Interviews

Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1

Interviewed by Hilton Als

The last time this magazine spoke with Joan Didion, in August of 1977, she was living in California and had just published her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer. Didion was forty-two years old and well-known not only for her fiction but also for her work in magazines—reviews, reportage, and essays—some of which had been collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). In addition, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne (who was himself the subject of a Paris Review interview in 1996), had written a number of screenplays together, including The Panic in Needle Park (1971); an adaptation of her second novel, Play It As It Lays (1972); and A Star Is Born (1976). When Didion’s first interview appeared in these pages in 1978, she was intent on exploring her gift for fiction and nonfiction. Since then, her breadth and craft as a writer have only grown deeper with each project.

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, and both her parents, too, were native Californians. She studied English at Berkeley, and in 1956, after graduating, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue and moved to New York City to join the magazine’s editorial staff. While at Vogue, she wrote fashion copy, as well as book and movie reviews. She also became a frequent contributor to The National Review, among other publications. In 1963, Didion published her first novel, Run River. The next year she married Dunne, and soon afterwards, they moved to Los Angeles. There, in 1965, they adopted their only child, Quintana Roo.

In 1973, Didion began writing for The New York Review of Books, where she has remained a regular contributor. While she has continued to write novels in recent decades—Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)—she has increasingly explored different forms of nonfiction: critical essay, political reportage, memoir. In 1979, she published a second collection of her magazine work, The White Album, which was followed by Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992), Political Fictions (2001), and Where I Was From (2003). In the spring of 2005, Didion was awarded a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In December of 2003, shortly before their fortieth anniversary, Didion’s husband died. Last fall, she published The Year of Magical Thinking, a book-length meditation on grief and memory. It became a best-seller, and won the National Book Award for nonfiction; Didion is now adapting the book for the stage as a monologue. Two months before the book’s publication, Didion’s thirty-nine-year-old daughter died after a long illness.

Our conversation took place over the course of two afternoons in the Manhattan apartment Didion shared with her husband. On the walls of the spacious flat, one could see many photographs of Didion, Dunne, and their daughter. Daylight flooded the book-filled parlor. “When we got the place, we assumed the sun went all through the apartment. It doesn’t,” Didion said, laughing. Her laughter was the additional punctuation to her precise speech.

 

INTERVIEWER

By now you’ve written at least as much nonfiction as you have fiction. How would you describe the difference between writing the one or the other?

JOAN DIDION

Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. You have no notes—or sometimes you do, I made extensive notes for A Book of Common Prayer—but the notes give you only the background, not the novel itself. In nonfiction the notes give you the piece. Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do a lot of rewriting?

DIDION

When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five, or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do that sort of retyping for The Year of Magical Thinking?

DIDION

I did. It was especially important with this book because so much of it depended on echo. I wrote it in three months, but I marked it up every night.

INTERVIEWER

The book moves quickly. Did you think about how your readers would read it?

DIDION

Of course, you always think about how it will be read. I always aim for a reading in one sitting.

INTERVIEWER

At what point did you know that the notes you were writing in response to John’s death would be a book for publication?

DIDION

John died December 30, 2003. Except for a few lines written a day or so after he died, I didn’t begin making the notes that became the book until the following October. After a few days of making notes, I realized that I was thinking about how to structure a book, which was the point at which I realized that I was writing one. This realization in no way changed what I was writing.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to finish the book? Or were you happy to have your life back—to live with a lower level of self-scrutiny?

DIDION

Yes. It was difficult to finish the book. I didn’t want to let John go. I don’t really have my life back yet, since Quintana died only on August 26.

INTERVIEWER

Since you write about yourself, interviewers tend to ask about your personal life; I want to ask you about writing and books. In the past you’ve written pieces on V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway—titanic, controversial iconoclasts whom you tend to defend. Were these the writers you grew up with and wanted to emulate?

DIDION

Hemingway was really early. I probably started reading him when I was just eleven or twelve. There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences. Because they were so simple—or rather they appeared to be so simple, but they weren’t.

