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Remembering essayist Joan Didion, a keen observer of American culture

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to portions of two of our interviews with journalist, novelist and screenwriter Joan Didion, who died last month at the age of 87. Known for her cool, unsentimental gaze and distinctive writing, she wrote two groundbreaking collections of essays. One was called "The White Album." The other was "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," which included pieces about hippies of Haight-Ashbury and described a 5-year-old girl high on acid. She wrote 19 books in all, including the bestselling novels "Play It As It Lays" and "A Book Of Common Prayer." With her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, she wrote screenplays for the films "Panic In Needle Park," for the 1978 remake of "A Star Is Born," and for the film based on her novel "Play It As It Lays."

After the sudden death of her husband in 2003, Didion wrote of her grief and shock in the memoir "The Year Of Magical Thinking." It became a bestseller and was awarded the 2005 National Book Award. A year and a half later, after a period of illness, her only daughter, Quintana Roo, died at the age of 39, and Didion wrote the book "Blue Nights." Didion received the National Humanities Medal in 2012 from President Obama, who called her, quote, "one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture," unquote. Terry Gross first spoke to Joan Didion in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You wrote an essay in the 1960s in which you were talking about your approach as a reporter, and you said, my only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. Does that still describe you as a reporter?

JOAN DIDION: Oh, yes. I'm not a good interviewer, and I'm not very aggressive in a situation. I tend to just kind of have to hang around the edges of it and see what's going on.

GROSS: Do you think that being small and physically unobtrusive makes people more...

DIDION: Less.

GROSS: ...Less wary of you, less suspicious?

DIDION: Less wary. They think that I am not a threat to anyone.

GROSS: Do you exploit that in any way?

DIDION: No, I think - I mean, obviously I use it (laughter). I mean, since it - but I wouldn't say that I exploit it. In fact, I'm always pretty careful to - you know, as most reporters are - to go in with a notebook, to go in with a tape recorder, to go in making sure that everybody knows what you're there for.

GROSS: In another essay in your book "The White Album," you described yourself as a woman who feels radically separated from the ideas that interest other people. You wrote that you felt like a sleepwalker moving through the world, unconscious of the moment's high issues, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, and that acquaintances would read The New York Times and try to tell you the news, but you wouldn't read the newspapers yourself. I wonder if that's changed at all, especially as you've done...

DIDION: Yeah.

GROSS: ...More reporting.

DIDION: I read the newspapers a lot, but I still - I mean, I read four or five newspapers a day, but I am still more interested in the - in what's not in the newspapers. I mean, it is kind of astonishing to me how much stuff goes on that is generally not covered.

GROSS: How would you describe what you're trying to do in comparison with daily journalism in newspapers?

DIDION: Well, what - I mean, what I do is just try to sort of go someplace and try to kind of put things together in a - just pull some threads together, rather than cover breaking events. I think it would be very hard for me to cover breaking events, and I'm not very interested in breaking events.

GROSS: Reporting brings you face to face with the world in a way that writing fiction doesn't 'cause in fiction, you encounter the world in your imagination. In journalism, you have to actually physically be there, too.

DIDION: Yeah, yeah, it's kind of a help. I mean, it's a help to me to have - to be able to go out into the world.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you write journalism, to kind of...

DIDION: Yes.

GROSS: ...Get you out there?

DIDION: Yeah, it's awful to get up every morning and not - and just have to make up the world all over again. I mean, it's very - some mornings you just don't feel like it.

GROSS: You wrote in one of your essays that you had a nervous breakdown in 1968, and you even reprint some of what the doctor wrote about you. And he wrote that you had alienated yourself almost entirely from the world of human beings. I'm not sure what he meant by that. What did he mean?

DIDION: I don't know what he meant. I was astonished by it. It was - I mean, it seemed to me a very odd report. I didn't actually have a breakdown. I had a - I - well, I had a - I mean, obviously I went to a doctor, but, I mean, I wasn't hospitalized. It was - I think maybe a lot of it - of what I was - well, what he was seeing was actually - a lot of it came out of a novel I was writing at the time. I was writing "Play It As It Lays," and I think possibly that a lot of my reactions to questions asked me by a psychiatrist came out of that mood rather than my own. I mean, you are - for one thing, you are when you're writing a novel alienated from the world of other human beings.

GROSS: In the sense that you're sitting home?

DIDION: You just have these imaginary playmates who you spend the day with. And once you're deeply into it, you kind of resent it when you have to go out and go out to dinner and talk to other people when you find them an intrusion into this imaginary world. It's a peculiar hazard of writing novels.

