Joan Didion’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘔𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨

Though I deeply admired Joan Didion’s essays and fiction and had read Play it as it Lays many times, I avoided her acclaimed memoir when it came out in 2005. The book dealt with the death of her husband of forty years and because I was still reeling from the death of my mother, I didn’t feel I was ready.  Even a National Book Award didn’t change my mind.

Perversely, perhaps, I’m ready now when my 102-year-old father is in a slow decline and his hospice nurse is very pessimistic about his chances for pulling out of it.  He’s like an abandoned ship without crew or captain, barely recognizable as the man he used to be even into his 90’s. 

Seeking catharsis or comfort or something in between, I picked up Didion’s memoir last weekend.  It’s a stunning, visceral travelogue into a world anyone of us can enter at a moment: the land of illness, the land of sudden death.

Didion’s novelist husband John Gregory Dunne died after a massive heart attack at dinner one night in New York, at home, and this was soon after they had been visiting their deathly ill daughter at the hospital.  She was in an induced coma and there was every possibility she could die.

Years earlier, Didion had written about this terrible kind of unexpected disaster in Play it as it Lays: “In the whole world, there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”

The book is a meticulous mapping of what happened before and after her husband’s death and her daughter’s hospitalizations as Didion examines the events from various standpoints.  Her encounters with medical personal are sometimes discouraging, sometimes bizarre, and when it comes to her daughter’s repeated hospital stays, she had to learn how to ask questions without seeming like a nag or a smart ass.  Those times force her to learn about procedures and medications as if she were taking a crash course in a foreign language.

Didion and her husband were deeply connected to each other through their work, never rivals, always collaborators. Their privileged life of writing screenplays in Hawaii, trips abroad, publicity tours, mingling with other celebrities, and eating at famous restaurants was no protection from cataclysmic change.   Et in Arcadia ego is ascribed to Virgil: Death is in Arcadia too.

Didion seeks answers or solace or stability through reading sublime poetry and matter-of-fact depictions of illness and death like Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die.  And she explores all the ways in which friends tried to help her and assuage her grief.  Most mesmerizing is the clear-eyed recounting of how she could not cope with her husband’s death and even denied that it had happened.  This kind of trauma is approached as a medical/psychological issue and as a sort of mystery: What was she thinking?  How was she thinking–and why?

Didion is like someone who’s just barely survived an earthquake that destroyed her home and is picking through the rubble to see what might not have been lost. The book is harrowing, beautifully written and observed, an unforgettable exploration of grief and loss.

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir My Germany and twenty-six other books in many genres.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages and he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Writer’s Memoir: I Ditched My Famous Literary Agent–And Never Regretted It

Back in the eighties, I landed a major New York agent and felt I was truly launched as an author. Up to that point, I had only one fiction publication: a short story in Redbook which had won a prize at my MFA program, made me a lot of money, and garnered fan mail. The judge of the contest was Martha Foley who had been editing the yearly anthology Best American Short Stories, and Redbook had an audience of 4.5 million readers.

The agent took me to lunch at a classy restaurant, told me she loved my novel and that my short fiction was ready for The New Yorker. I was blown away.

Her outer office was filled with copies of books in many languages by her major client, bookcase after bookcase trumpeting his fame and her connection to him. Having this woman as my agent made life seem golden. And yes, I admit it: I assumed that sooner or later I would meet the international celebrity, or at the very least get a blurb for my novel Winter Eyes about Holocaust survivors trying to start a new life in New York.

What happened next was like a bad love affair: my agent never wrote or called to keep me up-to-date—what had I done wrong? She never sent me copies of rejection letters from editors, so I had no idea where the book had been submitted. The only actual feedback she shared was that an editor at Knopf thought my novel was “too short.” She also rarely answered my queries or returned my phone calls, and after a year and half of this bizarre treatment, I gave up, ending the relationship by registered mail.

It turns out that I was actually lucky to drop this agent before she sold my book. In the 90s, she was accused of not passing on royalty checks to her clients who included a handful of major literary authors.

Un-agented, that first novel of mine ended up being accepted by St. Martin’s Press and I had fantastic editing and copy-editing there. Though I did go on to work with other agents, some of whom were duds in different ways, my first agent won the prize for most unprofessional. Ironically, over the years, the books that have earned me the most money were books I sold myself.

I guess I should have seen that first experience as an omen.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing workshops year-round at writewithoutborders.com.

Wonderful Writers I Have Known

Nobody tells you that one of the best things that can happen when you become an author is that you get to hang out with other authors. At panels, conferences,  book signings, and just casually when you run into them on your travels. It may not be the Fellowship of The Ring, but there’s a connection.

When I’d only been publishing for a few years I was lucky enough to be on the Jewish Book Fair circuit at the same time as Walter Mosley.  We were both appearing in Houston and when I told the fair’s director how much I admired him, she graciously asked if I’d like to stay an extra day and meet him (!).  I not only joined a group for dinner, I heard him give a splendid reading.  Later Mosley and I had drinks and talked about the dynamics of building a series.

I’ve had dinner with the witty and urbane Edmund White in Paris after meeting him at an awards ceremony in D.C.  He gave me an insider’s advice about what to see in and near Paris that first-time tourists usually miss, and thanks to him I spent a glorious day at the amazing chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. As he had predicted, it was almost empty of tourists.

At a summer Oxford University conference, thriller writer Val McDermid rescued me from the humiliating spectacle of passing out in an overcrowded, boiling hot lecture room which had just one measly fan off in a corner.  She deftly got me to the river where we sat cooling off for a few wonderful hours chatting about our careers, life, and love as we watched little boats pass by.

I can’t count how many authors have been gracious enough to write blurbs for my many books, and one who was too busy to read that particular book actually invited me to teach at the summer workshop she ran instead.  Author after author has been unfailingly kind to me in one way or another.

There’ve been some very colorful exceptions.  My favorite was the New York Times best seller who I had been exchanging some notes with because we admired each other’s work. That author invited me and my spouse over for drinks the next time we were in New York.The visit was going to be one fun piece of a blowout birthday weekend that included dinner at the Russian Tea Room.  When we got to New York and I called from the luxury hotel we’d splurged on, the writer insisted I had the date wrong. That wasn’t possible, since, well, I did know my own birthday and had said I was coming in for it. This literary star was super frosty on the phone and even sent a postcard later telling us about the wonderful menu we had missed at his home (it actually didn’t sound that great).

But a childhood TV hero of mine was staying at the hotel, and when I saw him in the lobby, I got to tell him how much I loved his show; I spent time that weekend with my best friend from college; the hotel’s Sunday brunch was stupendous; and I had terrific seats to see B.D. Wong and John Lithgow in M. Butterfly.

The generous and friendly ones have vastly outnumbered the others, and of course the exceptions have given me great material….

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including a guide to the writer’s life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.