Autumn in New York, 2004. Author Joan Didion had lost her husband in late December 2003, and had spent months at the side of her hospitalized...
Autumn in New York, 2004. Author Joan Didion had lost her husband in late December 2003, and had spent months at the side of her hospitalized daughter. She drew solitude around her like a mourning cloak and began to do what she does best: writing.
“It was kind of useful to be able to say I was working,” she recalled recently. “Not that anybody really understood that. You would say you’re working, and people would say, ‘You’ve got to go out to dinner.’ But for my psychic health and to finish the book by the end of the year, I had to stay home.”
The book was “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion’s account of the vertiginous grief she experienced after the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne. A slim volume published by Knopf, it has become an unlikely best-seller. Touring the country and talking about the book has become Didion’s armor against a further loss — her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, died at age 39 shortly before the book’s publication.
In contemporary American literature, there’s no bigger deal than Joan Didion, a Californian who taught herself to type by copying sentences in Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Her stripped-down prose, incisive intellect and eye for the rare blossoms in the mud have enthralled readers since her early books, including “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” were published more than 30 years ago.
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But it’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” that has touched readers to the core. A chronicle of Didion’s grief (including the “magical thinking” of hoping Dunne would somehow return), it’s “doing exponentially better than any book I’ve ever written,” she said. “I thought it would find an audience among people who had recently lost someone, but it seems to be wider … or maybe everyone is walking around in grief.” Last week, the book won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Didion is almost painfully thin, and her face appears ravaged by grief. But she dresses beautifully, and even in her early 70s is almost girlishly appealing, with her fine hair framing her face like a 5-year-old’s.
In person she’s warm and funny. “Don’t be nervous,” she told this interviewer. “I won’t give you a grade.”
Q: What do you make of the reaction to the book?
A: It’s a big surprise to me. … At first I thought it was a demographic thing, baby boomers reaching an age where they’re dealing with the deaths of their own parents and looking at their potential mortality. But a lot of people who come to events are much younger.
Q: When people talk to you about the book, is there a common thread in what they say?
A: They recognize certain things they went through (after a loss) that they didn’t totally understand, because they didn’t work them through. I don’t know how many people have told me that they couldn’t give away their husband’s clothes. Or shoes. Many of them mentioned shoes for some reason.
Q: I reviewed your book about a month ago, and I got more reaction to the review than any I’ve ever written. One thing people commented on was just how extraordinarily close you and John seemed to be. It was said with a certain kind of longing, as if that closeness were an ideal for them.
A: I think it is something people are expressing, and one reason that there are younger people where I have gone. Someone stopped me at an airport, a woman with a baby, and she said, “Your book is like marriage counseling” (laughs).
Q: What do you think she meant?
A: I think she meant that it was a picture of a marriage that lasted, despite not being at every moment loony in love. … I think sometimes when we first get married, we think that marriage ought to be ideal and perfect. And then it’s a little disappointing when it’s not.
Q: You write at some length about our culture, and how it has a hard time with death and mourning.
A: We’re not living in a world where death is up-close. People don’t die at home much anymore. But the other thing is that we’re not all living on the farm together with several generations. We don’t have those large extended families that tolerate grief. It kind of discourages grief to go on living your normal urban life, apart from your extended family. You don’t want to be seen grieving.
Q: Why is that?
A: In the book, I think I quoted an English anthropologist who said there was a modern imperative to have fun. To smile. You know, my own friends were tremendously supportive, and they came to the house, and they made sure I went out to dinner, and they arranged things, and it was a tremendous help. But at the same time, there was a slight disconnect because they kept talking about how brave I was.
And that seemed to be the approved way to be, not to show this or to talk about it too much. So I didn’t. Anyway, I couldn’t afford to, because Quintana was so sick.
Q: You must have known that you wanted to do the book pretty quickly.
A: I didn’t start it until October, and I had to finish it by the end of the year. Because, I thought, I’ll finish it on Dec. 31. I have friends and people who have told me, and it’s true, that at the end of the first year, something changes. You don’t suddenly, miraculously, get over the loss, but it’s a little more remote.
Q: Did anyone say, “Joan, you really don’t want to write that book, it’s going to be too personal, it’s going to be too painful”?
A: Yeah. I didn’t tell many people I was writing it, actually … I didn’t want to have that discussion, though, obviously, I’ve had it since. Many people have asked me if I considered not publishing it. And, I always think that they don’t know many writers. (laughs) I mean, publishing is part of the act of writing.
After I got into it, I thought it might be useful — there was so little that had prepared me for the reality of it, I thought it might be useful to prepare one or two other people.
Q: So there was a feeling of wanting to help?
A: Yeah. Both myself and other people. As far as I was concerned, I had to do it just to figure out what I was going through. What I had been going through. It was kind of a revelation, to realize how sort of crazy I had been.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a religious person?
A: No. I mean, I’m an Episcopalian. I suppose I’m as religious as most Episcopalians. (laughs). I like the main metaphor, but that’s how I think of it as, a metaphor or symbol.
Q: The metaphor?
A: Of rebirth, you know. Something about this experience … a lot of people seem to think that when you go through something like that it strengthens your faith or something. It didn’t affect mine one way or another.
Q: You were writing about yourself and the person whom you loved the most. Did that come easily to you, or it did it require some kind of mental trick, like “I’m going to put my head over here, and write about myself looking through some other lens”?
A: No. It was amazingly accessible. Because I had determined that I was going to write down exactly what I thought, what was on my mind at any given time, like automatic writing. … Usually I sit at the computer all day, until about 5:30 in the afternoon when I finally get a sentence down. Because I really don’t know what I think until I get that sentence down. And I resist it every day.
Q: I was very impressed with the passage on Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette and its advice on how to treat the bereaved.
A: Wasn’t it good? That book was ridiculous in a lot of ways — I know, because my mother had a copy of it, and I read it as a child. It has these joke characters in it, like Mr. and Mrs. Toplofty, and I thought that was my only memory of it. But I must have remembered this, because I specifically looked it up.
Knopf got a letter from Mrs. Post’s, I think, great-granddaughter-in-law, after the book came out. She pointed that out that Emily Post had herself lost a child a few years before she wrote the book. That was obviously how she knew all that stuff.
Q: Do you think that writing this book helped you deal with Quintana’s death?
A: No. I haven’t dealt yet with Quintana’s death. Well, to some extent I was dealing with the idea of Quintana’s death all through this book, because she was near death several times. And I really wasn’t sure at any point that she was going to live. But as I said, it’s just too recent, I’ve just set it over here.
Q: So you’ll get to it when the time comes.
A: When I can afford it. Because I just have no idea how … how that will be.
Q: One thing you talk about in the book is the difference between grief and mourning.
A: I think I said that grief is passive. It creeps over you in those famous waves, you know, whereas mourning is an active process of remembering, reliving the good and the bad, and defanging it in a way. Until you have examined all those memories, they don’t lose their power to undo you.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org