Podcast • November 8, 2011

My evening with Joan Didion

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.

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.

November 16, 2005

A Conversation with Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s prose style, Norman Mailer has said, may be the finest since Hemingway. She trained her eye and her lean phrasing on the American counterculture of the 60's and 70's, on cold war foreign policy, on her native California and now on the hellish year after the death of her husband at the end of 2003.

 

joan didion Joan Didion’s prose style, Norman Mailer has said, may be the finest since Hemingway. She trained her eye and her lean phrasing on the American counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s, on cold war foreign policy, on her native California and now on the hellish year after the death of her husband at the end of 2003. They were a power couple in Hollywood and New York, who used to finish each other’s sentences, on paper. The night John Gregory Dunne had his fatal heart attack, she had just poured him a second scotch and was fixing their dinner. One week earlier their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne went unconscious from complications of a winter flu. Joan Didion’s new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, she says, was an attempt to make sense of the weeks and then months that cut loose “any fixed idea I had about death, about illness…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.???

I spoke with Joan Didion last month at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, MA and we’ve made the conversation into an hour-long radio program complete with new readings from her book. I’m on assignment for the rest of the week in Tunisia at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Update, 17 Nov 2005, 2:30pm

Joan Didion won the National Book Award last night — a happy coincidence of timing, since this show probably aired right around the time her name was announced. So this morning we emailed a number of literary bloggers to get their take. Here’s a note that Scott Esposito (who writes Conversational Reading) just sent us:

I’m glad Joan Didion received the National Book Award

for a work of nonfiction, since I’ve most enjoyed her as an essayist. As a Californian, I appreciate Didion for capturing a sense of the intersections between our landscape and culture, as well as accurately portraying something of the strange sense of destiny that seems to be part of my home state. In my opinion, a couple of Didion’s best works have stood the test of time: her description of California’s relationship with water and aquaducts in the brilliantly titled White Album and her exploration of a gothic San Bernardino murder in Slouching Towards Bethlehem capture some part of the truth about California and still ring true today.

Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading
Update, 17 Nov 2005, 11:40pm

And Edward Champion (who writes Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant) contributed this:

I have greatly admired Didion as a writer since I first read the journalism that cemented her standing. But, however great Didion’s book, I wonder if a writer of Didion’s clear credentials needs more laurels.

I’m more excited about William T. Vollmann’s win. While Vollmann has started to achieve recognition from a unique makeup of academics and cult audiences who appreciate what Tom LeClair has styled “prodigious fiction,” Vollmann’s work has often been dismissed by more mainstream literary audiences (read: book reviewers who resent being handed “difficult” books) — simply because Vollmann dares to write about a certain cross-section of society that remains largely invisible to fiction and certainly isn’t palatable to mainstream tastes.

Vollmann’s win strikes the same pleasant chord as last year’s odd controversy concerning the five unknown women from New York — in the way that the National Book Foundation has embraced an unexpected choice. And yet this morning’s headlines read “Didion Wins National Book Award,” with the stories often confining Vollmann to a mere footnote.

Edward Champion, Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant
Update, 21 Nov 2005, 8:00am

Robert Birnbaum (renowned for his author interviews on Identity Theory) sent us this:

I am as near a Joan Didion fanboy as I can get (about anyone)— having read most of her books and had the singular pleasure of a chat with her around the time of the publication of her last novel The Last Thing He Wanted. But for some (I do shy away from stories fact or fiction, about parents losing their children) reasons I have had zero interest in reading her latest offering. I suppose if Ms. Joan were to offer her grocery list for publication, it would be more attractive to me.

Having said that, while it is no surprise to me that The Year of Magical Thinking won a National Book Award (actually, nothing about book awards is surprising), I am puzzled about what about this cultural moment has made this book a best seller. I am not aware that Didion’s acute political –cultural observations in the New York Review of Books (perhaps it’s the venue) have attracted the enthusiastic, near hysterical audience as for her more personal work, Where I was From and the newest book. Is it the fascination with the ineffability of death, grief and suffering that is the focus of Didion’s memoir? Or the harrowing experience of losing both one’s life partner and child? Or would it be a hunger for tramping around the private and personal matters of others? Does the numbing effect of a society working overtime, or in the current argot, 24/7, turning us into efficient consuming units make Didion’s hyper sorrowful meditation the ultimate cathartic antidote?

I suppose I should be able to answer these questions but at the moment I can not. Perhaps I’ll have to get around to reading Joan Didion’s book. But not now.

Robert Birnbaum, Identity Theory