Dark or difficult places
One Thursday at noon in December 2011, I spoke to Joan Didion over the phone. She was in a hotel in Washington. The woman at the front desk asked, “Who do you want? Bibion? B as in boy?” I replied, “No, d as in dog,” feeling weird and a little hostile. “D as in dog, i, d as in dog, i, o, n.” I did not like having to put dog in Joan Didion’s name. And I did not want to speak to Joan Bibion.
Knopf had given us half an hour to talk. Didion was on book tour for her latest work, the memoir Blue Nights. She would be appearing at a bookstore later that day.
I imagined her sitting on the edge of a neatly made bed. I imagined that after we hung up, she would move things about the room, then open the door to another reporter. Or perhaps she whould have time to stroll around Washington, take a few hours for herself.
I had been reading only her for the past few weeks: her novels; her essays, collected in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live; Blue Nights, written in the wake of her daughter’s death from an influenza gone awry, a book about aging and loss and being a mother; and her previous book, the best-selling The Year of Magical Thinking, which was about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. That book returned Joan Didion to the center of America’s conversation about itself, a place she has spent serious time since the 1960s, when she first began publishing.
She was born in 1934, and has written like no other about California (where her family lived for generations), and like no other about the profound changes in America in the ’60s and ’70s, and about political campaigns, and about being a human. In her famous essay “On Self-Respect” she says: “If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us… We play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.”
I quote this only to say that I felt like I was talking to a person not in anyone’s thrall, not living out anyone’s false notion of her. There was no pose. Her voice was tremendously sensitive—the tiniest inflections seemed to carry a depth of feeling and perception, and a commitment to neither exaggerate nor underplay nor bend the truth to the right or the left; a rigorous person, yet somehow entirely at ease.
THE BELIEVER: I want to start with something you said in the Paris Review. When you were a little girl you wanted to be an actress, not a writer?
JOAN DIDION: Right.
BLVR: But you said it’s OK, because writing is in some ways a performance. When you’re writing, are you performing a character?
JD: You’re not even a character. You’re doing a performance. Somehow writing has always seemed to me to have an element of performance.
BLVR: What is the nature of that performance? I mean, an actor performs a character—
JD: Sometimes an actor performs a character, but sometimes an actor just performs. With writing, I don’t think it’s performing a character, really, if the character you’re performing is yourself. I don’t see that as playing a role. It’s just appearing in public.
BLVR: Appearing in public and sort of saying lines—
JD: But not somebody else’s lines. Your lines. “Look at me—this is me” is, I think, what you’re saying.
BLVR: And do you feel like that “me” is a pretty stable thing, or unstable? Is it consistent through one’s life as a writer?
JD: I think it develops into a fairly stable thing over time. I think it’s not at all stable at first. But then you kind of grow into the role you have made for yourself.
BLVR: How would you gauge the distance between the role you have made for yourself—
JD: —and the real person?
JD: Well, I don’t know. The real person becomes the role you have made for yourself.
BLVR: And are you performing for yourself or performing for others?
JD: Performing for yourself. But also, obviously, other people are involved. I mean, the reader is your audience.
BLVR: How much of the work would you say is created in collaboration or in response to an audience?
JD: Oh, I think a lot of it. I did a play based on The Year of Magical Thinking, and I was struck by the extent to which the audience became part of the play when it was in performance. The audience was very strongly a part of what went on on the stage. And I think that is also true when you’re writing.
BLVR: But in the case of writing, the reader is more your imagination of the reader.
JD: Well, it’s not your imagination of the reader—yes, I guess it is your imagination of the reader because the reader isn’t physically there the way the audience is in a theater. But it’s just as real a collaboration, I think.
BLVR: So what does the reader brings to the collaboration?
JD: Well, the same thing an audience brings to an actor. I can’t imagine writing if I didn’t have a reader. Any more than an actor can imagine acting without an audience.
BLVR: They’re almost born at the same time—writing and the idea of a reader.
JD: Yeah, it simply doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you aren’t aware of the reader, you’re working in a vacuum.
II. BEGINNING TO WRITE
BLVR: Do you remember beginning to write?
