By Sara Davidson
N.Y. Times Book Review, April 3, 1977
Her office is a chamber in which to dream waking dreams. It is a small, Spartan room where the curtains are always drawn. There are props and cue cards. While she worked on A Book of Common Prayer, a map of Central America hung on the wall. Set out on a table were postcards from Colombia, a newspaper photo of a janitor mopping up blood in a Caribbean hotel, books on tropical foliage and tropical medicine and a Viasa Airlines schedule with “Maracaibo-Paris” circled in blue. “Maracaibo-Paris—I thought those were probably the perimeters of the book,” Joan Didion said.
I have been making the drive for six years and it never seems shorter: forty miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to Trancas, where Joan lives with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana. Once past Malibu the landscape changes. Wild mustard and cactus grow on the hills, and the oceanfront is no longer a protected bay. It is a seacoast.
Joan enjoys “forms,” and an evening in her home has a curve as carefully plotted as the narrative of one of her books. Orchids are placed about the room. Drinks are served by the fire. Joan wears a long dress, white thong sandals and a flower in her hair. Her sandals slapping on the tile, she walks to the kitchen where she completes preparations for dinner, consulting a menu written on a white pad:
Roast Loan of Pork w/ Orange Sauce
On a Saturday in February, I drove to Trancas to conduct an interview with Joan, with some apprehension. She is not what one would call a virtuoso conversationalist. We taped four hours, of which she said later, “two hours were pauses.” As I set up the machine, John Dunne wandered into the living room wearing a blue bathrobe. “I got the Saturday jits,” he said. “I got anxiety crawling over me.”
He asked Joan, “Do you have any Coke? Then I’ll disappear, so I don’t answer all your questions for you.”
She brought him a Coca-Cola.
When John returned to his study, we settled on the couch. Joan was wearing a light blue sweatshirt and faded jeans. Her reddish-blond hair was parted in the center. She smoked Pall Malls, or twisted a blue rubber band around her fingers, and at times her sentences trailed into a soft, rapid laughter.
JOAN. How are we going to go about this, in terms of talking naturally?
SARA. There are a lot of things I know that I’m going to ask anyway.
JOAN. So we’ll do it like a regular interview.
SARA. Yes, I even have a list of questions. I figured that was the only way, otherwise…
JOAN. (Laughing) Otherwise we’d end up cooking.
SARA. I thought we’d talk first about the origins of A Book of Common Prayer.
JOAN. In the spring of 1973, John and I went to Cartagena, Colombia, and the entire trip was like a hallucination, partly because I had a fever. It seemed to me extraordinary that North America had gone on way and South America had gone another and I couldn’t understand why. I kept reading that they had more resources than we had, they had more of everything and yet they had gone another way.
SARA. How would you define the other way?
JOAN. Obviously they’re not industrialized, that’s one way. Also, in North America, social tensions that arise tend to be undercut and co-opted quite soon, but in Latin America there does not seem to be any political machinery for delaying the revolution. Everything is thrown into bold relief. There is a collapsing of time. Everything is both older than you could ever know, and it started this morning.
SARA. Did you read Garcia Marquez, One hundred Years of Solitude?
JOAN. Yes, yes, it’s so wonderful. I was overcome by the book when I read it, but when I went down there, I realized the book was far more social realism than it was fantasy. The element which had seemed to me fantastic was quite reportorial.
SARA. Did you have a technical intention for this book?
JOAN. Yes, I wrote it down on the map of Central America. “Surface like rainbow slick, shifting, fall, thrown away, iridescent.” I wanted to do a deceptive surface that appeared to be one thing and turned color as you looked through it.
SARA. What about the repetitions of phrases?
JOAN. It seemed constantly necessary to remind the reader to make certain connections. Technically it’s almost a chant. You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell, or come to terms with certain contemporary demons. I can’t think what those demons are at the moment but there’s a range: flash politics, sexual adventurism.
SARA. What has been your experience with politics?
JOAN. I never had faith that the answers to human problems lay in anything that could be called political. I thought the answers, if there were answers, lay someplace in man’s soul. I have had an aversion to social action because it usually meant social regulation. It meant interference, rules, doing what other people wanted me to do.The ethic I was raised in was specifically a Western frontier ethic. That means being left alone and leaving others alone. It is regarded by members of my family as the highest form of human endeavor.
SARA. Do you vote?
JOAN. Once in a while. I’m hardly ever conscious of issues. I mean they seem to me like ripples on an ocean. In the life of the body politic, the actual movement is going on underneath and I am interested in what’s going on underneath. What Life magazine used to call “the quality of life in out time” is determined not by who is in the White House but by economic forces. The politics I personally want are anarchic. Throw out the laws. Tear it down. Start all over. That is very romantic because it presumes that left to their own devices, people would do good things for one another. I doubt that that’s true. But I would like to believe it.
