Author Interviews
5:05 am
Sun February 2, 2014

Anna Quindlen Spins A Tale Of Middle-Aged Reinvention

Originally published on Mon February 3, 2014 11:58 am

Rebecca Winter is at a crossroads. The famous photographer had been living off of sales of one particular photograph for years. When the money stream starts to dry up, she reluctantly decides to rent out her Manhattan apartment and move to a small, rural town far from her seemingly fabulous New York life. It is here that she tries to map out her next chapter. No longer married, no longer needed as much by her grown son, no longer as successful as she used to be.

That's where we meet the main character in Anna Quindlen's newest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

Quindlen tells NPR's Rachel Martin, "I'm really intrigued by the idea that we now live long enough to get to reinvent, rediscover ourselves over and over again, and that's definitely what's happening to Rebecca."


Interview Highlights

On why Rebecca leaves New York for the country

She's, as she keeps saying, a very intuitive photographer, and her wellspring of inspiration has dried up just a little bit in part because her earlier photographs were so popular in ways that she can't quite apprehend and couldn't have predicted. And so she's looking for new work, but frankly she's also in money trouble.

As someone said to me, "You know, you've really tapped the great taboo here," and I thought they meant sex, and in fact they meant money, or not having enough of it. And so one of the things that she's done is to leave New York — which is so fabulously expensive — behind to try and recoup financially in this town. It's not like she's dying to be there; it's in some ways a kind of a last resort for her.

On the love story at the heart of the book

Jim Bates is a roofer who comes to check out what someone calls "a critter in the crawl space." And, little by little, the two of them form a bond, not because they're the least bit alike, because they're not — they come from very different places; but because he needs somebody to take pictures and she needs work.

And it's such a cliché, but the guy's salt of the earth. The guy's the kind of guy who doesn't let you make nasty remarks about somebody he likes, you know, who will take care of people who need taking care of. And she's never quite encountered anyone like him before.

On taste and art

That's the dangerous game of producing art; that, especially in this information age, there's a sense that taste is not what you bring to the table, taste is what other people tell you it is, whether they're critics or sales figures or the like. And I think that when you produce any kind of art, there has to be that moment when you know that it's good.

On staying down to earth

One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Rebecca's getting out of a car and she says something about how she used to be Rebecca Winter, and [her son] Ben says to her, "You'll always be the Rebecca Winter." And what he means is that for him, and in an enduring way through her work, she's always going to be something special.

But I think it's a mistake to get too attached to that kind of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon version of yourself, because it estranges you from other people. I mean, I've had the frequent experience of introducing myself to people who say, "Great, nice to meet you." And then every once in a while I introduce myself to someone and they get this look on their face. My kids call it "the Anna Quindlen look" and it means that they've read the work and they've liked it and they are shocked that it's embodied in a perfectly ordinary person. And I think the perfectly ordinary person thing is the thing that you always have to keep a hold of.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rebecca Winter is at a crossroads. The famous photographer had been living off sales of one particular photograph for years. When it starts to dry up, she reluctantly decides to rent out her Manhattan apartment and move to a small, rural town far from her seemingly fabulous New York life. It is here that she tries to map out her next chapter. No longer married, no longer needed as much by her grown son, no longer as successful as she used to be. That's where we meet the main character in Anna Quindlen's newest novel. It is called "Still Life with Bread Crumbs." Anna Quindlen joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNA QUINDLEN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: When we think of a coming-of-age story, we tend to think of a teenager, or maybe someone in their 20s. But this is its own kind of coming-of-age story, is it not?

QUINDLEN: Oh, my gosh. Can I crib that? That's fabulous.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yes. Yes, you can.

QUINDLEN: You're right. It's a coming of second age, later age - something like that. And I'm really intrigued by the idea that we now live long enough to get to reinvent, rediscover ourselves over and over again; and that's definitely what's happening to Rebecca in this novel.

MARTIN: What is she looking for, in this town? I mean, it's kind of mapped out what has driven her there, but what is she searching for?

