Joan Didion on the evolving nature of grief

The prolific writer, known for pioneering the New Journalism movement in the 1960s, has released a new book titled South and West.
The author of The Year of Magical Thinking has released a new book, South and West, that includes never-before-seen notes from the 1970s. (Brigitte Lacombe/Knopf)
Listen to the full episode52:29

South and West is the latest collection from the legendary novelist and journalist Joan Didion. A compilation of unfinished pieces torn from her notebook, the book documents a 1970 road trip she took through Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, while also offering a glimpse into her writing process.

Over the past five decades, Didion's work has had a profound impact on generations of writers. Her first collection of personal essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, helped define the New Journalism of the 1960s. The book interweaves her own intimate experiences in California with astute observations of the counterculture that was pervasive in American society at the time.

At the age of 21, Didion won the Prix de Paris, which awarded her a job as a research assistant at Vogue in New York City. It was there she met writer John Gregory Dunne, a man who would eventually become her partner in life and literature. They were married for nearly 40 years, until Dunne died of a heart attack in their Manhattan home in 2003.

Didion wrote about the stages of her immeasurable grief following her husband's death in her award-winning 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Their daughter, Quintana, died from acute pancreatitis at the age of 39 before the book was published. In a rare conversation, Didion spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in front of a packed audience at Harbourfront in Toronto a few months after Quintana's death.

This interview originally aired on November 27, 2005.

The nature of grief

The only way to structure [The Year of Magical Thinking] was to exactly replicate the experience, which meant two things. It meant the key scenes, like John's death, would be repeated over and over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle. And each time with different details, because that would replicate that obsessive replaying of what happened. And the other thing I realized was that it was going to have to be absolutely as immediate and raw as possible. So I would have to finish it before the end of the first year, at which time I was told the nature of grief changes slightly. And it did for me. It doesn't go away, but it becomes a little more remote. It's not quite as raw as what you've been through. For the first year, you think every day. The second year you don't have that.

South and West is Didion's latest collection of nonfiction writing. (Knopf)

Letting yourself remember

You can think of grief as what just hits you. The affliction just keeps coming over you in waves. But mourning is an actual process that you go through if you allow yourself to, which is a kind of constructive process because it enables you to accept the death. It involves letting yourself remember. For some months, I could not allow myself to remember because Quintana was so sick. So then when I did allow myself to remember, I started getting a little more sane.

Magical thinking

For any number of people who have lost a husband or wife, there was a level at which they believed that that husband or wife would come back. You just reject the idea that it won't happen. In the course of writing the book, I realized that I had even authorized an autopsy with the secret thought that they might find that what went wrong with him was so minor that they could correct it on the spot. I know what happens in autopsies. I know you're dead when they do it. But actual things I knew didn't enter into the picture.

Joan Didion's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Uno" composed and performed by Ludovico Einaudi.