On 'The Last Love Song': A Joan Didion Roundtable

St. Martin's Press

Try and read a description of Joan Didion that doesn't include the words "aloof," "cool" and "distant." The glamorous, gifted writer of fiction and nonfiction has written some of the most cited essays of all time, from diatribes about leaving New York ("Goodbye to All That") to two books grappling with inexplicable loss (The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights). While Didion wrote intensely and in great detail about her personal connections to everyone from Jim Morrison to Barry Goldwater, there's still something guarded about her work. Who is the woman perched behind the yellow Corvette, a long ash dangling from her cigarette?

The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty's exhaustive biography of Joan Didion, attempts to unpack the myth behind the dark sunglasses, tracing her trajectory from childhood through the present-day. The recently released biography didn't have cooperation from Didion herself or those closest to her, but instead is framed by her own texts and key interviews from former friends, lovers and collaborators.

To unpack the ambitious work, we assembled a roundtable of writers and unabashed Joan Didion fans, including Rookie Editor-in-Chief Tavi Gevinson, New York Times Pop Listings Critic Stacey Anderson, Rolling Stone Online Producer and Writer Brittany Spanos, Newsweek Culture Editor Cady Drell and Newsweek Staff Writer Paula Mejia. Our roundtable of all women was intentional; we wanted to discuss Didion's cross-generational appeal, legacy and importance in opening the floodgates for women to write unapologetically about their experiences while moving through a world stacked against them. Over Didion's cold borscht and parsley salad, we discussed the book's successes, what it says about the cult of Didion, and how it complements the formidable works of America's most enigmatic writer.

Paula Mejia: To start out, I'd love to know: What was everyone's first introduction to Joan Didion?

Cady Drell: Right after college and I read The Year of Magical Thinking in one sitting. It was this insanely therapeutic, terrible, beautiful summer day when I was reading this on our indoor/outdoor porch in Allston. I remember calling a lot of people and saying, "I love you! I know I don't say that enough." It was all downhill from there.

Stacey Anderson: That's great. Writing's supposed to help you reach your best self, right? I think I read "Goodbye to All That" in senior year of college. It was this sort of masochistic exercise before I moved to New York myself. She's a very convincing woman, but I still got on the plane. And I'm still here.

Brittany Spanos: I read an excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem in the first journalism class I took in college, my sophomore year. It was a basic journalism class, with a professor going through and saying, here's what New Journalism is. It was the only class that got a female writer for the New Journalism part, everyone else got Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. After I read it, I thought, This is incredible, and shared it will all my friends. "It's much better than what you just read, try this out!"

Tavi Gevinson: I have multiple copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, because multiple women in my life had given it to me at some point. I was fixated on the line about you have the conviction when you're 21 and 22 that this has never happened to anyone else.

Paula: Let's talk about the methods here. Daugherty didn't have cooperation from Joan Didion, but still wrote an exhaustive biography of her with over 100 pages of citations. What do we think about how The Last Love Song was structured?

Cady: Weirdly, I'm not super into biographies. One of the ones I've truly loved is one that actually Paula lent me, of Tom Waits [Lowside of the Road, by Barney Hoskyns], which is completely unauthorized as well. For someone like Tom Waits or Joan Didion, their personas are something they've curated and in that way they become intimidating and you can't really dive into their personality. You have to keep it at the level of their work. Not that their work is surface level, but that's as far as you can go in.

I thought it was really interesting that [Daugherty] primarily used her own texts to tell her story and then where it was pertinent to talk to people outside of that. And some of the stuff is not flattering! But it doesn't make her unsympathetic. If anything it makes her more sympathetic, because the cult of Joan is founded on this very idealistic view of her that I personally had, and it was nice to see she was a person too.

Tavi: I identified with her idea of a writer as very solitary, nostalgic and afflicted in childhood with a sense of loss because I'm a memory hoarder. Most of what I write is documentation rather than getting to a new place. But it was so interesting to learn how she disowned feminism, for example, because she'd been given to me by other women and other feminists. All of that was humanizing, but interesting ... I understand the desire to not want to be labeled or pinned down, and that also is very John Wayne or cowboy-esque, which kept coming up.

Stacey: I think she was also trying to get away from an element of tokenism. It talked about Tom Wolfe's anthology of New Journalism, and she was one of two women. And the way that she was described, at least, and there was some hypothesis from the author, her flinching at being included seemed to be the fact that she was just filling a quota for women, and she didn't totally fit into the idea of New Journalism. So it could be an insult to be taken as the woman counterpoint of something she never wanted to be associated with.

Brittany: That, and the idea that she took everything she did so seriously. She took her failures very seriously, she took her success very seriously. There was no stone unturned with that; she loved what she did and was fantastic at it, and was aware of that.

Paula: That seriousness humanized her, as well. It's easy to think of her as "the god" Joan Didion, but she was still quite bitter about not getting into Stanford.

