Joan Didion discusses 'Blue Nights'
In Sunday's Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Joan Didion about her new memoir, "Blue Nights." The book, which moves back and forth between the death of Didion's 39-year-old daughter, Quintana, six years ago and the author's reflections on aging, is a follow-up to 2005's "The Year of Magical Thinking," in which she wrote about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Ulin visited Didion at her apartment in Manhattan; here is more of their conversation.
Jacket Copy: Throughout "Blue Nights," you speak (or write) directly to your readers. How did you develop that device?
Joan Didion: It just started. I started writing, and suddenly I was talking directly to the reader. I was telling the reader that I had to talk directly. I was telling the reader what I had to do when I hadn't done it yet, and then it was a little hard to talk directly to the reader, and so that became a paragraph. I was just making it up as I went along. I didn't have a plan.
JC: Your language is very stripped down in the book: spare, declarative. That makes for a certain tension, given the emotional murkiness of the narrative.
JD: I don't know how this got so murky. But part of it was this wish on my part to make it direct and to be as straightforward as possible. That, for some reason, led me into murkiness. I don't know how or why, but it did. "Magical Thinking" was much clearer -- at least, the emotional part.
JC: How much does that have to do with the difficulty of writing about a child? It's harder than writing about a spouse.
JD: Absolutely. Absolutely. For every possible reason. I had not written about her at all. John had written about her. He had written a piece about her called "Quintana," and he published a book of pieces called "Quintana and Friends." She was on the cover ... but he hadn't written about her in any way that got into what her problems later turned out to be. She was also very young.
JC: What was her reaction to being written about?
JD: She loved being written about. It was like being a star. The fact that she loved being written about should have been a clue. But it was just one of those ... she was actually an amazing little person, at every age. I don't know how much I got of that. But we never know how much we got right or wrong about our children. Because there they are.
JC: You write about her presence in your working life -- on assignment, in hotel rooms -- and the effect this may have had on her childhood.
JD: There was a whole lot on my mind when I was writing this book because so many things came to me. Most of what came to mind had to do with making her part of our work life, and what that had done for her and against her.
JC: Do you regret it?
JD: I couldn't possibly regret it, because it was just the way we lived. You can regret it, you can regret the way things finally went down, but you can't rewrite it. I'm not sure. I was talking last night to someone who had just read the book, and she was totally baffled by people who didn't raise their children to want to be stars. She said, "There's just no question that my children all wanted to be stars. And of course I had wanted to be a star." If you raise children who don't want to be stars, there's hardly any way to explain that it's not weird, it's just the way they are. Work is so much a part of life. So how could you deny it?
JC: Part of the book deals with parental guilt, or parental failure. You write: "I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents."
JD: Just as we can't know our children, I don't see how we can be successful as parents.
JC: When you say "successful as parents," what do you mean?
JD: The ideal thing would be that the child is happy and satisfied with what life eventually brings. I certainly can't say that Quintana was ever satisfied with what life was bringing her, or that she was particularly happy. In fact, she was dramatically unhappy much of the time. I often think I didn't give her credit for that. What I mean is that I didn't take it seriously enough, because I just thought that was the way children were.
JC: That's a tendency with all parents, I think. Not quite to see your children, to minimize their concerns ...
JD: You think of them as little children, and they're cute and they're funny, and you don't take them at all seriously. The adults pay no attention. And we may not even want them to pay attention.
JC: In "Blue Nights," you say that writing no longer comes easily to you. But you've never given the impression that writing was the easiest act.
JD: It never was. But it's gotten harder. Or maybe there was a period when it was easier. After "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," or when I was doing the book about California. It got perceptibly easier there for a while, I think. But I'm not sure. There are so many things we can never know in life. When Quintana was sick, I went to a psychiatrist, and I would complain to him about feeling such and such and such and such, and he would read me notes from two months previous in which I'd made exactly the same complaints. So it really wasn't true that I was having more trouble than I'd ever had before.
JC: What about your novels? Do you find them easier or more difficult to write?
JD: If I'd had as good a time writing my last novel as I did writing "Democracy" ... but again, that's one of those illusions because I did not have a good time writing "Democracy" at all. I had a good time writing "A Book of Common Prayer," but "Democracy" -- when we moved from Brentwood, we had a safe deposit box where we kept manuscripts when we went out of town, in case there was a fire or something. I cleaned out the safe deposit box, and there were the first 90 pages of "Democracy." There were at least 20 versions, going over years. So it was not an easy project.
JC: With a book like "The Year of Magical Thinking," it's as if you were building a structure, literally using narrative to stave off chaos and loss.
JD: Yeah. It was a huge part of that year. I'm not sure I could have gotten through it if I hadn't done something so odd.
JC: This book, too, attempts to use literature to work through something. You call it "maintaining momentum." But you also note that maintaining momentum ...
JD: Has a cost. What I mean is that by maintaining momentum, I had not given myself time or space to get better, to live through whatever it was that was bothering me. And I made myself really tired. Maybe if I hadn't made myself so tired, I would have not gotten so physically worn down.
JC: Still, there's a cost, too, when we don't maintain momentum.
JD: Yeah. It's necessary. I've been trying to fight my way through this because of the book tour. I don't actually want to do the book tour, because it's tiring and ... it's a book tour. Then I keep thinking: If you didn't go on the book tour, you would have failed, and so this question of doing the thing -- going to the airport, getting on the airplane, going to Toronto, where you don't want to go ever in your whole life -- is on some level necessary. Otherwise you have failed yourself.
JC: So for you it's a matter of failing yourself, not other people?
JD: No, no, no. I only feel obligated to myself.
JC: As if you haven't completed the task?
JD: I haven't completed the task. But I also haven't thought through whether it might be better, in this particular instance, not to go to the airport and just sort of rest through this, right? Or whether it would be more trying to blame myself for not going to the airport. Either way, you lose.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Joan Didion reads to Quintana in 1969. Credit: Los Angeles Times