Joan Didion - 'The Last Interview and Other Conversations'

Joan Didion - 'The Last Interview and Other Conversations'


The cover for 'The Last Interview'.

The first thoughts about Joan Didion are not reasonable. The present literature about her is a hagiography that does not entirely trust itself; there is a vacancy at the center of it that I call the “but surely.” But surely if these essays were published now, the hagiography says to itself at three in the morning, they would meet with a different reception? But surely if she wrote today, her ideas about feminism would be more in line with ours? But surely, for all her pointillism, she is failing to draw the conclusions we would most like to see? The hagiography turns the pillow over, looking for a cool spot. How much can we really rely on someone who loved the Doors? Why do all her vii viii Introduction last lines give the impression that she’s speaking from beyond the veil? What, in the end, is she actually saying? But surely she has told us that herself, and all along. What she is saying, standing in the corner of every piece, holding her yellow legal pad and watching, is: “I was there.”

The quote is from Patricia Lockwood’s introduction to this book.

The interviews and other writing in this book span from 1972, when Didion was thirty-eight years old, to 2021, when she was eighty-seven.

Sara Davidson, one of the journalists, included this in her interview:

She is not what one would call a virtuoso conversationalist. We taped four hours, of which she said later, “two hours were pauses.”

Writers aren’t necessarily speakers. On the other side, Didion’s writing did trap scenery of Americana that seeped into people.

Reading the snippets in this short instalment in the ‘last interview’ series, Didion is painted as a fairly quiet person but one who doesn’t shy away from answering questions; her conversational technique, at times, seems to warble between the still and the terse.

DAVIDSON: What about behavior? DIDION: Behavior is right or wrong. I was once having dinner with a psychiatrist who told me that I had monocular vision, and there was no need for everything to be right or wrong. Well, that way lies madness. In order to maintain a semblance of purposeful behavior on this earth, you have to believe that things are right or wrong.

There’s almost a Tarkovsky element to Didion’s speech. Even though she is succinct, her rhythm takes the reader to another place than most people usually do as they try to make themselves interesting in print.

In December of 2003, shortly before their fortieth anniversary, Didion’s husband died. In 2005, she published The Year of Magical Thinking, a book-length meditation on grief and memory. It became a bestseller and won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Two months before the book’s publication, Didion’s thirty-nine-year-old daughter died after a long illness. Didion’s husband and daughter died less than a year apart.

[reading] We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad. John was talking, then he wasn’t. At one point in the seconds or minute before he stopped talking he had asked me if I had used single-malt Scotch for his second drink. I had said no, I had used the same Scotch I had used for his first drink. ‘Good,’ he had said. ‘I don’t know why but I don’t think you should mix them.’ At another point in those seconds or that minute he had been talking about why World War One was the critical event from which the entire rest of the twentieth century flowed. I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking. I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable. I remember saying Don’t do that. When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far enough from the back of the chair to give him the Heimlich. I remember the sense of his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to the floor. In the kitchen by the phone I had taped a card with the New York–Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the phone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the phone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else. Writing a Story after an Ending 6 7 I called one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was breathing. I said Just come.

Didion says she processes everything by writing about it. Everything. Which is how she handled grief.

Some paragraphs where Didion simply speaks of her husband and daughter’s deaths speak so clearly that silence feels left hanging in the air like warm frost.

GROSS: You talk about how you didn’t want to give away his shoes, for example, because if he came back, he’d needed them. DIDION: Right. GROSS: Giving away clothes after someone dies is so hard. I mean, you have to decide with all their possessions: What are you going to keep? What are you going to give away to friends? What are you going to give to charity? What are you going to throw out? Was that a really horrible process? DIDION: I haven’t done it. I just left everything. After I discovered that I couldn’t give away the shoes, I just closed that door. Now I haven’t had to move or repaint the apartment or do anything that required me to do it. I think I presume that it would be somewhat less painful now than it was in the first few months, you know, when I initially tried it, because now I know he’s dead in a way that I viscerally didn’t know then. But I would just as soon let that door stay closed for a while until I need to open it.

In her very last interview, Didion’s words rang out as interestingly as her interviews generally were:

FELDMAN: Do you fear death? DIDION: No. Well, yes, of course. FELDMAN: Do you have hope? DIDION: Hope for what? Not particularly, no.

This book is worthwhile for people looking for words from a person for whom talk didn’t seem essential. Didion left behind a vault of valuable writing. After I put this book away, I felt like I’d read a few interesting sentences from a long-lived life. Didion feels like an old person even back in 1972, in a good way. However bored you might feel after you’ve read this book, I guarantee you won’t walk away feeling like you’ve been bullshitted.