Something I was looking up the other day, that’s been in the back of my mind, is a study done several years ago about young women’s writing skills and the incidence of Alzheimer’s. As it happens, the subjects were all nuns, because all of these women had been trained in a certain convent. They found that those who wrote simple sentences as young women later had a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s, while those who wrote complicated sentences with several clauses had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. The assumption—which I thought was probably erroneous—was that those who tended to write simple sentences as young women did not have strong memory skills. 

INTERVIEWER

Though you wouldn’t classify Hemingway’s sentences as simple.

DIDION

No, they’re deceptively simple because he always brings a change in.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think you could write that kind of sentence? Did you want to try?

DIDION

I didn’t think that I could do them, but I thought that I could learn—because they felt so natural. I could see how they worked once I started typing them out. That was when I was about fifteen. I would just type those stories. It’s a great way to get rhythms into your head.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read anyone else before Hemingway?

DIDION

No one who attracted me in that way. I had been reading a lot of plays. I had a misguided idea that I wanted to act. The form this took was not acting, however, but reading plays. Sacramento was not a place where you saw a lot of plays. I think the first play I ever saw was the Lunts in the touring company of O Mistress Mine. I don’t think that that’s what inspired me. The Theater Guild used to do plays on the radio, and I remember being very excited about listening to them. I remember memorizing speeches from Death of a Salesman and Member of the Wedding in the period right after the war.

INTERVIEWER 

Which playwrights did you read?

DIDION

I remember at one point going through everything of Eugene O’Neill’s. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of his plays. You could see how they worked. I read them all one summer. I had nosebleeds, and for some reason it took all summer to get the appointment to get my nose cauterized. So I just lay still on the porch all day and read Eugene O’Neill. That was all I did. And dab at my face with an ice cube.

INTERVIEWER

What you really seem to have responded to in these early influences was style—voice and form.

DIDION

Yes, but another writer I read in high school who just knocked me out was Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy all in one weekend and couldn’t put it down—I locked myself in my room. Now that was antithetical to every other book I was reading at the time because Dreiser really had no style, but it was powerful.

And one book I totally missed when I first read it was Moby-Dick. I reread it when Quintana was assigned it in high school. It was clear that she wasn’t going to get through it unless we did little talks about it at dinner. I had not gotten it at all when I read it at her age. I had missed that wild control of language. What I had thought discursive were really these great leaps. The book had just seemed a jumble; I didn’t get the control 
in it.

INTERVIEWER 

After high school you wanted to go to Stanford. Why?

DIDION

It’s pretty straightforward—all my friends were going to Stanford.

INTERVIEWER 

But you went to Berkeley and majored in literature. What were you reading there?

DIDION

The people I did the most work on were Henry James and D. H. Lawrence, who I was not high on. He irritated me on almost every level.

INTERVIEWER 

He didn’t know anything about women at all.

DIDION

No, nothing. And the writing was so clotted and sentimental. It didn’t work for me on any level.

INTERVIEWER

Was he writing too quickly, do you think?

DIDION

I don’t know, I think he just had a clotted and sentimental mind.

INTERVIEWER 

You mentioned reading Moby-Dick. Do you do much rereading?

DIDION

I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world.

INTERVIEWER 

Conrad? Really? Why?

DIDION

The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel—I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel—I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing. In the same way, John and I always prepared for writing a movie by watching The Third Man. It’s perfectly told.

INTERVIEWER 

Conrad was also a huge inspiration for Naipaul, whose work you admire. What drew you to Naipaul? 

DIDION

I read the nonfiction first. But the novel that really attracted me—and I still read the beginning of it now and then—is Guerillas. It has that bauxite factory in the opening pages, which just gives you the whole feel of that part of the world. That was a thrilling book to me. The nonfiction had the same effect on me as reading Elizabeth Hardwick—you get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something. Naipaul is a great person to read before you have to do a piece. And Edmund Wilson, his essays for The American Earthquake. They have that everyday-traveler-in-the-world aspect, which is the opposite of an authoritative tone.

