Joan Didion on her new memoir

First aired on The Sunday Edition (13/11/11)

"Grief is what happens to you. It's those waves of wanting to scream or cry. Mourning is actually working through it. It's a much more active process." — Joan Didion

Joan Didion Death is an intrinsic part of life, but that doesn't make it any easier to cope with. We grieve and mourn in different ways, publicly or privately. When American writer Joan Didion was faced with the sudden death of both her husband and her only daughter, she did what she knows best. She wrote about them.

Didion put her grief into words in an attempt to find meaning in her losses and begin the process of mourning. Her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo, died just two years apart. Her first memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a heartbreaking chronicle of the year following Dunne's death. The couple were together 40 years and often collaborated in their work.

Her new book, Blue Nights, is her reaction to Quintana's death, which happened while Didion was promoting Magical Thinking in 2005, and is a portrait of motherhood, aging and loss. Although both books deal with grief, they are remarkably different.

Blue Nights was more challenging for Didion to put together, and as a result, is structured differently than her previous works. She told Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition that it was a way of writing she had never done. "I have always tried to use a very strong narrative," she said. "This has no narrative. You just kind of plunged in, and then you plunged in again."

The 76-year-old is quite hard on herself in Blue Nights, because she feels she failed her daughter in some way. "I think every parent is tough when it comes to their failure or inability to protect their children, because that's the one thing that's asked of you as a parent," she told Enright. "You're given this gift from out of the blue, which brings you great joy, and all you have to do in return is keep that gift safe, and you fail at doing it."

Didion started writing Blue Nights when she realized she hadn't properly dealt with Quintana's death. She couldn't move from grief to mourning, and therefore onto a separate new book, until she wrote about what was on her mind. "You never know until you write it down," she said. "It doesn't exist as an idea all by itself until you've shaped it and written it...then you know how you feel about it."

The celebrated writer is ready to return to her craft and work on something less personal, but she will never move on from the death of her husband and daughter. "There is no closure for this kind of thing, or for anything," she said. "Most of the things we do in life don't have any moment of closure, but yes, I think it's possible to do something different. And I hope I find it, that thing to do."

blue nights cover.jpg

Blue Nights

by Joan Didion

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From the publisher:

"From one of our most powerful writers, a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter. Richly textured with bits of her own childhood and married life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo, this new book by Joan Didion examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding having children, illness, and growing old."

Read more at Random House.

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