From the Writers & Company Archives: Joan Didion

This summer, the Writers & Company weekly podcast will feature some of the best shows from the show's archives. We hope you'll enjoy this opportunity to hear these programs that haven't been available as a podcast before.

Every week in July and August, CBC Books will bring you the Writers & Company podcast, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

This week's Writers & Company podcast features Eleanor's 2005 conversation with Joan Didion about The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that would go on to be Didion's most popular book ever.

This interview originally aired on November 27, 2005.

You can listen to Writers & Company on CBC Radio One every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET and AT; 3:30 p.m. NT; 5 p.m. PT, MT and CT.


Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California, in 1934. She studied at Berkeley, and won Vogue Magazine's Prix de Paris, which meant a job in New York City, where she wrote her first novel, Run River. It was in New York that she met the writer John Gregory Dunne. They married, moved to Los Angeles and later adopted their daughter, Quintana. In the late '80s, Didion and Dunne moved back to New York. They both worked full time as writers, and sometimes they wrote screenplays together.

Didion and Dunne's relationship evolved slowly, first as friends, then romantically. And when they finally married in 1964, they were inseparable. "We were unusually dependent on each other," Didion told Eleanor Wachtel. "We really liked being together more than we liked being with other people."

At the end of December 2003, John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack. Five days earlier, the couple's daughter Quintana had been hospitalized. Joan Didion decided to write about this. "I wanted to figure out what happened," Didion said. But she put it off, partly because she didn't want to deal with addressing her grief and partly because she was busy taking care of Quintana, who would eventually pass away shortly before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking. "I realized I was going a little crazy and I thought I could organize it if I wrote it down."


While personal history has always been a subject Didion wrote about, she often did so at arm's length, keeping an objective observer's eye. That's not the case with The Year of Magical Thinking.. As Didion contemplated how to address her most personal work yet, she realized that "the only way to structure it was to exactly replicate the experience."

This meant two things for the book. First, "John's death would be repeated over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle and each time with different details" because Didion wanted to replicate "that obsessive replaying of what happened you go through." Second, Didion knew the book had to be "as immediate and raw as possible" and chose to complete the book within a year of Dunne's death in order to accomplish that.

Her grief was overwhelming, especially because his death was sudden and unexpected. "I think everybody lives their lives and certainly their marriages as if they have plenty of time," she commented. The book was her way of extending their relationship,and keeping Dunne in her life. When Didion came to the end of writing the book, she didn't want to finish. "The length of time I was writing the book, I was having a one-sided dialogue with John, but I was at least talking to him."

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