Talking with Anna Quindlen About Her New, Very UWS Novel and Why the Neighborhood Suits Her Down to the Ground

Quindlen on her UWS rooftop. Photo: © Maria Krovatin.

By Joy Bergmann

Stepping into Pier 72 diner, Anna Quindlen seems much like any other work-from-home writer on break. Eager for news, a laugh, some rice pudding with the decaf. Most of the day, she says, “I just sit and stare into the middle distance.”

Her résumé says otherwise. After working as a journalist and winning the Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times columns, Quindlen moved on to writing bestsellers, from memoirs to advice books to nine novels.

Her latest, Alternate Side, is set on a dead-end block on the Upper West Side, one with a tiny private parking lot that’s an enduring source of pride for those granted a space, and envy for those relegated to New York’s insane automotive dance. A block quite like the one where Quindlen lives with her husband, attorney Gerald Krovatin, and two Labrador retrievers. The couple has three grown children, one grandchild and another on the way.

Quindlen spent a recent hour talking about the novel, the fault lines running through many UWS lives and why nothing beats Broadway’s “great parade of humanity.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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WSR:  Alternate Side digs into so many issues that obsess Upper West Siders – class, status anxiety, real estate, gentrification. What sparked the story?

AQ:  The initial impulse for the novel came because my elder son was reading Bonfire of the Vanities. It made me think how long it’s been since Tom Wolfe published that book. And how issues of race and class attach. Not only in this city but across this country. Now perhaps more than ever.

So I was a little surprised to discover what it turned out to be was a novel about marriage.

WSR:  Your 50-ish protagonist, Nora Nolan, and her husband, Charlie, feel so familiar.

AQ:  I think of them as classic, prosperous Upper West Siders.  Wealthy people live on 5th or Park or down in Tribeca. Prosperous people live on the Upper West Side.

WSR:  Changing perspectives hit Nora from multiple angles. She’s conflicted about her relationship with her marriage and with her city.

AQ:  And with herself. It’s not accidental that she has a completely different work life at the end of the book as she has at the beginning. She changes substantially. In ways that I’m not sure would be true, had the incident with the golf club not happened.

WSR:  That incident – an assault on a blue-collar man by a white-collar one – divides the block, upending peaceful coexistences. Do you think one incident can change how you see someone you’ve been with for 25 years?

AQ:  I don’t think the single thing changes it. I think sometimes something cataclysmic can magnify the differences that you unconsciously knew were there but refused to look at or acknowledge. You see it when empty nest syndrome happens…when serious illness strikes.

It’s not so much that that thing caused the schism. It’s that there were tiny cracks all along and that thing is like a teaspoon hit against the side of the vessel. Suddenly all the tiny cracks get bigger.

WSR:  Nora also has shifting feelings about New York.

AQ:  What Nora says over and over is that she felt more of an affinity for New York – and certainly her neighborhood – when it was grittier, harsher, harder. That it felt like someplace that was challenging her. Now she feels really settled in it. In a way that you’re not really supposed to feel in this city. You’re supposed to feel settled in the suburbs, not on Broadway.

WSR:  Do you feel the same way?

AQ:  I have a certain fondness for the grittier, crazier Upper West Side that existed when I came to college here. And when I was a street reporter here. But as a mother? As a property owner? I’m not so unhappy with things feeling slightly safer and more settled.

What I am unhappy about is when younger people and less prosperous people get pushed out.

The great thing about the Upper West Side is you walk up Broadway and feel like you’re seeing the great parade of humanity. You’re not just seeing people who can afford a pair of Jimmy Choos.

But fewer members of the great parade are welcome here or are prosperous enough to settle here now. I’m a big fan of rent control!

WSR:  Speaking of divisive issues…class and its power dynamics run thru Alternate Side. Among prosperous Upper West Siders, I’ve sometimes sensed this crisis of masculinity and of femininity, when folks interact with their contractor or their super or their nanny.  A person who enters their lives and has much more power than they expected.

AQ:  It’s certainly a major theme of the book. The people who are performing the tasks that – deep in your heart of hearts – you believe you should be doing yourself.

I don’t think it’s quite as strong among the men. But among the women, certainly I get a really powerful sense of that. Whether it’s the nanny or the housekeeper – that person upon whom you are so reliant, and who therefore has a kind of power that can make you uncomfortable.

The woman who might know things about your children that you don’t know. Who knows where everything is in your house. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, but it can be.

WSR:  The denizens of Alternate Side’s block have some sharp personalities. Do you think there are particular character traits shared by Upper West Siders?

AQ:  I think of us as liberal, outspoken, nicer than people think we are. People can be really, really helpful to each other. Cliquish and clannish, too.

WSR:  How so?

AQ:  You just have this tightly woven tapestry of the neighborhood people. They’re your nabes. Maybe they’re not even people you know. But they are people you see almost every day. You know their dogs. They go to the same nail parlor. A few you know, but most you don’t – except by sight.

WSR:  But they’re still your people.

AQ:  Definitely your people. Suddenly, you notice when they’re not there anymore.

WSR:  After growing up in Philly and South Brunswick, New Jersey, you first came to the upper Upper West Side – Morningside Heights – at 18?

AQ:  Came to Barnard in 1970. And I would’ve stayed around here. But my husband and I got married and didn’t have much money. So we looked around for the place most like the Upper West Side, one where you could get cheap housing. And moved to Hoboken. I tended to think of the Hudson River as nonexistent.

In 1999, we moved back. Right after Oprah chose Black and Blue as an Oprah Book Club book. Which was not coincidental.

WSR:  Ah, windfalls…

AQ:  And we were both horrified, because we were convinced we were buying at the top of the market. Only to discover that the market had no top!

WSR:  19 years, then. A lot has changed…

AQ:  It changes in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t.

WSR:  What are the eternals?

AQ:  Well, you walk past a place like Barney Greengrass and you think, by right, this should be an Armani Exchange. And yet, somehow, it’s not.

There’s this weird alchemy to the Upper West Side. Some places really stick. I’m convinced that if there was a nuclear disaster, Cafe Luxembourg would survive. And thank God for that.

WSR:  What’s your favorite part of the neighborhood? Beyond our spunky spiritedness…

AQ:  That is one of my favorite things. That odd combination of friendliness and non-intrusiveness. The neighbors who know how to say just enough, but not too much.

And Riverside Park. Poor Riverside Park! In any other city in America, it would be THE park. But because of Central Park, it gets overlooked. I’m a real Riverside Park devotee.

My grandson’s favorite place on earth – other than Nana & Pop’s house – is the American Museum of Natural History. Which is just as it should be.

WSR:  In A Short Guide to a Happy Life, you summarize your personal code as, “I show up, I listen. I try to laugh.”

AQ:  My work makes me sound so much more large and in charge than I actually am.

WSR:  You’re so together!

AQ:  I’m baffled by it. I read a quote from myself on Twitter and I think, did I actually ever say or write that?

When my kids were really young, and I’d be going to give a speech or something, I’d come downstairs in a dress and heels and make-up. My son would say, “It’s the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll!”  And most of the time when I have to talk about my work, or look at my work, or think about what I’ve produced in my work, I feel like the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll.

And that is NOT the person who populates the streets of the Upper West Side every day!

WSR:  Ha! Alternate Side’s paperback is out in November. What’s next for you?

AQ:  Nanaville will be published in the spring. It’s thoughts on grandmothering from a newbie nana.

ART, COLUMNS | 2 comments | permalink
    1. A wonderful writer and just as charming as I imagined her to be.

    2. Charles Kallick says:

      Absolutely delightful interview of a wonderful person.