Joan Didion: life after death
Her last book dealt with the death of her husband; now Joan Didion's latest, Blue Nights, wrestles with losing her daughter
Friday 21 October 2011 23.02 BST
he porter in Joan Didion's building refers to her as Mrs Dunne, a reminder, eight years after her husband's death, of their enduring image as unit. Her last book, The Year Of Magical Thinking, captured in the most lucid prose the deranging effect of grief. Now she has written what might loosely be called a sequel, Blue Nights, about the awful confluence of the death, 18 months later, of her daughter, Quintana, at 39.
The success of Magical Thinking derived partly from the tension between Didion's dispassionate writing style and the intimacy of what she was describing: her relationship with her husband, John, with whom she wrote screenplays, and how she withstood his sudden death from a heart attack as they sat down to dinner in their Manhattan apartment. Their daughter was in intensive care at the time, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Four months after Quintana's death, on a snowy day in New York, I interviewed Didion in her apartment; she was unmoving, so slight as to be almost translucent. Six years later, on one of the hottest days of summer, she is in the same chair, as delicate as before and more animated, though on the subject of losing those she loved most, her voice drops below the level of the traffic outside.
Illustration by Nicola Jennings
Didion is surprised, she says, by her reputation as indestructible; a friend calls her "the stainless steel tulip", but this is not how she feels. At 76, she looks both older than she is and oddly girlish in checked summer dress, small feet in tennis shoes – her style unchanged since she turned up at the Vogue offices in New York in her 20s with wet hair and similar footwear, knowing she wasn't cut out for a career at the fashion magazine. Which is not to say she isn't glamorous. The apartment – huge, airy, full of beautiful objets and gorgeous photos – is on one of the ritziest streets on the Upper East Side and reminds one she is as much a creature of Hollywood as of journalism. Was it bought in an era when the neighbourhood was more modest? Didion smiles. "It's always been pretty ritzy."
Blue Nights is a disturbing book, though not for the obvious reasons. While Magical Thinking "just flew out", she says, this one was torture to write and it shows. The style seems empty, mannered. The elegiac tone, which has, on occasion, made critics roll their eyes, tips here into contrivance.
And yet. (As she would put it.)
Blue Nights is a horrifying documentary of a writer observing herself in the moment of dissolution, when she can't remember how to write, can't wholly remember who she is. "What if I can never again locate the words that work?" she writes and Blue Nights, while a failure in conventional terms compared with Magical Thinking, is in some ways a more accurate depiction of a woman unravelling.
Nonetheless, a full portrait of John emerged in Magical Thinking. By contrast Quintana, in Blue Nights, while described vividly in childhood, as an adult remains largely obscure. Didion wrestled with how much of her daughter's sometimes difficult life to share. The most painful passages involve the writer's interrogation of her own abilities as a mother which, consciously or not, serve to stand like a bodyguard between the reader and Quintana. Didion and John never made a formal pact about where the boundary lay in invading their daughter's privacy; both had written about her, but before now there had been obvious limits – Quintana's adoption and eventual reunion with her birth family; her struggles with depression; Didion's doubts about her mothering. From the moment they adopted Quintana, she says, she was never "not anxious". When, as a child, Quintana's tooth became loose and wouldn't pull, Didion panicked and wanted to drive her to casualty, until persuaded this might be an overreaction. She treated her daughter like a doll because "I didn't think I deserved her." For years, she worried that her birth parents would reappear to reclaim her.
This was not the material she intended to visit in the book. "When I started writing, I thought it was going to be about attitudes to raising children. Then it became clear to me that, willy-nilly, it was going to be personal. I can't imagine what I thought it was going to be, if it wasn't personal."
Once this became clear, the urge to really consider her relationship with her daughter was instinctive and irresistible. "How could I not? You have to. If you don't examine it, you're..."
|Joan Didion: 'I've always had this sense that the unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake. It's going to come after you.' Photograph: Dorothy Hong for the Guardian|
At its mercy?
"You're at its mercy. I've always had this sense that the unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake. It's going to come after you. And you can keep it at bay by always keeping it in your eye line."
Didion was a child in the second world war. When her father left the family to fulfil army duties, she held her mother to ransom by stopping eating. She has always been slight and it annoys her when people comment on her frailty and interpret it as neurosis, instability, grief or an eating disorder. Back then, her mother took her to a paediatrician, who said she wasn't going to put on weight until the family reunited with her father. After that they followed him around, and Didion ate normally.
