Acclaim for Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has been near-universal. Lauded in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, it was awarded the 2005 National Book Award and hailed as a “masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism.” Author of five novels, eight books of nonfiction, and many screenplays, Didion is perhaps best known for her essays. Whether she’s writing on the Central Park jogger case, the Hoover Dam, John Wayne, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late ’60s, El Salvador in the early ’80s, or post 9/11 politics, Didion insists on the complexities of actual life rather than a more simplified narrative. On many occasions she has seemed all too eager to turn that examination onto herself as well.
One of her best known essays, “The White Album,” considers the chaos of the late ’60s and early ’70s and begins, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Didion then makes us see how she has begun to doubt all of her own stories. Juxtaposed in the first few pages of that essay are the author’s citation as Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year” and an excerpt from her psychiatrist’s report describing her frayed mental state.
If you have heard of her latest book, thanks to its wide acclaim, you have no doubt heard the story that underlies it: while Didion and her husband of nearly forty years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, were dealing with their daughter’s life-threatening illness, one night at the dinner table, after returning home from the ICU, Dunne had a heart attack and died. Didion’s daughter, Quintana, later recovered and attended her father’s funeral, only to suffer a massive hematoma two months later and die at the age of 39. Searching through everything from T.S. Eliot to Emily Post’s Etiquette, and Euripides to clinical neuroscience, Didion’s book tries to get at the roots of grief and to consider why hers led to the hope that her husband would return, despite a long history of critiquing the “sentimental narratives” of our individual and collective thinking.
Didion is currently working on a one-woman play based on her experiences, to be directed by David Hare. Her collected nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, will be released this fall. In April, Didion can be found reading a favorite poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort,” on www.knopfpoetry.com.
[Interview by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc]
Guernica: When people describe your work, they often talk about your sentences. In general, the sentences in your nonfiction tend to be more complicated than in your fiction—more winding, more filled with “sinkholes” (as you once said about Henry James’ sentences). Yet your sentences in The Year of Magical Thinking seem to be simpler, or of a different order.
Joan Didion: I was trying to write without style. I didn’t want to falsify in any way by letting the style carry [the book]. I wanted it raw as opposed to polished—usually, I want polish—but this I wanted raw. I thought it was raw until I saw an edit of it with copy editing. Then it became clear to me that it was written as opposed to not written. I had thought I was not writing it.
Guernica: When you say you wanted it raw, did that mean worrying over the sentences less, trying to write faster?
Joan Didion: Worrying over them less, yes. And not fretting transitions. I was relying on a kind of natural transition—the transitions made by someone who is slightly deranged.
Something I’ve always known about the screen is that if it’s anything in the world, it’s literal. It’s so literal that there’s a whole lot you can’t do because you’re stuck with the literalness of the screen. The stage is not literal.
Guernica: You once said that the discovery in nonfiction happens in the research rather than in the writing.
Joan Didion: Actually, it doesn’t. It still happens in the writing. You start [in nonfiction] with a whole lot more going for you, because all the discovery isn’t waiting to be made. You’ve made some of it in the research. As you get deeper into a piece and do more research, the notes are in the direction of the piece—you’re actually writing it.
Guernica: In comparison with your other nonfiction pieces, was there more discovery in the writing of The Year of Magical Thinking?
Joan Didion: The whole thing was discovery. In retrospect, it is about a search for my own sanity and the discovery that I have it.
Guernica: You did many readings and interviews for this book. Considering how an author on a book tour gets asked the same questions over and over, was that kind of repetition difficult? Was it therapeutic in some way?
Joan Didion: Doing that promotion was very therapeutic at the time I did it for two reasons. One, my daughter had just died, about two weeks before. Actually, I was in the middle of doing the New York promotion even as she died, as she was dying. [The promotion] was a way of maintaining a kind of momentum that I might not have been able to maintain otherwise.
I did not find this a hard book to talk about. If you are out promoting a book on politics, it requires a reader who knows exactly what you know to have a conversation, which isn’t always what you find. And even you don’t know what you know when you’re in the middle of doing promotion, because you’re just not focused. You’re not sitting at your computer with all of the notes in front of you. You can be asked a simple question, and you tend to forget names. There was no chance of forgetting anybody’s name in this book.
Guernica: What about after the book tour was over? What about the return to “normal” life?
Joan Didion: I haven’t totally returned to normal life. I went into working almost directly afterwards on the play.
Guernica: Was that by design?
Joan Didion: Yes. Again, momentum.
Guernica: You write in the book about your husband’s participation in your writing. In what ways have you had to relearn your writing process now that your husband and first reader is gone?
Joan Didion: The first piece that I wrote after John died—it was a long time after he died—was a piece about the campaigns in September 2004. I found that really hard to do because he had always read everything. That was hard in one way. I didn’t miss him writing [The Year of Magical Thinking] because I had the sense—I’m not talking about any kind of mystical stuff—that he was right there with me when I was writing it. I knew what he would say because I was so focused on him while I was writing it. I didn’t have any sense of missing him.
Right now, I wish I could talk to him about what to do next. He was very acute on what would be the right thing to do and what would be something that would run itself out without completion.
I also wish he was here to answer the phone [laughs].
Guernica: At what point in the writing of Magical Thinking did you decide to place repetition at the heart of the book’s structure?
