The writer Joan Didion did something this year that she'd never done before: She wrote a play. “The Year of Magical Thinking,” based on her own experience of losing a husband and daughter in the same year.
Many of her admirers have found magic in her work for four decades. NY1’s Budd Mishkin sat down One on 1 with Didion and filed the following report.
Imagine: What would Joan Didion's fans have done if she had pursued not books, but the beach?
"I wanted to be an oceanographer when I was in my 20s,” says Didion. “So, I went to Scripps Institute in California to see what would be required. Well, it turned out I would have to go back to high school. I mean, it wasn't a matter of making up some college credits."
So much for oceanography — a writer she would be.
For some 40 years, she's been admired for her essays and novels and screenplays.
But her latest work, an intimate story of love and death, “The Year of Magical Thinking” has elicited much more personal reactions.
“That person usually doesn't stop and tell you about a situation in their own family, which people did a lot, so I recognized that people were reading this book in a different way,” says Didion.
In December 2003, Joan Didion's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack while having dinner in their Upper East Side apartment. At the time, her daughter Quintana Roo was in intensive care with pneumonia and septic shock.
These tragedies formed the basis of “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
"It had been eight months since John died, and I was clearly not confronting it and doing well. So I started making some notes,” says Didion. “Then about two days into making notes, I found myself wondering how this should be structured, and then realized if I was wondering how it should be structured, I was thinking about publishing it.”
The book came out in 2005.
Just as Didion was going out on the road to promote it, her daughter died. She stayed on the book tour.
“I was much better off on the book tour than I would have been walking around New York thinking that my daughter died,” says Didion.
On the tour, not only did Didion not mind people stopping to talk to her, she wanted it — she needed it.
"I was in a fragile state myself and I didn't particularly want to dwell on my own situation, so I was open to receiving other people's stories and lives,” says Didion.
But then Broadway producer Scott Rudin and director David Hare asked Didion to turn her memoir into a play.
She says her first response was vehemently negative. But her attitude changed.
“It was in October of 2005 and my daughter had died in August 2005, so I had a strong sense that doing something new was going to be a good thing to do,” says Didion.
So, now in her 70's Didion tried something new. She wrote the play.
Didion makes the distinction that the character you see on stage, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is not her, but is based on her.
"When we were working on the play, we never thought of it as me, and I never thought it was me. We thought of it as she,” says Didion.
“It frees you up to work on it, otherwise you couldn't work on it dispassionately,” says Didion. “It would really be tedious to work on yourself.”
It’s the nature of a writer's life to work in solitude and have your work read in solitude. So Didion learned about the value of live theater as a communal experience.
"If people are experiencing something together, they are not alone in the world,” says Didion. “It has a lot of social value that I hadn't thought about before.”
When Didion is finishing up a book, she needs to be close to it — very close — as in the same room. Even when she's sleeping.
“I can remember waking up on a novel once and we were on the last week of a novel. Sitting bolt upright in bed and thinking about some punctuation on page 267 and I knew the page number and I went and corrected it, because it was right there,” says Didion.
She grew up in Sacramento, a fifth generation Californian. Didion had thoughts of being an actress. But the notion of writing was always there.
Perhaps not coincidentally, she taught herself how to type by transcribing passages from the works of Ernest Hemmingway.
"You see every piece of punctuation matters and the placement of the words,” says Didion. “I mean, if you type them out and you try them in different ways, you’ll see what works and doesn't work."
While at Berkeley, Didion won an essay contest sponsored by vogue, and the magazine hired her and brought her to New York. She called it the most thrilling place in the world.
But by the time she went back to California in 1964 with new husband John Gregory Dunne, her feelings about New York had changed, encapsulated in her essay "Goodbye to All That."
"I can remember now with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict when New York began for me. But I cannot lay my finger on the moment it ended,” Didion wrote.
Didion earned critical and popular acclaim for the essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" about her time spent with hippies in San Francisco in 1967.
"I was there a month. It was very hard to make appointments, for one thing. I mean, you couldn't make appointments with people who basically didn't get up,” says Didion.
Didion says she Dunne could never write a novel or an essay together, but a screenplay they could, because in her words, there was no ego investment in writing screenplays.
The movie is not the writer's, it's the director's.
"Every word of that was shot as we had written it,” says Didion of “The Panic of Needle Park.” “And yet, we had written a movie about a girl — the girl was played by Kitty Wyn. And it turned out to be a movie about the character played by Al Pacino, who was a strong actor and director responded to that.”
Didion and Dunne moved back to New York in the late Î80s.
"I had been here a couple of years and I realized that I wasn't engaging New York,” says Didion. “I realized I was going to have to write something about it and report it to understand it.”
So Didion wrote a long essay about the Central Park jogger case. She called the piece "Sentimental Journeys," concluding that New York used sentimentality to mask its real problems of class and race.
“A sentimental narrative had kinda smoothed over the contradictions, made a story over the contradictions, but was standing in the way of thinking clearly about a lot of things, including the jogger case, as I saw it,” says Didion.
In her play “The Year of Making Thinking” there are "laughter through the tears" moments.
And beyond the stage there are many happy memories, such as the night of Didion's birthday about a month before her husband died.
"He was reading something out loud that I had written, it was during a snowstorm, we were kind of snowed in. He finished and he said, ÎDon't ever tell me that you can't write.’ It was just very moving to me,” recalls Didion.
A sentiment shared by her admirers for more than 40 years.
— Budd Mishkin