When Everything Changes

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.”

One of the book’s great accomplishments is its intimacy, this sense that you are being let in on the secret to how Didion’s legendarily symbiotic relationship with Dunne actually worked—how they spoke to each other, how they worked together, what they argued about. When she decodes the family shorthand, it brings tears to the eyes because it is like an X-ray of the most private, precious thing of all: their love. In the end, the book is really a portrait of a very unusual, successful marriage. In one particularly moving scene, which took place on Didion’s birthday, just a month before Dunne died, he reads aloud to her from one of her own books, A Book of Common Prayer, as they sit by the fire on a snowy night. “Goddamn,” he said to her as he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

Didion still smokes, though only five cigarettes a day and only at the typewriter. I mention this because when I ask if she reads her reviews, she says, “Of course I read them. It’s part of what you do. I think it would be almost impossible not to. It would be like not smoking—walking around not reading your reviews.” I cannot resist asking about the famously brutal Barbara Grizzuti Harrison takedown of Didion that was published in 1979. “I can still remember the first line,” she says, “because it was so far out of left field.” She then paraphrases, “Am I expected to admire a woman who would burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo?”

When I mention to her that this memoir might just be critic-proof, she says, “No, I don’t think it’s critic-proof. Not at all. Not if my daughter’s name wasn’t critic-proof. Nothing is critic-proof. I’m sure it will enrage some people.”

What about it? I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Just what always enrages people about me. I … I … I … could sit down and make a list of things that I notice enrage people about me. To some extent it’s the way people thought about Clare Luce, except I’m not rich and I’m not right-wing. I’m not exactly on the same program as a lot of people. On the other hand, I seem to be perfectly happy. I lead a very conventional life. I don’t lead a writer’s life. And I think that can be a source of suspicion and irritation to some people. This was more true when I was living in California, when I didn’t lead a writer’s life at all. Quintana knew we were writers, but she didn’t realize until she went to college that that was in any way a valued occupation, because it’s not in the world in which she grew up.”

“It’s a whole different level of loss,” Didion says of Quintana’s death. “This is the part I don’t want to talk about.”

I am embarrassed to admit that my bad Joan Didion timing struck again this past summer. Knowing that she had written a book that was coming out soon, I e-mailed Didion to bug her again about an interview. A couple of hours later, she accidentally sent an e-mail to me that was intended for her editor at Knopf. “I have no idea how to answer this because in my current mode I find it offensive, which isn’t necessarily Jonathan Van Meter’s fault (or maybe it is).” Unbeknownst to me, Quintana had gone back into the hospital just two days earlier with acute pancreatitis, where she remained in intensive care for two and a half months. She died on August 26.

When we first sat down in Didion’s living room to talk, I had told her that I was anxious about coming today knowing I would be asking questions about difficult things. “If it’s difficult,” she said with a deep, nervous chuckle, “I’ll tell you.” Then she said, “This is something that, because I wrote about it, I can talk about it. In terms of John’s death, in the course of writing the book, I had to come to terms with it. It’s like Margaret Fuller: I accept the universe.” Here, she laughed again and then stared at the coffee table for a very long time. “I wouldn’t want to have a long conversation about Quintana’s death.”

Toward the end of our talk, I tentatively bring it up. “For about four days,” says Didion, “she seemed to be getting better, they thought she was getting better, but this turned out to be an illusion. She wasn’t. The doctors said this summer that the number of infections that she had endured over the course of the previous hospitalizations—hospital infections, basically—had lowered her ability to cope with this one. Pancreatitis is a bad thing.” Quintana was conscious only when she wasn’t on a ventilator, and Didion’s last conversation with her daughter was two weeks before she died, just before she was taken into surgery. “She was never conscious again after the surgery because they kept her under sedation.”

When I ask her if this grief is different from what she has so carefully described in her book, she says, “It is and it isn’t. I recognize a lot of the things I’m going through. Like, I lose my temper a lot and I become unhinged and kind of hysterical. Like if someone calls to update their Rolodex.” She laughs. “I recognize little things like that as being part of the process, so they’re not quite as frightening. But on the other hand, it’s a whole different level of loss.” She stops and stares at the table again. “This is the part I don’t want to talk about.” She takes off her glasses, sets them down, and her eyes are flooded with tears. When she finally looks up, she says, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this … all of this … is basically be too busy. Take too much work. I figure that will get me through.”

Next week, Joan Didion will get on a plane and fly to Boston to begin a book tour that will take her through eleven cities and wind up in Toronto two days before Thanksgiving. She hasn’t traveled much in the past couple of years, and she is, in a way, looking forward to it. She’s hoping that maybe she will be able to finally figure out what her next book should be. “I went on a book tour immediately after 9/11,” she says. “I was due to leave the following Wednesday, so I just did. It was an amazing thing, because planes hadn’t been flying very many days and I got on this plane and went to San Francisco, and the minute that plane lifted above the clouds I felt this incredible sense of lightness. It was not only as if I was leaving the scene of a disaster, but maybe it hadn’t happened at all.”

When Everything Changes