2:29 pm Nov. 22, 20113
Before Joan Didion took the stage with Sloane Crosley Monday evening at the New York Public Library, the two guests had been asked backstage to each provide a sort of introductory haiku, an autobiography in just seven words.
Should be a cinch, right? Both women are acclaimed chiefly as memoirists, Didion being the exemplar of the form. Her writing became wildly popular in the '60s. As a reporter she chronicled her era better than nearly any of her peers, whether profiling Joan Baez or documenting the wild life of a hippie family living in Haight-Ashbury in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Her essay “Goodbye to All That,” in which she contemplates her relationship with New York as she prepares to move back to California, helped solidify her stardom. Now she is best known for The Year of Magical Thinking, her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of living with the grief of her husband's death. She had come to the NYPL to promote another book about mourning, Blue Nights, which is perhaps inevitably being received as a sequel and which examines Didion's relationship with her troubled daughter Quintana Roo. Crosley has written two best-selling essay collections, How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There'd Be Cake, humorous reflections on her secret and not-so-secret eccentricities.
For her ad hoc bio, Crosley wrote, “Bit into dessert looking for a meal.” Didion wrote, “Seven words do not yet define me.”
So the tone of the evening was set, and the standing-room only crowd was primed for an evening not of dry discussion of writerly processes or pet peeves, but of wit. The two women faced each other on brocade chairs, a vase of pink tulips between them, and as Crosley shuffled notecards, Didion appeared regal, if a bit crumpled.
Crosley's first question to the older writer was about the humor in her work, often overlooked. Didion seemed ready to impress the audience with her spontaneous sharpness. Crosley wanted to know about her influences as a young writer—Hemingway and Henry James—and if she thought about her fictional characters from Run, River and After Henry. When Crosley asked about an interview Didion had given to Harper’s Bazaar, Didion had no memory of her answers on writing and motherhood. “Clearly I would say anything.”
Didion described her house on Franklin Avenue house in L.A., famously unweeded and disordered, as "an abandoned frat house" to guffaws. There were moments of something like bit comedy with Crosley unexpectedly in the role of straight-man and Didion throwing all the zingers, interrupting a serious question with "Didn't we go somewhere together?" to which Crosley responded, understandably, "I feel like I would have remembered."
The crowd was evenly divided between the boomer set—those who came of age to the beat of Didion's cultural criticism (trusting her to bear witness with elegant fluency to what they were also seeing), and the twenty-somethings with beards and blunt-cut bangs, lovers of Didion from across a distance of time.
The first thing people notice about Didion is usually her size. "I'm really very small, people say," she said at one point. If her hair is the color of champagne, she weighs about as much as a bottle of the stuff, but it's her voice that gets the attention, strong and still humming with clarity in spite of her age and apparent frailty; it faltered only when she grew tired at the end of the evening. While her voice was still steady, she read a brief passage from Blue Nights on being hospitalized. "It was increasingly as if I had taken a taxi to Lenox Hill and woken up [in] Driving Miss Daisy." For a diagnosis, she said, the doctors wanted her to swallow a camera. Laughter followed.
Didion lamented that her readers always seemed most interested in her most personal writing, even when she was just starting out at Vogue and filling space with articles like “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power.”
"I couldn't take this Miss Lonely Hearts role," she said of that aspect of her writing. "I didn't have a sane response until The Year of Magical Thinking." She never understands how she feels until she writes about it.
Didion steered the conversation warmly but firmly, charming the room with a few select intimacies while remaining, on the whole, guarded. Her husband, she said, had compared her freelance writing to being "nibbled to death by ducks." She drinks bourbon when she self-edits, though has lately moved more to white wine. She hates the word memoir, too "soft." She will order take-out Chinese for Thanksgiving. There's no catharsis in writing about her life.
Why then does she continue, a young man who had just lost his mother wanted to know. She gave him the answer she must be used to giving, "Because it happened."
More by this author:
- Scenes: Sunday, August 12 at a Civil War re-enactment on Governors Island
- In the McKayla Maroney era, U.S. women's gymnastics is (literally) stronger than ever