In her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion chronicles the period after the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, when she found herself believing, despite herself, that her deceased spouse of 40 years could return. The book also narrates the pneumonia and other ensuing illnesses of their only child, Quintana. Although she died before Magical Thinking’s publication, the text ends without delving into Quintana’s passing. That delving comes in Didion’s new memoir, Blue Nights (Knopf, $25), available November 1. The 76-year-old author spoke from her home in New York.
After Magical Thinking, you said you had no thought of doing a book on Quintana. How did you come to write this?
I wanted to write about having children and how we dealt with having children, and that really wasn’t what the book turned out to be about at all. The book was, in a lot of ways, about my getting older. And I started feeling as if I hadn’t dealt with Quintana as a separate person, so I wanted to do that.
While Magical Thinking looks at life after loss, Blue Nights concerns how loss leads to a consideration of your own mortality. Do you think the difference is about their different kinds of losses?
Yes, I do. I thought nothing would be harder than John’s death, but there was something harder. It was Quintana’s death.
How did the process of writing Blue Nights compare to that of Magical Thinking?
It felt totally different to me because Magical Thinking had a narrative, and to some extent it wrote itself. This was much less specific and much harder to come to terms with.
Blue Nights is more contemplative and more questioning—I mean, literally. There are several passages—
Which are questions. Yeah, I noticed that. [Laughs] Whereas Magical Thinking was about finding answers, this is about asking the questions.
You question what you remember, how good you were as a mother. It’s like an onion being peeled: The more questions you ask, the more you find.
That’s what it felt like, writing it. Peeling an onion and finding more stuff underneath.
I think most of us hope to find more answers as life progresses.
I’m finding the exact opposite. I find more questions and fewer answers.
What are some of the most resonant questions now?
[Pauses] Well, always you ask yourself how you could’ve done it differently, and I don’t have an answer for that.
How you could have lived through this differently—Quintana’s death. Magical Thinking provided an answer at the end. This “magical thinking”—you came out of it on the other side. And this, you didn’t come out of it on the other side.
Well, the other side here is, in fact, death.
That’s probably why you don’t come out the other side of it. [Laughs] Yes. And it’s one of those things I had never truly contemplated, my own mortality. I had been forced to contemplate John’s mortality, but I didn’t accept that as a general condition still. It didn’t necessarily apply to me. [Laughs]
You’re candid in the book about your fears and uncertainties around adopting Quintana. It reads as the universal worry of all parents.
“Can I handle this? Am I ready for this?”
Also, the looking back: What did I do right, what did I do wrong—especially when you talk about Quintana’s manic depression, her suicidal despair.
Yeah, dealing with that was obviously hard for me, but it seemed necessary that I deal with it in the writing.
It also struck me as the parent’s fantasy of control, that the parent has caused the child’s outcome and could’ve caused a different one.
I came to see that it was a fantasy. After struggling with how I could have done it differently through the course of the book, I came to the conclusion that our children are themselves and they’re not us and we don’t control them. It’s an extraordinary experience, having children, because it is uncontrollable in a certain way.… I did not feel successful as a parent. In the end I couldn’t control the outcome. It’s a fantasy to imagine that you can, and yet you still feel that you should.
I wonder about the access people feel they have with you, the presumption of intimacy.
It was after Magical Thinking was published when people would stop me in airports and talk to me about deaths in their family. At that time it felt perfectly normal. I think there comes a time when you want to be alone. [Laughs] You don’t want to share everything with everybody. On the other hand, that’s what being a writer is. It’s sharing.
Blue Nights is available November 1.