Anna Quindlen knows human nature and the nature of the American media—how it can create superstars, then turn them into villains based on one careless statement.
Such is the plot, in fact, of “Rise and Shine,” the 2006 novel that more than a few critics hailed as the best fiction of Quindlen’s career.
The story concerns two sisters living in the New York area. Bridget is a social worker; Meghan Fitzmaurice is the darling of the most popular morning TV show in America. Until, that is, one fateful day when Meghan, thinking the show has gone to commercial, says something brutally honest about one of the show’s guests.
“Rise and Shine” is prime storytelling, complete with a driving plot and detailed characterization. Yet it also serves as a commentary on the nature of fame and infamy—and the fickleness of a media audience that has become conditioned to love or hate its public figures.
Quindlen discussed it in a recent e-mail interview.
Is character your major strength as a writer? These two sisters really compel, partly because of the contrast between them. Was that something you strove to make dramatic?
Although the first impulse for a novel for me is always theme, it’s characters that get me writing. As I start to think about ways to animate a theme, people start to take shape in my mind. Eventually I can see and hear them, feel as though they’re walking around in my head—and if that doesn’t make you feel crazy, nothing will!
The only reason I finally start to write is because they’ve got so much going on that I know I will lose it if I don’t start to actually consign it to the computer. All of my characters seem quite real to me. I was once stopped at a light on Ninth Avenue when a red-haired nurse crossed in front of the car. I idly thought to myself, “Oh, there’s Fran Flynn.” Only problem is, I made Fran up in “Black and Blue.”
I know some critics have given you a hard time regarding the significance you attach to sibling birth order. But how do you think that factor affects siblings’ choices in life?
Birth order is one of my hobbyhorses, because I’m ... wait for it ... an eldest child. And so is my husband. And (my son) Quin once wrote an essay that began, “I am the eldest child of two eldest children,” which I think was meant to signify that he is so full of himself and his right to run everything that it’s practically nuclear.
However, I don’t have a predictable attitude about the issue because I’ve thought a lot about the downside, particularly since I had to leave college to come home and take care of my mother when she was sick because I was ... sigh ... the eldest child. I think our second and third children have a freedom to choose their own path in a way the eldest did not. I think they have more of a sense of perspective about the world and a sense of humor about themselves.
(In “Rise and Shine”) Meghan and Bridget are classic eldest/youngest children. That’s why the novel is told from Bridget’s perspective. An eldest child can’t really see herself. She’s too busy looking ahead. A second child is a watcher because she spends so much of her formative years observing the other.
“Reality” TV is, in my opinion, anything but. It’s highly constructed, produced, staged. Yet the culture seems to be fascinated with it. You’ve said one of your themes with this book is the disconnect between appearance and reality. Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Certainly TV is the prime mover behind that disconnect. When I was going on one of the morning shows to tub-thump for “Rise and Shine,” I told the producer that it would be hilarious if they pulled back and showed how our little living room couches were becalmed amid wires, lights, cameras, crew and the other similarly phony “at home” setups. She thought it was a great idea. But it never happened.
I think the signal motto of our time might be, “Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain!” I don’t see that changing any time soon. And, by the way, I loathe reality TV except for a show on one of the cable channels called “Say Yes to the Dress” about bridal shopping. That and “What Not to Wear.” But keep in mind that I have a 19-year-old daughter. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s, my girl and a discussion about heel height—that’s a pretty great afternoon. Not everything has to be the presidential debates, thank God!
You began your career as a journalist. Your prose is not self-conscious or showy or any of that stuff I’ve come to dislike in modern fiction. It’s very much in service to the story. Are you still a journalistic writer in some sense?
When I was a feature writer, people always thought I was a little on the showy side, and now that I’m a fiction writer people think the prose is workmanlike. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I had a lot more profanity in this novel in first draft, because one of the things that occurred to me early on with Meghan was that she was one of those polished public people who would have a foul mouth in private. And my editor said, “You know, profanity is bigger on the page than in life.” The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right, and so I edited accordingly. And I think that’s true of imagery, vocabulary, simile and metaphor. If it’s right, it reads big, which means too much of it is Not A Good Thing.
Meghan is driven, dedicated. Bridget is, too, but in a less ... I don’t know, edgy? ... way. I know this is a vast generalization, but to be truly successful, do we have to be more elastic regarding values such as empathy and concern? Or am I being too cynical?
I think there is a personality dialectic that accompanies maturity. For instance, you start out ambitious and driven. Life knocks you around a bit, or maybe you simply have some experiences that draw more frequently on the EQ rather than the IQ. And you move toward the middle. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That’s certainly what’s happened to me over the course of my life. And it’s certainly what happens to Meghan. But there’s always a cost to change. The cri de coeur of this novel comes at the very end: Does someone have to break so someone else can be whole? I thought it was a novel about appearance and reality, but it occurs to me now that all of my themes are Catholic: redemption, transformation. This novel is about martyrdom and resurrection.
What is your chief motivation as a writer? Above all else, what is it you wish to accomplish?
Sometimes a reader of my columns will say, “You made me think about that issue in a completely different way.” That’s all I want to accomplish, for the reader to wind up in a place she’s never been, thinking thoughts she’s never exactly had.