My evening with Joan Didion

Joan Didion is reading from her second smashing meditation on death, Blue Nights. And I’m her interlocutor and foil again onstage in Cambridge. With a woman of the considered written word, not the spontaneous spoken word, it’s a tricky job. And it didn’t solve for me the puzzle of Didion’s power. But how could I not share it, or you not respond?

Joan Didion’s a writers’ writer gone suddenly, in her seventies, rock star and phenomenon, meeting a hungry market for introspections on death both sudden, as in the case of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Didion’s 2005 best-seller, The Year of Magical Thinking; or slow and almost unfathomable death, which came to Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana Roo, at 39, and prompted Blue Nights. Six hundred readers bought books and tickets to hear Didion and pack the First Church in Harvard Square last night.

One beauty of Blue Nights, I am saying toward the close, is that when Joan Didion writes “frail” about herself, what we remember is the oppposite: “indomitable.” But I’ve got to get down the odd gaps in this book. They’re disquieting, then illuminating. This is her Quintana book, for the adopted daughter who died, but there are scant traces of Quintana in it. The mother and writer has preempted all the suffering and mourning in this sad story. Quintana’s wedding day is central but the man Quintana married is just barely named. About Quintana, we learn that she had abandonment issues — as an adopted only child under the roof of two driven writers; that she graduated from Barnard, became a photo editor at Elle, that she drank too much and got desperately sick twice in her thirties, and died… But we do not meet Quintana past her teens. We learn, as Didion writes, that “Quintana is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct.” Blue Nights is Joan alone — Joan’s loss, Joan’s frailty, Joan’s inadequate mothering: it may be tracing the arc of Joan’s writing career more than Quintana’s life, as Nathan Heller writes in a penetrating comment in the New York Times Magazine.

So the book about Quintana is really about Joan, and for me the evening with Joan is about the audience, including me. Were we there as inadequate parents, as mortals in fear of death? Were we there generously as a Didion support group that came to feed more than be fed. Or not so happily, as groupies around a brand, famous as Didion is for dropping the brandnames of cake-makers and grand hotels? Would we have been there last night, would I have posted these words, if her name weren’t Joan Didion?

Thanks to the Harvard Book Store for hosting the reading and recording the conversation.

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  • Hope Kelly

    Man, Chris, you did a great job with an intimidating challenge. I cannot, of course, see the body language of the actual encounter, but you humanized her for me,. I have read every word of criticism/review of Blue Nights, and you surpassed all (though I, too, was impressed by the NYTimes Magazine piece). I also was impressed with the Schine piece in the NY Reiview of Books, which included my (so far) favorite quote from Blue Nights, Didion’s description of parenting as: “The enigma of pledging ourselves to protecting the unprotectable.” She is on to something heavy and universal, but her protection of the actual subject, Quintana, is remarkable, as you point in your post-script. So much more to say but will leave there for now. Thank you for providing me with the conversation I missed (sorely!) last night.

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  • dave bernard

    I really can’t understand the fascination with Misery Lit. Another great woman writer, Joyce Oates has also slipped into this genre. As has Calvin Trillin, ‘tho he tempers it with forward-moving content. Lit as a vehicle for grief goes back to the Old Testament, through Modern writing as Seymour Krim and others complaining about the raw deal they’ve been handed. I know ‘misery loves company,’ but in these times, I need an uplifting quaff of inspiration.

  • Potter

    I dreaded listening somehow- looking at her frailty in this picture, knowing she was in mourning. I was prodded on by Nathan Heller’s article in the NYTimes Magazine. I think, Chris, this is your best interview ever(!!)- though this is a hard statement to make definite. The audience, for sure, was part of what made this uplifting. But this was engaged and engaging,.. and funny surprisingly.

    Her writing is so beautiful. Or maybe it was also her reading her own lines in her drone, true to herself at this moment. I was surprised. I want this book. The description of that blue hour–L’Heure Bleu (for me a most wonderful and very old perfume by Guerlain) just took me away… .

    many thanks

    PS- coincidentally, I had been looking at photos of Sophia Loren, then and now. Didion brought her up twice in this conversation. In 2007 at 72 she posed for the Perelli Calendar, it was said, semi-nude. Of course I wanted a look. You can’t find much online- a few very glamourous mostly head shots but an amazing aging Loren nevertheless (who says she has not had surgery- and I believe her). How different the aging process.


  • Potter

    John Banville (from the NYTimes article linked above):
    However, it is most profound, and most provocative, at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.
    Why especially not art— and isn’t Didion proving exactly otherwise?

  • chris

    Hey there, Potter. I was much struck by that Banville line — all the more because it was quoted with somewhat jarring effect by the woman introducing Ms. Didion and me. Was Banville speaking of all art, including his own? I thought he was also saying that we read “Blue Nights” missing any sense of transformation. I am struck now by something entirely different that happened in Mary Ann Leone’s memoir, Knowing Jesse about her adored, afflicted son: it is full of the author’s renewed connections with her mother, her husband, her boy, his schools and much else. Nothing exactly avails against Jesse’s death — mute, wheel-chaired at 17 — but something else prevails. I can’t get Joan Didion or her books out of my head. I’m with a friend of mine who writes that “she baffles and moves me.”

    • Potter

      Chris- yes that line annoyed me because I was feeling something entirely different happening. My buddy here said that it had to to with point of view, meaning that if you are an artist (as Joan Didion certainly is) you have the means, the tools to transcend. “I decided to live” she said on Charlie Rose.

      I mean, if you are a feeling person you cannot help but feel how devastating this was and still is for her and yet she transcends- so bravely and so beautifully. One can only be in awe. I look at this frail woman now and I see those pictures of that happy little family years ago. And I hear how close she was to her husband of as many years as I have been to mine and ask myself questions.

      We do not know what we are made of until the time comes. And thank God for art if you have it in you. I thought that Banville was a “looker” in that sense.

      Anyway I have to recommend the video clips, excepts, of a documentary on her book produced by her nephew Griffin Dunne. So beautiful. So much beauty out of this awfulness that is life, that we cannot prevent.

      I think he has a new form happening, the video audiobook:

      Blue Nights Chapter One Excerpt
      Blue Nights Chapter Two Excerpt

  • ben

    joan didion is so unbelievably incredible. what a listen!

  • Christy

    Hi, Chris,
    I just finished the book – devoured it in a day here at Alain’s place in Biarritz! I thoroughly enjoyed this – hearing her read, your interview, the reactions of the audience. Wonderful!