Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Didion Nearly Scrapped New Memoir
Oct 29, 2011 The Book Beast
‘Blue Nights,’ about daughter Quintana, is a tragic story that is compelling as a thriller—but it was almost abandoned halfway through. Joan Didion tells Susan Cheever why.
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About halfway through writing Blue Nights, her enchanting evocation of the life of her daughter, Quintana, Joan Didion stopped cold. The book was a portrait of Quintana from her birth and adoption in 1966 to her 2005 death following a massive brain hematoma in New York Hospital. But there were parts of Quintana’s story that Didion did not want to tell.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to finish this, I don’t have to finish this book,’” she tells me as we sit in her Upper East Side living room one afternoon drinking tea from flowered cups. The room is deliciously crowded with books, photographs, and mementos—things Didion once treasured for the memories they evoked. “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment,” she writes in the book. “In fact they only serve to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
Didion decided to return her advance to Alfred A. Knopf and abandon the book, which is titled after the long blue twilights of spring. “I thought, ‘I can just give the money back,’” she explains. Her agent and friend Lynn Nesbit suggested that she finish the book first and then talk about whether to publish it. Other friends urged her on. Didion tells me she finally looked at her book contract and saw how much she would have to return. “I could have bought an apartment with it,” she says. So she went back to writing the book.
In the book, Didion was telling the mythic story of a beloved princess blessed with beauty, wit, and talent; she was avoiding the moment when a malevolent fate descends like a bad fairy to collect on a curse put on the beautiful young child. Quintana was not at a spinning wheel when it happened, or biting into a poisoned Honeycrisp; the news came by FedEx. An already fragile 32-year-old, Quintana discovered that her mother, who had given her up for adoption, had later married her biological father and had two more children, whom she kept. “On a Saturday morning when she was alone in her apartment and vulnerable to whatever good or bad news arrived at her door, the perfect child received a Federal Express letter from a young woman who convincingly identified herself as her sister,” Didion writes. Didion doesn’t blame the biological sister, who had hired a detective to find Quintana; she doesn’t have to.
Before this discovery and Quintana’s disturbing reunion with the clueless sister and the mother who had abandoned her, Didion, husband John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter had led a charmed life. In the summer of 2003, Quintana married Gerald Michael in a glorious celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Within a few months, Quintana fell ill, first with the flu and then pneumonia, and soon the family slid into an unimaginable cascade of tragedy and loss. After a visit to an unconscious Quintana in the hospital, Dunne died of a heart attack on the night of Dec. 30, 2003. Quintana partially recovered and then faltered again, and finally stopped breathing in 2005. Didion, who wrote about her husband in her bestselling 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, had lost her child less than two years after her husband’s death. Full story including video clip at The Daily Beast