GROSS: You wrote once that whenever you walk into a room, a sentence goes through your head. It's a sentence that Jessica Mitford's governess used to tell her, and that is, remember, you're the least important person in this room, and don't forget it.

DIDION: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What a really self-effacing thing to be carrying around all the time (laughter).

DIDION: It is a - it is just what I think of when I walk into a room. It's not a - it's not necessarily a bad thing.

GROSS: Well, why do you think of that?

DIDION: I think it's - I think actually that it's true. I mean, maybe all writers think that it's - or some writers think that it's so because you're focused on watching other people, rather than on their watching you.

GROSS: Were you brought up to be self-effacing...

DIDION: No, I don't...

GROSS: ...Or to think of yourself as less important than others?

DIDION: No, actually, my father was always telling me how important I was. And I - and he often has said to me that I have a deep-seated superiority complex, which may be true, but in a social situation, I tend to not be very - to be less interested in my own role in it than in everybody else, the interaction among the other people.

GROSS: You suffer from migraine headaches, which leave you incapacitated for about three to five days a month. Are they connected to writing?

DIDION: No, they're connected to not writing. They're connected to - if I could connect them to any, you know, what they're connected to is some kind of chemical flaw or vascular hereditary thing. But what actually brings them on or triggers them is always not working it, so going - doing things like losing the laundry or going to the dentist and, you know, having a lot of little confusing things that end up not doing any - end up in days that don't produce anything. I mean, the actual rhythm of working is very - is for me very, very soothing and very and makes me feel good

GROSS: Because focusing on what you're writing enables you to block out all the other chaos of life?

DIDION: Yeah. I have kind of a simple one-track mind, actually. I can't handle a whole lot of things going on on the edges. And so the simpler the day is, the better off I am.

BIANCULLI: Joan Didion speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. Joan Didion died last month at the age of 87. We'll listen back to Terry's 2005 interview with her after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to our interviews with journalist, novelist and screenwriter Joan Didion. She died last month at the age of 87. Terry spoke with her again in 2005 when her memoir, "The Year Of Magical Thinking," was published. It was about the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. He died of a heart attack as they were sitting down to dinner in 2003. Didion and Dunne had just come back from the hospital, where their daughter was in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. After Joan Didion finished her memoir, her daughter died at age 39, about a year and a half after her husband's death. We begin this interview with Didion reading from the year of magical thinking. She and her husband were sitting down to dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DIDION: We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad. John was talking, then he wasn't. At one point in the seconds or minute before he stopped talking, he had asked me if I'd used single malt scotch for his second drink. I'd said no. I used the same scotch I had used for his first drink. Goody, he'd said, I don't know why, but I don't think you should mix them. And another point in those seconds or that minute, he had been talking about why World War I was the critical event from which the entire rest of the 20th century flowed.

I have no idea which subject we were on, the scotch or World War I, at the instant he stopped talking. I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised, and he was slumped, motionless. At first, I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable. I remember saying, don't do that. When he did not respond, my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far enough from the back of a chair to give him the Heimlich.

I remember the sense of his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to the floor. In the kitchen by the phone, I had taped a card with the New York Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I'd not taped the numbers by the phone because I anticipated a moment like this. I'd taped the numbers by the phone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else. I called one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was breathing. I said, just come.

GROSS: That's Joan Didion reading from her new memoir, "The Year Of Magical Thinking." Joan Didion, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I just want to say at the top...

DIDION: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I'm very sorry about the loss of your husband and your daughter. This is a really beautifully written book, and I loved reading it. But I also hated reading it only in the sense that, you know, it makes me think not only of your losses, it makes me think of, you know, losses I may experience and losses - do you know? It's...

DIDION: You know, I had the sense when I was writing it that I wasn't writing it at all. It was like automatic writing, was a very different kind of process. It was simply very - everything that I - was on my mind just came out and got on the page. And that was kind of my intention to keep it kind of raw because I thought - it occurred to me when I was doing a lot of reading about death and grief that nobody told you the raw part. And every one of us is going to face it sooner or later.

GROSS: How do you think it affected your grieving to be chronicling it as it happened?

DIDION: Well, it was - it's the way I process everything is by writing it down. I don't actually process anything until I write it down, I mean, in terms of thinking, in terms of coming to terms with it. So it was kind of a necessary thing for me. I don't know that it would be for everybody.

GROSS: After you called, you know, 911, it took about five minutes for them to come. What did...

