Writers & Company

The legacy of Joan Didion: The influential stylist inspired generations of writers

The prolific American writer, who died in December 2021 at the age of 87, was known for pioneering the New Journalism movement in the 1960s. Didion spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2005 about her life and work.
Joan Didion died at the age of 87 in December of 2021. Her many acclaimed books include The Year of Magical Thinking, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and South and West. (Nancy Ellison)

This interview originally aired on November 27, 2005.

When Joan Didion died in December 2021 at the age of 87 from complications of Parkinson's disease, writers and readers lamented the loss of a literary giant. Didion's 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.

Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Didion won the Prix de Paris at the age of 21, which awarded her a job as a research assistant at Vogue magazine in New York City. There, she met writer John Gregory Dunne, 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 movingly about the stages of her grief following Dunne'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. Didion subsequently wrote about Quintana in her 2011 memoir, Blue Nights

In a rare conversation in 2005, Didion spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in front of a packed audience at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto a few months after Quintana's death.

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.

The only way to structure The Year of Magical Thinking was to exactly replicate the experience.

"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 about it every day. The second year you don't have that."

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.

You can think of grief as what just hits you. The affliction just keeps coming over you in waves.

"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 for length and clarity.

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