Anna Quindlen—journalist, columnist, novelist—has a new book out right now. That’s enough to make anyone nervous, and Quindlen, like many authors, chooses not to read reviews of her work in order to calm her nerves.
But Quindlen, who spent many professional years at the New York Times, has a secret weapon: “One of my best friends reads my reviews for me, and she’s a book critic.”
Is her name “Michiko,” by any chance? I ask, referring to the infamously blunt Times critic Michiko Kakutani.
“No, her name is Janet Maslin!” Quindlen says with a laugh as she reveals her secret weapon to be one of the Times’s most celebrated book critics. She further explains that Maslin reads her reviews and points her to the ones that are “most flattering.” We are sitting in the “green room” of the Politics & Prose bookstore, otherwise known as owners Lissa Muscatine and Brad Graham’s office and nerve center. Quindlen is about to talk to a standing-room-only crowd about Still Life with Bread Crumbs, her seventh novel and 18th—yes, 18th!—book.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs initially sounds as if it might be a soft-focus fable of midlife romance. Protagonist Rebecca Winter does fall in love with a rough-around-the-edges local contractor when she leaves Manhattan for a rural upstate cabin—but on reading, it reveals itself as something much richer and more satisfying, the story of a woman realizing that her life until now has been less than it could have. Quindlen will later explain to the Politics & Prose audience that, to her, Rebecca’s is “a coming-of-age story, yes, even at age 60, you can grow up.”
However, I’m interested in a different aspect of Rebecca Winter’s tale: that of artistic growth. Quindlen’s fictional creation earns her fame and money as the woman who shot a photo she called “Still Life With Bread Crumbs,” an image of things left behind on a kitchen counter after a dinner party. Her subsequent shots of domestic life earn her a place in the feminist pantheon, yet when she moves north (with money problems), Winter begins taking very different sorts of photographs—deeper, more meaningful, more considered.
I asked Anna Quindlen if this professional trajectory was analogous to her own; that is, moving from writing about small but significant domestic moments to writing about wholly imagined characters and worlds. “That’s it!” she said. “That’s it, exactly, although I hadn’t thought of it at all. I’m going to use that!”
Quindlen continued. “For me, this book was a meditation on the nature of art, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a meditation on my art. You know, the world had a lot more difficulty with that transition than I did. For two books, I was called a ‘columnist turned novelist.’ Then I was a ‘columnist and novelist.’ Now, I’m finally a ‘novelist.’ Of course, that’s what I’ve been to myself all along.”
Anna Quindlen, novelist. It has a good, strong, authentic ring to it.