Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist starts over on novel track The Life & Times of Anna Quindlen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hoboken, N.J. -- Yes, she is warm and funny. Yes, she is smart and insightful. Yes, she is down-to-earth and real, confessional almost, a woman more than willing to dish on any subject that comes up: motherhood, success, romance, feminism, self-doubts, marriage and how much her husband likes short skirts and hates flannel nightgowns.

And yes, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and best-selling novelist Anna Quindlen in person is just like Anna Quindlen in print: the kind of woman you'd like to have as your best friend.

Of course, devoted readers of her columns in the New York Times have always thought of her that way: a best friend who was writing not only about her life but theirs as well. When she was writing "Life in the 30s," the column that first earned her national attention, New York magazine dubbed her the "Laureate of Real Life." Indeed, it was not unusual for readers to tape her columns to refrigerators or clip and mail them to daughters, to friends, to sisters. Anna and Her Sisters, the column could have been called.

Later, when she moved on to the op-ed page of the Times, she reached an even wider audience with "Public & Private," a column that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Along the way, she'd written a best-selling novel, "Object Lessons," and was working on another.

At 42, Anna Quindlen was the Woman Who Had It All. And a woman who had become a role model to her legions of fans: a working mother who somehow successfully combined the fast track with the mommy track, thereby giving hope, perhaps unrealistically, to a whole generation of women.

Then last fall Anna Quindlen dropped a bombshell: She was quitting her coveted job as the only regular female columnist on the op-ed page of the Times to pursue her career as a novelist.

Her readers reacted with surprise and, unexpectedly, anger. Articles and letters appeared accusing Anna Quindlen of giving young women the idea they could forego careers to be stay-at-home mothers; of abandoning the working mothers who looked to her as a role model; of being unable to handle success; of proving that women weren't capable of making it in the working world.

Now it was Anna Quindlen's turn to be surprised.

"I couldn't believe this sort of massive incredulity that met my decision to do what I was going to do," Ms. Quindlen says in a voice still edged with surprise.

"First of all, there was all this stuff about how I was doing it to spend more time with my kids when, in fact, for the last 11 years I've worked at home and basically worked around my kids' school schedule. But I think the only way people could explain giving up the kind of power people thought I had was in terms of a 'woman' thing. It has to be an estrogen attack. And if it was an estrogen attack, it had to be about my kids."

She is sitting in the living room of her four-story Victorian rowhouse sipping tea as she says this and, from the tone of her voice, it's clear the criticism still gets to her. "I think at a certain level, particularly for men, the idea that you would look around at your life and want to do something different is very threatening. Because work isn't supposed to be about making you happy. It's supposed to be about taking this rung on the ladder and then the next rung on the ladder and then the next rung," she says, composing her thoughts into a kind of spoken column.

At the time of her departure from the New York Times, the next rung for Anna Quindlen seemed to be on the high side of the glass ceiling. She was seen by her colleagues as a likely candidate to eventually become the first woman to hold one of the two top jobs at the Times.

Her decision to quit the newspaper, she says, came as a complete shock to her bosses. She laughs, something she does easily and often. "They were very, very surprised," she says. "But the Times has just been splendid about it, saying, 'You know, any time you want to come back -- just call us up.' " She grins. "Well, I never say 'never,' but when I made this move I envisioned just writing one book after another."

Anna and the Times

In fact, Anna Quindlen has a history of quitting the New York Times, a paper she joined in 1977. She may even have set a record for Number of Times Anyone Has Quit the Times: three. And, more important, she may hold the record for Number of Times Anyone Has Been Rehired By the Times: Two -- and still counting. Not to put too Freudian a point on it, but when Anna Quindlen quits it only seems to make the New York Times want her more.

"As far as I'm concerned she can come back 12 times if she wants to," says former New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, one of Ms. Quindlen's most ardent supporters. When she quit the paper for the first time -- in 1985 while pregnant with her second child -- she was deputy metropolitan editor and, says Mr. Rosenthal, "really in line to be metropolitan editor and God knows what else. But she'd quit because she wanted to raise her children."

But the executive editor wanted her back. So he dreamed up the idea for her "Life in the 30s" column. As Mr. Rosenthal tells it, the negotiations went something like this: "Anna had been writing some free-lance columns for us and one day she comes wandering by my office. So we have a little chat, and she says she's been offered a job as a kind of columnist for Newsday. 'I'm thinking about taking it,' she said. 'Would you mind?'

" 'Would I mind? I'd have a heart attack. Newsday! Why would you want to work for Newsday? Write a column for us. How old are you?'

