The day J.D. Salinger died, a weekly newspaper in Manhattan assigned me, along with a colleague, to write his obituary. By 9 a.m. that morning, the voicemail inbox of Joyce Maynard, the author’s former lover, was full. My editor gave me the weighty task of calling Joan Didion, who wrote a pernicious review of Franny and Zooey for the New York Review of Books in 1961 (she dismissed the book as “self-help copy”) and who, I was assured, would be happy to talk for attribution. The connection seemed, at best, tenuous, but worse was the idea of cold calling Joan Didion, a concept as foreign to me as e-mailing Lord Byron. In one summer after college, after reading her essay “The White Album,” I examined feverishly every word she had written to that point, and considered her body of work to be a high point of the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century. If that statement sounds hyperbolic, it is, of course. But everyone has a literary idol. Outside of the words on the page, these idols are about as real as Beckett’s Godot and interacting with them is at least as hopeless. You see, Didion could not exist. She was much too important, in my mind, to be anything but that direct voice coming off the page; she could be nothing more than omniscience itself.
And yet there I was, phone in hand, staring at an e-mail that contained the ten digits of her home number. It took me 20 minutes of pacing the sidewalk outside the newspaper’s office, and another five of listening to the phone’s dial tone, before briskly punching in the numbers.
“Hello?” a voice, quiet but husky, said after two rings.
“Uh, hi, can I speak with Ms. Didion?” (My voice sounded several octaves higher than usual.)
“This is Joan Didion,” she said dramatically, or at least the words sounded dramatic enough to raise a celebrated author from the dead.
“I am a reporter and I was wondering If I could ask you about J.D. Salinger for a—”
“I can’t,” she said, cutting me off. My heart, racing up to this point, felt like it had momentarily stopped its pounding.
“If I could just have two minutes, I—”
“Sorry,” she said. Then she uttered three words that seemed to carry the entire weight of her career behind them: “I’m on deadline.” Then she hung up.
This was not how I wanted my confrontation with Joan Didion to go.
I thought that would be that, but last week I was standing five feet away from Didion at a bar in midtown for a Knopf writers’ event at BookExpo America. I didn’t expect her there. I stood with a friend in the outdoor seating section where Didion sat, alive as you or me. A long black dress hung over her tiny body. I could see most of the vertebrae in her back. She had on a pair of the signature large sunglasses, covering a good portion of her small face, even though the sun was already behind the midtown skyscrapers and close to sinking below the horizon. The veins in her thin arms were as vividly blue as the stack of galleys of her new book — coincidentally or not, called Blue Nights—sitting on the table next to her and being guarded by a publicist. The other authors — Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Margaret Atwood (no slouches themselves) — mingled jovially by the bar. Didion, as if commenting on her elevated stature, was removed to the bar’s exterior; as if the room couldn’t contain her. The publicist’s presence was preemptive, in anticipation of the swell of people that would soon recognize her presence.
“What do we say to Joan Didion?” my companion whispered hoarsely and with desperation.
“Something like, ‘Hey Joan, just wanted to let you know that I also don’t ask why Iago is evil,’” I said and we laughed. But really: what do you say to Joan Didion? How do you communicate in sufficient language how much another person’s language has meant to you? That is really all a literary idol is — a set of words, assembled in long long strings. A voice. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and my fingers felt tingly.
The party was a casual cocktail hour, but the guests formed a line at Didion’s table as if it were a booth at BookExpo America. She looked like a religious leader offering counsel to a wayward people. The line cleared momentarily and my friend and I, after downing a few glasses of champagne for courage, raced up to her. I grabbed her small hand in a loose grip, touching the fingers that wrote all those words that I had read so closely.
“Hi,” I said, ‘Hi’ not feeling like an appropriate greeting, and again my voice reduced to a soprano squeal that did not seem to belong to me.
“I want you to know that your work has meant a lot to me.”
Then we were talking. She asked me what I did and I told her.
“You and I once had an awkward conversation on the phone. When J.D. Salinger died. I called you.”
“Oh, that day.” She said the phone rang constantly. “What did I say to you?”
“You said you were on deadline.”
She smiled. “I was lying.”
I grabbed a galley of Blue Nights, a memoir she wrote about the death of her daughter shortly after her husband’s passing. “Will you sign this?” I said sheepishly. I handed her a red pen out of my pocket. She began to sign her signature in big, sweeping movements. Halfway through, the pen gave out and my face turned as red as the ink should have been. The only thing punctuated in that moment was this overdue conclusion: There is really no good way to talk to meet one’s literary idol. But the written words are more than enough.