SARA. Do you feel identified with Charlotte and Grace in this book?
JOAN. I think you identify with all your characters. They become your family, closer to you than anybody you know. They kind of move into the house and take over the furniture. It’s one of the difficult things about writing a book and leading a normal social domestic life.
SARA. What is the effect of seeing people and getting stimulation?
JOAN. It’s quite destructive. Either you sit there and just close off, or if you do become engaged in what is going on with other people, then you have lost the thread. You’ve turned off the computer, and it is not for that period of time making the connections it ought to be making. I really started thinking of my mind mechanically. I almost heard a steady humming if it was working all right, but if it stopped for a couple of days then it would take a while to get it back.
SARA. In “Why I Write” (a lecture delivered at the University of California at Berkeley), there’s a confidence expressed about the process of writing that I know you don’t always feel.
JOAN. I didn’t express confidence so much as blind faith that if you go in and work every day, it will get better. Three days will go bay and you will be in that office and you will think every day is terrible. But on the fourth day, if you do go in, if you don’t go into town or out in the garden, something usually will break through.
SARA. How do you feel when you wake up?
JOAN. Oh, I don’t want to go in there at all. It’s low dread, every morning. That dread goes away after you’ve been in there an hour. I keep saying “in there” as if it’s some kind of chamber, a different atmosphere. It is in a way. There’s almost a psychic wall. The air changes, I mean you don’t want to go through that door. But once you’re in there, you’re there and it’s hard to go out.
SARA. I’d always assumed that after you’d been writing for a number of years, that fear would disappear.
JOAN. No, it doesn’t. It’s a fear you’re not going to get it right. You’re going to ruin it. You’re going to fail.The touchy part on a book—when there’s not the dread in the morning, when there’s the dread all day long—is before it takes. Once it takes, there’s just the morning dread and the occasional three days of terrible stuff, but before it takes, there’s nothing to guarantee that it’s going to take. There’s a point in a novel where it shifts gears or the narrative won’t carry. That point has to come before a third of the way through. It goes into overdrive. There are some novels you pick up and start reading and they’re wonderful. Maybe you have to go to lunch or something and you get to page seventy and never pick them up again. You’re not moved to keep turning pages. That’s the narrative curve — you’ve got to allow, around page seventy or eighty, to give it enough thrust to send it out. Imagine a rocket taking off. There’s a point at which it drops its glitter or glamour and starts floating free. SARA. How do you feel about a book while you’re writing it?
JOAN. I try to hold my opinion in suspension. I hate the book when I’m working on it. But if I gave way to that thought, I would never finish the book and then I would feel depressed and useless and have nothing to do all day.
SARA. Have you ever not finished a book?
JOAN. I’ve put things aside at forty pages
SARA. Did you get depressed?
JOAN. Yes. There’s a certain euphoric mania at first when you think you’ve made the right decision and are really taking charge, but it sort of lies there as something you haven’t finished. And you always wonder if maybe you had pushed a little harder, it might have broken through. I mean it’s a failure. So starting anything, there’s a great chance for psychic loss.
SARA. How did you feel after finishing A Book of Common Prayer?JOAN. I was tired, so tired. I didn’t want to read it. I haven’t read it. I like it, though, in an abstract way. It’s like a dream again.
SARA. I take it success and failure are important issues for you?
JOAN. Yes. I suppose they are. I don’t want to do anything that I don’t do well. I don’t want to ski. (She laughs)
SARA. What about tennis?
JOAN. I do play tennis, not well, but I’ve moved into thinking of it as a way of getting color on my face and mild exercise, not as playing tennis. I haven’t learned to serve yet. Every once in a while my teacher brings it up, but it takes too much coordination. He brought it up again last week and I was on the verge of tears. I was furious, because I was really hitting the ball across the net pretty well.
SARA. Could you talk about your writing method?
JOAN. When I started this book, I wrote the first paragraph and continued for about three pages. Then I got scared and started skipping around and writing odd things.SARA. What did you get scared of?
JOAN. Scared I couldn’t sustain it. So I started writing odd bits here and there, and then I stopped being scared, when I had a pile of little things that appeared to be in the same tone as the beginning of the book. I just went back and started writing straight through until about page 40. By then the book was taking a slightly different direction. It was clear there was a narrator, for example. I had not intended there to be a narrator. I was going to be the female author’s voice. I the author was going to tell you the reader the story. But the “I” became so strong that it became a character, so I went back and rewrote those forty pages with that narrator.As the story developed, things kept changing, and you can push ahead for a little while knowing that those things are wrong back there but you can’t push too far or you lose precision. It doesn’t mater to you as much, if you know it’s wrong back there, so I started over again. I started over about twelve times. I wanted to start over when I went to Sacramento to finish it, but I didn’t have time.
