When Joan Didion released a new book in fall, media outlets across the country sent their best and boldest to interview the beloved American writer and dissect her mournful novel. But veteran journalist Sara Davidson approached the story from a unique perspective: her 40-plus year friendship with Didion. And thusly, decades worth of cherished stories, memories and interviews inflate her 70-page story with humanity, warmth and respect.
In November, Davidson’s very personal story, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion, was published as a Byliner Original on Byliner.com, which publishes original narratives by well-known writers in a digital format. The story is an account of the women’s friendship, their connection over writing and Didion’s tragic loss of her husband, daughter and personal code. The conversations between Davidson and Didion, her husband John Dunne and even young Quintana (she tells a sweet little anecdote about David Cassidy) concentrate around the craft. Davidson says writing was the glue of
It began in 1971, when Davidson decided to telephone Didion, who had just published, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in hopes of talking shop with the writer.
“At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. We had a mutual friend, an editor. He gave me her number,” Davidson says, sitting in a bustling Boulder coffee shop. “Also, I was a reporter. I was trained at the Columbia School of Journalism to ask the unaskable question and to call anyone, to be brazen and fearless. But I didn’t expect to be invited to dinner, let’s put it that way.”
Davidson and her then-husband happily joined Didion and Dunne for dinner. From there, their relationship unfolded, despite the geographic barriers.
“They were living in California, and I was in New York. Whenever I went to California, I made a point of calling them. And then I moved to California in ’74, so I saw them a lot more,” Davidson said. “You know how in a friendship, one person calls more than another? I called probably 60 percent—certainly more than 50—but not 100. I made a point of continuing to stay in touch because I loved her writing. I would say she was a mentor, but that wouldn’t be accurate because she doesn’t like to be anyone’s mentor or to be responsible for anybody. I learned a lot from her and John. That was the centerpiece of our relationship: We were all devoted to writing but in very different ways. I was not in her category. She’s in her own category as far as I’m concerned. Just phenomenal.”
Davidson, who later moved to Boulder after years of living in Southern California and working in Hollywood, soaked in all that Didion emitted. Didion affirmed Davidson’s own fears and worries over writing. In the story, Davidson writes about the “low dread” Didion feels every morning before writing and how the 72-year-old author rarely speaks positively about her in-process projects.
“To know that someone so talented and accomplished and had already written acclaimed best sellers—her prose were being called that best prose being written in America today by The New York Times—was getting up and having low dread every morning. That was very comforting,” she laughed. “It’s like stage fright. It comes with the territory.”
Davidson was having trouble writing the introduction to her first book, Loose Change, and called Didion for advice. Davidson made her way out to Dunne and Didion’s home.
“I drove out there with the six pages of the introduction. We sat down at the dining room table, and she laid out the pages like this (each page spread out in front of her), so she could take a look at them all at once,” Davidson said. “She looked at it and read it. And I’m sitting there, hoping against hope that she’s going to tell me, ‘Oh, you are worried about nothing. It’s fine. Don’t torture yourself.’ She finishes, and she looks and says, ‘Well, you are really having trouble with this, aren’t you?’
“So, she looks at it and make suggestions. Not long, 10 minutes at most. I went home thinking that life was worth living, that I could make it work. I think that’s the most important thing that I learned from Joan: You can fix anything. If you have a draft, you can fix anything. It took me almost 30 years to really believe it, but now, it’s my code.”
Davidson has a portfolio that includes best-selling books, articles published in titles such as Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, and a bounty of TV show credits. Despite the credentials, it’s become increasingly hard for her—and most freelance writers—in the unsure state of the publishing industry.
She had two major stories rejected by publications, so it was almost too much to handle when O Magazine, where Davidson is a contributing editor, rejected Joan.
“It was like three strikes, I’m out: three in a row, three big pieces that I had invested in,” Davidson said of recent unsuccessful pitches to major magazines. “There was a moment, when I said, ‘I’ve had a good run. I’m writing this was just for myself.’ But I wanted this to be somewhere.”
What seemed like a curse, became a blessing. Along came Byliner, when she had nearly given up. Her challenges are reflective, Davidson said, of the state of publishing.
“I didn’t have very many options. That’s the sad reality today. It used to be, back in the day, I could call up an editor and say that I’m interested in doing this and they’d say fine. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to write a proposal and by the time you finish writing the proposal, you could have written the article. They have to sell it up the line. It takes an enormous amount of time. But most importantly, I don’t have the contacts that I used to have. Almost every magazine I’ve ever written for has had many regime changes. …I can’t tell you how many wonderful writers I know who had best-selling books and wonderful careers who can’t get anything published now. Publishing is in disarray—both the book business and the magazine business. I didn’t have a lot of options.”
Eventually, she connected with the folks at Byliner, and they were happy to publish her story. They gave her an editor to oversee a hectic array of revisions to Joan. Instead of being a compilation of Q&As, Byliner editor Will Blythe, formerly of Esquire, wanted the story to flow like a memoir, so Davidson had to rewrite all 70 pages.
But the theme of the novel sustained through the editing process. At the heart of Joan is Didion’s revelation that her once-beloved Western Code had failed her.
“Even after her husband died, it was like, ‘Keep moving. Keep going.’ Even after Quintana died, her mantra was ‘maintain momentum.’ She went on a book tour. Book tours are horrible and they are stressful. …She did it and then she threw herself into doing a stage play. She didn’t really grieve,” Davidson said. “She didn’t really grieve until it was all over, and she got sick. And then it all hit her. When it did—you’ve heard of the dark night of the soul—this was a very, very dark night of the soul. To face that is enormous.”
When it was all said and done, the story was selected as a Kindle Single and an excerpt was published in Time. Joan was also given approval from its namesake.
“It was just an affirmation of our friendship because I was very nervous about showing it to her,” Davidson said. “When I did, she wrote me a thank you letter.”
Read an excerpt of Joan at saradavidson.com/books.html and purchase the story at amazon.com