She hates confrontation, but knows how to get what she wants by other means. She doesn't like joining the group. In Hollywood, while she and John were living a fine life among friends in the film industry, she was nonetheless on the outside. "We were not part of Hollywood. We worked in it, but as writers you aren't ever – you don't have a very elevated role." She laughs. "I could go to a party and cross the room without being worried." As a screenwriting team they had success with such films as The Panic In Needle Park (1971) and the remake of A Star Is Born(1976), and although Didion is better known for her journalism, she says, "I've really spent more time in Hollywood. That seems to me the more natural world."
In the new book, Didion describes wryly how she and John, so often on movie sets, had to explain to Quintana the difference between trips "on expenses" and "not on expenses". She knows how this sounds and addresses it with a shrug and a what-do-you-want; it's how we were. Anxiety still prevailed. On location in a part of the country she knew Quintana's birth family came from, she asked the studio to keep their names out of the local press in case they saw it and came to take her away.
Those era-defining pieces she wrote in the 60s, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and still stunning almost 50 years later, were mostly done on the hoof, with no great thought as to whether they'd last. "I was trying to make a living. John was trying to make a living. It wasn't until later that I started having a really good time doing that." The first piece she had a really good time writing was the 30,000-word juggernaut she wrote for the New York Review of Books, on the Central Park jogger. Like pop stars tired of playing the same back catalogue, she's perhaps weary of revisiting the 60s. Journalistically, Didion's more impressive second act was her writings on politics in the 80s, not least because they pissed off so many of the clubbable insider-hacks on the political circuit. Joe Klein got very exercised about a piece written during the Michael Dukakis campaign in 88. In it, Didion broke ranks with her peers by writing of their complicity, as she saw it, in the fictional narratives cooked up by the campaign. When the piece was included in one of her anthologies, Klein, among those reporters she'd criticised, gave it a great howl of a review, accusing her of political naivety, stating the obvious and writing "effete, patronising nonsense".
"It was the first [political] convention I'd gone to," she says, "and what was amazing to me was that everyone was pretending it was a real thing. Dukakis was the candidate and the fantasy was he liked to throw balls around on the tarmac while waiting for the plane. And of course he didn't. And the only people who were honest about it were the photographers, who referred to it as a set-up." You let the side down. "Evidently I let Joe Klein down."
Didion, like a lot of successful journalists, thought for a long time that novel writing was the greater art, and slaved over and published five novels. The most successful, Play It As It Lays (1970) was very well received. Nonetheless she now thinks she was misguided. "Because it turns out what I like to do best is write extended essays. Writing a novel, which is what I thought I'd like to do, turns out to be not very gratifying in the end because nobody reads them any more."
She is dispirited by the state of journalism, its fragmentation and the lack of venues for long pieces of the kind she likes to write. "I find it hard to think of what I want to do, because everything seems not quite right. I think it's a wrong time to be writing. Even the New York Review of Books is running shorter pieces now, although they'll let you do whatever you want."
You have to laugh at this. No, they'll let you do whatever you want, I suggest. Didion smiles.
The most pleasing creative experience she has had lately was the stage production of Magical Thinking, adapted by David Hare and expanded to deal with Quintana's death as well. It was performed in New York and in London at the National Theatre by Vanessa Redgrave at her most brilliant. When Didion speaks of the sudden death of Natasha Richardson, Redgrave's daughter and an old family friend, it is with fresh shock, for the death itself, from a freak skiing accident, and from the horrible coincidence of it occurring while her mother was appearing in an exposition of grief. "It was just unthinkable. For Vanessa to have spent the better part of two years doing a play that dealt with the death of a daughter and then to have to go through it herself – it didn't seem real."
I imagine it was terribly hard on the friendship; Didion's version of grief a sudden imposition on the actor when she was struggling with her own. "In one way, we became closer. But I think that there was a terror for both of us about it. I understood entirely why she didn't want to do an extra season for the play, and that was before Natasha died." She was surprised when Redgrave agreed to do the audio version of the book.