SARA. You always go to Sacramento to finish your books. Is that a ritual?
JOAN. It’s very easy for me to work there. My concentration can be total because nobody calls me. I’m not required to lead a real life. I’m like a child, in my parents’ house.
SARA. Do you have a room there?
JOAN. Yes. It’s sort of a carnation pink, and the vines and trees have grown up over the windows. It’s exactly like a cave. It’s a very safe place. It’s a good room to work in, it’s a finishing room.I once tried to work in John’s office here and I was beside myself. There were too many books. I mean there was this weight of other people’s opinions around me. I worked in the Faculty Club in Berkeley for a month and it was very hard to work there because I didn’t have the map of Central America. Not that Boca Grande is on the map, but the map took on a real life in my mind. I mean that very narrow isthmus.One of the things that worried me about this book was that there were several kinds of weather. It took place in San Francisco, the American South and Central America. This sounds silly but I was afraid that the narrative wouldn’t carry if the weather changed. You wouldn’t walk away from the book remembering one thing. The thing I wanted you to walk away remembering was the Central American weather. So all the things I had around my office had to do with Central America.
SARA. How did you choose the title?
JOAN. It seemed right. A Book of Common Prayer was very important to this book. Why, I had no idea. At one point, my editor, Henry Robbins, asked what the title meant. I made up some specious thing and told him, I don’t remember what I told him, something to the effect that the whole thing was a prayer. You could say that this was Grace’s prayer for Charlotte’s soul.If you have a narrator, which suddenly I was stuck with, the narrator can’t just be telling you a story, something that happened, to entertain you. The narrator has got to be telling you the story for a reason. I think the title probably helped me with that.
SARA. Are you as skeptical about religion as you are about politics?
JOAN. I was brought up Episcopalian, and I stopped going to church because I hated the stories. You know the story about the Prodigal Son? I have never understood that story. I have never understood why the prodigal son should be treated any better than the other son. I have missed the point of a lot of parables. I have much too literal and practical a mind, they just don’t appeal to me, they irritate me. But I like the words of the Episcopal service and I say them over and over in my mind. There’s one particular phrase which is part of every service: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” It’s a very comforting phrase to a child. And to an adult.
I have a very rigid sense of right and wrong. What I mean is I use the words all the time. Even the smallest things. A table can be right or wrong
SARA. What about behavior?
JOAN. Behavior is right or wrong. I was once having dinner with a psychiatrist who told me that I had monocular vision, and there was no need for everything to be right or wrong. Well, that way lies madness. In order to maintain a semblance of purposeful behavior on this earth, you have to believe that things are right or wrong.
SARA. What authors have influenced you?
JOAN. As far as influence on a style goes, I don’t think you’re influenced by anybody you read after age twenty. That all happens before you start working yourself. You would never know it from reading me, but I was very influenced by Hemingway when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I learned a lot about how sentences worked. How a short sentence worked in a paragraph, how a long sentence worked. Where the commas worked. How every word had to matter. It made me excited about words. Conrad, for the same reasons. The sentences sounded wonderful. I remember being so excited once when I discovered that the key lines in Heart of Darkness were in parentheses.James, who I didn’t read until I was in college, was important to me in trying to come to terms with the impossibility of getting it right. James’ sentences with all those clauses had to do with keeping the options open, letting the sentence cover as much as it could. That impressed me a great deal.
SARA. What determines what you read now?
JOAN. When I’m working, I don’t read much at all. If it’s a good book, it will depress me because mine isn’t as good. If it’s a bad book it will depress me because mine’s just as bad.I don’t want anybody else’s speech rhythms in my dream. I never read Ragtime. (by E.L. Doctorow) I opened the first page and saw it had a very strong rhythm, so I just put it away like a snake.
SARA. There’s a certain aesthetic to the way you life. You once talked about using good silver every day.
JOAN. Well, every day is all there is.
SARA. Do you admire elegance?
JOAN. Yes, because it makes you feel better. It’s a form. I’m very attached to certain forms, little compulsive rituals. I like to cook, I like to sew. They’re peaceful things, and they’re an expression of caring.
SARA. Could you talk about what you refer to as your shyness?
JOAN. I’m not particularly sociable. I like a lot of people and I’m glad to see them, but I don’t give the impression of being there. Part of it is that I’m terribly inarticulate. A sentence doesn’t occur to me as a whole thing unless I’m working.
SARA. Isn’t it a surprise to people who read you and expect the same fluency in your conversation?
JOAN. I don’t know what they expect but they certainly don’t get it. (Laughs) I don’t’ know why, and I don’t know what I can do about it and it is easier for me to just write it off and try to do better at what I do well.
SARA. I once asked if you liked living in Trancas and you said you found it a hostile environment.
JOAN. The only really benign climate I’ve ever been in is Hawaii. All other climates strike me as hostile.
