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American novelist, journalist and essayist Joan Didion dies at 87

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Joan Didion wrote essays, novels and screenplays. Our own Susan Stamberg says the essence of her writing was terse, polished, elegant and piercing. At 87, the best-selling writer died of complications from Parkinson's disease yesterday. Didion chronicled American truth, pain and politics for more than 60 years, sharing her unique personal voice. Here's how Didion described her work.

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JOAN DIDION: I am more attracted to the underside of the tapestry. I tend to always look for the wrong side, the bleak side.

MCCAMMON: Joining us now to talk about Joan Didion's legacy is TV and radio commentator Patt Morrison. She's a writer for the Los Angeles Times. Good morning.

PATT MORRISON: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: How was it that Didion became such a staple of so many people's literary lives?

MORRISON: I think she did the unexpected. First of all, she was a woman in a moment in time when women writers in new journalism were very hard to find. Secondly, she positioned herself as a contrarian and as a chronicler. And in new journalism, this was a moment when you had people like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, who propelled the story and became the story. She was the reporter. In her demeanor and in her prose, in a way, she was the wallpaper, and the wallpaper sees everything.

MCCAMMON: I want to ask you about Didion's relationship with pain. It is something she wrote about so memorably, maybe most famously for many people in her memoir about grief, "The Year Of Magical Thinking." Here she is talking about the idea of pain with Terry Gross from NPR's Fresh Air.

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DIDION: I, myself, have always found that if I examine something, it's less scary. And that's kind of the way I feel about confronting pain.

MCCAMMON: Patt, how did Didion's work confront the agony she experienced in her life?

MORRISON: I think she didn't flinch from it. She turned it inside out and analyzed it as a writer would, because writers generally also use their writing as therapy. Her writing helped her to mediate and understand the world. And it did it for the rest of us, but it did it for her as well. And I'm looking at a note that she sent to me about 15 years ago after I'd sent her a letter after that book, "The Year Of Magical Thinking," that she wrote about coming to terms with her husband's death. And she wrote - writes, I think I can now finally wish a happier new year for all of us, that we can go along with her journey as she struggles with pain. She's not above it. She's in the thick of it. And I think that made her readers loyal. It made them understand what she was doing, and it helped them to come to terms with their own pain.

MCCAMMON: And in our last 30 seconds or so, is there a work of hers or an experience with her that you'll remember the most?

MORRISON: Boy, I've interviewed her several times. And, you know, she's very small, and she makes you lean into her. You want to talk to her. She's not the one dominating the conversation. But I think any of her essays about California - looking at the underside, where the California dream failed. As a Californian, it was important to her to tell those stories.

MCCAMMON: That's Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

MORRISON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "RITORNARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.