having the reporting to rely upon means that I’m a good deal more adrift. More of what I do comes to me at random times: cooking dinner, powerwalking. When I’m struggling with nonfiction, I can always look in my notebooks. When the notebook is your imagination, it’s often harder to decipher.”
Even so, common threads remain through her present work and that of her past. In the aforementioned New York Times essay, Quindlen concluded, “I am a reporter of invented stories now, but no less a reporter because of that.”
Carla Jean Whitley is a writer and editor based in Birmingham, Alabama.
Read our review of Still Life with Bread Crumbs.