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Joan Didion writes through 'Blue Nights'

The process tested the writer's resolve, but the book about her late daughter is even more personal than 'The Year of Magical Thinking.'

October 30, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Tribune Newspapers
  • Joan Didion, pictured in 2007, says that with Blue Nights she tried to do something really personal.
Joan Didion, pictured in 2007, says that with Blue Nights she tried to do… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — "Writers," Joan Didion observed in 1968, "are always selling somebody out." It's one of those classic Didion statements, epigrammatic yet personal, a line that unpacks itself the more we consider what it implies. Didion may have been referring to journalism when she wrote that in the preface to "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," but she was also, as directly as can be imagined, addressing herself. "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does," she acknowledged earlier in the same paragraph, and it is this clarity, this edge of laser-sharp engagement, that sets her apart. For nearly 50 years now, her work has been defined by what she calls "triangulation," which is a way of explaining how she asserts herself in a piece of writing — to tell a reader where she is.

This question of presence, of triangulation, has come up on a Thursday afternoon in Didion's comfortably cluttered Upper East Side living room because she is discussing her new book, "Blue Nights" (Alfred A. Knopf: 188 pp., $25), which, she is saying, she almost didn't write. "There came a time," she recalls, her voice a low murmur, "when I decided I would simply repay the money I had gotten from Knopf. I told Lynn Nesbit that this was my plan, that I was going to tell Sonny I couldn't do it, and we would repay him. And Lynn said, 'Why don't you wait on that awhile?'"

Didion laughs softly at the idea of her agent, Nesbit, returning an advance to Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta, but at the center of the story, her discomfort is real. "Blue Nights" is a follow-up to her memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," which, built around the mantra "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant," describes the aftermath of two very personal tragedies: the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, of a heart attack in December 2003, and the extended illness of their daughter Quintana, who died at 39 in August 2005, just before the book came out. In this new work, Didion tries to tell Quintana's story, intercut with reflections on aging (she'll turn 77 in December) and what she worries is a diminishment of her creative power.

PHOTOS: Joan Didion through the years

"I was having a terrible time with it at first," she continues, "because I didn't want to talk about Quintana for a lot of reasons. I didn't want to talk about her because I didn't want to talk about her. And the second reason was I didn't know if I had the right to talk about her. It was her life, not mine. So that got in the way for a long time." What's at issue here, in an apartment full of family photos and mementos, is permission, or maybe it's that, after all this time, Didion has become the reporter who triangulates herself. That's the challenge, and the risk, of memoir, and if she has always been a personal writer, with her last three books — "Blue Nights," "The Year of Magical Thinking" and 2003's "Where I Was From," which she thinks of as "the California book" — she has shifted focus, in large measure, from the outer to the inner world.

At the heart of these three efforts is a sense of family; or better yet, a sense of place. In "Where I Was From," that place is physical, whereas in the later books it becomes psychological; still, for all intents and purposes, the perspective is the same. "The books are similar in that they ask more questions than they answer," Didion says. And yet, with each, she has zeroed in more tightly, moving from a subjective portrait of California to her husband and now to her child.

"In a certain way," she notes of "Blue Nights," " 'Magical Thinking' was more generalized; it's a whole different tone. I decided that maybe I ought to do something really personal, that I hadn't done anything really personal in 'Magical Thinking,' and maybe it was time to try." That's an unexpected observation: How much more personal can you get than to trace the death of a husband, the disruption of a family? But as is often true of Didion, there's an undercurrent beneath the surface of the words.

"I hadn't dealt with Quintana," she suggests. "I had dealt with her to some extent in the play" — Didion adapted "The Year of Magical Thinking" for the stage in 2007, as a one-woman show starring Vanessa Redgrave — "but the play [was] a … way of preserving myself at a distance. Because as I say in the book, watching that play on 45th Street at night was one moment during the day when Quintana did not necessarily die."

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