An example: “They came to me and what have I done to protect them?” Joan Didion is in a hotel room in Toronto, talking about the anxiety an adoptive mother feels. “And that was a particularly acute question with Quintana, because I hadn’t done enough, clearly, to protect her, because she died.”
The famous essayist and novelist says this with calm diffidence, no betrayal of emotion, as though the process of writing has dulled the sharp edges of her grief. “I can’t think something through without writing about it. Writing for me is thinking,” she says at one point. And her new memoir, Blue Nights, is as much about her only child, Quintana, who died at the age of 39, just before the publication of her last memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, as it is about the author’s own sense of mortality.
Note, too, the lyricism of how she speaks, the clauses of her responses, the rhythm of them, how her sentences unfold in the way an idea does, one shard of thought followed by another, to create a whole. It’s how she writes, too, of course.
“You need to process it,” she says of grief. “This happened; this didn’t happen; now I’m in another place; I’m not in the place I was; I’m in a different place; this is the place where I am. It’s a sorting movement.”
The Year of Magical Thinking was a moving narrative in response to the sudden loss of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, who died of a fatal heart attack in their New York apartment. Quintana was in the hospital at the time with septic shock resulting from pneumonia. But that book ends with hope that her daughter would recover. Ms. Didion delayed her husband’s memorial for a month so Quintana could attend, which she did. Soon after, she was struck by a massive brain hematoma, requiring brain surgery. In 2005, less than two years after her father’s death, she succumbed to acute pancreatitis.
“It was probably a year after she died, and I realized that I had a sense that I hadn’t dealt with her,” she explains. “I wanted to look at her.”
Her thoughts pull her through the world – and through an interview, if given the space to let them emerge. But it’s not easy to coax them from her. She sits on a big sofa, dwarfed by the generous proportions of a luxury hotel suite, everything substantial except for her, a ghostly presence with papery white skin, wrapped in a plum-coloured shawl. On her feet, just visible under a long skirt, she wears heavy-soled boots, anchors to her frail frame. In Blue Nights, she writes of her fear of falling down, which has happened, fainting once in her apartment, waking up on the floor, bleeding, no memory of having lost her balance.
It’s clear that coming on book tour is part of her desire to maintain “momentum,” despite increasing age (she turns 77 next month) and medical setbacks – something she writes about in her book. But she doesn’t seem compelled to share her thoughts. She will often answer a question with a short yes or no. And when she does expand her answers, she moves her right arm in a circle, again and again, as if urging them to unspool at her command, which they don’t always obey. Tiredness? In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her first work of non-fiction, published to much acclaim in 1968, she confessed to being inarticulate, diffident, self-effacing. Perhaps she is more accustomed to working out her thoughts on the page.
What remains constant is her unflinching observation about life’s harshest realities. “Unless [people]live particularly pleasant lives, they are aware that someone in their family is going to die. ... I was always somebody who kept that idea right at the front so that it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s like looking at a snake as it moves across the yard. You know where it is so it won’t bother you.”
Part of what she examines in Blue Nights is her role as an adoptive mother. But what had started as a desire to think through her daughter’s life became a book about her own demise when she was in New York one summer evening, walking in her neighbourhood. It was a blue night, a span of time, following the summer solstice, when the twilight is long and the promise of summer is in the sky. It suggests “the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness,” she writes.
Still, the writing emboldens her, she acknowledges. And despite her frailty, and her serious cast of mind, she will sometimes laugh gently, displaying a sly sense of humour directed at herself. “I remember the concentration I used to have and part of it is physical strength,” she says of her sense of loss over her craft. “This happens to everybody, I guess, and I was surprised it happened to me.”
She’s not without hope. She will think of writing another book in the spring, after a hiatus, she says. And just as the Didion-esque writing in her books is about rhythm, patterns of repetition, a structure that makes sense in the end of chaotic feelings and fragments of memory, so too are there structures in her own day that carry her through to the conclusion of it.
She smokes precisely five cigarettes a day, for example. “If I haven’t smoked five cigarettes that day, I will smoke one last cigarette before I go to bed,” she confesses. Why five? In 1978, when she was trying to quit smoking, she read that Aldo Moro, an Italian politician and former prime minister who had been kidnapped that year (and later murdered), smoked only five cigarettes a day. “It was a way of proving what a man of moderation he was … and I thought well, five cigarettes aren’t what killed Aldo Moro.”
And with that, the literary icon laughs gently, as though too boisterous an outburst might exhaust her.