Joan Didion: It was before I started to write the book. I had been typing some notes about Quintana’s illness—doctors and telephone numbers—when I started making some other notes about John’s death. Then at some point I found myself wondering how to structure it. I realized that if I was thinking about how to structure it, I was thinking about a book. It occurred to me a day or so later that the only possible way to structure it was to replicate the experience, to repeat, to run the tape over and over and over again, looking for a different ending. I thought you would keep coming at these key [details], and each time you would see them at a slightly different angle—they would reveal themselves slightly differently.
Guernica: How did you know which particular parts of the tape or which phrases would repeat?
Joan Didion: It was intuitive. The simplest way it happens is that something comes to your mind again.
Guernica: You’ve said that writing is a hostile act, and you’ve also compared writing and acting and talked about writing as ‘make-believe,’ writing as ‘performance.’ Have you found these ways of thinking about it to be as true of this book as of your other books?
Joan Didion: This was less of a performance. That was what I was trying to stay away from. And, actually, it wasn’t a hostile act. A lot of what I write is hostile, but this wasn’t. This was an experience where I found myself for the first time without any control or answers, so it was just about being disoriented.
But no one even seems to notice the contradictions anymore. I don’t mean nobody notices, but, well, I’m an idealist I suppose, because I always think large numbers of Americans are going to rise up.
Guernica: How did the idea to adapt the book into a Broadway play come about?
Joan Didion: Scott Rudin, who’s producing it, came to me and said that he thought it would make a good one-woman play, and I resisted this idea. But he kept talking about it; and, after a while, I started thinking it would be an interesting thing to do, an interesting thing to try. I’ve never written a play or tried to write a play. I thought it would be an interesting exercise, and it has been. I’ve done a couple of drafts—I’m in the middle of it now.
Guernica: Did you have any trepidation about working in a new genre?
Joan Didion: That was what was attractive about it. My trepidation was in staying with the material, but it actually isn’t the same material, as it’s turned out, as time has passed. And also, it’s a new form, so it feels different to me.
Guernica: How does one go about adapting a memoir like this, so much of which involves your own explorations of grief, into a play?
Joan Didion: That’s what the play is about too. It’s just one woman on a stage, so the challenge there is to make you want to continue looking at that woman on the stage.
Guernica: You’ve done quite a bit of screenwriting, mostly with your husband. Are there things that are transferable between screenwriting and playwriting?
Joan Didion: No, none. Once in a while there were things in screenwriting that taught me things for fiction. But there’s nothing in screenwriting that teaches you anything for the theater. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully appreciated before how different a form theater is.
Guernica: How would you distinguish screenwriting from playwriting or playwriting from fiction?
Joan Didion: Something I’ve always known and said and thought about the screen is that if it’s anything in the world, it’s literal. It’s so literal that there’s a whole lot you can’t do because you’re stuck with the literalness of the screen. The stage is not literal.
Guernica: What about thinking about how a piece of fiction works versus how a play works?
Joan Didion: They’re more alike than not. It’s a question of finding a structure and a rhythm, and withholding and giving, and knowing when to do those things.
Guernica: Can we expect you to do more political writing?
Joan Didion: I want to go back to it. It’s bracing, it’s another form of momentum.
Guernica: You’ve written many essays about “the process”—the false narratives of politics as compared with the actual life of the country. Are there any politicians out there currently who cut through these false narratives or who are closer to the actual life of the country?
Joan Didion: I don’t know these politicians. Chuck Hagel is generally seen as someone who’s unelectable because he doesn’t follow a false narrative. And McCain used to be seen that way too, although [these days] he’s doing a pretty good job of following a narrative. Obviously, there have been people in American political life who have been closer to the life of the country—I think Jerry Brown was closer to the life of the country.
Guernica: Do you see any signs that we’re starting to come out of the post-9/11 sentimental narrative, the era of “fixed opinions” and lack of discussion that you wrote about in the New York Review of Books in 2003?
Joan Didion: No, I think we’re still in it. Maybe it’s because everyone got so bludgeoned by those fixed opinions, but no one even seems to notice the contradictions anymore. I don’t mean nobody notices, but, well, I’m an idealist I suppose, because I always think large numbers of Americans are going to rise up.
Guernica: There is certainly more discussion and dissent in terms of Iraq.
Joan Didion: There certainly is, but we’ll have to wait and see what it adds up to, if it’s going to make any difference.
Guernica: In so much of your nonfiction, your authority as a writer and observer is at issue. You go to great lengths to establish it and undermine it, sometimes at the same time. Did you feel a different kind of authority in writing this most recent book because it’s so steeped in your experiences of loss?
Joan Didion: The narrative, if there is one, is of someone trying to see if she’s sane or insane. A lot of what I was thinking during the year would make me think I’m insane. So, yeah, I think I was still undermining the narrative there.
Guernica: So much of your writing is concerned with the sentimental narratives we have, these myths that keep us going that are only loosely, if at all, tied to our actual lives or to reality. I suppose the “magical thinking” that you describe is a kind of subconscious narrative-making, and it also seems like a self-protective mechanism that helped you not face your husband’s death fully right away. I’m wondering if you think this kind of “magical thinking” was necessary or important.
Joan Didion: There’s a conflict in my mind about that. I think it was useful, it had a role in keeping me together. But, at the same time, I have an investment in not being crazy. I have a real investment in seeing things straight. This runs counter to that investment, so it required giving up an idea of myself, the idea being that I had control.
Guernica: Having written the book and talked about it at length, have you found yourself still thinking this way?
Joan Didion: To some extent, yes. But I’m so practiced in evading it now, in hiding it. I still haven’t cleaned out John’s closets, but I don’t have time to [laughs].
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