QUINDLEN: Well, first of all, she's searching for new work. She's - as she keeps saying - a very intuitive photographer, and her wellspring of inspiration has dried up just a little bit, in part because her earlier photographs were so popular in ways that she can't quite apprehend and couldn't have predicted. And so she's looking for new work but frankly, she's also in money trouble. As someone said to me, you know, you've really tapped the great taboo here, and I thought they meant sex; and in fact, they meant money - or not having enough of it. And so one of the things that she's done is to leave New York - which is so fabulously expensive - behind, to try to recoup financially in this town. It's not like she's dying to be there; it's, in some ways, a kind of a last resort for her.

MARTIN: And she's living in this very rustic cabin - rustic is generous.

QUINDLEN: That's a nice way of putting it.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINDLEN: Nothing works.

MARTIN: Charming and rustic.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINDLEN: There are no electrical outlets. I mean, she says early on she cannot believe that she, of all people - as a photographer - rented this place based on photographs. And she's really flummoxed by a lot of what goes on in the country. I mean, as you can see at the very beginning of the novel, she keeps hearing these noises above her bedroom, and it's not giving anything away to say that it's something that happens a fair amount in the country, which is that a raccoon has gotten into the attic crawl space. But for her, it might as well be a visitor from another planet.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So speaking of that raccoon in the attic, this is also just a flat-out love story. Can you tell us about Jim Bates?

QUINDLEN: Jim Bates is a roofer who comes to check out what someone calls the critter in the crawl space. And little by little, the two of them form a bond, not because they're the least bit alike - because they're not; they come from very different places - but because he needs somebody to take pictures, and she needs work. And it's such a cliche, but the guy's salt of the earth. The guy's the kind of guy who doesn't let you make nasty remarks about somebody he likes; you know, who will take care of people who need taking care of. And she's never quite encountered anyone like him before.

MARTIN: There's some interesting themes in this book about the subjectivity of art. You know, you mentioned that Rebecca Winter is this famous photographer, and she kind of doesn't know why. But she became wildly famous for this one particular photograph and then later, people's tastes change and things change; and she's not so famous, and she's not so successful, anymore. And when she's in this rural town, she starts just snapping photos of her dog and all of a sudden, those are the next hottest thing. I wonder if that's something you intentionally set out to comment on.

QUINDLEN: Oh, I think about that all the time because that's the dangerous game of producing art; that especially in this information age, there's a sense that taste is not what you bring to the table, taste is what other people tell you it is, whether they're critics or sales figures or the like. And I think that when you produce any kind of art, there has to be that moment when you know that it's good.

MARTIN: Rebecca's also just trying to figure out who she is - if she is not the Rebecca Winter, the acclaimed photographer. And I wonder if that is something you have ever had to grapple with personally. You have had this incredibly successful career as a writer. Have you ever worried that inspiration would dry up or tastes would change, and you would no longer be the Anna Quindlen?

QUINDLEN: Well, in 99.9 percent of my life, I'm not that person, really. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Rebecca's getting out of a car and she says something about how she used to be Rebecca Winter. And Ben says to her, you'll always be the Rebecca Winter.

MARTIN: Ben is her son.

QUINDLEN: Yeah. And what he means is that for him, and in an enduring way through her work, she's always going to be something special. But I think it's a mistake to get too attached to that kind of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon version of yourself because it estranges you from other people. I mean, I've had the frequent experience of introducing myself to people who say, great, nice to meet you. And then every once in a while, I introduce myself to someone and they get this look on their face. My kids call it the Anna Quindlen look, and it means that they've read the work and they've liked it, and they are shocked that it's embodied in a perfectly ordinary person. And I think the perfectly-ordinary-person thing is the thing that you always have to keep a hold of.

MARTIN: Anna Quindlen. Her new novel is called "Still Life with Bread Crumbs." She joined us from our studios in New York. Anna, thank you so much for talking with us.

QUINDLEN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.