" 'Thirty-four.'

" 'So write a column called Life in the 30s.' "

There's a pause, and then Abe Rosenthal provides an unintentional glimpse into Anna Quindlen's professional style, one that offers as good an insight as you're likely to get: "You know, to this day I'm not even sure if I offered her the job or whether she came back to find out if I would offer her the job." His voice is filled with something approaching amused affection.

But her friends say that Anna Quindlen is not the kind of person who's risen to the top at the expense of her own integrity or by stepping on colleagues. Says her close friend, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, "She doesn't have a scheming nature. She's just sort of a no-nonsense person about office politics. . . . We've had plenty of people at the New York Times who've weaseled their way to the top. But she's not one of them."

On her way

It was a dream job. But then so were the jobs that preceded it. At 28, Ms. Quindlen had been given the plum assignment of writing the Times' "About New York" column, making her the youngest reporter and first woman ever to do so. When she moved from that to deputy metropolitan editor, she became one of the highest-ranking women at the newspaper.

But "Life in the 30s" would allow Ms. Quindlen to work part-time at home, writing about whatever she wanted, while she worked on her first novel.

The once-a-week column was an immediate success and earned superstar status for its author. Written at a very personal level, the column was really Anna Quindlen reporting on her own life: on growing up in a large Catholic family, on losing her mother to ovarian cancer, on feminism, on stretch marks, on rock and roll, and on the joys and fears of motherhood.

Often the column came close to invading her family's privacy, especially that of her husband, Gerald Krovatin. A criminal-defense lawyer in New Jersey, Mr. Krovatin admits that while his wife was writing it, he occasionally got the feeling that "your whole life is fair game." But his wife, he says, "had a pretty good sense of what was fair game. And I had veto power over any column about me or the kids. But I never used it."

Still, after three years, Anna Quindlen decided to stop writing "Life in the 30s." She was emotionally burned out and the column, she says, was starting to feel like an "emotional striptease."

Pregnant with her third child, she decided once again to quit.

But once again the New York Times made her an offer she couldn't refuse.

Making the op-ed page

In 1990, she was offered another column by the Times, but this one would run on the op-ed page alongside such male heavy hitters as William Safire, Anthony Lewis, Russell Baker and her former boss, Abe Rosenthal.

Two years later Anna Quindlen won a Pulitzer Prize for her twice-weekly "Public & Private" columns on abortion, the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Persian Gulf War.

By this time Ms. Quindlen had acquired not only the status of a superstar but a salary in the neighborhood of $175,000 and a spacious office with a view of midtown Manhattan. "I just said I'm not going to do this [write an op-ed column] unless I have the same size office [as the men] and the same pay," Ms. Quindlen told the Times.

Turns out she barely used the office. "I just stopped in maybe once every two weeks," she says. "It was a dream job."

Then she quit. To write fiction.

New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd, who will take over Ms. Quindlen's spot on the op-ed page in July, says she admires the way Ms. Quindlen has handled her career. "It's inspiring to think you don't have to stay on the escalator. You can get on, you can get off. When she left [the op-ed page] I didn't understand the reaction that she was giving something up. I didn't see it that way at all. I see this as every woman's dream. To be at home, to be with your kids."

Ms. Dowd, who is single and has no children, is not ready, however, to give up on the relationship between Anna Quindlen and the New York Times. "I picture her coming back to the Times in two, three, four years. Doing something else and then coming back. That's her pattern."

And Anna Quindlen's pattern, everyone agrees, has worked for her. Or as Ms. Quindlen's husband puts it: "Let's face it. She's quit better jobs than most of us have ever had. And it's always

worked out."

Superwoman

Anna Quindlen lives on a sun-dappled block of Victorian rowhouses in Hoboken, N.J., just across the river from Manhattan. It's a real neighborhood: On the corner at the end of her block is the Willow Pharmacy, the Willow Discount Auto Supply shop and the Willow Grocery & Liquors store. Suffice it to say, this is not Manhattan's Upper East Side. Or even Greenwich Village, which is where Anna Quindlen would really like to live but doesn't because her husband prefers New Jersey.

It's a neighborhood that seems prosperous but not necessarily affluent, and the exterior facade of Ms. Quindlen's house is not much different than those of her neighbors. The inside of the house, however, is quite a different matter.

