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With Joan Didion at the 2011 IFOA

This is the final piece in a series I'm doing on the 2011 International Festival of Authors. Previous pieces include talks withMichael OndaatjeTom PerrottaErin MorgensternRussell BanksLev Grossman, andSimon Toyne. With Joan Didion at the 2011 IFOA

A Sombre Note

In December of 2003 Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died from a heart attack. Twenty months later, at the age of 39, Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, died of complications from acute pancreatitis. The Year of Magical Thinking was Didion’s memoir about losing her husband. Blue Nights is her latest work and it is about losing her daughter, about parents and children, and about memory and loss.

Pen Canada Chair, Margaret MacMillan, a professor at the University of Toronto, currently at Oxford, and author of the Governor General Literary Award winning Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, sat down with Joan Didion in the Brigadine Room for the event that would close the 2011 International Festival of Authors. Didion, who has never weighed much more than a hundred pounds even at the prime of her life, looked particularly fragile on this November night, and MacMillan was nothing short of impressive in her interview.  She was sympathetic, interested, interesting and helpful for those spots when Didion seemed to struggle with her answers.



We don’t.

“We don’t allow people to talk about it. Everyone tries to change the subject."

In the old days people died at home. It wasn’t something hidden away. “You got used to the aunt who was dying upstairs.” MacMillan added that we in the West are “inept” at dealing with grief. Didion replied, “Don’t you think it’s because in hospitals we’re actually made to feel unwelcome in scenes where death takes place?” The author spoke of our culture’s inability to even say the word, that we speak of it in euphemism (passing away). She described it as a totally distanced way of dealing with death. When Quintana was very sick the doctors only wanted to talk to Didion about how well she was, “which meant she’d gotten through the night. If pressed they’d get nervous.”



“I’ve been terribly aware.”


Click Joan Didion at IFOA 2011 for the rest of this piece.