The Light at Dusk: A Profile of Joan Didion

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Didion has spent the past half century staring down that rattlesnake. Raised in Sacramento, California, by conservative Republican parents with deep roots in that state, and educated at Berkeley, Didion got her start as a professional writer by winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue, for which she then wrote for two years in New York City in the mid-1950s. Ivan Obolensky published her first novel, Run River, in 1963, and she later married Dunne, with whom she moved back to California—to Los Angeles, with the thought that the pair would make a living writing for television. They never accomplished much on the small screen, but did find success writing for the movies, producing screenplays for The Panic in Needle Park (1971); Play It as It Lays (1972, based on her novel of the same title, published in 1970 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux); the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star Is Born (1976); True Confessions with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall (1981); and Up Close & Personal with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford (1996). After Play It as It Lays, subsequent Didion novels included A Book of Common Prayer (Simon & Schuster, 1977), Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (Knopf, 1996).


Didion always thought of herself primarily as a novelist, but also found herself writing more and more nonfiction—so much so that, as her friend Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer, puts it, “People probably think of her first and foremost as an essayist, and rightly so, given her output.” That output includes a shelf full of in-depth reportage and incisive criticism written for a vast array of magazines and collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), The White Album (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Salvador (Simon & Schuster, 1983), Miami (Simon & Schuster, 1987), Political Fictions (Knopf, 2001), and Where I Was From (Knopf, 2003). “A lot of it was a question of making a living,” she says now. “John and I wrote for magazines to support ourselves, and we had magazines then that actually paid a relatively good fee. You could make a decent living at it, especially if there were two of you. But, yes, I always thought of it as something that was getting in the way of a novel, rather than as something that I specifically set out to do. On the other hand, I liked doing pieces for magazines. I liked doing the reporting, I liked talking to people, I liked the whole process. So I never minded doing it. And then at some point I started writing longer pieces, in fact short books, like the ones on El Salvador and Miami. So I went in that direction.”

In that context, Shelley Wanger, Didion’s longtime editor at Knopf—they began working together on The Last Thing He Wanted—sees her as sharing certain characteristics with another writer in multiple modes, Susan Sontag. “Sontag is of course best known for her amazing essays, but until she wrote her novels, she didn’t feel she’d accomplished anything,” Wanger says. “Joan is a bit like that, although less so—in part, I think, because her voice is so clear and so devastating, and carries through from one book to another, whatever the medium is. She’s always herself.”

The nature of that voice, for all its universally acknowledged distinction, remains elusive. For decades readers and critics have professed their reverence for Didion’s style, while struggling to locate the source of its power. For Robert Silvers, the veteran editor of the New York Review of Books (which first published some of Didion’s work, including the Salvador and Miami pieces as well as her seminal essay “Sentimental Journeys,” about the infamous case of New York City’s Central Park jogger), Didion’s great stylistic achievement is a seeming emotional detachment that can’t quite suppress the passion lying just beneath.

“One of the most important aspects of her brilliance is the tone that she achieves of a cool, detached voice, a voice of a particularly acute observer who refuses to accept nearly anything at first glance but insists on probing behind conventional impressions,” Silvers says. “And behind that voice, for all its factuality and coolness, is an underlying tone of intense moral concern, and feelings of anger, of indignation, of sympathy, and, in some cases, an awareness that she has come upon something new, something that has not been perceived by others. The tone of the writing does not call attention to itself and yet it’s distinctively hers. And that is what I think is the great power of her writing.”

The late John Leonard, in his introduction to We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a collection of Didion’s nonfiction published by Everyman’s Library in 2006, put forth a different idea. “I have been trying forever to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours…something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves. Even the space on the page around these sentences is more interesting than it ought to be, as if to square a sandbox for a Sphinx.”

Then there’s the matter of Didion’s fierce intellectual independence, which has at times led her to assume the role of crusader. In the case of the Central Park jogger, for example, the nearly immediate consensus was that the attack, in which a young woman was severely assaulted, had been made by a group of young black men who were arrested and then convicted. “Joan looked into this case, simply as an observing citizen, and read all the materials that were emerging about it,” Silvers says. “She at that time was very skeptical—skeptical about the evidence, skeptical about the mood that had formed in the city so quickly, skeptical about the guilt of these young men. She examined the evidence and saw that there were many gaps in it. We published that piece, and many people criticized it for not accepting the official version of what happened. Some years later, the person who actually committed the crime confessed to having done it, and it was not any of the persons who had been arrested. Finally, DNA evidence from the person who confessed was able to bring about a reversal, and the young men were freed. It was a case of failure of the police and failure of justice. And Joan, just by observing the facile psychology with which the crime was approached, and looking carefully at the evidence, anticipated that there was something deeply wrong. It was an amazing example of Joan’s acuity, her insight, and her willingness not to accept received views but to probe the very nature of official claims.”

