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Amid unbearable sorrow, she shows her might

''Anthropologists will talk about magical thinking," Joan Didion says, sitting by a window in the Oak Bar at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. She's explaining the title of her new book, ''The Year of Magical Thinking." ''It's the feeling that you can control events by wishful thinking: 'The volcano will not erupt if we sacrifice such-and-such.' 'John will come back if I don't give away his shoes.' "

''John" refers to her late husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. ''The Year of Magical Thinking," a finalist for this year's National Book Award for nonfiction (the winners will be named Nov. 16), describes the horrific several months that began just after Christmas 2003 when the couple's only child, Quintana, went into a coma. Several days later, after returning from the hospital to see her, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack in their New York apartment as Didion made dinner. He was 71.

Quintana, seemingly recovered, suffered a pulmonary embolism two days after Dunne's memorial service, in March. She would spend months in intensive care. (Last June, she again became ill. She died in August, an event Didion does not mention in the book. She was 39.)

''Nobody knows how to respond to something like this," Didion, 70, says of the grief she suffered, ''including me, most especially. . . . That's essentially why I started writing the book. I couldn't make sense of it."

Didion and Dunne married in 1964. For years they held the unofficial title of America's foremost literary couple. Each was the other's first reader, and for decades they worked as a screenwriting team.

''It was a wonderful marriage," says their friend author David Halberstam. ''Every marriage that works is about who's good at doing what -- paying the bills, making the phone calls, driving the first 300 miles. I thought the two of them had worked out the balances better than just about anybody I knew. It really worked. Each really understood, marvelously, the value of the other.

''John was so proud of her. He had this joke he used to tell. He comes back from walking the beach at Malibu. 'You'll never guess who I ran into -- Jesus Christ! Guess what He told me? He loves Joan's books."

Didion's books include such novels as ''Play It As It Lays" and ''A Book of Common Prayer" and nonfiction collections as ''Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and ''The White Album," works notable for their stripped-down prose and intense, doom-struck sensibility. ''Joan has a brilliant and unique perspective," says Robert Silvers, co-editor of The New York Review of Books and a longtime friend of Didion and Dunne. ''Her writing has a very clear-minded quality."

Didion has an imposing personal presence. She's a tiny, bird-like woman, all fine bones and parchment-like skin. But there's as much steeliness to her as fragility. Despite her petite size, she boxes well above her weight class. In the book, Didion recounts what happened when she asked at the hospital if Dunne was dead. When a doctor hesitated to answer, a social worker reassured him, ''It's okay, she's a pretty cool customer."

''When he said that to me," Didion says now, ''I thought it was a little bit of an odd thing to say. On the other hand, I was really glad I was making that impression on him."

Didion grew up in Sacramento, a fifth-generation Californian, and there's a pioneer stoniness to her speech. It's almost a gunslinger's drawl: laconic, no nonsense, vowels flat and consonants murmury. When Didion laughs, it comes out as a low-grade heh heh heh. When she says ''yeah" (her favorite affirmative), she sounds like someone whose thumbs are hooked in the belt loops of a pair of Levi's.

Not that Didion is wearing Levi's. She retains the innate chic of someone who spent several years as a feature writer for Vogue, her first job after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. Today Didion wears a long coat and scarf, both cashmere, which she takes off after sitting down, and an oversize, lavender cable-knit sweater and ankle-length flower-print cotton dress. There are barrettes in her hair (a charmingly girlish touch), and one detects the merest hint of perfume. The overall effect is simple, elegant, just so.

For much of the interview, oversize sunglasses conceal Didion's gray-green eyes. This should seem odd -- it's raining outside, which makes the already-gloomy Oak Bar seem that much gloomier -- except that dark glasses are part of the Didion mystique, less prop than declaration of purpose. They bespeak her capacity for both detachment and unblinking scrutiny. They're also a badge of her quasi-Hollywood glamour, which owes only a little to her screenwriting past.

Didion's manner is as striking as her appearance. Courteous and cooperative, she puts on no airs. Yet she in no way ingratiates herself. This is highly unusual among interview subjects, especially interview subjects with something to promote. Most interviews at least ape the forms of standard social behavior. A Didion interview, though, is about communication, not interaction. She has a job to do, to answer questions and do so with forthrightness and civility. But she doesn't make small talk, doesn't attempt to draw an interviewer in. There's back and forth, but no around and about. One plus one equals two -- never more, never less.

This is apart from the intimate and painful subject matter of her book. Discussing her essay collection ''Political Fictions," Didion behaved similarly four years ago at home on the Upper East Side. (Dunne would occasionally pass across the other side of the living room, in shorts and T-shirt.)

''I don't think she's changed much in the last year and a half," Silvers says. ''She's very much the same person. She has a completely unsentimental distance from the experiences she had."

Over the course of an hour, Didion keeps a tissue in her hand but rarely uses it. Her voice remains steady. She tears up just once.

Touring, she says, ''forces me to deal with having my picture ID out and deal with the airport, which I haven't really done in a while. So it feels kind of necessary that way. I mean, obviously, I didn't have to do it, I could have said no. But what I instinctively thought was that if I didn't do it I'd feel guilty for not doing it -- guilty because I was not taking care of myself."

When Didion's asked whether caring for herself is an obligation she also owes to Dunne and Quintana, she interrupts her questioner before he can say their names.

''Yes. Mmmhhhmmm. It is." Her voice both sorrowful and emphatic, she briefly starts to cry. Asked if she'd like a moment on her own, she waves off the offer -- ''No, no, no" -- and almost immediately regains her composure.

''I think my view of death didn't change so dramatically after John died as after Quintana died. Very little bad can happen to me [now]. So I don't anticipate anything -- I mean, I've always been kind of apprehensive, but that's sort of left me over the course of the summer." She coughs out a softly sardonic laugh -- not even a half laugh, a quarter laugh.

''I suppose if you had to look for upsides, it's the upside. But not much of one."

Does Didion find herself having much faith in the future?

''Not at the moment, no. It's quite disorienting. Not that I ever had a lot of faith in the future, but I had a certain confidence in my immediate circumstances. There's a way in which people from California are always waiting for a natural disaster. So my view of the future has tended to the natural disaster." She pauses and gives a little nod. ''Haven't we been having a lot of them lately?"

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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