A Detailed Plot to Be a Novelist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Anna Quindlen were writing this story, she would begin with the details . . .

The pinky gold light that for a few hours between rainstorms illuminated the lobby of the La Jolla hotel. The way the old women with their clouds of blue hair sat stiffly at the ornate mahogany table playing cards and sipping gin and tonics from tall crystal tumblers. The salt-scented air and the distant barks of sea lions lounging on the smooth rocks at the shore below . . . .

For 19 years as a journalist, Quindlen trafficked in such details. Now as a full-time novelist, she lives and breathes them. For it is in the details, she will tell you, that a stick figure of a story turns into "something that has the smell, the feel, the noisy allure of real life."

Since she wrote her first story at the age of 12, Quindlen has been well attuned to the noises of real life. But working for the New York Post and then the New York Times, the details seemed too often disconnected or simply unknowable in time for the first edition.

So she began to write more about what she knew best, the politics of relationships, the challenges of child raising, being and staying married, middle age, getting old, dying with, and without, dignity.

Only twice in her 11 years as a columnist for the New York Times did Quindlen address the issue of domestic violence--both times in the context of O.J. Simpson's murder trial. But, two years ago, when she sat down to write what she envisioned as a "truth-telling novel about life and marriage," out came a compelling, yet frightening tale of one woman's flight from a brutal husband.

That book, Quindlen's third novel and her first since she quit the Times, is "Black and Blue" (Random House), a grim tale of an emergency room nurse who creates a new life in the Florida panhandle to save herself and her son from the police officer husband who beats her.

As Quindlen crisscrosses the country promoting the book, she has been surprised that some of the reaction--including a piece in her beloved New York Times Review of Books--has been so "off the mark." Although reviewer Maggie Paley complained that the novel "sounds like a woman writing a book-length op-ed column about herself," "Black and Blue" is in fact the first Quindlen book not based on autobiographical material.

The author says she knew she was no longer practicing journalism when she thought briefly of going to Florida to see what the Panhandle looked and felt like, but then quickly rejected the idea. "I suddenly thought, 'No, this is my Florida.' . . . I think at that moment I realized I'd irrevocably crossed over from my former life to my life today as a novelist."

Quindlen also takes issue with those who speak only of the pain in her characters' lives. "I know there is pain in this book, but I see it as a book of triumph," she said recently over lunch near a Spanish-tiled waterfall in the garden of La Jolla's La Valencia Hotel.

"Domestic violence is not what I wanted this book to be about. But as I began to find my hero's voice, I knew I could make both the love and the toxic chemistry between her and her husband seem really real [by using that issue]. I just knew this woman from the moment I started. I found her and her voice--in the details."

Anna Marie Quindlen is the sort of person who willingly shares many intimate details of her own life--the still-raw pain over her mother's death when she was 19, her devotion to the Roman Catholic Church (with the exception of its antiabortion teachings), the sweetness and occasional outrageousness of her three children--but the essence of her personality is not so easy to pin down.

She can be at once friendly and arch, wary and confused by journalists who don't appreciate how it hurts to have one's work "misunderstood." Even before she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1992, Quindlen, 45, moved easily through the corridors of power. Until she left the paper, she was on track to be the first woman editor of the New York Times and was generally acknowledged to be among the most successful journalists of her generation.

"Can you believe she talked to David Halberstam on the cell phone from my car this morning!" marvels her sister, Theresa Quindlen, an assistant manager at Borders Books in San Diego. When Anna and her college sweetheart and husband of 24 years, attorney Gerald Krovatin, were President Clinton's guests at a White House dinner last year, the former news gal was treated like all the other VIPs.

"The press guys behind the ropes yelled out stuff like, 'Miss Quindlen, Miss Quindlen, who did your dress?'

"I yelled back, 'Guys, it's only me, just me! Jon Bon Jovi's here, for heaven's sake. Go take his picture!' "

Thanks to the success of all three of her novels--"Black and Blue" has been on bestseller lists for weeks--Quindlen is financially comfortable and able to afford private schools and a weekend home in rural New Jersey. "Is that in Hunt Country?" a reporter asks. "No, it's in Kmart country," she cracks.

But the greatest luxury that has come from quitting the daily newspaper grind, says Quindlen, is the time she now can spend with her children--Quindlen, 14, Christopher, 12, and Maria, 9. "I wanted to be around when my kids were doing cool things. I wanted to be there." Anna's mother, Prudence Quindlen, wasn't there for much of the lives of her five children. She died of ovarian cancer when Anna, the eldest, was a freshman at Barnard College and the youngest, Theresa (whom Anna named after her favorite saint), was 10.

"When your mother dies too soon, you feel very strongly about not missing out on their childhoods," she says. "Once I quit the column, my children told me I had ceased being so 'abstracted.' They said I didn't have 'The Look' so much anymore (which means I was thinking about welfare reform while I was driving)."

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Doesn't she miss the fast pace and excitement of having a published opinion on any subject anywhere in the news anywhere in the world? "I still have very strong opinions and at the moment feel kind of outraged about how coverage has evolved of this latest so-called White House scandal. It's just too much about something that may very well not have a bit of truth to it. If I were still writing the column, I hope I'd be writing about something other than speculation about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.

"The fact is I never really intended to be a journalist. It was just a job--albeit a job I loved--to pay the rent until I could make my living as a novelist. If you look back at my high school yearbook, you'll see 'Will write the Great American Novel' under my picture.

"Newspapering gives you a kind of discipline I still count on. Even when you're not having a good day, you know you can sit down and put nouns and verbs one after another . . . and you learn the rhythm and syntax of real conversation after years and years of writing down what people say in a notebook. It all teaches you an economy of expression."

Indeed. One thing critics consistently praise about her fiction is the realistic dialogue. And that pleases the author. But it does not please her when readers ask her why her books are so full of pain.

Abusive relationships, weeping children, fatal disease, fatigued caregivers--the weighty emotional burdens of life, especially of a woman's life, are the leitmotifs of Quindlen novels. But the woman who lays down such themes sees it differently.

"Look, women run the world. They don't have the jobs that make it look like they run the world, but if just for one day women didn't do what they do, the world would stop. With that comes a keen sense of how women make life wonderful, but with that, goes emotional deconstruction. . . .

"For instance. When it came time for me to leave on the book tour, my daughter Maria said to me, 'I hate that you're going away. I hate it.'

" 'But I only do it every two or three years,' I reminded her.

" 'Well, your Mama never went on book tours. . . .' "

For a woman who writes so vividly of pain but has enjoyed such worldly success, is there any pain left in her own life? The answer is stunning.

"Almost none," says Quindlen. "But I still miss my mother."

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