DIDION: What did I do?

GROSS: Yeah. What did you do in that five minutes?

DIDION: I kept trying to wake him up. I mean, I kept trying to lift him. I kept trying to - I don't remember. I mean, I kept - I don't remember what I did. I didn't do anything. I mean, there was nothing. I remember calling downstairs and asking the doorman to come up. But actually, the ambulance was there almost immediately.

GROSS: Your book is called "The Year Of Magical Thinking," and you realize at some point that you had been engaging in magical thinking that had to do with this genuine thought that maybe he'd come back so you shouldn't throw out his shoes in case he needs them when he comes back and...

DIDION: Right. Maybe I could - if I did the right things, he would come back. You know, it's a form of - it's the way children think. A lot of people have told me that - who have lost a husband or child that they engaged in it, too.

GROSS: Is there a point where you realized you stopped?

DIDION: There was a point where I realized that I had been doing it. And yes, then I realized - then it gradually stopped. I don't think I'm doing it now.

GROSS: You talk about how you didn't want to give away his shoes, for example, because if he came back, he'd needed them. Giving away clothes after someone dies is so hard. I mean, you have to decide with all their possessions, what are you going to keep? What are you going to give away to friends? What are you going to give to charity? What are you going to throw out? Was that a really horrible process?

DIDION: I haven't done it. I just left everything. After I discovered that I couldn't give away the shoes, I just closed that door. Now, I haven't had to move or repaint the apartment or do anything that required me to do it. I think - I presume that it would be somewhat less painful now than it was in the first few months, you know, when I initially tried it because because now I know he's dead in a way that I viscerally didn't know then. But I would just as soon let that let that door stay closed for a while until I need to open it.

GROSS: How much had you talked about death with your husband? And did you have those conversations about what to do if the other dies and what you'd want for the survivor?

DIDION: Well, he was always trying - he was always trying to have that conversation with me, and I would in many ways not have it because I thought it was - because it was - I see now it was threatening to me and I was afraid of it. But what I thought then was that it was just dwelling on things that weren't going to happen or dwelling on things that we couldn't help or, you know - and so we - I mean, I - he gave me any number of - he was always giving me - also because he was - he did have a streak of Irish morbidity, he was always talking about his funeral and giving me new lists of people who could or could not speak because he was kind of volatile in his likes and dislikes. And, of course, I had the key moment I couldn't find any of those lists. I mean, they'd been changed so often anyway that it made no - that it would have made no difference.

GROSS: I want to quote something you write in your memoir, "The Year Of Magical Thinking." You write marriage is memory. Marriage is time. Marriage is not only time. It is also paradoxically the denial of time. For 40 years, I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year, for the first time since I was 29, I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year, for the first time since I was 29, I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger.

DIDION: Right.

GROSS: As writers, you both worked at home and you were with each other just about all the time. Did you have a sense of who you were outside of the marriage, who you were as a single Joan Didion, as opposed to a Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne as a unit?

DIDION: Not really, no. The family was my unit was kind of the way I - that was actually the way I wanted it. So, no, I - so it was kind of necessary to find my - you know, to refind myself. I hadn't particularly liked being single.

GROSS: When you were younger, you mean.

DIDION: When I was younger.

GROSS: Were there parts of yourself that you kind of relied on him to do? I mean - you know what I mean?

DIDION: All parts. I mean, people often said that he finished sentences for me. Well, he did, which meant that I - I mean, I just relied on him. He was between me and the world. He not only answered the telephone, he finished my sentences. He was the baffle between me and the world at large.

GROSS: So how are you negotiating the world now that there isn't that baffle?

DIDION: Well, it's like everything else. You learn to do it. I mean, I remember when I stopped smoking, it was very hard to know how to arrange me to walk around as an adult person because I had been smoking at that point since I was 15. And this is kind of like relearning all - I mean, you kind of just learn new - it's not difficult. It's just sort of lonely to - I mean, it's sort of a bleak thing to do.

GROSS: Are you comfortable being alone?

DIDION: Yeah, I've always been comfortable being alone. So that is not the problem. Basically, one thing that everybody who has been in a close marriage and who is - everyone thinks when his or her spouse dies is - it's the way in which you are struck at every moment with something you need to tell him.

GROSS: Right.

