RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A few weeks after her daughter Quintana went into a coma and was put on life support, a little more than a month before her 40th wedding anniversary, Joan Didion's beloved husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, had a massive heart attack at their dining room table and died. Joan Didion has written a book about his death, about their lives together, her life now. It's called "The Year of Magical Thinking." NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg spoke with her.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

Joan Didion has made a powerful, respectful, disciplined and loving book out of her experience. There is an elegance of emotions. You feel her loss, but there is no self-pity. "The Year of Magical Thinking" begins with four short italicized lines that are repeated throughout like a mantra.

Ms. Didion, would you please read those lines to us?

Ms. JOAN DIDION (Author, "The Year of Magical Thinking"): (Reading) `Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.'

STAMBERG: And those are the very first words that you wrote after your husband died.

Ms. DIDION: Yeah. A couple of days after he died, I was just writing down what was on my mind, and the whole question of self-pity--you don't want it to overtake you.

STAMBERG: Yes. Once you very famously said, `I don't know what I think until I write it down.'

Ms. DIDION: Well, that was part of why I wrote it. And, well, as a writer, the first thing you think of doing when you don't know what to think about something or what you're going to say, and so you work it up. I mean, that's the phrase. You get the information.

STAMBERG: I'd like to talk with you about your husband. You and John Gregory Dunne, you were married 40 years. And that relationship of yours--I've recorded interviews with the two of you together. You finished one another's sentences.

Ms. DIDION: We did. I don't finish sentences. Since he died, I've been forced to finish a few sentences, which makes me sound quite cross and brisk.

STAMBERG: But you write, `We were each the person the other trusted.'

Ms. DIDION: Yeah. We were--I mean, there was sort of a big common misapprehension that we must be very in some way competitive or envious of each other.

STAMBERG: Because you were two writers.

Ms. DIDION: That's just simply not the way we operated.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Ms. DIDION: I mean, we had a kind of--it was kind of a joint career in an odd way.

STAMBERG: Everything you ever wrote, he helped you with. He edited...

Ms. DIDION: He helped me...

STAMBERG: ...he made suggestions, he said, `Get rid of that.'

Ms. DIDION: He helped me, I helped him, you know. The first time I wrote a piece after he died, it was very hard to imagine how I was going to get through it.

STAMBERG: You call this book "The Year of Magical Thinking." You spent a lot of that year doing things so he would come back. You wouldn't give away his clothes, for instance. You wouldn't give away his shoes.

Ms. DIDION: No. Yeah, I went kind of crazy. I mean, I think everybody does. And how he would certainly need shoes when he came back.

STAMBERG: Yeah. I know people who have death in their lives and can't bear to cross their names out of the address book or throw away the Rolodex cards.

Ms. DIDION: I could never do that. I could never, ever cross a name out.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Ms. DIDION: So I have this address book which is full of--it's full of the dead.

STAMBERG: You write about the rituals of survivors. And I wonder if you would read for us from page 152.

Ms. DIDION: Yes. (Reading) `The voice on my answering machine is still John's. The fact that it was his in the first place was arbitrary, having to do with who was around on the day the answering machine last needed programming. But if I needed to re-tape it now, I would do so with a sense of betrayal. One day when I was talking on the telephone in his office, I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done, I was stricken. What word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages, had I lost a message or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?'

STAMBERG: You know, you describe that, Joan Didion, as part of a crazy behavior. It doesn't sound crazy at all.

Ms. DIDION: Well, you know, I've just always been somebody who put a great deal of emphasis on the amount of control I had. And what I discovered over the--you know, just very suddenly that night at the dinner table was that I had no control over anything at all. I could not control anything. So what I interpreted as craziness was probably a reaction to a perceived loss of control.

STAMBERG: So you made this book and months before it was published, your daughter, your only child, Quintana, died. She was 39 years old. I'm so sorry.

Ms. DIDION: She'd been in and out of hospitals since just before John died. It was kind of a cascade of things; one thing led to another.

STAMBERG: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I'm sure that people say this to you all the time because of your writing and because of how you present yourself in this world, but I wonder how you react to it: `Oh, Joan, you're so strong.'

Ms. DIDION: Well, you know, it's not very useful, because I don't feel very strong, you know? But you don't have a whole lot of options about--you know, people say you're so strong because you are walking around and because you're not--well, I don't know what. I don't know what the option would be to walking around.

STAMBERG: Well, I suppose shriveled up in a corner sobbing.

Ms. DIDION: Which would just be a spiral down, don't you think?

STAMBERG: Sure.

Ms. DIDION: Yeah.

STAMBERG: Sure. Thank you very much for this book and also for taking the time to talk about it.

Ms. DIDION: Thank you, too.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. Joan Didion's new book is called "The Year of Magical Thinking." I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Susan's entire conversation with Joan Didion at npr.org.

(Credits)

MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne. And Steve Inskeep will join me from New Orleans on Monday.

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