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When Everything Changes

Joan Didion on John, Quintana, her devastating memoir, and her persistent critics.


As we sit down in the living room in her big, bright apartment on East 71st Street, Joan Didion places cut orchids on the glass coffee table between us. It is a gorgeous, crisp day and all of the windows are open. Didion has always looked too thin, the definition of frail, and today is no different, but it’s a relief to see that she isn’t as grim and hollow-eyed as she looked in Eugene Richards’s photographs in The New York Times Magazine that morning. There is something in her step, in the way she moves around the apartment—answering the phone (“If John were here he would say, ‘Who took the fucking pens?’ ”), getting us bottles of Evian, jumping up to fetch a book, grabbing an orange pashmina because, as she says, “it turned fall today”—that suggests there is a lot of life left in her at 70. She is, as has always been obvious from her writing, a lot tougher than she looks.

It comes as an even bigger relief to see her laughing, something she did several times during my visit, because there was nothing funny about the last time I went to see Didion. It was over a year ago, in July 2004, and I had come to ask if she would submit to being interviewed. I had long been fascinated by Didion, partly because of what I imagined to be the effortlessly glamorous life she insisted on living in California, co-writing screenplays with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while also turning out brilliant pieces of nonfiction. But on that day in July, her apartment was closed up and sweltering, and Didion was a zombie. Out of politeness, I stayed to make small talk for twenty minutes, but I could not wait to leave. Dunne, her husband of 40 years, had died of a heart attack six months earlier, just five days after their only daughter, Quintana Roo, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia, fell into septic shock and then a coma. It was nearly a month before Quintana regained consciousness, at which point Didion was charged with the gruesome task of delivering the news that her father had been dead for weeks, his body already cremated. After the funeral, which was delayed until Quintana was well enough, her daughter got on a plane to LAX, where she promptly collapsed from a massive hematoma that required six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center. By the time I came calling to ask for an interview, Quintana had just finished two and a half months of rehab at the Rusk Institute, and so Didion was only then beginning to deal with her grief over her husband’s death. She did not yet know that she was going to write The Year of Magical Thinking, her astonishing memoir of love and grief that comes out this week.

I was not totally surprised to find out that I am the “young writer” who turns up at exactly the wrong moment on page 168 of her new book. She writes, “I heard myself say, too urgent, that I could not possibly be written about. I was in no shape to be written about. I heard myself overstressing this, fighting to regain balance, avert the fall . . . I realized that for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.”

Didion, who had been taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” read everything she could get her hands on about grief: memoirs, novels, how-to books, inspirational tomes, The Merck Manual. “Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it,” she says, “which was the interesting aspect of it to me—how really tenuous our sanity is.” The one thing that had spoken to her was the “Funerals” chapter in Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, which advised that those close to the grief-stricken should “prepare a little hot tea or broth and it should be brought to them . . . without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it . . . ” Didion writes, “There was something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here. [Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.” This, she says, is one of the main reasons she wrote the book: “To bring death up close.”

Didion decided that the way to accomplish this was to structure the book so that it replicated the experience of grief—“the way in which you obsessively go over the same scenes again and again and again trying to make them end differently.” The other choice she made was “to write it fast so it would be raw, because I had the feeling that that was the texture it ought to have.” She started writing on October 4, 2004, and finished on New Year’s Eve—88 days later. “I found it amazingly easy to write,” she says. “It was like sitting down and crying. I didn’t even have the sense that I was writing it. I’m usually very conscious of the rhythm of sentences and how that’s working. I didn’t even give that any thought.”

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