For Anna Quindlen, writing is part inspiration, part procrastination—a lot of procrastination. “I wake up early most mornings, when it’s still dark, then I go through my various rituals of not writing,” the author says via Zoom from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I walk for an hour, which is a sad reflection that I’d rather do aerobic exercise than write. I fold laundry, talk to my bestie on the phone, read newspapers, unload the dishwasher. I have a whole raft of domestic rituals that I’ll do until finally I run out of stuff and sit down to write. I sit down every time thinking that nothing good will come of this, and the only reason I keep doing it—other than the fact that it’s not what I do, it’s who I am—is because every once in a while something good does come.”

Quindlen’s career spans nine novels, 10 works of nonfiction, and two children’s books, which together have sold nearly 13 million copies and have been translated into 19 languages, according to her publisher, Random House. Her books—about life, loss, family, and motherhood—include One True Thing, her semi-autobiographical novel about a daughter who returns home to care for her dying mother, which was made into a movie starring her friend Meryl Streep; Black and Blue, a novel about domestic abuse that was an Oprah’s Book Club pick; A Short Guide to a Happy Life, a slim volume about living with purpose that has sold more than one million copies; and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, a memoir about thriving in middle age that has cemented her reputation as America’s literary best friend, always there with a nugget of wisdom.

The author’s 10th novel, After Annie, out in February from Random House, is set over the course of a year following the sudden death of Annie, a nursing home aid. The book tracks the lives of her unmoored husband, Bill, who tries to fill an emotional void by reconnecting with an ex; her 13-year-old daughter, Ali, who steps in to run the household and care for her father and younger siblings; and her best friend, Annemarie, a former drug user who struggles to stay sober now that Annie, her support system, is gone. After Annie is dedicated to Quindlen’s mother, who died from cancer at 40.

“This is a book about how a good mother leaves a lasting impression etched on the psyches of her children, and that’s something I know about from personal experience,” Quindlen says. “After someone you love dies, in some ways they’re more present. When they were alive you could take them for granted. After they’re gone the sense of them crowds in upon you and they live in your heart. That’s something I wanted to talk about in this book.”

For decades, Quindlen’s fans have relied on her to help them make sense of life, and no one knows that better than her editor, Kate Medina, who’s been with Quindlen since her 1991 debut novel Object Lessons. “Anna doesn’t waste time with things that don’t matter,” Medina says. “She has a clear view of what are the real values in life. It always circles around family and friendship and finding ways to go on despite setbacks. People trust her on the page.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1952, Quindlen, the oldest of five kids, was raised in a loving home by an Irish American father and an Italian American mother. “I was an inveterate reader and, despite my happy childhood, a very dissatisfied kid,” she recalls. “I was growing up at a time when there was no place for an assertive, argumentative, ambitious girl. There were two jobs, teacher and nurse, and neither of them seemed suited to my abilities.”

From a young age, Quindlen wanted to write fiction, and in 1970 she went off to New York City to study English at Barnard College. At 19, when her mother was dying of cancer, she returned home for a time to care for her. “I cooked meals and administered morphine and I wasn’t a happy camper,” Quindlen remembers. “Luckily, I had a loving mother who never said to me, ‘You’re not doing a good job at this, kid.’ ” The death—which taught Quindlen that “grief has teeth, but loss is a black hole”—helped to shape her as a person and a writer, one who’s keen to elevate women’s stories.

This is a book about how a good mother leaves a lasting impression etched on the psyches of her children, and that’s something I know about from personal experience.

After graduating from Barnard in 1974, Quindlen went to work as a journalist, got married (she got divorced a few years ago), had three kids, and, in 1992, won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her New York Times column “Public & Private.” Working as a reporter prepared her to be a novelist. “It taught me how real people talk,” she says. “I think I write pretty credible dialogue and one of the reasons why is because I spent years writing down real people’s words in a notebook.”

Keeping it real is important to Quindlen, whether she’s speaking candidly about how menopause has improved her outlook (“I woke up one day and thought, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me anymore!”) or reflecting on getting sober 34 years ago (“I didn’t do well with alcohol—I don’t have a good on-and-off switch for almost anything”). She speculates that she strikes a chord with readers because she’s just like everyone else.

“Nobody is coming to do my cooking,” she says. “The towels are folded by me. And most of the time I’m just trying to get a haircut that looks halfway decent. And I think that’s the linchpin of what I do as a writer.”

“Anna is someone who just gets it,” says bestselling author Harlan Coben, who met Quindlen at a party 20 years ago and has been close with her ever since. “She’s brilliant and incisive and she writes the things that make us all nod along. When you read her stuff you want to be her friend. She really is a beautiful person.”

Quindlen calls her books, those works of inspiration and procrastination, “my last will and testament”—a legacy she can leave behind for her children. “When I’m dead and gone they’ll be able to find me spiritually in those books, and I’m really grateful for that as a mom,” she says, tearing up. She adds that After Annie has allowed her to close a chapter on her own mother’s death. “It’s time to put that loss to bed. I don’t mean closure, which is nonsense, but just in terms of how large it’s loomed in my life.”

Ever the optimist, Quindlen credits her mother with teaching her that life’s worth celebrating—a lesson she continues to impart to readers. “My mother would have given anything to get old—to live, to have grandchildren—so the idea of being churlish about getting those gifts is unthinkable to me,” she says. “It’s a privilege to live life. I’d be disrespecting my mother if I didn’t embrace it.”

Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.