Cady: That was a shocking moment in the book for me. Like, Wait, she saw stuff as a setback? She seemed so capable and moving forward through this world of her own creation. And in reality, stuff fucked her up. I don't know what the word is to describe how I felt about that ... disappointed?

Tavi: Yeah. There's a kind of ambition there I don't really identify with, but on one hand she would express distaste for or distrust of people who were more interested in the money they'd get from the advance than the words they were writing, but at the same time she had this ambition and hustle. It was about money but it was about greatness and being an icon. It's interesting to me, the tension between her persona as a solitary writer and when she becomes the person who girls come to see in her office, and they're obsessed with her. And how she kind of embraced it and embraced her brand.

Cady: She was the OG personal brand!

Stacey: One thing that really resonates when I read about her, and I think it's probably true for a lot of writers, is how personally she took her work. The magazine that turned down one of her essays, it's a bit laughable compared to her successes she'd soon have. I think we can all definitely identify with the fact that she put so much of herself into her writing, to the extent that maybe—you're talking about curation—that was an element of control, a lack of filtering herself in her writing made her better for it.

Cady: I think she probably foresaw that success was going to be harder for her despite her insane writing ability than it was for her contemporaries who were mostly male. If I just sum up who I am, I'll give them enough so they don't probe for the deeper stuff, then I'll be able to move through this success more efficiently. She was very calculated! The stuff about her daughter? ... The stuff where she was like, "I was such an inept mother, I was going to bring her to Vietnam ... " She knew what the optics of that would look like.

Tavi: Even writing about her divorce, there's something on brand and glamorous about being in the hotel room, being depressed, the curtains fluttering. What was the thing Pauline Kael said? She was really critical of Play It as It Lays ...

Stacey: The idea of being like a broken bird who needs to be taken care of as the glamorous pinnacle for women, and that's really destructive in itself. And you can see why Pauline Kael would be up in arms about that.

Cady: It's reductionist, it really is. But you can see why it would makes sense given the time period; "feminism is being attacked right now, you're not really helping by being this stylish, sad, scrawny icon languishing in bed." But I think she's being honest in her writing.

Paula: I don't think she fit in with anyone. I was struck by how resistant she was to being a part of anything that wasn't something she had set out to do.

Brittany: Stylistically in sort of creating the cult of Joan Didion, she makes expressing herself during those painful moments easy and also the way that you handle them, easy. And the disappointment of reading how she took being rejected at Stanford, you look at that and you think ... that's not easy! The fact that she could write a book about her daughter's death, in and of itself, is completely mind-blowing. It speaks volumes to her talent and her way of taking these moments and making them something productive and palpable.

Stacey: It's a very open-hearted thing, especially when your world's been shattered like that, to want to make it part of a dialogue.

Brittany: And at that point it's not your first novel. It's Joan Didion, everyone's going to read it. That's not going to go unnoticed or ignored. You'll have critics, but you're still going to express this.

Paula: When tragedy happens, I think people often try to contextualize it through writing. Hearing of her commiserating with Nora Ephron about how writing hadn't helped them understand anything was telling, too.

Brittany: Those are the two people who have written so fantastically about that sort of jump, too.

Tavi: I have often thought of [Joan Didion] as somewhat chilly. Reading this helped me to understand her kind of very bold, if cold, proclamations as really putting herself out there. Because it's such a move to make, an admission of something sort of unattractive to be that lonely in your writing, to have that remove and to experiencing this thing in kind of solitude.

With Nora Ephron, my friend just gave me a copy of Heartburn and I haven't read it yet. But it's a perfect example: Her friend asked her why she wrote it down and she said, this way I control the story, people laugh with the story. And she goes through the whole thing, and it made me think of "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." I'm constantly battling this thing where I'm having this experience and trying so hard to see the person in front of me as complete and humanize them, knowing that later I might write about them. I'm trying to always figure out how to do that without feeling like a vampire, or that you're using someone in your writing.

Cady: Exactly. The part of me that just wants to have experiences and do weird things and not want to tell everyone about them, you know? And not use them as fodder for a good story, and where the line is between that and how you just have an experience.

Stacey: I think it speaks to how hard it is to write fiction and nonfiction, and she straddled both so well I think. Writing about yourself is terrifying!

Paula: When you make yourself vulnerable and people can attack you for your experiences, that is totally scary.

Brittany: I feel like in my own writing I do half-and-half very personal essays, half reported pieces. I feel like that when I want to report on something, it's something I feel passionate about. And I think that comes across in the best writing; the best people are the ones who are engaging with it in some kind of intense way, in any type of way. If they have a genuine curiosity about something they don't know that much about, or someone they love a lot, that comes across. If you love something enough to give it that unbiased reporting, you can detach yourself and say, "I'm going to just be the eyes for everyone else and the eyes for other fans and the people who don't care about them," and give them perspective.

Paula: That curiosity certainly drove Joan Didion, too. I mean, Daugherty talks about her working at one point about a book about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. But her portrait of the Doors was not flattering ...

