Where She Was From
From left: Joan Didion in 2011, and the author’s McClatchy High School yearbook photo, circa 1952.
Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe. Yearbook picture courtesy of McClatchy High School.
On the eve of her 77th birthday, Sacramento’s native daughter Joan Didion reflects on the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter, the difficulty of parenting, and why, as a teenager, she really wanted a job at the California State Fair.
Joan Didion left Sacramento after graduating from McClatchy High in 1952, but in her works and thoughts, the city remains a constant companion. From her first book, 1963’s Run River, to 1979’s The White Album, 2003’s Where I Was From and her newest, Blue Nights, which came out in November, the city and her relationship with it is a recurring plot point. She has spent considerable effort both defining the place itself as well as articulating the ways in which the place has defined her.
This, after all, is where she was born (at Mercy General Hospital on J Street), raised and educated, and where she published her first words, writing for the society desk of The Sacramento Union as a teenager. It’s where she first learned to swim, drive and dance. It’s where she learned to love the magic that is the rivers. When she moved to New York to work for Vogue in her early 20s, she missed her hometown terribly. In times of great distress, it’s also been the place where she’s escaped, in her mind, to feel safe. And through much of this past decade, distress has been a too-frequent companion for Didion.
Blue Nights is about the 2005 death of her 39-year old-daughter, Quintana Roo, her adopted child with the writer John Gregory Dunne, who himself died at their dinner table in 2003, and on whom her previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is based. Quintana Roo, named for a city in Mexico that Didion and her husband liked the sound of, died of a series of illnesses that began with pneumonia and developed into septic shock and ultimately acute pancreatitis.
The author, who has lived in New York since 1988 and turns 77 on Dec. 5, has become one of America’s greatest writers, winning the 2005 National Book Award for Magical Thinking, which was also made into a one-woman play on Broadway, starring her close friend Vanessa Redgrave. After wrestling with and writing about the subject of death on and off for the past eight years, she hopes that Blue Nights will be the last in a series of painful chapters.
First, I’m so sorry for both of your losses. With the new book, you must hear that a lot these days, even though it’s now many years after the fact.
Well, it doesn’t seem like so many years after the fact. After John died, I was startled to realize that after three years or five years, I still thought of it as yesterday.
In Blue Nights you wrote that you felt like writing does not come as easily now. You cite frailty, but you’re writing about a painful and personal subject.
Yeah, I don’t think that was it so much. Because actually, the last book, the book before this one, Magical Thinking, came rather easily. And that was equally personal. I think I just reached a point where I didn’t like writing.
So it was harder to write?
It was. I think it was that at that moment I did not feel like writing a book. I seriously considered not finishing it.
What kept you going?
The sheer knowledge that I had to do it, that I had to do it or I was going to live with not doing it forever. I did not intend to do this [kind of book]. I intended to write a book about people and their children, people’s attitudes toward having children, [something] much less personal with more research. And then, at some point, that Blue Nights image came to me, and then the title, and then the whole thing seemed more plausible and possible. But it definitely wasn’t a researched book about people and their children anymore. It was clearly what it was meant to be all along, which was about me and my child.
Was it cathartic for you?
No, I didn’t think it was cathartic. Cathartic is a terrible word. I thought it was cathartic in the sense that it would rid me of something, yes. But it wouldn’t make it go away. Cathartic, when we use that word, usually sounds as if the thing we are trying to be cathartic about will go away, but it doesn’t.
So perhaps it helped you process Quintana’s death?
It helped me process it. It doesn’t help you cope with it, it helps you process it. It makes it stop surprising you.
Is that what ultimately happened with both books?
That was the ultimate effect with Magical Thinking. I don’t know what the ultimate effect of this one will be. I’m through with the book, but I’m not through processing it.
At one point in the book you write that “memories are what you no longer want to remember.” Once the book is done and you’ve faced those memories, does it allow you to move on?
Yes, I think so. I think it did, to some extent, with Magical Thinking. The image I always have in my mind is a snake. A snake doesn’t hurt you if you know it’s there. It’s not going to bite you if you keep it in your eyeline all of the time. So, in a way, this is keeping the snake in my eyeline.
In Blue Nights, you talk about how protective you were of Quintana and how growing up in Sacramento, you and your brother were allowed to “invent your own lives.” You wrote about driving to Lake Tahoe at age 15 and attempting some risky maneuvers rafting on the American River. Were you more protective of her in part as a reaction to how you were raised?
No, I think I was more protective because we just all became more protective of our children as a society. I mean, when you see children as they are being raised right now, you must be struck by how much more protected they seem to be than you were yourself. Not because there are more dangers, but because there are more perceived dangers. Or maybe there are more dangers, but I don’t see how there could have been more dangers [now] than there actually were when I was a child. I mean, people were always getting killed. I think parents just have a different attitude toward raising children. When I thought of myself as too protective, I didn’t understand that there was no way around it. I had to be the person to overprotect, because I was it.
Did the fact that she was adopted make you more protective?
Totally. Yes, because she had been given to me out of the blue, you know.