BIANCULLI: Joan Didion speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. Joan Didion died last month at age 87. After a break, we'll hear more of their conversation, and we'll also remember actress Betty White, who died last month at age 99. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to our interviews with Joan Didion, who died last month at the age of 87. Terry spoke with Joan Didion in 2005 after the publication of her memoir "The Year Of Magical Thinking." It was about her grieving for her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. He had died of a heart attack at the end of 2003, just after they had visited their daughter in the hospital, where she lay in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your husband died five days after your daughter had been hospitalized for pneumonia, and by the time he died, she had also gone into septic shock of basically...

DIDION: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...A blood infection. So you were dealing - you had just gotten back from the hospital visiting her when he died.

DIDION: We had been seeing her in the hospital, yet it could not be described as a visit, really, because she was unconscious.

GROSS: She was in a coma.

DIDION: But - she was in an induced coma because she was on a ventilator. And they kept her under heavy sedation so that she wouldn't tear out the ventilator, which people tend to do when they find something going down their throats.

GROSS: Your daughter got out of the hospital. She had several major setbacks. But at the end of your memoir, you think that she's on the verge of really resuming her life. In August, after you'd finished your memoir, your daughter died. And this was about a year and a half after your husband's death. She was 39.

DIDION: Right. Right.

GROSS: You had just examined your grief over your husband so thoroughly in writing about it, and then it was time to grieve again. Now, with your husband, you understood the magical thinking that you were going through, this belief - this impossible belief that somehow he was going to come back, so you shouldn't even, like, throw out his clothes because he'd need them if he came back. Having examined your grief so carefully, were there little tricks that one plays on oneself when one's grieving that you couldn't even do anymore because you'd seen through it by writing your memoir?

DIDION: Well, I didn't - you see, I haven't really started grieving yet.

GROSS: For your daughter?

DIDION: Right. I think I'm still in the shock phase. And right after John died, I had - there was a long period before I was able to grieve because I was focused entirely on getting Quintana well. And I think that was - in a way, it was very good because by the time I was able to deal with it, I was dealing with it not quite as a crazy person, which I certainly would have been at the beginning.

GROSS: You had to deal with one thing that is a very, I think, peculiar thing to have to deal with. When you're grieving for the loss of a child, you had to figure out, well, did you have to rewrite or update your book? You know, your memoir had just been sent in. Your daughter...

DIDION: It never crossed my...

GROSS: It never crossed...

DIDION: Never crossed my mind.

GROSS: ...Your mind to rewrite it?

DIDION: No.

GROSS: And why not?

DIDION: It was finished. Well, it was about a certain period of time after John died, and that period was over. I mean, if I were to do something about Quintana, which I have no thought of doing, it would be a different book. It would be a different - it would be a thing of its own. It wouldn't be about a marriage. This book is about a marriage.

GROSS: Things like deaths and other tragedies tend to test people's faith if they have it or get them to immerse themselves deeper into faith or affirm their lack of faith or have them change from one point of view to another. I don't know if you've ever had any faith and if at all the deaths of your daughter and husband affected that.

DIDION: No, the deaths of my daughter and husband did not affect it. Whether I had any faith is - I have a kind of faith, but it's not a conventional kind of faith. And as I said some place in the book, that I - basically, I believe in geology and in the Episcopal litany but as a - I believe in certain symbols, but I don't believe in them as literal truth. I believe in a poetic truth.

GROSS: Do you have any - what is death to you? I mean, when you think about death, do you think of there being some kind of afterlife or just, you know, like, a void or a soul or...

DIDION: No, I don't believe in an afterlife. Well, you know, what is death to me? Death is ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yeah. There's a continuum, which - there's a continuum of things. But it's not - I don't believe in - I remember somebody once saying to me, the manager of a motel where I was staying - I was doing a piece in Oregon. And this motel manager had just come back from a funeral, and he said it was the most depressing thing he'd ever been to. He says, the coldest funeral I've ever been to. It was an Episcopalian funeral. Have you ever been to one? I said, yes, I have. And he said, they are so cold. And I said, how do you mean? And he said, if you can't believe you're going to heaven in your own body and on a first-name basis with everybody in your family, what's the point of dying?

And I loved this. I mean, it just - it was so far from any kind of church I knew, you know? I mean, the whole question, what's the point of dying - well, yes, what is the point? I mean, there was a kind of madness about it. I mean, that's the faith I don't have.

GROSS: Do you ever wish you did? Do you ever envy, like, that man, for instance, who has that kind of faith, that, you know, he's going to die and be reunited in heaven...

DIDION: And that - and there's a point in it?

GROSS: ...In his clothes, in his body - yeah.

DIDION: Yeah. Sure (laughter). That would be, I suppose, very comforting. But there's no possible way I could have it.

