“Cool Customer”: Joan Didion at the 92nd Street Y

posted by Pearl Abraham

Asked whether she wanted an autopsy of her husband, Joan Didion said yes. She also wanted to be there, in the room, though she knows how gruesome autopsies are. Why? To know what happened; to be there; to see. This is also why she writes, and so The Year of Magical Thinking is a book written in order to know what happened, perhaps to absorb and believe it. It is possible that the human need to recite the details of trauma and grief is always a way of making it real. “Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks…I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them.”

Ms. Didion compared non-fiction writing to sculpture, in which you have a large unformed mass, your notes, your mountain of research, and your thoughts, at which you then chip away to give it shape. With fiction, she said, you have nothing, you have to make it all up. “You wake up every morning only with a smile and a shoeshine… You have to re-animate yourself every morning.” You ask yourself “whether the world really needs another novel, and does it need this novel. After which, you don’t get interested again in this novel until 5 p.m.”

And now I must go back to asking those questions of my novel.

20 October 2005 | events |