The end of Joan Didion’s happy and fruitful marital and literary collaboration with fellow writer John Gregory Dunne came swiftly. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” Didion wrote grippingly at the beginning of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her seminal memoir in which she describes losing Dunne at the same time their daughter, Quintana, was extremely ill.
Published in 2005, the bestseller won the National Book Award for nonfiction. It also became the basis of a one-woman play starring Vanessa Redgrave, which opened on Broadway in March.
“I had no concept it was going to be a play,” Didion, 72, said in May on “Charlie Rose,” noting that it was producer Scott Rudin who beseeched her to undertake the effort, her first attempt at writing for the stage.
The biggest difference between “Magical Thinking” on the page vs. the stage is that the play incorporates Quintana’s death, which occurred shortly before the book was published. Didion says she felt she had no choice but to include this second blow in her adaptation.
Redgrave — who compares the play’s writing to a Beethoven sonata — was chosen to star by Didion, Rudin and director David Hare. And though Playbill credits Redgrave — as statuesque as the author is diminutive — with playing Didion, both author and actress insist that she isn’t. “We just didn’t know what else to put,” Didion says. “It looks a little false every time I see it.”
The project’s biggest surprise for the author was its collaborative aspect. “The interesting part starts when you’re hearing it and see where it does and doesn’t work,” she says.
Didion distinguishes the experience from writing screenplays; her last produced was “Up Close and Personal,” written with Dunne more than a decade ago. “It was a different feeling,” she says of her play. “It belonged to all of us now. It wasn’t mine alone.”
Recent breakthrough: Writing her first play and having it produced on Broadway.
Role model: Georgia O’Keeffe
Career mantra: “Rhythm is everything. The rhythm gives you the meaning.”
What’s next: More writing.