Books

Between the Lines: Anna Quindlen on a girl’s life, home in ‘Miller’s Valley’

Author Anna Quindlen has eight novels and 10 other books to her name.
Author Anna Quindlen has eight novels and 10 other books to her name.

One rarely attained model in the writing universe is that of the journalist who successfully segues into a career as a novelist. Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen pulled that off with grace and smarts after her groundbreaking years at The New York Times and Newsweek magazine.

The best-selling author’s eighth novel, “Miller’s Valley,” is a tale in the very best tradition of the coming-of-age genre – moving, insightful and relevant (Random House, $28, 272 pages; on sale Tuesday, April 5). One of Quindlen’s hallmarks is translating the macroscopic universalities of life into the microscopic events of the day-to-day, with lessons attached, and that theme is at the heart of her story.

The novel is narrated by plain-spoken farm girl Mary Margaret “Mimi” Miller, who takes us through the 1960s into the present, beginning when she is 11. She lives in Miller’s Valley in rural Pennsylvania, a community doomed to be flooded by the federal government to make way for a “recreational area,” which means the relocation of the town’s multigenerational residents and the end of their way of life. One reviewer wrote, “Reading it is like opening an old family photo album. You see people and places that you’ve forgotten, but with one glance you remember how things used to be.”

As a columnist for The New York Times, Quindlen practically invented the “mommy/family/career woman” genre with her columns “Public & Private” and “Life in the 30s,” and later in Newsweek magazine with “The Last Word.” They were unprecedented self-examinations of her own life and times, which reflected those of her “everyday women” readers and their issues. Along the way, she pioneered the ground-zero changes that allowed women journalists to assume greater roles in the workplace.

I feel like the luckiest person on earth at times, which is a universal feeling among women of a certain age who have done certain things with their lives.

Anna Quinlen

Among her best-known works is the memoir “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” and the novels “One True Thing” and “Object Lessons.” Quindlen, 62, lives in New York City with her attorney husband; they have three adult children. Visit her at www.annaquindlen.com.

Q: The plot of “Miller’s Valley” looks simple, but the story is extraordinarily multilayered.

A: The entire time I was thinking about how Miller’s Valley was going to be wiped out by water, I was thinking of it in the larger metaphorical sense of what we do in the U.S. to our history. We live through it and then conveniently forget it, and nowhere is that clearer than in the 1960s and ’70s.

I also wanted to explore what it was like for a girl to grow up during a period when she went from having no expectations for herself to having a world that broke open for her. Because of changes in our culture, she ends up with all sorts of avenues open to her that were never open for her mother or for most women of my age.

Q: It’s a story about loss, as well. In the epilogue, Mimi says, “There’s too much missing people in my life.”

A: That’s the way it is when we get older – our personal earth becomes less and less populated. But in some ways Miller’s Valley is an optimistic metaphor. It’s gone, but as long as Mimi (and other characters) are still alive and can remember what it looked like, felt like and smelled like on a summer day, it’s still there.

The remarkable thing about (the concept of) home is you can raze houses and destroy towns, and yet there are always individuals who can close their eyes and walk through the ruins and down the streets as effortlessly as if those places still exist. Home really is an “irrevocable condition,” as (writer) James Baldwin said.

Q: Who are you in the book?

A: It’s like making sausage – there are little bits of me scattered throughout all my characters. But the more I write, the further I move from autobiography.

Q: Near the end of the story, Mimi makes a shocking discovery of something that’s hidden in her dysfunctional aunt’s attic, but the context is not resolved.

A: That’s so often the case in life: Family secrets remain murky even when they’re partially revealed. Because the novel is told from Mimi’s point of view, we only know for sure what Mimi knows for sure, and she doesn’t have any answers. So readers have to come to their own conclusions.

Q: As a former journalist, what do you think of where the media have landed in recent years, in regard to the digital revolution?

A: I am so delighted that I didn’t have to live through a period in the business where I would be using my thumbs on a smartphone to type my story on deadline and at a distance. Having said that, I really think it’s possible today to be better informed than at any time in history. It just requires that you do a little more work and have more patience. If you play around on your computer, you can wind up getting a 360-degree view of the world.

Q: Your self-help book “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” has sold more than a million copies, and your columns often helped guide women readers to finding greater happiness. Where does your own contentment lie?

A: I feel like the luckiest person on earth at times, which is a universal feeling among women of a certain age who have done certain things with their lives. When I was a little girl, there were two career paths open to me: I could be the mother of a large Catholic family or I could be a nun. Nobody I knew did anything else for a living if they were female. On some days, I am suddenly struck by the improbability of the life I wound up with and how happy it makes me.

Q: Your best advice to your loyal readers?

A: My father taught me to drive out fear starting when I was a pre-adolescent, which has guided me all my life. Fear is what holds us back and makes us embrace diminished lives because big lives feel so scary. It can make all the difference if you can stop saying, “Oh, that’s scary” and just take a flying leap.

Q: You’re known for your Quindlen-esque “thoughts for the day.” Will you leave us with one?

A: How about this from (writer) Henry James: “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” I can’t do any better than that. I use this quote over and over because I really feel that kindness moves us forward.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Author appearances

Anna Quindlen will give presentations at two Bay Area venues.

Noon, Thursday, April 7: Book Passage in Corte Madera, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., 415-927-0960, www.bookpassage.com. She will be in conversation with bookstore president Elaine Petrocelli. Luncheon and autographed copy of “Miller’s Valley,” $55.

Noon, Friday, April 8: Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., San Francisco, 415-597-6700, www.commonwealthclub.org. She will be in conversation with “Glitter and Glue” author Kelly Corrigan. $7-$50

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