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The Author Speaks: Writing to Live

Joan Didion, bestselling author of <i>The Year of Magical Thinking</i> turned personal tragedy into a powerful tale of heart-wrenching grief—and the strength to go on.

"I’ve been around people who’ve had psychotic breaks, but I hadn’t imagined that someone who didn’t appear to be raving mad could be so crazy,” admits Joan Didion. Reeling from the sudden death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, and the life-threatening illness of her only daughter, the literary lioness canonized for her cool, gimlet-eyed view of the world discovered she’d gone temporarily “crazy” from grief. Writing her heart-rending memoir of loss and mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005), was her road back to sanity.

The two of us are alone in the ten-room Upper East Side Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband, collaborator, and best chum of 40 years. She’s dressed like a prep school ingenue—in a baggy lavender sweater, flower-print skirt, black tights, and knee-high mukluks. Though tiny, the author is nowhere near as wraithlike or fragile-looking as recent photographs have suggested. And her lightheartedness takes me aback at first; then I realize she has a lot to be happy about right now, in spite of everything. Not only has Magical Thinking been a runaway bestseller, receiving the 2005 National Book Award, but the 72-year-old author will be making her Broadway debut this spring with her adaptation of the work for director David Hare’s production of Magical Thinking, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Didion wrote of her experience in response to what she has described as the American way of grief—“evasiveness posing as courage. . . . Nobody ever admits that the physical and mental effects of loss are actually happening.” She tells in the book how she felt cut loose from “any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

The brutal facts of her story more than explain those feelings. On the evening of December 30, 2003, having returned from the hospital where their recently married daughter, Quintana Roo, lay comatose on life support (after what seemed to be flu turned into septic shock), Joan and John were just sitting down to dinner when he suffered a massive, fatal coronary. (Quintana would be dead in 20 months, of pancreatitis—“a whole different level of loss” that Didion refuses to talk about.)

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life

as you know it ends.

These lines, scribbled randomly shortly after that fateful night, became the opening sentences of Magical Thinking, a meditation not only on grief and marriage, parenthood, time, and self-pity but on the eerily casual way in which tragedy enters our everyday lives.

To mirror her confusion and difficulty absorbing what had happened, Didion wrote the memoir with unprecedented speed—88 days from start to finish—deliberately leaving the manuscript “raw” as she traveled back through the loops and tangles of her fractured thinking. “I could not give away . . . his shoes,” she realizes in one desperate moment. “He would need [them] if he was to return.”

How could she have written so exquisitely, I wonder, during such an ugly time? “The only way I get things is by writing them down,” she has said. Indeed, the woman who famously declared “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” has turned this personal necessity into a legendary career as a novelist and merciless social critic—of the flower power generation especially—in classics such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

She’s always been far tougher than she looks. “Although I never quite know what people mean when they talk about being strong,” Didion says. “I mean, you don’t have an option. I felt some responsibility to Quintana and to John to not let myself go. What’s the choice?”

Still, she is skeptical of healing as a fait accompli. “You don’t actually get over things,” Didion says. “They become part of everything you are. This does not mean you walk around crying all the time. But you change.”

How is she different today?

“I’m far less patient about certain things,” she admits. “And I’ve learned to value love more. When I think of the moments that are wasted in all of our lives! They are particularly precious to you when you can’t replicate them.” Her eyes fill with tears. “After John died, I’d get cross when I heard couples bickering. I’d tell them they just didn’t have enough time.”

She is also surprisingly lighter of heart. “I used to be such a control freak. Then I realized that I was berating myself for not being able to control all these uncontrollable events. This is the worst kind of grandiosity.” Having lived through the worst, she thinks, “very little can happen to me now.”

Lest anyone think that Magical Thinking is relentlessly depressing, though, it should be noted that the book is as much a romance and a tribute to a highly successful, unusual marriage-between-equals as it is a story of mourning. Aging is another complex theme. “Marriage is not only time,” Didion writes; “it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For 40 years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age.” Time’s march can no longer be denied, she knows, but neither can evidence that she’s getting better. Just the other day she found herself clearing shelves in John’s old office. “I [moved his things] without giving it much thought—or maybe even any thought. That,” she assures me, “was a first.”

There’s one more thing I want to ask, but I fear it may be indelicate. Can she imagine falling in love again?

“Of course,” she answers, without hesitation. “I wouldn’t marry again, I don’t think. And I doubt I’d want to live with someone. But falling in love? Absolutely.”

Mark Matousek’s new memoir, The Other World (Bloomsbury), will be published next year.

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