“This was a much harder book to write than The Year of Magical Thinking,” says Joan Didion about Blue Nights. “With Magical Thinking, there was no place to go except where it went.”
Didion’s dreamlike, hyper-real account of the first year of widowhood “wrote itself,” she says. And what a book it was: Magical Thinking sold over a million print copies, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005, and became a one-woman Broadway sensation starring Vanessa Redgrave from a script by the author.
Before Magical Thinking was published, Didion lost her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, then 39. Blue Nights began with Didion’s attempt to come to terms with the unbearable death of her daughter. It’s filled with “rosaries of neglects, derelictions, and delinquencies”—the self-recriminations of a childless mother reconsidering her history as a parent. “I realize now how much in a lot of little ways I had not given her [Quintana] credit for being as smart as she was,” says Didion. “I see her in a new light.” Halfway through Blue Nights, Didion put down the manuscript. “I called my agent, Lynn Nesbit, and told her I couldn’t finish it. I was going to tell Sonny Mehta. Lynn said, ‘Wait a while.’ ” Didion laughs. “So I did. Then I realized I had to finish it. I couldn’t not finish it.”
Didion also realized that the subject had changed; it had compounded. The book was not about the loss of a child per se but, as she writes, “this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death.” The heavyweight topic of Blue Nights is “this fear” taken on by a woman who looked death in the eye twice in 20 months, a writer who had navigated the cultural and political landscape of the last half of the 20th century and had deciphered the seismic shifts of our collective consciousness in essays, novels, screenplays, and nonfiction.
In the past 10 years, Didion has written with raw honesty not about the outside world but about her own interior geography. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is Didion’s collected nonfiction (Everyman’s Library, 2006), and the title expresses her modus operandi for getting through the day. Telling herself stories—keeping alive what she has lost—Didion says, helps her “put my feet on the ground” each morning.
Didion always had great titles for her books: Play It As It Lays; Slouching Towards Bethlehem; The Last Thing He Wanted; and now, Blue Nights. “The moment when I felt it, when I had it, when I could do it [was] when I called it Blue Nights,” Didion says. “I wrote the prologue almost immediately after that.” The title refers to the summer twilight, when the elongated days start to turn a shade of blue that over a couple of hours deepens and brightens, then lingers, tempting you to believe that this time, just this once, night won’t fall. Blue nights are the metaphorical warning signs of inevitability: we get sick, we get old, we die. Our days end.
How did she come up with the title? “I really don’t know,” she says. “A couple of years ago... a movie... did you happen to see it... about Virginia Woolf?” (The movie is The Hours, adapted from the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham.) “Just the part where she was in the water was stuck in my mind. That was the gloaming.”
Blue Nights is the story of Quintana’s life, from her unexpected adoption to her troubled adolescence and young adulthood to her wedding and happy marriage and, finally, to her chain of illnesses and untimely death. It is also the unsparing account of Didion, how she missed the blue lights of her daughter’s problems, how she underestimated the joy, the pain, and the responsibility of being a parent. And, lastly, it is a delusional tale of a woman, Didion again, who neglected to notice that she was getting old, who thought she could write a different ending to life’s stories, whose brilliant mind, outsized talents, and successes provided no protection from life’s brutalities.components/article_pagination.html not found (No such file or directory)