INTERVIEWER

Was it as a student at Berkeley that you began to feel that you were 
a writer?

DIDION

No, it began to feel almost impossible at Berkeley because we were constantly being impressed with the fact that everybody else had done it already and better. It was very daunting to me. I didn’t think I could write. It took me a couple of years after I got out of Berkeley before I dared to start writing. That academic mind-set—which was kind of shallow in my case anyway—had begun to fade. Then I did write a novel over a long period of time, Run River. And after that it seemed feasible that maybe I could write another one.

INTERVIEWER

You had come to New York by then and were working at Vogue, while writing at night. Did you see writing that novel as a way of being back in California?

DIDION

Yes, it was a way of not being homesick. But I had a really hard time getting the next book going. I couldn’t get past a few notes. It was Play It As It Lays, but it wasn’t called that—I mean it didn’t have a name and it wasn’t what it is. For one, it was set in New York. Then, in June of 1964, John and I went to California and I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post. We needed the money because neither one of us was working. And during the course of doing these pieces I was out in the world enough that an actual story for this so-called second novel presented itself, and then I started writing it.

INTERVIEWER

What had you been missing about California? What were you not getting in New York?

DIDION

Rivers. I was living on the East Side, and on the weekend I’d walk over to the Hudson and then I’d walk back to the East River. I kept thinking, All right, they are rivers, but they aren’t California rivers. I really missed California rivers. Also the sun going down in the West. That’s one of the big advantages to Columbia-Presbyterian hospital—you can see the sunset. There’s always something missing about late afternoon to me on the East Coast. Late afternoon on the West Coast ends with the sky doing all its brilliant stuff. Here it just gets dark.

The other thing I missed was horizons. I missed that on the West Coast, too, if we weren’t living at the beach, but I noticed at some point that practically every painting or lithograph I bought had a horizon in it. Because it’s very soothing.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to come back east in 1988?

DIDION

Part of it was that Quintana was in college here, at Barnard, and part of it was that John was between books and having a hard time getting started on a new one. He felt that it was making him stale to be in one place for a long time. We had been living in Brentwood for ten years, which was longer than we had ever lived in any one place. And I think he just thought it was time to move. I didn’t particularly, but we left. Even before moving, we had a little apartment in New York. To justify having it, John felt that we had to spend some periods of time there, which was extremely inconvenient for me. The apartment in New York was not very comfortable, and on arrival you would always have to arrange to get the windows washed and get food in . . . It was cheaper when we stayed at
 the Carlyle.

INTERVIEWER 

But when you finally moved to New York, was it a bad move?

DIDION

No, it was fine. It just took me about a year, maybe two years all told. The time spent looking for an apartment, selling the house in California, the actual move, having work done, remembering where I put things when I unpacked—it probably took two years out of my effective working life. Though I feel that it’s been the right place to be after John died. I would not have wanted to be in a house in Brentwood Park after he died.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

DIDION

For entirely logistical reasons. In New York I didn’t need to drive to dinner. There wasn’t likely to be a brush fire. I wasn’t going to see a snake in the pool.

INTERVIEWER

You said that you started writing for The Saturday Evening Post because you and John were broke. Is that where the idea of working for movies came from—the need for cash?

DIDION

Yes it was. One of the things that had made us go to Los Angeles was we had a nutty idea that we could write for television. We had a bunch of meetings with television executives, and they would explain to us, for example, the principle of Bonanza. The principle of Bonanza was: break a leg at the Ponderosa. I looked blankly at the executive and he said, Somebody rides into town, and to make the story work, he’s got to break a leg so he’s around for two weeks. So we never wrote for Bonanza. We did, however, have one story idea picked up by Chrysler Theatre. We were paid a thousand dollars for it.