GROSS: Are you feeling overwhelmed now by the fragility of life, having lost your daughter and husband?

DIDION: Well, I certainly felt it after John died. Yes, I am a little on the wary side. When I'm with - a friend was having a sort of a minor procedure today, and I was very anxious. I found myself being far more anxious about it than I might normally have been.

GROSS: Are you any more or less worried about your own death now?

DIDION: No, I'm not worried about my own death. I think I'm less worried.

GROSS: Why?

DIDION: One of the things that worries us about dying always is we think we're - we're afraid we're leaving people behind and they won't be able to take care of themselves. We have to take care of them. But in fact, you see, I'm not leaving anybody behind. This is an area we shouldn't get into, I think.

GROSS: That's fine. That's fine. Do you want another minute before we talk more?

DIDION: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2005 conversation with Joan Didion. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Writer Joan Didion died last month at the age of 87. We're listening to Terry's 2005 interview with her after the publication of her memoir, "The Year Of Magical Thinking," about the death of her husband. When we left off, Joan Didion asked to pause the interview. Meanwhile, Terry's producer found out that the year's National Book Award nominees had just been announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: While you were just collecting your thoughts for a second, my producer just came in and said - and I don't know if you know this or not, but it just came across the wire that your memoir was nominated for a National Book Award.

DIDION: Really?

GROSS: Yeah.

DIDION: Oh, well, great (laughter).

GROSS: So I guess let me be the first to congratulate you (laughter).

DIDION: Well, thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: What a weird time for you. I mean, the book, I understand, is, like, flying off the shelves. It's nominated for a national book award, and it's about the worst thing that's ever happened to you in your life.

DIDION: Yeah, it's sort of - there is a mixed feeling about it, I mean, in my mind. On the other hand, it would make John happy.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

DIDION: I mean, I think he'd be - yeah, I think he'd be very gratified.

GROSS: I know that, among other things, your book will be read by a lot of people who have, you know, gone through their own grief. What were some of the things that you've read that you found helpful? You know, one of the things that really surprised me actually in your book is that you single out Emily Post. You went back to...

DIDION: Emily Post...

GROSS: Yeah.

DIDION: Emily Post was fantastic on the whole subject of death and how to handle people who are grieving. I mean, she's so practical. She simply dealt with what happens to them physiologically. They're going to be cold. They're going to need - the digestion is going to stop. Everything stops. Everything in your body just stops when you're going through something like that. And so she suggested the little ways to get them back to life. Have them sit by the fire. The room should be sunny. They can be served small amounts of toast and - or something they like, but not much because they will reject it. You can sort of - if you just hand them something when they come home from the funeral, you will find that they eat it. But if you ask them, they will say, no.

Actually, I got a - now I've got a letter from her - from one of her descendants who now edits the cookbook or the etiquette book. And she pointed out that the 1922 edition, which is the edition I was reading, had been written not long after the death of Emily Post's son. And almost everybody in that period had somebody die close to them. I mean, we were dealing with the aftermath of the 1918 flu epidemic. People died of infections. I mean, death was really in every household. So it was a much more commonly acknowledged thing than it is now. I mean, now when it happens in hospitals, we tend to think of it as the province of doctors. Well, at that time, anybody - everybody knew somebody who was in mourning.

GROSS: Before we say goodbye, I'm just wondering - I felt a little uncomfortable during this interview only because I - you know, the memoir, it's such a fine book, and I think your losses are still so recent that I feel awkward talking with you about them. And I imagine it must be awkward for you to be talking about it to people you don't know like me and to our listeners. At the same time, I understand that there might be some comfort in that because one of the things you've always been as a writer is a reporter, not a reporter in the conventional sense but as a more poetic form of reporter who observes the things around you in the world and reports on that for the rest of us. Do you feel like that's what you're doing now?

DIDION: Well, I think that - I mean, I had a very definite sense of reporting when I was doing this book, and I don't mean reporting the - doing the research. There was a certain amount of research I did. I mean, I did some reading about grief. I mean, I read all the psychiatrists. But I mean a sense of reporting from a different - from a state that not everybody had yet entered. I mean, the - or that some people had but hadn't reported back so that there might be some use in reporting back, in sending a dispatch, in filing.

BIANCULLI: Joan Didion speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. The journalist, novelist and screenwriter died last month at age 87. Coming up, we remember Betty White, the popular TV actress who died last Friday at age 99. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM FARMER'S "THE REAL BLONDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.