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.