JD: It was as a child. I was four or five, and my mother gave me a big black tablet, because I kept complaining that I was bored. She said, “Then write something. Then you can read it.” In fact, I had just learned to read, so this was a thrilling kind of moment. The idea that I could write something—and then read it!
BLVR: Have you gotten pleasure from reading your own writing?
JD: Over the years, yes. Not always, but sometimes.
BLVR: How would you characterize the kind of pleasure one gets from reading one’s own writing when it’s good?
JD: Well, it’s just a deep pleasure to read something you’ve written yourself—if and when you like it. Just as it’s not a deep pleasure if you don’t like it.
BLVR: And do you feel alienated from any particular period of your work?
JD: I never felt close to my first novel, because it simply—I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know how to do what I had in mind. I wanted to mix up the time frame in a way that I was not experienced enough to know how to do, so I eventually did what the editor suggested, and forgot trying to mix up the time frame, and did a very conventional narrative. And that was not a good feeling.
BLVR: The book wasn’t close to your vision?
JD: No, it was totally opposite.
III. GETTING THE CONFIDENCE
BLVR: You’ve said in the past that you don’t have a strong sense of reality. You’ve had a lot of criticism about yourself as a reporter, or have conveyed the feeling that it wasn’t naturally what you were. Yet that journalism that you did early in your career, and later in your career, is so strong. When you look back at your essays, do you feel like that is somebody who saw reality, or is it something else?
JD: I think I think it’s somebody who saw reality. But it’s also something else. I don’t know. This is a touchy—not touchy, but it’s a difficult thing to separate those thoughts out.
BLVR: I imagine it would be difficult to write nonfiction, because you have to have such an authority to say, “This is what the world is.” How can you really have the authority to say, “I know enough and I’ve seen enough to be able to conclude things about the world”?
JD: Well, you have to just gain that confidence. Which is part of what you do over the course of your whole career. I mean, you become confident that you have—this sounds ridiculous, but you become confident that you have the answer.
BLVR: Do you remember the point—
JD: —at which you get that confidence?
BLVR: Well, for you.
JD: For me it probably occurred fairly late, when I started getting feedback from the audience. Feedback in terms of a response. Well, it wasn’t fairly late. It was fairly early [laughs] when I started getting a response from the audience, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the nerve to continue.
BLVR: And where would you situate that? Around which book, say?
JD: I would say it happened at Play It as It Lays. Which was, when? My third book. And I remember my husband saying, when Play It as It Lays was about to come out, “This isn’t going to—you’re never going to—you’re never going to—this book isn’t going to make it.” And I didn’t think it was going to make it, either. And suddenly it did make it, in a minor way. And from that time on I had more confidence.
BLVR: Why did you both feel like it wasn’t going to make it?
JD: Because it was my third book and I had not made it until then. And you don’t see—I mean, you don’t think in terms of suddenly making it. You think you have some stable talent which will show no matter what you’re writing, and if it doesn’t seem to be getting across to the audience once, you can’t imagine that moment when it suddenly will.
BLVR: Play It as It Lays was fiction, but that confidence translated into other kinds of writing as well.
JD: Yeah. What happened was I started doing a lot of reporting that gradually came to get noticed, so I was asked to do other things. Gradually, gradually you gain that confidence. Well, you know. You’ve been through this.
BLVR: Yes, it’s gradual. It stuck in my head when your husband said, “It’s not going to make it.” Did that hurt your feelings to hear that, or was that simply the way—
JD: No, it didn’t hurt my feelings. It was, I thought, a realistic assessment. Which I certainly agreed with.
BLVR: What was the first sign that there was going to be a real response?
JD: I don’t remember exactly what it was, but suddenly people were talking about this book. Not in a huge way, but in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
BLVR: Did it change your relationship to the book? Did it make you feel more separate from it or anything?
JD: No, it didn’t make me feel more separate from it. It made me feel good. It made me feel closer to it. Closer to it. I was so unhappy writing that book because it was just a very hard book for me to write, and I didn’t realize until I finished it how depressed it had made me to write it. Then I finished it and suddenly it was like having something lifted from the top of my head, you know? Suddenly I was a happy person.