That was also why we started to write for the movies. We thought of it as a way to buy time. But nobody was asking us to write movies. John and his brother Nick and I took an option on The Panic in Needle Park and put it together ourselves. I had read the book by James Mills and it just immediately said movie to me. I think that the three of us each put in a thousand dollars, which was enormous at the time.

INTERVIEWER

How did you make it work as a collaboration? What were the mechanics?

DIDION

On that one, my memory is that I wrote the treatment, which was just voices. Though whenever I say I did something, or vice versa, the other person would go over it, run it through the typewriter. It was always a back-and-forth thing.

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn anything about writing from the movie work?

DIDION

Yes. I learned a lot of fictional technique. Before I’d written movies, I never could do big set-piece scenes with a lot of different speakers—when you’ve got twelve people around a dinner table talking at cross purposes. I had always been impressed by other people’s ability to do that. Anthony Powell comes to mind. I think the first book I did those big scenes in was
 A Book of Common Prayer.

INTERVIEWER 

But screenwriting is very different from prose narrative.

DIDION

It’s not writing. You’re making notes for the director—for the director more than the actors. Sidney Pollack once told us that every screenwriter should go to the Actor’s Studio because there was no better way to learn what an actor needed. I’m guilty of not thinking enough about what actors need. I think instead about what the director needs.

INTERVIEWER

John wrote that Robert De Niro asked you to write a scene in True Confessions without a single word of dialogue—the opposite of your treatment for The Panic in Needle Park.

DIDION

Yeah, which is great. It’s something that every writer understands, but if you turn in a scene like that to a producer, he’s going to want to know where the words are.

INTERVIEWER

At the other end of the writing spectrum, there’s The New York Review of Books and your editor there, Robert Silvers. In the seventies you wrote for him about Hollywood, Woody Allen, Naipaul, and Patty Hearst. All of those essays were, broadly speaking, book reviews. How did you make the shift to pure reporting for the Review?

DIDION

In 1982, John and I were going to San Salvador, and Bob expressed interest in having one or both of us write something about it. After we’d been there a few days, it became clear that I was going to do it rather than John, because John was working on a novel. Then when I started writing it, it got very long. I gave it to Bob, in its full length, and my idea was that he would figure out something to take from it. I didn’t hear from him for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much, but then he called and said he was going to run the whole thing, in three parts.

INTERVIEWER 

So he was able to find the through-line of the piece?

DIDION

The through-line in “Salvador” was always pretty clear: I went somewhere, this is what I saw. Very simple, like a travel piece. How Bob edited “Salvador” was by constantly nudging me toward updates on the situation and by pointing out weaker material. When I gave him the text, for example, it had a very weak ending, which was about meeting an American evangelical student on the flight home. In other words it was the travel piece carried to its logical and not very interesting conclusion. The way Bob led me away from this was to suggest not that I cut it (it’s still there), but that I follow it—and so ground it—with a return to the political situation. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you decide to write about Miami in 1987?

DIDION

Ever since the Kennedy assassination, I had wanted to do something that took place in that part of the world. I thought it was really interesting that so much of the news in America, especially if you read through the assassination hearings, was coming out of our political relations with the Caribbean and Central and South America. So when we got the little apartment in New York, I thought, Well that’s something useful I can do out of New York: I can fly to Miami.

INTERVIEWER

Had you spent time down south before that?

DIDION

Yes, in 1970. I had been writing a column for Life, but neither Life nor I was happy with it. We weren’t on the same page. I had a contract, so if I turned something in, they had to pay me. But it was soul-searing to turn things in that didn’t run. So after about seven columns, I quit. It was agreed that I would do longer pieces. And I said that I was interested in driving around the Gulf Coast, and somehow that got translated into “The Mind of the White South.” I had a theory that if I could understand the South, I would understand something about California, because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South. So I wanted to look into that. It turned out that what I was actually interested in was the South as a gateway to the Caribbean. I should have known that at the time because my original plan had been to drive all over the Gulf Coast.

