Award-winning memoirist Joan Didion took some time at the Harbourfront Centre last night to talk about grieving, the subject of her latest book.
Canada’s largest literary award, the Giller Prize, was handed out last night, but in another room across downtown from the Four Seasons, many of Toronto’s aspiring writers, book lovers, journalists, and university students gathered for quite a different evening. They came to see Joan Didion, the widely loved and widely read American author, who was paying a visit to the Harbourfront Centre as part of the International Festival of Authors’ touring events program.
Over her lengthy career, the 76-year-old essayist and novelist has contributed to many publications ranging from Mademoiselle and Esquire to the New York Times and National Review. She’s written five novels and eight non-fiction works, including Run River, The White Album, Political Fictions and 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Last night, Didion spoke mainly about her new memoir, Blue Nights, and the very personal matters of grieving (for her daughter Quintana) and aging it explores.
Quintana Roo Dunne was diagnosed with a massive hematoma shortly after her attending the funeral of her father and Didion’s husband, American author John Gregory Dunne, in 2003. She died at the age of 39 of acute pancreatitis, in October 2005, while Didion was promoting The Year of Magical Thinking, also a meditation of grief—that time for John.
Didion’s voice is strong for someone with such a small frame, and the author confessed that she intended to write a heavily researched book about parenting, before her daughter passed away and she found herself writing in another direction. “When we are talking about mortality we are talking about our children,” said Didion in the video that played before she came onstage, and that became her subject.
The author said while sifting through the memories of Quintana’s life—and her sometimes fraught relationship with her—was difficult, she feels that people are often too hard on themselves in such situations. “It’s not possible to go through life not thinking about the “what ifs.” I don’t know any way to avoid it,” confessed Didion, who said preserving her recollections of happier times was important to getting through the grieving process.
For the journalists and writers in attendance though, the most fascinating moments of the discussion came when Didion provided some insight into her creative process. “As writers, details are our business,” said Didion. “Your heart leaps when you see a detail that can go somewhere.” She told the audience that she followed the same writing routine working on Blue Nights as her other books, though she admits there was a time when she debated giving up. “That was another message from John,” she said on her decision to finish the book, referring to her sense that she can imagine what he’d say if he were there watching her. “There’s a certain briskness about the dead, they’re much less sensitive than we are,” she joked.
At the end of the talk, Didion took questions from the audience. One person asked if she plans on continuing writing now that Blue Nights is out. “I hope so,” said the author, “I sincerely intend to.” There’s no question that the world of literature will be better for it.