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Didion shares 'fresh, raw' pain

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NEW YORK -- First her husband died. Then she wrote a book about it. Then her daughter died.

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, $23.95), out today, is a memoir about grief and what she calls "the shallowness of sanity." It was written after her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack Dec. 30, 2003.

Didion began the book exactly a year ago and finished in less than four months while "it was all still fresh and raw," she says.

The night Dunne died, the couple had just returned to their Manhattan apartment from a hospital where their only child was unconscious with pneumonia and septic shock.

Their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, eventually would recover, be hospitalized again and recover, all while Didion was dealing with "the unending absence" that follows the death of a spouse.

The book was being printed when Didion's daughter died five weeks ago from complications from abdominal infections. She was 39.

"What can I say?" Didion says. "It's much harder to talk about. It's still so fresh."

She has no plans to revise the book. "In a sense, it already deals with my grief when I didn't know if she would live or die."

Didion briefly considered canceling her 11-city book tour, which begins Monday in New York, but she decided "that wouldn't bring Quintana back. It seems important to do what I was planning to do -- in essence, to go on living."

Her topic, how a survivor deals with death and memories, "is something that everyone goes through," she says. "Not everyone tries to analyze it for obvious reasons. It's not pleasant. But it's what I do as a writer."

The book grew out of notes she wrote to herself, mostly from research and conversations with doctors on why her husband died and why her daughter was sick.

She didn't plan a book. "But I hadn't read anything that captured what I was going through, the immediacy and rawness of it. And I needed to get back to work."

Her title, The Year of Magical Thinking, came to her almost immediately. "I knew I wasn't thinking rationally. I was thinking as children do when they think they can change something that's already happened."

Didion and Dunne, who is best known for his novel True Confessions and his insider account of Hollywood, The Studio, were married for nearly 40 years. They worked at home, collaborated on seven screenplays and edited each other's novels and non-fiction. Both were magazine columnists.

If she had died first, would Dunne have written a book?

"John wrote about everything," Didion says. "Once our house was robbed, and he said, 'Maybe there's a column in this.'"

At 70, Didion looks frail, almost waif-like. A friend, writer Calvin Trillin, likes to say, "She's tougher than she looks, but then again almost anybody is tougher than she looks."

Trillin wrote the foreword to Regards, a collection of Dunne's non-fiction, to be published in January.

As for Didion's next book, she's looking for a topic: "I'm a writer. It's what I do."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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