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THe New Yorker
Joan Didion Interview (page: 6 / 6)
National Book Award
We'd like to turn to your most recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. When did you start writing it? Was it right after your husband's death?
Joan Didion: No. John died in December 2003. I started writing it in October 2004. In between, Quintana had been in the hospital the whole time, so I really was not thinking about writing anything. Then I had to do a piece about the campaign that year. So I did the conventions. Then I realized I didn't feel like doing the book I was under contract to do, and at some point, I had started making these notes. So I decided to do that. They weren't notes for a book. They were just notes. Everybody who undergoes a death and finds themselves grieving is obsessed with -- or maybe overly focused on -- the idea that they can't display self-pity, they have to be strong. Actually there are a lot of reasons why you are going to feel sorry for yourself, but that's your first concern.
You've written that in our society, grief is sort of frowned upon.
Joan Didion: Right. It's a sense that you get over it, that it's a progressive thing. You have this few days before the funeral, and then it's time to move on, start the healing process.
It doesn't work that way, does it?
Joan Didion: No.
Sometimes, a year after someone's death is when it really kicks in.
Joan Didion: Sometimes it kicks in at a year, or at odd times. It keeps kicking in is what I've found, for no particular reason. Suddenly, it will hit you one day when you thought you were perfectly beyond it.
Had you seen yourself as someone who, generally speaking, did not indulge in magical thinking?
Joan Didion: Right. I had. But in fact, I realized later that I had thought magically all along, because John had a heart condition which I persisted in thinking had been fixed, even though he was not under that misapprehension.
So, from comments he made, you think he knew that this would be how he would go?
Joan Didion: Yes, a sense. It's hard to take seriously the idea that you can't control something. There's nowhere to go with that idea. It's not useful. So I tended to reject it.
Maybe that's why people tend to blame themselves in some way for the death of a parent, for instance. If they had only come to the hospital an hour earlier.
Joan Didion: Yeah. All children think that. If I had eaten, if I had not opened the window when they told me not to. Most of us have felt that, all children do.
Sometimes it's easier to feel guilt than to feel lack of control. Isn't it?
Joan Didion: Yeah. It's a grandiose reaction. You are claiming you could really control this, but you failed.
What did writing the book do for you?
Joan Didion: It organized it. It gave it a shape. It showed me what I thought about it. It enabled me to grieve, actually.
Was it very difficult to write this book, especially, without his advice, or his editorial eye?
Joan Didion: It was less difficult than the first piece I did after he died, which was on the campaign that year. That was very difficult. This book, for some reason, I thought it was as if he had read it because he was so much a part of it.
Do you feel that? Do you feel a sense that John as an editor is still with you?
Joan Didion: I certainly did with that book. I don't know about all the time.
It was very generous of you to share your experience with grief and magical thinking, because it's something that most people don't admit to.
Joan Didion: The whole thing was such a surprise to me, I felt like, "You've got to tell somebody this." It was a didactic impulse.
What lies ahead for you?
Joan Didion: Well, I have just done a theatrical adaptation of that book. It won't be produced until the spring of 2007.
You have a very great actress for the play, Vanessa Redgrave. Was she your choice?
Joan Didion: She was all of our choices. I mean, the three of us: me, the producer, and the director. There was no disagreement.
Once again, you're revealing a very intimate part of yourself. Is that difficult, or did it feel like the right thing to do?
Joan Didion: It never feels difficult to me. When you write, you're always revealing a difficult part of yourself. It may not be a part of yourself that looks as difficult -- there are parts that look more difficult -- but in fact, they are all difficult, and you get kind of used to doing that. It is sort of the nature of the thing.
Way back in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, you wrote that a writer is always selling somebody out.
Joan Didion: I meant that in a different way than most people read it.
Was there ever any self-consciousness on your part with regard to family? You describe your mother as being very opinionated and having some very set views. In view of your own outspokenness as an author, was that ever difficult?
Joan Didion: Not as an author, because they weren't a part of that, but I used to have stage fright when I spoke in public. Sometimes it would come, and sometimes it wouldn't come, and only about two years ago, I suddenly realized that the only two instances when I had had such stage fright that I had been throwing up all day before the event, both of them involved the presence of both of my parents.
You've written so much about dark chapters in our country's history. What is the state of the American Dream today, as you see it?
Joan Didion: I don't know. I hardly ever think about it. I don't really think in those abstract terms.
Is democracy viable, do you think, the way the government operates?
Joan Didion: It's certainly not working the way it's being operated right now. It's being dismantled. Not only democracy, but the entire apparatus. Partly, that's ideological, and partly I think it was just a way of some people enriching themselves.
The title of your book, Political Fictions, says a great deal, but you've written about the sense of received wisdom, that people kind of swallow what they want to swallow. Do you think it's possible for a U.S. leader to tell the truth? Do people want to hear it?
Joan Didion: I don't know. Isn't it odd? It's hard to know whether it matters to large numbers of Americans. That's the really discouraging thing. If we could quiet down and maybe not communicate for a period of time, everything might cool off and people wouldn't jump into these reflexive polarized positions.
Thank you for the interview. We really appreciate it.
Joan Didion: Thank you.
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This page last revised on Mar 28, 2011 11:26 EST
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