Longer listens: Joan Didion in her own words

Published October 10, 2005 6:45PM (EDT)

By now the story of sudden loss that is the starting point for Joan Didion's new book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," is already familiar to many -- especially to readers of the New York Times. Three Sundays ago the Times magazine featured an excerpt from "Magical Thinking" as its cover story. Michiko Kakutani's review ran last Tuesday, the day of the book's release. And yesterday, the Sunday book review led with an appreciation from former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Yet the shock and sadness remain the same with every retelling: "At approximately 9 o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, " Didion writes in the book's opening pages, "my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. Our only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five nights unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's Singer Division, at that time a hospital on East End Avenue more commonly known as 'Beth Israel North', where what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

To hear Barbara Caruso read these first pages, click on this sample (4:29, MP3) from the Highbridge Audio CD. In the passage, Didion remarks in her typically controlled way on our strange and insistent surprise at how tragedy comes upon us in the midst of the ordinary -- as if there were any other way for it to arrive.

In the process of attempting to make sense of her own grief, Didion creates a portrait of her remarkable 40-year marriage to Dunne, a fellow writer and close collaborator in her work. Didion and Dunne, as this Sept. 30 NPR interview (15:11, Real Audio) with Susan Stamberg reveals, often finished one another's sentences during conversation. Each was the other's first editor. Didion also tells Stamberg that the most useful expression of sympathy in her experience is "a kind of quiet acknowledge, which is very soothing," and discusses the "magical thinking" that keeps her from crossing the names of dead friends from her address book.

Sixteen years before her husband's death, during this conversation (37:40, Real Audio) with journalist Don Swaim -- one of many author interviews conducted by Swaim available at WiredforBooks.org -- Didion describes how she met Dunne through a mutual friend while she was working at Vogue. She landed the job by winning a contest as a senior English major at Berkeley. In her early days as an aspiring writer, Didion tells Swaim, her main image of the writing life involved "having a quote-unquote Manhattan penthouse."

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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