Joan Didion suffers no fools. And nor should she have to. Her resume is the stuff of legends, from launching her career as a college senior by winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue, which landed her a job at the magazine, to writing one of the first major pieces that cast doubt on the guilt of the since-exonerated Central Park Five. She won a National Book Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for a searing book, The Year of Magical Thinking, on that most delicate and timeless of subjects—grief—fusing journalistic observation with wrenching personal history. She shopped for Linda Kasabian. She interviewed a five-year-old high on LSD. She starred in a Céline ad as an octogenarian. Dissections of her politics aside, Didion will forever be a certain type of person’s idea of a deity—the literary, the cool. She is a chronicler of our world, a writer who dissolves shared delusions to present cold reality with style.
So, when the exceedingly rare opportunity to interview Didion presents itself, one takes it. The writer, now 86 and enduring the pandemic from home in New York, is preparing to release her latest essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, coming Jan. 26. The book collects 12 pieces from 1968 to 2000, on topics as varied as Martha Stewart, Gamblers Anonymous, Nancy Reagan and the art of writing. Together, they spotlight moments in Didion’s progression as wordsmith and reporter alongside moments in culture. Ahead of the new book’s release, Didion indulged TIME in a few questions.
TIME: A question that must be asked in these trying times: How are you feeling?
Didion: I feel fine. Slightly bored, but fine.
You once said that the bout with vertigo and nausea you had in the summer of 1968 was not an inappropriate response to that period. What’s an appropriate response to 2020?
Vertigo and nausea sound right.
You wrote two of the defining books on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. What would you say to the millions who have lost loved ones in the past year?
I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s anything to say.
Do you fear death?
No. Well, yes, of course.
Do you have hope?
Hope for what? Not particularly, no.
New York has completely changed since the pandemic hit. What do you miss most?
I miss having my friends to dinner. On the other hand, my wine bills have gone down.
Which feels more like home: New York or California?
What makes a better journalist: the ability to empathize, or the ability to observe with detachment? Which is your greater strength?
I don’t know that I’m good at either.
What do you make of the old adage, write what you know?
I don’t make anything of it.
Do you ever reread your past writing? If so, what do you think?
Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think something is well done, sometimes I think, Whoops.
What does it mean to you to be called the voice of your generation?
I don’t have the slightest idea.
You famously wrote a piece in 1991 suggesting that the Central Park Five were wrongfully convicted. How did you feel when they were exonerated?
However I felt didn’t get me or them anywhere.
How does it feel to be a fashion icon?
I don’t know that I am one.
Is there anything you wish to achieve that you have not?
Figuring out how to work my television.
And what would you watch?
Aside from the news, nothing comes to mind. Documentaries, maybe. Some series.
What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
An Easter party, if it can be given.