We began that trip in New Orleans and spent a week there. New Orleans was fantastic. Then we drove around the Mississippi Coast, and that was fantastic too, but in New Orleans, you get a strong sense of the Caribbean. I used a lot of that week in New Orleans in Common Prayer. It was the most interesting place I had been in a long time. It was a week in which everything everybody said was astonishing to me.

INTERVIEWER 

Three years later you started writing for The New York Review of Books. Was that daunting? In your essay “Why I Write” you express trepidation about intellectual, or ostensibly intellectual, matters. What freed you up enough to do that work for Bob?

DIDION

His trust. Nothing else. I couldn’t even have imagined it if he hadn’t responded. He recognized that it was a learning experience for me. Domestic politics, for example, was something I simply knew nothing about. And I had no interest. But Bob kept pushing me in that direction. He is really good at ascertaining what might interest you at any given moment and then just throwing a bunch of stuff at you that might or might not be related, and letting you go with it. 

When I went to the political conventions in 1988—it was the first time I’d ever been to a convention—he would fax down to the hotel the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Well, you know, if there’s anything you can get at a convention it’s a newspaper. But he just wanted to make sure.

And then he’s meticulous once you turn in a piece, in terms of making you plug in all relevant information so that everything gets covered and defended before the letters come. He spent a lot of time, for example, making sure that I acknowledged all the issues in the Terri Schiavo piece, which had the potential for eliciting strong reactions. He’s the person I trust more than anybody.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think he pushed you to write about politics?

DIDION

I think he had a sense that I would be outside it enough.

INTERVIEWER 

No insider reporting—you didn’t know anyone.

DIDION

I didn’t even know their names!

INTERVIEWER

But now your political writing has a very strong point of view—you take sides. Is that something that usually happens during the reporting process, or during the writing?

DIDION

If I am sufficiently interested in a political situation to write a piece about it, I generally have a point of view, although I don’t usually recognize it. Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.

INTERVIEWER

When you moved into writing about politics, you moved away from the more personal writing you’d been doing. Was that a deliberate departure?

DIDION

Yes, I was bored. For one thing, that kind of writing is limiting. Another reason was that I was getting a very strong response from readers, which was depressing because there was no way for me to reach out and help them back. I didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts.

INTERVIEWER

And the pieces on El Salvador were the first in which politics really drive the narrative.

DIDION

Actually it was a novel, Common Prayer. We had gone to a film festival in Cartagena and I got sick there, some kind of salmonella. We left Cartagena and went to Bogotà, and then we came back to Los Angeles and I was sick for about four months. I started doing a lot of reading about South America, where I’d never been. There’s a passage by Christopher Isherwood in a book of his called The Condor and the Cows, in which he describes arriving in Venezuela and being astonished to think that it had been down there every day of his life. That was the way that I felt about South America. Then later I started reading a lot about Central America because it was becoming clear to me that my novel had to take place in a rather small country. So that was when I started thinking more politically.

INTERVIEWER

But it still didn’t push you into an interest in domestic politics.

DIDION

I didn’t get the connection. I don’t know why I didn’t get the connection, since I wasn’t interested in the politics of these countries per se, but rather in how American foreign policy affected them. And the extent to which we are involved abroad is entirely driven by our own domestic politics. So I don’t know why I didn’t get that. 

I started to get this in Salvador, but not fully until Miami. Our policy with Cuba and with exiles has been totally driven by domestic politics. It still is. But it was very hard for me to understand the process of domestic politics. I could get the overall picture, but the actual words people said were almost unintelligible to me.

INTERVIEWER

How did it become clearer?

DIDION

I realized that the words didn’t have any actual meaning, that they described a negotiation more than they described an idea. But then you begin to see that the lack of specificity is specific in itself, that it is an obscuring device.

INTERVIEWER

Did it help you when you were working on Salvador and Miami to talk to the political figures you were writing about?

