Joan Didion’s Life is the Story of Postwar America

Joan Didion’s writing is regarded for its lean, evocative prose, but it is the sheer span of her career — from Run, River in 1963 to Blue Nights in 2011 — and her writing on so many of the big issues over that long period that makes her one of the most significant American writers since World War II.

“One of the things that drew me to her is that she wrote about most of the cultural changes that took place from the 1960s to the present,” author Tracy Daugherty said in an interview with Signature. “She wrote about the Vietnam War. She wrote about drug and music culture. She wrote about the women’s movement. She wrote about the covert wars in the Reagan administration. She wrote about 9/11 and grief in her own life and art and politics and culture. Writing about her was an excuse for me to write about those things as well.”

Daugherty recently sat down with Signature to talk about his new biography, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, about Didion’s evolving ideas about the value of narrative in American life, and about her place in the postwar literary canon.

Signature: You set up the biography in the introduction with a discussion about Didion’s approach to narrative. What did narrative mean to her in the 1960s and moving forward through her career?

Tracy Daugherty: She is a fascinating writer because she begins with a distrust of narrative. My take on her career is that in her early work she begins by saying the traditional stories she was told as a child — with beginnings and middles and ends — don’t really convey what life feels like in America anymore. It’s too glutted with information and too fast-paced, so traditional narrative doesn’t work anymore.

Her early writings and particularly her essay The White Album in the late 1970s was her redefinition of narrative. It was fragmented. It was a series of snapshots that don’t necessarily cohere and that the reader has to put together for themselves. I think she felt like that conveyed the crazy sense of American life more accurately.

And then later — in the 1980s when she’s mid-career and starts to become more consciously aware of politics — I think she comes back to narrative and says there are hidden threads of stories underneath the surface of the crazy, fragmented world we’re living in. I think her sense of narrative changes over time.

SIG: Did you start out agreeing with her on that?

TD: I did but more on an emotional level than on an intellectual level. I first read her as a college student in the 1970s, and it was The White Album essay that attracted me to her work. I was immediately overwhelmed by it. It was the first piece I had read that was what life felt like to me. It was fragmented, it was fast-paced, it was jazzy, and it didn’t make bold statements; it just said “here’s something to look at” and “here’s something else to look at.” That was the way life felt to me — lots of impressions coming at me at once — and her sense of storytelling in those days was very much like that.

SIG: I don’t know what the alternative is, but I’m pretty suspicious of narrative because it is so susceptible to what is included and what is left out and so subject to manipulation. You change a few adjectives and all the sudden you’re guiding a different meaning than if you had used some other adjectives.

TD: I think Didion is mistrustful of meanings, that the proper insight gives you the secret to life. I don’t think she believes life works that way at all. She has said in the face of personal tragedies when her husband died and her daughter died and people have asked what she learned from those experiences, and she said she learned nothing. She said that she learned nothing, that she was sad and full of grief and learned nothing.

When people have asked her over and over what she learned from 9/11, she said that she has learned nothing, that life is full of terrible tragedies and accidents, and she doesn’t trust talk that we learn from these things or can prevent them in the future.

SIG: You didn’t sound very surprised in the book that Didion would not speak to you.

TD: I wasn’t surprised. I had talked to her agent [Lynn Nesbit] for the Barthelme biography and had hoped Didion would talk to me, but she has made it clear over the decades that she’s suspicious of people who write about her.

SIG: Do you think The Year of Magical Thinking is her most significant book?

TD: It’s her most significant in terms of audience. It’s her best-selling book, and it brought a whole new generation of readers to her. I think there are a couple of ironies in that. She’s not the kind of person who is a comforting presence, and a lot of people read the book thinking it was a kind of self-help book — that here’s a person who went through a terrible tragedy and came through it and that I’ll be able to read it and learn how to deal with grief. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not a comforting book.

SIG: What kind of book is it? Cold?

TD: Yeah, it’s cold and analytical. I find it very powerful. It’s a wonderful book. But rather than being a companion to people grieving, she’s analyzing grief. Grief is a kind of mental illness — you’re distracted, you’re not eating, you’re not yourself. It’s a very cold look at what grieving feels like.

SIG: The book is memoir, so she’s more in her own head than she would be writing journalism, but do you find her more in her own head in this book than in her other books?

TD: I would say not. The fact that she’s in her own head in this book actually connects it to her earlier work. You would expect a memoir about grief to be more emotional, but she takes more of an intellectual approach. She responds more intellectually than emotionally even to events in her own personal life.

SIG: Didion was writing at the same time as Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, who were the subjects of your two previous books, and they all moved back and forth across topics and across forms in their careers. Were you interested in writing about Didion because she lined up with Barthelme and Heller in that way?

TD: I have written three biographies now of writers, and I think of them as a trilogy in a way. With Donald Barthelme, I was looking at American short stories. With Joseph Heller, I was looking at American novels. With Didion, although she has written fiction, I was looking at journalism and nonfiction. I wanted to cover those three broad areas of writing in the postwar period, and I think all three of them were innovators. They’re similar in some ways.

SIG: Would you line up Joan Didion with Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer as people who covered news events with a very personal and literary approach?

TD: I would. She has often been grouped with them. I think she first appeared with those very writers in Tom Wolfe’s groundbreaking anthology called The New Journalism that came out in 1973. All of those writers were journalists who inserted themselves into the center of the story and made themselves part of the story. Didion has often said that she does not really believe in objectivity and that people who pretend to be objective are not really telling the whole truth, that you have to know where the writer stands in order to understand the story.

SIG: Did Didion go through periods of writing fiction and nonfiction?

TD: Her writing ambitions began in the 1950s, which was a time in the culture when the novel was still considered the literary top of the line and journalism was considered more of a day-to-day, pragmatic thing. Didion began as a magazine writer doing the stories she was assigned, but she wanted to be a fiction writer. Henry Robbins, her editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, said she should write nonfiction, and she eventually came to accept that and alternate fiction with nonfiction.

SIG: Do you see fewer people doing that today, or were there not really very many doing it then?

TD: I see fewer people doing it today. Like everything else, the writing world has become more specialized over time. I think it is rare to find a fiction writer who pursues journalism and vice versa. I wish more would. I think it’s a matter of literary citizenship; if you’re going to write fiction, you also need to be a critic and need to contribute nonfiction.

SIG: I don’t know who’s on that list anymore. John Updike is gone. David Foster Wallace is gone.

TD: Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem do essays from time to time. I don’t know too many more. John Updike and David Foster Wallace to me were the last ones, and we need more like them.

SIG: Are you suspicious of biographies that try to draw a straight line through somebody’s life, or do you feel like you’re getting a more realistic life when it’s a mess?

TD: The messier the better. I’m very suspicious of biographies that want to make a complete parallel between the writing and the life. I don’t think that’s ever the case. I’m suspicious of biography that tries to psychoanalyze the writer’s life or fill in with a lot of gossip. My interest is cultural history, and I’m trying to use these lives as a way to talk about the culture that shaped them. It’s the individual story as well as the story during this period.