With its high ceilings and ornate plasterwork, its polished wooden floors and Oriental rugs, its muted colors and shuttered windows, the interior is as elegant and sophisticated as a duplex on Park Avenue. There's a Steinway in the parlor and an eclectic range of art and antiques scattered throughout the house. It is not exactly the house that readers might have envisioned while reading the columns of someone they thought of as "the girl next door."

But then Ms. Quindlen, for all her down-to-earth observations and clear-eyed view of the world, never was the girl next door. True, she looks the part. She's got an open, friendly face framed straight brown hair with bangs and a healthy-looking body that suggests she's no stranger to diets. And although she's dressed today in a bulky sweater over stretch pants, there are Armani suits hanging upstairs in the closet.

Besides, how many next-door neighbors do you have who get paid $15,000 to give a talk? Or have a movie option on a best-selling novel that runs somewhere in the mid-six figures? Or a still-happy-after-17-years marriage that has produced three thriving kids? Or an incredibly successful 25-year career as a journalist?

All of which she has accomplished by the age of -- read it and weep -- 42. And she's made it all look so easy. "I do think she intimidates a lot of her friends because she seems to do everything so easily with a minimum of angst," says Maureen Dowd. "Right after I got the column, I called her, and she said, 'Well, I'm baking four different kinds of Christmas cookies for my kids.' I thought: Four different kinds. So it's intimidating. But I don't think she likes the image of being Superwoman and perfect."

She may not like the image, but perfectionism does seem to run through Anna Quindlen's life like a connecting thread.

She admits to being "driven" and a "classic perfectionist" while growing up, the oldest of five children in a family headed by an Irish-American management consultant (her father) and an Italian-American homemaker (her mother).

"It always amazes me that I never became anorexic or bulimic," she says of her adolescence. "I'm an oldest child, and I was really raised as my father's oldest son. I was a smart kid. So it was always like I'm gonna run the student council and I'm going to get straight A's and I'm going to do this and that.

"But being the perfect girl got really exhausting and like you can't just wake up one morning and say, 'Mom, Dad, teachers, friends -- I'm not going to do this anymore. I just want to not have to always rise to the occasion.' "

So one day, instead of rising to the occasion, the 16-year-old, perfect-A student attempted suicide at her boarding school in West Virginia. Twice. The first time she took an overdose of pills. A month later, she slashed her wrists. The school called her parents after the second attempt.

"I think they were flabbergasted," Ms. Quindlen says now. "My father had to come out and see me in the infirmary and everything like that."

But they didn't take her home. "I stayed till the end of the year," she says, offering no explanation as to why her parents didn't hustle her right out of there and back home.

She laughs when asked if she talked at the time to anyone about the suicide attempts. "You mean, have therapy? No. I mean it was 1967, and I was in a private Catholic girls' school, and I was from a very straight, Irish-Catholic family. I mean, nobody went into therapy then." She laughs again.

But the laughs belie her next observation. "It was really scary stuff. But it was almost as though having done that I had made my statement of intent, and I didn't have to do anything that intense again. Although I continued to be that same sort of driven person. But I got past the danger period."

She stops and thinks. "I had no business being in boarding school," she says with a sigh. "I have these arguments all the time with people who send their kids to boarding school. Even in the best schools there isn't anyone who can read a kid like a parent can. . . . I can read Quin [her oldest child, now 11] like a book. I can read his physical posture, I can read his face."

She stops again. "I shouldn't have been away from home. There was too much going on with me at that time in my life."

Tending to her mother

At 18, Anna Quindlen entered Barnard College as an English major. But only a few weeks into her freshman year, her mother became fatally ill with ovarian cancer. She was 40.

Anna went home to Kendall Park, N.J., to nurse her dying mother and take care of her younger brothers and sister.

"There I was, two weeks into the school year, and I have to pack up my tent and become like a suburban housewife," Ms. Quindlen says. "And I did that."

For five months, the teen-age Anna mothered her mother and her own brothers and sister. Then Prudence Quindlen died. And Anna returned to Barnard.

"When I got back to school, I felt like I'd gotten through the Valley of Death," she says now. "When I went back to school, I was a grown-up. And after that, suicide was never again an option. I walked away from that thinking life is this incredible gift and you never knew how long it's going to last and you'd better just take it for all it's worth. And that was my guiding life ethos from the moment I started taking care of my mother."

Anna Quindlen, who regularly undergoes screening for ovarian cancer, is now two years older than her mother was when she died; a milestone in her mind. "I beat the bullet," she says. "I'm going to live forever."

But the effect of her mother's death still hovers over Ms. Quindlen. "Did it influence my life?" she says, repeating the question just asked of her. "It is my life. There's nothing else that will ever happen to me again, except for the birth of our children, that will affect my life the way that losing my mother affected it."