DIDION

In those cases it did. Though I didn’t talk to a lot of American politicians. I remember talking to the then-president of El Salvador, who was astounding. We were talking about a new land reform law and I explained that I couldn’t quite understand what was being said about it. We were discussing a provision—Provision 207—that seemed to me to say that landowners could arrange their affairs so as to be unaffected by the reform. 

He said, 207 always applied only to 1979. That is what no one understands. I asked, Did he mean that 207 applied only to 1979 because no landowner would work against his interests by allowing tenants on his land after 207 took effect? He said, Exactly, no one would rent out land under 207. They would have to be crazy to do that. 

Well, that was forthright. There are very few politicians who would say exactly.

INTERVIEWER

Was it helpful to talk with John about your experiences there?

DIDION

It was useful to talk to him about politics because he viscerally understood politics. He grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Hartford, a town where politics was part of what you ate for breakfast. I mean, it didn’t take him a long time to understand that nobody was saying anything.

INTERVIEWER

After Salvador, you wrote your next novel, Democracy. It seems informed by the reporting you were doing about America’s relationship to the world.

DIDION

The fall of Saigon, though it takes place offstage, was the main thing on my mind. Saigon fell while I was teaching at Berkeley in 1975. I couldn’t get those images out of my head, and that was the strongest impulse behind Democracy. When the book came out, some people wondered why it began with the bomb tests in the Pacific, but I think those bomb tests formed a straight line to pushing the helicopters off the aircraft carriers when we were abandoning Saigon. It was a very clear progression in my mind. Mainly, I wanted to show that you could write a romance and still have the fall of Saigon, or the Iran-Contra affair. It would be hard for me to stay with a novel if I didn’t see a very strong personal story at the center of it.

Democracy is really a much more complete version of Common Prayer, with basically the same structure. There is a narrator who tries to understand the character who’s being talked about and reconstruct the story. I had a very clear picture in my mind of both those women, but I couldn’t tell the story without standing way far away. Charlotte, in Common Prayer, was somebody who had a very expensive dress with a seam that was coming out. There was a kind of fevered carelessness to her. Democracy started out as a comedy, a comic novel. And I think that there is a more even view of life in it. I had a terrible time with it. I don’t know why, but it never got easy.

In Brentwood we had a big safe-deposit box to put manuscripts in if we left town during fire season. It was such a big box that we never bothered to clean it out. When we were moving, in 1988, and I had to go through the box, I found I don’t know how many different versions of the first ninety pages of Democracy, with different dates on them, written over several years. I would write ninety pages and not be able to go any further. I couldn’t make the switch. I don’t know how that was solved. Many of those drafts began with Billy Dillon coming to Amagansett to tell Inez that her father had shot her sister. It was very hard to get from there to any place. It didn’t work. It was too conventional a narrative. I never hit the spot where I could sail through. I never got to that point, even at the very end.

INTERVIEWER

Was that a first for you?

DIDION

It was a first for a novel. I really did not think I was going to finish it two nights before I finished it. And when I did finish it, I had a sense that I was just abandoning it, that I was just calling it. It was sort of like Vietnam itself—why don’t we say just we’ve won and leave? I didn’t have a real sense of completion about it.

INTERVIEWER

Your novels are greatly informed by the travel and reporting you do for your nonfiction. Do you ever do research specifically for the fiction?

DIDION

Common Prayer was researched. We had someone working for us, Tina Moore, who was a fantastic researcher. She would go to the UCLA library, and I would say, Bring me back anything on plantation life in Central America. And she would come back and say, This is really what you’re looking for—you’ll love this. And it would not be plantation life in Central America. It would be Ceylon, but it would be fantastic. She had an instinct for what was the same story, and what I was looking for. What I was looking for were rules for living in the tropics. I didn’t know that, but that’s what I found. In Democracy I was more familiar with all the places.

INTERVIEWER

The last novel you wrote was The Last Thing He Wanted. That came out in 1996. Had you been working on it for a long time?