And although Didion has been, for better and worse, closely identified with California for much of her career, she has also been one of its most relentless critics and debunkers, as in Where I Was From, in which she set a torch to the mythopoetic cant about the state’s glorious past and present. In Play It as It Lays, she sent up the free-floating angst and dissociation of Hollywood, and elsewhere described L.A. as “a city not only largely conceived as a series of real estate promotions but largely supported by a series of confidence games, a city…afloat on motion pictures and junk bonds and the B-2 Stealth bomber.”

Just as interesting, perhaps, is the fact that Didion had begun writing Where I Was From many years before she finished it. She put away her notes for the book in frustration, taking them up again two decades later—after, she came to recognize, the deaths of her parents. “It was quite an exhilarating book to do, because I had started writing a book like that, a long time before, and had been unable to go any further with it,” she recalls. “When I went back to it, I realized that the reason I had been unable to go any further was that my mother and father were still alive, and I could not bring myself to write a book about California that denied everything they thought about California—which was that it was a triumph of individual achievement. In fact, it was basically bought and paid for by the federal government, but this was not a message that would have pleased my parents.”

Even so, Didion has had, over the years, her moments of longing for her home state, which she left for good in 1988 in favor of New York. For years, according to Trillin, she returned to her parents’ house in Sacramento to finish her books. And the same year of her move to New York, back in L.A. on a bus with other journalists covering the Jesse Jackson campaign, she found herself in tears at the beauty of the twilight, suffused with the reflected glow of the sun setting on the Pacific. “We were just leaving the airport and it was that moment where the sun hits the water, and it was so beautiful that I cried all the way to South Central,” she recalls with a slightly exasperated smile. “I cried because I didn’t have this anymore, and I thought to myself, ‘What madness—you’re crying over the view between LAX and South Central!’”

And with that, Joan Didion laughs.


The quality of the light at dusk, wherever she is, matters more than ever to Didion, a fact reflected in the title of her new book. As she explains in a prologue, the golden twilight of subtropical Los Angeles becomes, in New York, “the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.”

During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights come to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

As poignant as her reckoning with the legacy of Quintana is, it’s also intertwined with, and indivisible from, a sense that writing about Quintana’s death was as an invitation for Didion to contemplate her own eventual passing. “As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children: their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death,” she reflects early on in the memoir. Later: “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” Later still: “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead?” The ultimate fear, she realizes, is not what has been lost—Quintana, John, their lives together—because it is, after all, gone. The fear, instead, “is for what is still to be lost.”

It’s true, Didion admits with seeming reluctance, that she has a will, and that she knows where her ashes will be interred (next to John and Quintana at the columbarium of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine). She entertains less than she used to, she concedes, “because I’m tired.” Despite the phone’s occasional ring and the discreet presence of staff, her apartment, filled with books and memories and photographs, such as the one of John and Quintana in the bloom of youth, is quieter now than it’s ever been.

And yet this is one rattlesnake that Didion is not yet quite prepared to eyeball. “I think I’m ready, but no, I’m not preparing,” she says. “I can’t even conceive of preparing. I’m not that out front with myself about mortality. No, I can’t.”

“She’s tougher than she looks,” says Trillin, who has known her for half a century. “Of course, almost anyone is tougher than she looks. But she really is tough, she’s always working, always looking to the future.”

Indeed, Didion works most days—she’s mapping out some new pieces for Silvers at the New York Review of Books and even has some old notes for a new novel that, as she puts it, “might at least be entertaining to read”—and goes to physical therapy to strengthen her nerves. Yes, she’s painfully thin, but then that’s always been true. “In fact, everyone who’s known me for a long time thinks that I’ve gained weight,” she says with a smile. “Actually, I’ve gained maybe three or four pounds since I was in my twenties. I wear all the same size clothes as I did then.”

But as she says it, outside her window, the light is turning blue. 


Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.