Columnist-Turned-Novelist Anna Quindlen Visits National Writers Series Stage
By Clark Miller | March 17, 2018
In 1995, having decided the world had enough instant internet pundits, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen charted a new path for herself as a writer of fiction and non-fiction books. It was a move she’d often considered.
Quindlen appears at the National Writers Series on Sunday, March 25 at City Opera House in Traverse City to discuss her ninth (and latest) novel, “Alternate Side.” The on-stage host for the 7 p.m. event will be Michigan broadcast journalist Cynthia Canty, whose “Stateside” reports can be heard on Interlochen Public Radio and elsewhere. Cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m.
“Alternate Side” is a character study of the uptight and very white residents of an exclusive, one-block-long New York City neighborhood. Our narrator and tour guide is Nora Nolan, who sums up things large and small in a New York minute: “The houses on the block, like most of Manhattan, had appreciated so much they constituted a lottery prize. The women saw them as homes, the men as real estate.”
Nora introduces us to male characters who are particularly hard to like, starting with her husband, Charlie, with whom she’s had a long (and lackluster) marriage. Charlie’s ennui is interrupted only by his passionate search for the ultimate neighborhood status symbol: reliable, off-street parking. Nora describes the mutual apathy of their marriage “like a truce without even a war first.”
Next up, there’s George, the quintessential neighborhood jerk, who makes everyone else his business and whose fawning antipathy toward mankind is outdone only by Jack Fisk, the neighborhood bully whose volatile blend of racism and anger later prove central to the plot.
Still, there’s relief from all the heaviness.
Nora’s college-age twins, Ollie and Rachel, for example, are age-appropriately self-absorbed but also keen observers of their mother’s foibles. Jenny, a university professor and Nora’s best friend, and a bit of a “round heel,” has plenty to say. Ricky, the dependable, obsequious Latino handyman, play-acts his way from house to house to find work, but in the end has a key role in changing the neighborhood. There is another character from the other side of town: Phil, a not-exactly-homeless panhandler and sidewalk philosopher who tries to stir Nora’s conscience.
One last character, however, upstages all others — possibly even Nora.
It is New York City itself, which receives many of the best lines in “Alternate Sides.”
“The garbage in the gutters was frozen into agonized attitudes as though the Cheez-It bags and drinking straws had died of hypothermia.” For those who “make it” in Manhattan, Nora says, “The price they had paid for prosperity was amnesia. They’d forgotten who they once had been.”
In an interview with Northern Express, Quindlen talks about the city, why she made a career change, how that decision has affected her writing life, and what she’s working on now.
In “Alternate Sides,” you have Phil speak of NYC as a “city of the mind.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
I think New Yorkers invent the city within themselves. When they first get here all they see are the amazing idiosyncrasies, the fantasyland that is the city. Then after a while they cease to observe those things — what, the man in the American flag top hat? Scarcely notice him! — and create within themselves a city that is, as the end of the novel says, all the strata of their personal earth. The places they hung out when young, the streets where the kids went to school, the buildings where they once went to dinner parties.
Neighborhoods there seem to morph constantly.
Because New York changes so much, a good deal of it is imaginary. I still think of the New York Times as being at 229 West 43rd Street, even though it hasn’t been there for years. It’s part of the New York that lives within me, even though it has ceased to exist.
For all its size and sizzle, the NYC you portray in “Alternate Sides” also seems like a string of small towns or even enclaves.
New Yorkers have a very narrow sense of their neighborhoods. People who live in [Greenwich] Village used to say often that they never went above 14th Street. A girl in my daughter’s seventh grade class wasn’t allowed to come to our house for a sleepover because we lived on the West, not the East Side. But it’s even narrower than that. In terms of daily habits — coffee shop, dry cleaner, food stuffs —most people seem to have an area of about ten blocks.
How would you describe your relationship to NYC?
When I fly into one of the airports and see the jagged skyline of Manhattan out the window … the sight is absolutely thrilling to me. It’s always the first time. Save my family and my closest friends, there is nothing for which I feel the same deep and abiding love that I feel for New York City. I totally understand people who don’t get it, [but] New York is who I am.
You’ve written so many different types of forms — columns, a memoir, novels, etc. Was that your plan when you started out?
I was blessed to have a column in the country’s best venue just before the internet made it possible for anyone to be a pundit. Now I’m a novelist, which is what I always wanted to be. when I was 11 I went to our public library to see where my books would be shelved. [It’s] between Proust and Ayn Rand.
The easy road would have been to stick with your extremely popular columns, right?
One of the things that has always determined my professional path is whether I feel that I’ve gotten good at something. When I feel comfortable, it’s time to move on. Fiction writing still makes me deeply uncomfortable because each new book calls on a new set of challenges and chops. I’m always scared to death. So that’s where I want to land now.
What are you working on now?
The plan is for my next book to be entitled Nana and be a nonfiction meditation about being a grandmother. I’m also working on a new novel that is written in the first-person voice of a long-married woman who has moved temporarily to a state where her mortally ill husband can end his own life on his own terms. I am chairing the search for a new president of Planned Parenthood, and as soon as I’m done [with this] book tour, I take possession of a new Labrador puppy. So my life is a bit overfull at the moment.
For tickets to the March 25 National Writers Series event with Anna Quindlen, go to cityoperahouse.org, call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201 or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St., Traverse City.
Why do I know that name?
In the past 20 years, Quindlen’s work has made her a book club — and movie goer — fan favorite. Her non-fiction includes the semi-autobiographical work “One True Thing,” which became a movie starring Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger. Among Quindlen’s 11 non-fiction books are her bestselling memoir, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” and a reflection on life lessons she learned from her dog Beau, “Good Dog. Stay.”