DIDION

No. I started it in the early fall or late summer of 1995, and I finished it at Christmas. It was a novel I had been thinking about writing for a while. I wanted to write a novel about the Iran-Contra affair, and get in all that stuff that was being lost. Basically it’s a novel about Miami. I wanted it to be very densely plotted. I noticed that conspiracy was central to understanding that part of the world; everybody was always being set up in some way. The plot was going to be so complicated that I was going to have to write it fast or I wouldn’t be able to keep it all in my head. If I forgot one little detail it wouldn’t work, and half the readers didn’t understand what happened in the end. Many people thought that Elena tried to kill Treat Morrison. Why did she want to kill him? they would ask me. But she didn’t. Someone else did, and set her up. Apparently I didn’t make that clear.

I had begun to lose patience with the conventions of writing. Descriptions went first; in both fiction and nonfiction, I just got impatient with those long paragraphs of description. By which I do not mean—obviously—the single detail that gives you the scene. I’m talking about description as a substitute for thinking. I think you can see me losing my patience as early as Democracy. That was why that book was so hard to write. 

INTERVIEWER

After Democracy and Miami, and before The Last Thing He Wanted, there was the nonfiction collection After Henry, which strikes me as a way of coming back to New York and trying to understand what the city was.

DIDION

It has that long piece “Sentimental Journeys,” about the Central Park jogger, which began with that impulse. We had been in New York a year or two, and I realized that I was living here without engaging the city at all. I might as well have been living in another city, because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it. So I realized that I needed to do some reporting on it. Bob and I decided I would do a series of short reporting pieces on New York, and the first one would be about the jogger. But it wasn’t really reporting. It was coming at a situation from a lot of angles. I got so involved in it that, by the time I finished the piece, it was too long. I turned it in and Bob had some comments—many, many comments, which caused it to be even longer because he thought it needed so much additional material, which he was right about. By the time I’d plugged it all in, I’d added another six to eight thousand words. When I finally had finished it, I thought, That’s all I have to do about New York.

INTERVIEWER

Although it is about the city, “Sentimental Journeys” is really about race and class and money.

DIDION

It seemed to me that the case was treated with a lot of contempt by the people who were handling it. 

INTERVIEWER

How so?

DIDION

The prosecution thought they had the press and popular sentiment on their side. The case became a way of expressing the city’s rage at being broke and being in another recession and not having a general comfort level, the sense that there were people sleeping on the streets—which there were. We moved here six months after the ’87 stock market crash. Over the next couple of years, its effect on Madison Avenue was staggering. You could not walk down Madison Avenue at eight in the evening without having to avoid stepping on people sleeping in every doorway. There was a German television crew here doing a piece on the jogger, and they wanted to shoot in Harlem, but it was late in the day and they were losing the light. They kept asking me what the closest place was where they could shoot and see poverty. I said, Try Seventy-second and Madison. You know where Polo is now? That building was empty and the padlocks were broken and you could see rats scuttling around inside. The landlord had emptied it—I presume because he wanted to get higher rents—and then everything had crashed. There was nothing there. That entire block was a mess.

INTERVIEWER

So from California you had turned your attention to the third world, and now you were able to recognize New York because of the work you had done in the third world.

DIDION

A lot of what I had seen as New York’s sentimentality is derived from the stories the city tells itself to rationalize its class contradictions. I didn’t realize that until I started doing the jogger piece. Everything started falling into place on that piece. Bob would send me clips about the trial, but on this one I was on my own, because only I knew where it was going.

INTERVIEWER

In some of your early essays on California, your subject matter was as distinctively your own as your writing style. In recent decades, though, it’s not so much the story but your take on the story that makes your work distinctive.

DIDION

The shift came about as I became more confident that my own take was worth doing. In the beginning, I didn’t want to do any stories that anyone else was doing. As time went by, I got more comfortable with that. For example, on the Central Park jogger piece I could not get into the courtroom because I didn’t have a police pass. This forced me into another approach, which turned out to be a more interesting one. At least to me.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t it around the same time that you were also doing the “Letter from Los Angeles” for Robert Gottlieb at The New Yorker?