Tavi: As much as I love her writing, it rarely gets into a place where you feel like she's just releasing and outpouring.

Cady: But even then, there is some amount of restraint. I left it being like, I wish that she ... it was very broad strokes in a way. She would do the very intensely fact-based "here is what happened," then very much the "here is what happens when something like that happens." But what happened to you?

Stacey: There was a clinical element to this book; I didn't get a lot of emotional insight from her. I don't know how I could have, given the circumstances, but I thought it was so curious that two of the most impactful moments of her life—the death of her husband and the death of her daughter—were introduced in the last 40 pages of the book. I thought the pacing of this was so strange and so unemotional to a point. At first I could see that it was trying to go for some of the same detachment that made some of her writing so excellent. But something about it also felt ... dispassionate.

Tavi: It was kind of like a history textbook.

Cady: It must be extremely hard to write an extensive biography about a living person without their participation. And how much of that do you think was Daugherty kind of acknowledging that she told her own story there, and he acknowledges that a little bit, but how much do you think that was out of respect for her? And let's be honest, she's probably going to read this. As much as we think she's impervious, she or someone close to her is going to read it and report back. I don't think she disavowed it, she just didn't participate.

Stacey: I don't know. Daugherty is kind of at the mercy of her catalogue, no matter what, because he doesn't have that much information to go off of. At the same time, I maintain that I thought the structuring of such a pivotal moment was odd. It was a joint biography, in some ways. It talked as much about her husband as much as it did her.

Cady: He definitely comes out looking like the runner-up to Joan Didion's affection in this book. After The Year of Magical Thinking you think, oh they had this beautiful life that got shattered. But a lot of that book is remembering beautiful things that happened between them, which is what makes it so incredibly devastating. Because she built her life with this man. Then to see the other side, which she did not give away at all, and even after they were married she was still writing about her ex-boyfriend in a very thinly veiled way.

Tavi: It sucks that the person you might be most captivated by or likely to write about is not necessarily the person who's right for you.

Stacey: I saw it as a grain of salt, because that ex-boyfriend actually agreed to be interviewed for this book unlike many other people in her circle. But it's a very good point: The person that captures our interest and makes a lot of pained writing great is not the person we're having breakfast with 30 years later.

Tavi: Thank God for assholes, otherwise I'd have nothing to write about.

Didion also brought to the screen the princess fantasy, which is to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of. But I'm also grateful for that because it granted me permission to indulge parts of me that are like myopic in how I understand myself to be as a writer; I have more to offer of that and hopefully people find it interesting.

Paula: Do we think Daugherty's approach, then, was successful?

Cady: It depends on your personal interpretation of what he was going for. I think in terms of a biography, the overall feeling that I think we can all probably relate to is that you only pick this book up if you already love her because you're not going to make a 600-page commitment if you don't. And it's painted a more complicated portrait of somebody who I don't love any less because she is complicated.

Stacey: I think the most successful biographies I've read often answer the question of why, and that's a very emotional thing. And I'm not totally sure I got that from this. I got a wealth of historical information, a lot of supporting evidence to experience that maybe I didn't have any information about beforehand ... so in some ways, maybe in a journalistic way, it interpreted the given information very well. I'm not sure it added any depth of understanding of her as an artist.

Paula: It's interesting you use the term "supporting evidence." Her works were always so singular in that they were gripping and deep, but you still felt like there was something she was withholding. This book is going to make my experience of reading her different, but I don't know if I understand her as a person better.

Brittany: I think it's a particular difficulty writing in the shadow of this fantastic writer's body of work and what she said about herself. You're working against that on top of, you don't have new information from her. It was very historical and academic. It was interesting, I learned a lot from her. But yeah, the whole time I was thinking, I kind of want to go back to read Joan Didion!

Stacey: In the sense of being a companion piece, it's maybe successful.

Tavi: It felt like a history lesson for me in a lot of ways. It served that purpose mostly, but because I hadn't read much Didion, I thought, I just want to read her. I really appreciated when he wrote down her method a little more, what influenced her, and the fact that she as a kid copied down that Hemingway passage in a typewriter tells you everything.

That's the wisdom I try to impart to Rookie readers the most who are kind of scared to try making something, because they're worried it won't be original: Zadie Smith started by copying Agatha Christie passages, and this was just more evidence of that as a sort of a way to find your voice within all the stuff you like. So there were things like that I really appreciated, and it's so foreign to how I view writing, with how technical yet intuitive she was.

Paula: So who did you guys copy down?

Cady: ee cummings. I memorized a lot of his poems.

Tavi: I've used a lot of "On Keeping a Notebook" and "On Self-Respect" in my writing.

Stacey: Elements of Zadie Smith, for sure.

Brittany: I didn't copy down as much as I would read out interviews. I sort of would add questions in the margins in magazines and annotate them, figure out where they went wrong. I'd copy down questions of interviews I really love.

Paula: Edgar Allan Poe.