BLVR: It always happens, for me, that I have a certain attitude toward the world for the time-period I’m writing a book—
JD: Right. You borrow the mood of the book in some way.
BLVR: It’s hard to find a book that’s safe to write. Because one always goes to dark or difficult places.
JD: Exactly. Sometimes you don’t want to go there.
BLVR: But then where can you go? I mean, it’s the only place to go, right?
IV. WOODY ALLEN’S “RELATIONSHIPS”
BLVR: In the ’70s, you wrote a fascinating article about Woody Allen’s movies—including Annie Hall and Manhattan—which was published in the New York Review of Books, where you put “relationships” in quotation marks so much—
JD: I think because he was always talking about relationships, quote unquote.
BLVR: But how does it come out of the quotation marks, or how does it get into the quotation marks? Reading the essay, I got the feeling you were saying that the idea of a relationship is something that the culture invented.
JD: It’s not something that the culture invented. It was the specific way Woody Allen was using relationships at the time that didn’t seem to me to be quite honest.
BLVR: How was it not honest?
JD: I mean, I saw those movies, and people were talking about relationships in them, and that’s all that was happening. It just didn’t work for me.
BLVR: It was an interesting piece for me to read, because those were the first movies I saw. My father’s a huge Woody Allen fan, and to me they seemed like reality, because Annie Hall and Manhattan were the first times I saw adult life depicted. I must have seen those movies a hundred times in my childhood. So reading your essay was like this light going off, like: Oh, this is just one person’s artistic interpretation of life, it’s not necessarily—
JD: Not necessarily the whole deal.
BLVR: Yeah, and not documentary. Do you feel like the culture did go in that direction a lot more, where—
JD: Well, it did, after. It became kind of the acceptable way of looking at the world.
BLVR: Something more transient about human relations?
V. EXTREME OR DOOMED COMMITMENTS
BLVR: I want to ask you about the idea of the “extreme or doomed commitment.” You have a line in The White Album where you say, “I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic," believing "that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments.”
BLVR: I wonder if you consider marriage or motherhood, or even writing—
JD: I did consider marriage and motherhood extreme and doomed commitments. Not out of any experience of them as such, but it was simply the way I looked at things.
BLVR: And having experienced motherhood and marriage, do you still see them as extreme and doomed commitments?
JD: No, I don’t. I mean, not—I don’t. I see them as, well, certainly they were for me a kind of salvation.
BLVR: Salvation from what?
JD: From a loneliness, an aloneness.
BLVR: Because the relationship was so intimate, or just the fact of marriage?
JD: Just having another person, answering to another person, was very—it was novel to me, and it turned out to be kind of great.
VI. FINDING NO NARRATIVE
BLVR: The fragmentation of Blue Nights made me think of your essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in which you talk about the reason that these kids are the way they are is because they don’t have—
BLVR: —any aunts and uncles—
BLVR: And I wonder, as a human and as a writer, if you don’t have the same people around you, not just family but also friends, also landmarks in a city that you’ve lived in for many years—because cities change—does one become more fragmented-feeling, more atomized?
JD: Well, I think you do, and then you have to learn to deal with that. I mean, that was part of what I was doing in this book. This book was quite personal. I don’t mean it was personal because I talked about things in my life that were personal; I mean it was personal in that I was dealing with my own inability to find the narrative.
BLVR: So what does it feel like to come out of a book you’ve written that doesn’t have a narrative?
JD: Well, it’s not an encouraging attitude, but at this moment, I wanted to flat-out deal with the fact that I did not have, at the moment, an encouraging attitude. [Laughs]
BLVR: Writing something fragmented as opposed to narrative, was it a different kind of thinking?
JD: Absolutely it was a different kind of thinking. Because what you’re normally doing as a writer is trying to find the narrative. And a lot of the pieces I’ve written over the past ten years or so have had to do with finding the narrative. This was exactly the opposite. This book proceeds from the idea that the narrative isn’t there and it’s not going to matter.
BLVR: So where is the intensity of the thinking located, then, if not in finding the narrative?
JD: Well, in the idea that narrative doesn’t matter, I guess.
