When Dave Eggers interviewed Joan Didion at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco Tuesday night, one might have expected them to talk about grief. After all, Eggers lost both his parents before he was 20 and Didion has just published a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, that focuses on the year after her husband’s death.
But grief was curiously absent in the vast, ornate chamber of the Herbst Theater. Instead, Eggers asked Didion to describe her partnership with her husband John Gregory Dunne, a man she was married to for 40 years. Eggers was clearly fascinated by Didion and Dunne’s extraordinary relationship. They were both writers who worked at home, who were each other’s first readers, and who partnered on screenplays.
“I wanted to talk as much as possible about your life together because this book is a portrait of a marriage,” Eggers said.
And what a life. Didion, who was born in Sacramento, was working at Vogue magazine in New York when a friend brought Dunne over for dinner at her apartment. He was writing for Time, and the two were just friends for years. It wasn’t until Dunne took Didion home to Hartford, Connecticut to meet his Irish Catholic family that she realized he might be the husband for her. His family had their doubts because Didion was an Episcopalian, and no Protestant had ever crossed their threshold. Regardless, Didion and Dunne were married in January 1964 and moved to Los Angeles that June.
The two shared a column in the Saturday Evening Post and soon branched out into screenplays and books. Dunne helped Didion name at least two of her books – The Book of Common Prayer and Democracy. Once, Didion made notes for her own funeral and Dunne took those words and used them for a funeral scene in his novel The Red White and Blue.
“Where you each others first readers?” asked Eggers.
“We were absolutely each others first readers on everything. First, and certainly in my case, first and last.”
For a writer, that kind of support is remarkable, and may help explain the sheer volume and quality of Didion’s writing. The couple spent their days next to one another – or at least in nearby rooms – and could rely on an astute, yet sympathetic critic to look at their work.
Eggers also has a partnership with a writer, although their working habits did not come up in the lecture. He is married to novelist Vendela Vida, and both she and their less-than-a-month old baby were in the audience.
“You seemed to the outside world like the couple that squeezed every last drop out of every last day,” said Eggers.
Didion started writing A Year of Magical Thinking just nine months after Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack while eating dinner before a fire in their New York apartment. They had just come home from the hospital where they had been visiting their daughter Quintana, who lay in a mysterious coma. (Tragically, Quintana died recently)
Didion knew her husband was dead but couldn’t quit believe it. She also found that society had its own notions of how long it is appropriate to grieve, notions that didn’t match Didion’s timeline.
“Grieving isn’t something we do very much of in this country,” she said. “I found myself wishing I could be in mourning (dressed in black for a year) not out of respect for the dead, but to protect myself. The fact that people in mourning are not entirely stable, they go a little crazy, is something we don’t really acknowledge.”