You write about all the difficulties surrounding the fact that she was adopted. Are there things that are specific to adoption that you would do differently?
No. I mean, it would be easy for me to say I wouldn’t do it, but I would do it—I’d do it in a flash. Nobody was so lucky as I was, to have a baby handed to me in that way. So definitely I would do it again.
You often brought Quintana to Sacramento to visit family, and in Where I Was From, you write about how when she was 5 or 6, you took her to Old Sacramento where your father’s great-grandfather owned a saloon on Front Street.
It was when there was Second Street and nothing beyond that. The name of it, I think, was Didion’s. But this was in another century, so it didn’t exist [when we went there].
You wrote that on that day in Old Sacramento, you stopped yourself from telling Quintana about his saloon because she was not truly connected to him by blood, although she is connected through you.
I counted her as connected. I had always counted her as connected to me, but then on that particular day that we went to lunch downtown, I realized that she really had a choice in this matter.
And she already knew then that she was adopted.
Oh, totally. She knew the word before she was verbal.
Was there anything from your childhood in Sacramento that you wanted to share with her?
I wanted to take her onto the rivers. I learned to swim in the Sacramento River, and the American. I spent a lot of time on the rivers, swimming and rafting and just doing stuff, and I thought that would be something I wanted her to do. But I’m not sure we ever did that, because by the time she was a strong enough swimmer it seemed easier to go to somebody’s pool.
In Magical Thinking, you wrote about having a panic attack while covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston. You were desperately trying to get your mind off John and Quintana and you did that by focusing on your high school dances in Sacramento at Christmas time.
Yeah, it just popped into my head as something safe.
You also mentioned focusing on the river and the levees. Was there anywhere in particular you went?
There were different places. One place was out where you start up the Garden Highway, and on the riverside, quite soon, there was a place where you could keep a boat if you had a boat. There was a restaurant. Then there were other places on the American, too. I would have to say the rivers are my strongest memory of what the city was to me. They were just infinitely interesting to me. I mean, all of that moving water. I was crazy about the rivers.
Have you been back to Sacramento recently?
Not since my mother and father died, which was in the ’90s. I think that was the last time. My brother lives in Carmel and Palm Desert.
You write a lot about the houses that you had lived in with John and Quintana. Do you remember much about your old home in Sacramento on 22nd Street?
2000 22nd Street. One of my aunts had been living there and she decided to sell it [in 2007]. It was a great house. It was an odd house for Sacramento in that it was not Victorian or Edwardian. It was a slightly later date. And the proportions were a little different. Our first house was on U Street, and then after [World War II], we moved to what was then the country basically. It was Carmichael.
That’s when you went to Arden School, which used to be in the middle of fields. I don’t know if you know, but that’s down the street from where the first Tower Records was.
I remember the first Tower Records. I thought the first Tower Records was on Y Street.
Y Street is called Broadway now, and yes, that’s what most people think because Russ Solomon used to sell records out of his father’s pharmacy next to the Tower Theatre.
That’s right. There was something else that started in Sacramento. It was a pizza place.
And did you ever used to go to Vic’s for ice cream?
Oh yeah, of course. Vic’s was where we used to go when I was in California Junior High School [in Land Park, which is now California Middle School].
You also asked your father to get you a job at the State Fair.
I wanted a job at the State Fair, but my father would never make the call [on my behalf], so I never got one. Everyone wanted a job at the State Fair. That was the place to be. There was a lot of stuff that I liked about it. It was the fireworks, the county exhibits, the animals. I liked going to the barns. I took Quintana through the barns with the animals. I was pushing her in one of those pushcarts, and she was close to the ground, so all she could do was smell the animals—it was not a good experience for her.
What did you cover for The Sacramento Union in high school?
I was working at the society desk. I did weddings. I didn’t cover weddings, I just wrote about them. I wouldn’t call that reporting. On the society desk at The Sacramento Union, like any relatively small newspaper then, people wanted reports of their upcoming weddings in the paper the weekend of the wedding. And so they would send you accounts of what the bridesmaids were going to wear and stuff like that, and you would write it up.
When you won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Magical Thinking in 2005, it was the same year William T. Vollmann won for it for fiction, and the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “for a couple of hours Wednesday night, the literary center of the nation shifted to Sacramento.” Did you know that Vollmann lives here?
No! I didn’t know until this minute. Amazing, truly amazing. I met him that night. That is the only time that I have met him. I was anxious to get out of that crowd. It was in a hotel—the Marriott on 45th Street [in New York]—full of hurtling elevators, and I was so dizzy from the elevators hurtling around and the lights flashing, that all I could think of was getting out of the Marriott.
With your last two books, you’ve been writing so much about death. Has that forced you to think more about your own death? Are you more afraid of it now?
No, I’m not more afraid of it. I don’t think I was afraid of it to begin with. But it’s not something you would really want to spend too much time thinking about. I hope I will change the subject of my next book.
Do you already know what your next book will be about?
I haven’t got any idea. The one thing that I know about it is that I do want it to be another subject. S