Interview with Joan Didion on her book, The Year of Magical Thinking

Published Nov. 30, 2005 in The Stamford Advocate

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NEW CANAAN, CONN. – Writer Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner one December night in 2003, and only Didion got up.

They had just returned home to their New York apartment from visiting their daughter in the hospital, where she was in a coma from septic shock. Dunne slumped over the table and fell out of his chair. At age 71 Dunne died, almost instantly, of a massive heart attack. Didion’s daughter, Quintana, would wake from her coma several weeks later to find out the news. In a tragic epilogue to her book, which ends in July 2004, Didion’s daughter later died of an abdominal infection.

Didion, known for her acerbic and crystalline writing style, first garnered attention in the 1960s with nonfiction essay anthologies such as “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album.”

She and Dunne, also a writer, penned many screenplays together during their 40-year marriage, including, “True Confessions.”

After her husband’s death, Didion spent the next year turning her trademark unsentimental microscope on herself to deal with her all-consuming grief.

What started as a personal mission to help make sense of a life torn asunder became “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a combined memoir and love-letter that won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction earlier this month. The title refers to irrational and childlike thinking that consumed Didion after her husband’s death. If she donated his shoes to the Salvation Army, he could never return, she reasoned. When she turned the page in his office dictionary, she flipped back, horrified to lose the page that held the word he had last looked up. His voice remains on their answering machine, she said in one recent interview. She couldn’t bear to erase it.

A day after winning the award, Didion, 71, spoke with The Advocate from a Miami hotel, where she was on a book tour that will bring her to a sold-out reading in New Canaan on Sunday, sponsored by R.J. Julia Elm Street Books and the New Canaan Library.

During the interview, Didion described herself perched on her hotel bed, in a room with a balcony and a view of the Miami skyline across the water.

“It’s perfect,” Didion said. “The only catch is I have to do the event tonight and be picked up at 4:45 in the morning to go to the airport.” Didion has been fulfilling her vow to take on too much work in the aftermath of her husband’s and daughter’s deaths. “I’m regretting it now,” she laughed. “I would really like a few days off.”

The hectic schedule helps her avoid a phenomenon she calls the “vortex,” in her book. A vortex is a chain of memories that inevitably sucks her back to painful reminders of her husband and daughter. The vortex strikes unexpectedly.

Miami is one place where Didion said she feels safe from the vortex’s devastating effect because she and Dunne spent little time together there.

Connecticut is another matter.

Driving up Interstate 95 from New York into Connecticut is a familiar scene, rife with fond memories for Didion. Dunne grew up in West Hartford and the young family often took trips to visit his childhood home.

“We used to go to his family’s and take Quintana when she was really little, and she always did something like get the chicken pox so we spent a lot of time there.”

Growing up, Didion had always been taught to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” as she writes in her book. “The Year of Magical Thinking” began when her search for literature on grief turned up few results. As a result, the book is a raw analysis of grief, written within the space of three months last year.

“I wasn’t writing a book when I started doing the research,” Didion said. “I was trying to figure out what was going on, and it kind of continued through writing the book because the book was so loosely structured that you just had to keep it flowing and picking up new things.”

Didion said her memoir adds to the canon of grief literature that she found so lacking, and in doing so, has resonated with many readers who have also suddenly lost loved ones.

“Primarily, I wanted to figure it out for myself, but obviously you had to feel that you were justified in doing that,” Didion said. “So I thought, probably if I couldn’t find anything to read about that spoke to me directly that other people couldn’t either. So I wanted to explain it to other people, too.”

Along her book tour, she has encountered people who have found her book useful for different reasons, Didion said.

“A lot of people who have been through this experience, have gone through the same things and thought they were crazy,” she said. “They were crazy but they didn’t realize it was normal. So that’s one thing people say. The other thing that people say has been more surprising to me which is, younger people have said to me that the book made them think about their relationship with their husband or wife. They read it for the relationship,” she said.

One of the hardest parts of grieving, Didion writes, is that people don’t know what to expect when a loved one dies and don’t know how to relate to those who are grieving because death is often a taboo subject.

One item she found useful in her search for dealing with her overwhelming grief was a 1922 etiquette book by Emily Post. Post offered practical advice in the event of a funeral, including the directive to offer food to the bereaved, but very little food, and only warm dishes. Friend and fellow writer Calvin Trillin knew this well, Didion said.

“(He) came up every day with a quart of congee from Chinatown. Congee is like a rice gruel and that was all I could eat, and I think he instinctively knew this because his wife had died in 2001,” Didion said.

Other sentiments she found well-intentioned but not helpful.

“One of the things that turned out not to be useful is something that I’ve said so many times in notes, ‘If there’s anything at all I can do for you, let me know.’ Well first thing is, the grieving won’t let you know. The useful thing is just to show up,” she said.