One of the reasons Anna Quindlen is so "uncommonly decisive and doesn't waffle about issues," says Janet Maslin, has to do with that experience surrounding her mother's death. "You have to remember she had a lot of people depending on her at a very early age. And she doesn't allow herself the flailing about that most of us do."

The profound impact of her mother's death keeps finding new ways to express itself. Her most recent book, "One True Thing," is about a successful, young journalist summoned home by her father to care for her dying mother. For all its parallels to her own life, Ms. Quindlen resists defining the plot as autobiographical.

"It's the background terrain of the novel," she says. "It's like writing a war novel and then populating it with completely different characters than the characters you actually know. But I don't think I could have written about terminal illness if I didn't know what it looked like from the ground up."

Still, writing "One True Thing" called upon its author to relive terrible events. "That part of it was pretty hideous," she says. "And one of the hardest things for me was that I had control of whether the mother lived or died this time."

The fictional mother, like Prudence Quindlen, does not survive the cancer.

Starting over

Two days after Anna Quindlen publicly announced she was leaving the New York Times to pursue a career writing fiction, a review of her novel "One True Thing" appeared in the Times book section. Wrote reviewer Frederick Busch: "The banality of the language is matched by the banality of the ideas it expresses."

Ouch!

"I went nuts," says Ms. Quindlen of her reaction to that review. The reviews for her first book, she says, were "almost universally positive" and she was unprepared for the mixed reaction to her second novel. "The idea that this one was getting lambasted just blew my mind. But there was this huge backlash, I think."

She says a September 1994 piece in Vanity Fair was the beginning of the backlash. Written by Marjorie Williams, the piece, among other things, described Anna Quindlen as "an incorrigible nice girl: a powerful 60-ish white man's idea of a feminist writer."

Ms. Quindlen went nuts over that article, too. She says: "It was like, 'We've gone along thinking Anna Quindlen is a good feminist and Anna Quindlen is a good person and she tries to write a good column. So it's time to write the piece where we say she's not really a feminist at all. She's a rotten human being. She's ambitious.' "

She laughs. "It's my favorite criticism," she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Can you imagine anybody ever writing a piece saying, 'Good golly, Bill Safire's ambitious.' It's only with women that it's used as a pejorative."

In a way, Anna Quindlen is starting over. She was at the top of her game as a journalist. But as a novelist she's still climbing. And still learning. Especially about the unpredictability of book reviews. And book reviewers.

"Anne Tyler reviewed my first novel in the Times," says Ms. Quindlen, "and she gave it a really nice review. But she had some problems with it. She described these problems in this really gentle, teacherly fashion. Because Anne Tyler isn't the kind of writer who needs to make her bones on anybody's back. She's Anne Tyler. So I got lulled into this false sense that that's sort of how it worked."

For her part, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler, who lives in Baltimore, was impressed by Anna Quindlen's generosity. "She wrote me a letter after the review came out, thanking me for it," Ms. Tyler says. "She said that she had learned from some of the things I'd said about the flaws in her book. And that's very hard for a writer to do. I wouldn't have minded a bit if she had said, 'I hate you for pointing out the flaws.' It speaks well for her that she was so generous about the review."

Now Ms. Quindlen spends her days upstairs in her office working steadily and happily on her third novel.

"It's bigger than the other books in that it covers a time span of about 40 years," she says. "And it's about the number that parents do on children, sometimes with the best intentions."

Anna Quindlen says she doesn't miss writing columns.

"I mean, the world of two opinions a week is sort of taxing. And not having to have opinions about everything is great. I think the person it's hardest on is my husband. Because he comes home on certain days and all I basically want do to is yell at him about certain things.

"I want to yell at him because Harvard rescinded Gina Grant's acceptance. I want to yell at him because Dennis Fung was cross-examined as though he had killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman rather than someone else having done it . . ." Anna Quindlen continues to list the things that would have been columns if she were still writing a column.

Anna Quindlen also doesn't miss being a role model. She understands that her career has been so singular that it offers little in the way of "role modeling" for other women. After all, how many women can quit their jobs when they become pregnant and then be begged to come back? And how many women are ever going to have a high-paying, fast-track job without sacrificing much time with their children?

Ms. Quindlen, who understands all this, says: "That's why whenever anybody, especially younger people, say to me, 'Now tell me about your experiences in the newspaper business,' I always say, 'I'll tell you, but I got to tell you that it's really aberrational.' "

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