Before that, Didion says, the play had been something of a relief – "I had a good time with all the people involved" – but until she had seen it so many times she became inured to the material, attending was also a form of masochism. She would stand way up in the theatre, by the lights, away from the audience, and watch her friend perform. "Beyond endurance," is the phrase she uses. "But it was very gratifying to see the response of the audience, because they responded to the deaths in my own family the way I did. So they kind of made it OK for me. It was an odd experience."
So successful were both the book and the play that, for the first time in her life, Didion found herself being recognised in airports. "It put you in a peculiar relationship with other people. You were always hearing stories you didn't necessarily want to hear at that moment. I mean the intimate conversations I had with people about deaths in their families." As politeness required, she showed a false interest which didn't "necessarily reflect concern on my part. Which is troublesome." On the other hand, "You have to live your life."
It must have been very odd for Quintana to grow up in this world, she thinks, the only child of two writers who, as Quintana once put it with a certain amount of rebellious disgust, spent far too much time "dwelling" on things. "I remember her saying once that she didn't want to read anything we had written, because when you read something you make a judgment on it, and she didn't want to be in the position of making a judgment on her mother and father."
The most difficult part of Blue Nights was writing about the adoption. Quintana, towards the end of her life, had some contact with her birth family, and it was a not an altogether satisfactory experience. No one was awful, but neither was there an easy way to recover the bond. Looking on, Didion had the sense that there comes a point "at which a family is, for better or for worse, finished". She was always very grateful to these people, she says, "for letting her go. For giving her to me." She writes about it all with even greater restraint than usual, since to deploy the usual professional tricks felt – what? Gross?
"Yes. So essentially I decided what I was looking for was a kind of directness I could never achieve." Although disjointed and elliptical, parts of the book are still intensely moving, as was the lonely experience of writing it. In Magical Thinking, Didion wrote of feeling the need to discuss all her work with John, as she always had. By the time she wrote Blue Nights that impulse had passed. "It's clear to me now I can't discuss things with John. And I'm not even sure now that I miss it."
Didion has a lot of sympathy for Joyce Carol Oates who was hammered, critically, for concealing in her memoir of widowhood the fact that she married someone else shortly after the death of Ray, her first husband. "I thought it was kind of unfair. It just may not have been the most important thing about the situation to her. The important thing may have been, in her structure, not having Ray, rather than the neurosurgeon she just married. Ray was a very odd – they had a very odd relationship to begin with. I saw them only a couple of times together. She was tremendously dependent on him, and he on her. She was teaching at Princeton and they would come to New York once in a while and have dinner with us."
Didion looks fleetingly waspish. "You always had the sense that Joyce was going to go home and write a book. You also very much had the feeling that you were her material, at that moment. Because everything is her material."
In the years since her daughter's death, she has considered this question of dwelling versus not dwelling on things. Didion, as a writer, always imagined the former was the stronger position and that "if you had to dwell on it, you had to go all the way into it. Now I'm not sure that's true. Maybe Quintana was right. But it seemed to me if I was going to write her story, I had to do it. It came to seem like the only correct thing to do was to give her her own story. It stopped seeming that it was something she would be upset by, or ashamed by. It was what she was."
There is, in Didion's living room, a blown-up portrait of Quintana as a child, looking beautiful and solemn. "I was amazed when I was working on this – amazed and ashamed of how little credit I had given her for her own wisdom. When it was really far deeper than I had ever – I thought of her always as a little girl." In Didion's agonising audit of how she did as a mother, she speculates on whether she gave her daughter enough room to become who she needed to be, before the pneumonia shortened her life. "Was I the problem?" she writes. "Was I always the problem?"
She writes incredulously of that era in the 70s when they were so blase about life; when "we still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as 'ordinary blessings'… She had no idea how much we needed her."
She gets up to find another photo to show me, a serious little girl staring into the camera. Didion looks around vaguely. "This apartment is such a mess. I keep looking at stuff that needs doing."
She returns in her mind to Quintana's last summer, after the pneumonia had developed into septic shock. There was a brief moment of hope, when Quintana seemed to be gaining ground. "She was still not able to walk, but she was doing therapy at a physical rehab place – and then it seemed that everything might work out. Then she got sick again. Yes, you do think that you might not get through it. But of course you do. For better or for worse, you do." It is not a question of stainless steel but, as Didion has exemplified all her life in her work, one of pragmatism. She says: "What else can you do?"
• Blue Nights by Joan Didion is published by Fourth Estate on 1 November at £14.99.