BLVR: Does that feel more true to you than being able to find a narrative? Is that a deeper truth?
JD: At the moment it seems so to me, yes. That’s kind of what this turned out to be about.
BLVR: Do you feel like if you hadn’t written the book, that truth would sort of be hovering, but not fully realized in you?
JD: Yes. Writing is always a way, for me, of coming to some sort of understanding that I can’t reach otherwise.
BLVR: How do you think writing works to bring one to an understanding?
JD: You mean how does it bring one to an understanding that one can’t reach by some other method?
JD: It forces you to think. It forces you to work the thing through. Nothing comes to us out of the blue, very easily, you know. So if you want to understand what you’re thinking, you kind of have to work it through and write it. And the only way to work it through, for me, is to write it.
BLVR: I guess that has probably been true your whole life.
JD: Yeah, it has.
VII. AFTER CHRISTMAS
BLVR: In what you’re going to write next or what you’re writing now, is—
JD: I’m not writing now. I wish I were. I haven’t written—I have to do something. I’m going to write a couple of pieces next, but I can’t seem to focus in on them. In the spring I’m going to try to focus in on something.
BLVR: Something assigned to you or something you come up with yourself?
JD: Well, eventually you always have to come up with it yourself. It began with something that was suggested to me by an editor, but part of the process will be trying to translate it into something I came up with myself.
BLVR: Does it feel different to live when you’re not working on something?
JD: It feels very different. I don’t like it.
BLVR: Does it feel kind of like—for me it feels mushy.
JD: Mushy, loose in the world, yeah. I can hardly wait to get home. I’m going home tomorrow, on a train, and I have to go to California next week, so I’ll be gone again. When I think about when my life will be normal again, it’s basically after Christmas.
BLVR: So all you’re doing is looking forward to After Christmas right now?
JD: I am focusing on After Christmas. That’s my narrative. [Laughs]
BLVR: And that’s when things will settle down, you’ll be able to sit at a desk and so on.
JD: Sit at a desk, and in the same place every day, yes.
BLVR: And that’s more vividly living?
VIII. FINDING THE RHYTHM
BLVR: When do you feel like you’re most writing?
JD: When I’m finding the rhythm.
BLVR: Are there times when you’re writing when you feel like you’re evading writing?
JD: Of course there are times. There must be times when everybody writes when they feel they’re evading writing.
BLVR: And what is the nature of the evasion? Not thinking?
JD: Not thinking, yeah. Not thinking.
IX. A LIFETIME OF MAGICAL LIVING
BLVR: You called your previous book The Year of Magical Thinking, and in your essay “Sentimental Journeys” you said that New Yorkers, in trying to recover from a highly publicized rape, relied on certain “magical gestures,” thinking it could affect their fate. I wonder if you have some sense of what makes us so superstitious? Is it about hope or a lack of control, or why we are such deeply superstitious creatures? We can’t even get away from it.
JD: No, we can’t. Well, I think it’s just part of the way we are programmed.
BLVR: What does it ultimately give us, do you think?
JD: Well, ultimately it gives us a narrative, I guess. There seems to be no way around it. We need one. And it’s a sad moment when you can’t find one.
BLVR: When you look back on your life, is its narrative the narrative you literally wrote yourself?
JD: Yes, I would say it was.
X. THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA
BLVR: Do you think if you hadn’t written, hadn’t been a writer, could there have been some completely other—
JD: Oh, I wonder. I wanted to be an oceanographer, actually. And when I was out of school and living in New York and working for a magazine, I actually went out to the Scripps Institute, which is now UC San Diego, but then it was just the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, run by the University of California, and I asked them what I would have to do to become an oceanographer. And basically they said I would have to go back to high school, you know. I hadn’t taken any of the science courses that would enable me to take the science courses that I would need to take in order to go to… any place. So I abandoned the idea of being an oceanographer, but I can see myself still as an oceanographer, if I could get to that point.
BLVR: Does it seem like a happier life?
JD: A happier life? I don’t know. I’ve liked being a writer.
BLVR: It’s a different way of going underwater.
JD: It’s a way of going underwater, yes. Well, I’ve always been interested in how deep it was, you know.
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