DIDION

Yes. Though I wasn’t doing more than two of those a year. I think they only ran six to eight thousand words, but the idea was to do several things in each letter. I had never done that before, where you just really discuss what people are talking about that week. It was easy to do. It was a totally different tone from the Review. I went over those New Yorker pieces when I collected them. I probably took out some of the New Yorker’s editing, which is just their way of making everything sound a certain way.

INTERVIEWER

Can you characterize your methods as a reporter?

DIDION

I can’t ask anything. Once in a while if I’m forced into it I will conduct an interview, but it’s usually pro forma, just to establish my credentials as somebody who’s allowed to hang around for a while. It doesn’t matter to me what people say to me in the interview because I don’t trust it. Sometimes you do interviews where you get a lot. But you don’t get them from public figures. 

When I was conducting interviews for the piece on Lakewood, it was essential to do interviews because that was the whole point. But these were not public figures. On the one hand, we were discussing what I was ostensibly there doing a piece about, which was the Spur Posse, a group of local high school boys who had been arrested for various infractions. But on the other hand, we were talking, because it was the first thing on everyone’s mind, about the defense industry going downhill, which was what the town was about. That was a case in which I did interviewing and listened.

INTERVIEWER

Did the book about California, Where I Was From, grow out of that piece, or had you already been thinking about a book?

DIDION

I had actually started a book about California in the seventies. I had written some of that first part, which is about my family, but I could never go anywhere with it for two reasons. One was that I still hadn’t figured out California. The other was that I didn’t want to figure out California because whatever I figured out would be different from the California my mother and father had told me about. I didn’t want to engage that.

INTERVIEWER

You felt like you were still their child?

DIDION

I just didn’t see any point in engaging it. By the time I did the book they were dead.

INTERVIEWER

You said earlier that after The White Album you were tired of personal writing and didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts. You must be getting a larger personal response from readers than ever with The Year of Magical Thinking. Is that difficult?

DIDION

I have been getting a very strong emotional response to Magical Thinking. But it’s not a crazy response; it’s not demanding. It’s people trying to make sense of a fairly universal experience that most people don’t talk about. So this is a case in which I have found myself able to deal with the response directly.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever think you might go back to the idea of doing little pieces about New York?

DIDION

I don’t know. It is still a possibility, but my basic question about New York was answered for me: it’s criminal.

INTERVIEWER

That was your question?

DIDION

Yes, it’s criminal.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it stimulating in some way to live here?

DIDION

I find it really comfortable. During the time we lived in California, which lasted twenty-four years, I didn’t miss New York after the first year. And after the second year I started to think of New York as sentimental. There were periods when I didn’t even come to New York at all. One time I realized that I had been to Hong Kong twice since I had last been to New York. Then we started spending more time in New York. Both John and I were really happy to have been here on 9/11. I can’t think of any place else I would have rather been on 9/11, and in the immediate aftermath.

INTERVIEWER

You could have stayed in Sacramento forever as a novelist, but you started to move out into the worlds of Hollywood and politics.

DIDION

I was never a big fan of people who don’t leave home. I don’t know why. It just seems part of your duty in life.

INTERVIEWER

I’m reminded of Charlotte in A Book of Common Prayer. She has no conception of the outside world but she wants to be in it.

DIDION

Although a novel takes place in the larger world, there’s always some drive in it that is entirely personal—even if you don’t know it while you’re doing it. I realized some years after A Book of Common Prayer was finished that it was about my anticipating Quintana’s growing up. I wrote it around 1975, so she would have been nine, but I was already anticipating separation and actually working through that ahead of time. So novels are also about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.

INTERVIEWER

Are you working on one now?

DIDION

No. I haven’t felt that I wanted to bury myself for that intense a period. 

INTERVIEWER 

You want to be in the world a bit.

DIDION

Yeah. A little bit.

 



Author photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.