Last night I went to see every white writer’s idol, Joan Didion, speak at Symphony Space with her nephew, Griffin Dunne, about her latest book Blue Nights. The audience was quintessential Didion, which is to say that it was attended by a lot of old WASPs and creative writing majors named Debbie or Kara who just loved The Year Of Magical Thinking. And then of course, there was me and Stephanie Georgopulos just lurking in the corner like the anti-social goths we typically are. We were obviously excited to see her though. Joan Didion is, after all, one of my favorite writers. Not only is her prose some of the best I’ve ever read — it wakes you up like an Adderall without a time release and provides you with instant inspiration — she also lives a life of unabashed privilege and feels very intensely about the same things as me like posh restaurants, freeways, migraines, and the Santa Ana winds.
Joan Didion took the stage with Griffin looking chic as hell in a typical Upper West Side ensemble. She even wore an unnecessary scarf that seemed to dwarf her entire body. Journalists who have profiled Didion before always describe her as frail and they’re right. She looks as if she’s going to blow over or break a rib by sneezing. But she did once say herself that her tiny body is one of her biggest assets as a journalist. Since she appears to be so weak, her subjects may write her off as feeble and not pay any attention. If Didion has proven anything in her career and personal life though, it’s that she’s anything but. On the outside, Didion resembles a wilted feather but in her writings, she comes across as a force to be reckoned with. This 98-pound elderly woman doesn’t mince words and she certainly packs a punch.
They started out the evening by showing a clip of the documentary Griffin made of his aunt in which Didion read aloud passages from her book at home while we were shown footage from Quintana’s wedding, footage that seemed to perfectly match Didion’s description of the day in Blue Nights. When the clip ended, the lights came up and Griffin began to lead the discussion, acting as a moderator of sorts, and Joan gave slow albeit short responses to all of his questions. To spice things up a bit, Griffin would give us little glimpses into what it was like growing up with Joan Didion as your aunt. It apparently meant things like learning about Joan and John’s marriage trouble in an article Didion had written in The Saturday Evening Post instead of getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. Or going to a party when Griffin was only thirteen years old that Joan and her husband were throwing in Janis Joplin’s honor. At this party, Griffin recalls being cornered by someone who he thought was an actor on Hogan’s Heroes. It turned out, however, to be Otto Preminger who was apparently having a bad acid trip and needed someone to talk to. For this particular soiree, Joan sent Quintana, who was just a baby at the time, to stay with a nanny, and hired valet for all of the party guests. Unfortunately, three of the guests’ cars ended up getting stolen that night so the valet guys agreed to not bill Didion for their services. “It was a different time then,” Didion told us with a wry smile.
The night wasn’t all just celebrity gossip and fun stories though. Sometimes it was just awkward silences, especially when it came time for her to answer random questions from the audience. One woman asked Didion this long-winded question about why there wasn’t any moment of redemption in Blue Nights and Didion just curtly responded, “Because it wasn’t about redemption for me.” Another woman asked if she thought Blue Nights was more about aging than it was about the process of grieving and Didion was just like, “Yes. That’s the actual meaning of Blue Nights. It’s about getting older.” She said it in this brilliant way that was like, “That’s explained in the first three pages of my book. Have you not read it yet or what?” She was amazing at being dismissive about what she believed were stupid questions. In fact even the smart questions were still met with a major “OVER IT” vibe from her. It didn’t offend me. I loved it actually. This whole “I have no patience for this crap!” attitude is exactly what I would expect from her. If she was like, “OMG. I’m so touched. Thanks guys! You mean the world to me. Ask me anything!” I would’ve been horrified!
The last question Didion received from an audience member was by far the weirdest and is probably why Didion decided to bounce from her own party a little early. A rotund woman named Yoo Hoo (JK) went up and told Didion that she was also an author and that she liked to write with her “special pens” and paper which, according to her, was a green and blue pen that she would only use on paper that was “80% cotton.” When she told everyone that she only used paper that was 80% cotton, people in the audience started to laugh uncontrollably. She then asked Didion if she had any favorite pens or papers she liked to use. Didion responded, “Um, I use the computer now but I used to write on 20 bound paper and–” Before Didion could finish, Yoo Hoo blurted out “AND WHAT KIND OF PENS?!” Didion looked confused and just said, “Black?” And then it was over. “Goodbye to all that!,” she probably said when she got whisked away by a town car with her scarf becoming like a Boa Constrictor. Yes. Goodbye indeed.