Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child. I had read the book in galleys and found it remarkable. “Are you going to talk to her?” an editor asked, and I quickly said yes. But I had not thought the assignment through. The real question, I soon realized, was what we were going to talk about. Here was a writer, after all, who had just put everything she knew about death and grief into print.
What was I supposed to do–ask her how she felt?
Didion is a tiny woman in the best of times. In the fall of 2005, she couldn’t have weighed much more than her age, which was 70. Her daughter, Quintana, had died that August, after Didion had finished the book, and we sat down to talk just a few days after the memorial service. “Many people have said to me: You don’t have to promote this,” she told me, but “if I didn’t do it, it still wouldn’t bring her back.”
Late in the interview I managed a few questions about the memorial. She’d been touched, she said, when her brother handed her a handkerchief, because Didions normally avoid displays of emotion (“It was so sweet, you know? We don’t usually hand each other handkerchiefs”). But mostly, I went with the plan I’d worked out. I stuck to questions about writing — about Didion’s experience of creating this particular book, and about how it had differed, or not, from the writing she had done before.
Here’s some of what I learned:
She has never written from outlines, but she would sometimes think as much as 30 pages ahead. Not this time. “It didn’t feel like writing,” she said. “Writing to me is really hard. And I just sort of sat down and wrote this — or typed it.” She knew she wanted to come back to key scenes over and over, foregrounding different details to evoke the obsessive nature of her grief. She sensed that a crisis in her daughter’s illness would form a “movement” that would fall a certain distance into the narrative. That was it.
Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, had drilled into her the need for a “billboard” — a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what it will be about. So when the time came, she typed one in. It mentions marriage, children, illness, memory, and disorienting grief, and it includes the best description I’ve seen of Didion’s pre-Magical Thinking literary persona. “As a writer, even as a child,” she writes, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”