Speaking Freely About Her Latest Novel

Relationships gone wrong are a central concern in the fiction of Anna Quindlen.

In person, former columnist Anna Quindlen is much like she is in print: forthright, thoughtful, and often funny.

She is game to discuss most anything - the president's problems, the reading habits of her children, the movie version of her book "One True Thing."

But what she talks most freely about these days is her third novel, "Black and Blue," and what it's been like writing fiction full time since leaving The New York Times three years ago.

"I think I've gotten good at it," she says over breakfast during a promotional swing through Boston. "I think this is a good novel. And I think it's a better novel than 'One True Thing,' and I think 'One True Thing' is a better novel than 'Object Lessons.' "

Her passion for fiction - writing it and reading it - is readily apparent. A conversation with her is peppered with titles and authors: Toni Morrison, Anita Brookner, Ayn Rand. Her eye for detail, she says, came from reading her favorite, Charles Dickens, and years of newspaper work.

"As a reporter you just have this great opportunity to learn so much about life, never mind anything you learn about budgets, or municipal government, or infrastructure. You learn about how people really talk, about how people really behave, how they act when they're under stress. It was the best possible preparation for a life as a fiction writer."

For her that life is now a 10 to 2 weekday job that begins after a brisk walk and the three kids get off to school. Ms. Quindlen says she starts with a theme, rather than an issue, when sitting down to write a book. In the case of "Black and Blue," she says the idea about relationships between men and women came first, domestic violence was secondary.

Set in New York and Florida, the story follows Fran Benedetto who, after years of abuse, finally flees her husband. Quindlen says she made Fran a smart woman with a secret, someone people could see a little of themselves in, instead of a distant victim.

"It's a mistake when we try to objectify people who have things like this happen to them. I was at a lunch once, and I said very blithely, 'You know, I don't have any friends who actually have been raped.' And the entire table fell silent, and I instantaneously knew, that I might not know I had any friends who had been raped, but I had some.... We're so good at putting up this patina of perfection."

Offering the kind of insight that won her regular readers, she explains why she might have written a column about Hillary Rodham Clinton "vis--vis this book" when the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

Pointing to what the book suggests about identity, she notes, "Marriage happens in increments." First a couple share an address, then friends, family, and a church. "So the notion of splitting up with him is not severing your relationship with one man, but putting a bomb in the middle of your life.

"That's why I find it so hard to believe when married people say about Hillary, 'How can she stay?' Well, you know, incrementally she made compromises, and those compromises have become the substance of her life."

Although Quindlen's "Public & Private" columns were widely read and praised - she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 - her novels have gotten mixed reviews. The public has been more positive, propelling her books onto bestseller lists. And Hollywood has taken notice, too, with "One True Thing," starring Meryl Streep, opening in October.

But no amount of criticism will likely shake Quindlen from her current course. She wrote in her high school yearbook that her ambition was to pen "the great American novel." Louisa May Alcott inspired her as a child: "I read 'Little Women' and discovered that I could in fact be a published writer, because Jo March could. That was an invaluable gift for a 10-year-old girl."

She got a lot of positive reinforcement from teachers, something she says should be encouraged. "Writing can really build self-esteem because it can allow you to communicate with other people in a way that you may find difficult or impossible verbally." She applauds rap music, for example, because it has "taught kids who might never have thought so otherwise that words are cool."

Quindlen is at work on a new novel about redemption, putting her columnist days even further behind her. "I've been a columnist," she explains. "And whether you liked it or you didn't like it, it's the best column I could write. I'm not going to write any better a column than I wrote during those five years. I hope that for the foreseeable future, I'm going to get better at writing novels."

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