It's easy to picture Joan Didion — novelist, literary lioness, unsentimental chronicler of anesthetized American landscapes — in certain scenarios. At a book reading, sure. Being interviewed at the 92nd Street Y, yes. As a guest on "The Charlie Rose Show," naturally. Other situations are less easy to conjure, such as her playing the juvenile in a regional theatre production.
"As a child, I wanted to be an actress, and I did little theatre things," recalls Didion. "I was kind of in love with the idea of the theatre. The Theatre Guild used to do plays on Saturday afternoons on the radio. It was very seductive to an entire generation of stage-struck little girls."
She did more than fantasize about a life on the stage; she lived it, albeit on a scale available to a young woman in mid-20th-century Sacramento. "I was always the child in any production at the Sacramento Civic Repertory Theatre. I was so small that I could play a child." (She's still small, even waiflike; born half a century later, she'd be a cinch for Eponine in Les Miz.)
During those dreaming days of childhood, she never thought to write a play. That notion wouldn't dawn until the day producer Scott Rudin knocked on her door and suggested she adapt "The Year of Magical Thinking" — her best-selling memoir about the 2003 demise of novelist John Gregory Dunne, her husband of nearly 40 years — for the stage. In the intervening years, she had established herself as one of America's most celebrated writers, one who had excelled in both fiction ("Play It As It Lays," "A Book of Common Prayer") and personal essay ("Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "The White Album"). Nothing she has written, however, has received the popular and critical success accorded "The Year of Magical Thinking." The book was begun just nine months after the sudden death of Dunne, which had coincided with the hospitalization of their only child, Quintana. Didion tracked those twin tragedies with her trademark precision of thought and narrative ellipses, but also with a wondering confusion about the disorder of her grief-stricken mind.
"This is my attempt to make sense," she wrote, "of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."
Didion's initial response to Rudin's proposition was no. "I always say no to new things," she jokes. But she came around, and Rudin began augmenting the project with talents of a caliber to match its author. Playwright David Hare was hired to direct the one-person play. The enterprise's sole acting job went to Vanessa Redgrave.
"I think we all felt that what was going to make the thing work was a degree of emotional intensity," says Didion. "The one person onstage has to transmit her intensity directly to the audience and it was pretty clear Vanessa was good at that." She smiles, then adds, "You don't get tired of her voice."
Redgrave, Didion, Hare and Rudin gathered in London for some rough readings of the play last December. What Redgrave read on that occasion was by no means a transcription of the book. Didion approached the play not as a simple adaptation, but as a fresh work. "A lot of it is not taken directly from the book, because she" — the character, she means, which is to say, Didion herself — "is speaking from a year and a half or two years later. It's a different perspective. And other things have happened during that period of time to change the perspective quite a bit."
The most devastating addition to that altered perspective was the August 2005 death of Quintana. Didion's daughter was in a very bad way, but still alive, at the end of "The Year of Magical Thinking." She died shortly before the book was published. At the time, the writer declined to revise the memoir to include Quintana's passing. ("It's finished," she said.) But in the play, a separate work, Didion has taken the full measure of her daughter's decline and fall.
One can't help but wonder if it is wrenching to pore over this painful patch of history again and again — first in the book, then in the play and all the while in countless probing interviews such as this one. "The difficulty was in not going over it," Didion answers with calm equanimity. "The difficulty was in not dealing with it." Neither did she view the literary examination of Quintana's death as a new trial. "It's all one" with what she's been through, she says. "It's not a portion."