SARA. What makes Hawaii benign and Cartagena, Colombia, not?
JOAN. In the Caribbean, there is rot, real rot. Hawaii is a tropic without rot.
SARA. Are you sure?
JOAN. Well, there’s mildew. The place just strikes me as benign. It is sweet, it smells pink to me, it smells like flowers. It is a pink environment and it makes me feel good. This is an arid environment. This is a desert. There’s cactus growing across the highway. If the cactus started on that slope going down to the ocean—I think about it all the time, about the cactus coming across the Pacific Coast Highway and starting on that slope. I don’t like the desert. I don’t like dryness. I like everything to be wet.
SARA. What was your fantasy, then, about owning land in Nevada?
JOAN. It was the last place where you could have enough land so that as far as you could see, you owned it. It was relatively cheap. Land in southern Nevada was selling as recently as five years ago for three dollars an acre, in nine-hundred-thousand-acre pieces. Obviously you couldn’t grow anything on it, you couldn’t graze on it, but as far as you could see, it was yours. Nobody else could come on it.
SARA. What would you do on it?
JOAN. Just look out. (Laughs)
SARA. Is it important for you to live near the ocean?
JOAN. I don’t think so. I like the horizon out there. I like the flatness, which is the same flatness you get if you’re looking out on nine hundred thousand acres in southern Nevada. There’s a straight line across there and it’s easy to keep your bearings. But I hardly ever go down to the beach.
JOAN. Well, usually I’m working.
SARA. Is John your editor?
JOAN. Yes, we edit each other. A lot of people wonder how we can edit each other and live together, but it works out very well. We trust each other. Sometimes we don’t agree. Obviously you never want to agree when somebody tells you something doesn’t work. I don’t mean that kind of not agreeing. That’s just when you’re tired and it’s midnight. I mean, sometimes, even on reflection, we don’t agree, and there is a tacit understanding that neither of us will push too far. Each of us is aware that it would be easy to impose our sensibility, particularly our own style, on each other. And so there is a tacit agreement not to push beyond saying, “It doesn’t work. This is how to fix it.” If there is still a substantive disagreement, it’s never mentioned again.
SARA. Are you more interested in writing fiction these days than nonfiction?
JOAN. I’m trying to do a nonfiction book now. I have always sort of wanted to write a book about California water. I’m interested in water, the pipe that water goes through, the mechanics of getting the water from place to place. I could look at a flume all day. I love dams, the way they are almost makes me weak, it’s so beautiful.
There’s a thing they do on the water project that I would like so much to see, that I’ve never had any reason to set up an appointment to go and see. Farmers, say, in the Imperial Valley, order their water ahead. You have to put in your order the week or the night before, and then there’s a ditch rider who goes down the ditch and opens the valves to each ranch, and lets a certain amount of water go through. Technically that interests me. I don’t know what I could do with it. Maybe I would like to be the person who opens the valves and lets the water through. Because it interests me and all I know how to do is write, I have thought about writing a book about California water, but I have mentioned it to a few people in New York and they have not been terribly interested.
SARA. You could have chosen to live anywhere. New York, the South. Did you pick Los Angeles because you think it’s interesting?
JOAN. I love it here. It has a kind of energy I like and a kind of inertia I like. It’s a very good place to work. The weather’s all right, and the place is neutral, it has for me no social overtones whatsoever.
SARA. Do you like to drive?
JOAN. No, I can’t stand it. I hardly ever drive. People are always calling me up for a quote on the freeways. I could probably number on both hands the times I’ve driven freeways. I can only enter a freeway if it’s at the beginning. I can’t enter it at a normal entrance or I freeze, like a child at the top of a slide. Freeways are so tricky for me that I am obsessed by them. When I’ve driven one, I think I’ve really flown the Atlantic, gone to the moon, and I replay it in my mind: exactly what lane I was in and where the crossover was. The two pages about the freeway in Play It as It Lays came out of that obsession.
SARA. Are you intrigued by the movie community?
JOAN. It interests me as an industry, you can watch it working. I like following the moves of the particular game. I like movie people. If I lived in Detroit, I would want to see automotive people. I would want to know what the moves were.
SARA. Why do you write for movies?
JOAN. One reason, obviously, is for the money. It’s specious to say you could make the same amount of money writing a book. You can’t write a book every year, but you have to keep on living every year. A lot of writers support themselves by teaching and lecturing. I don’t like to do that. It uses up far more energy.
SARA. What about the frustrations—deals falling through?
JOAN. If your whole conception of yourself depended on whether or not you got a movie going, you might as well go up to San Francisco and get sad and jump. But ours doesn’t. Our real life is someplace else. It’s fun, at least a first draft is fun. It’s not like writing, it’s like doing something else.
SARA. Do you think it’s proper or feasible to write about sex in an explicit way?
JOAN. I don’t think anything is improper in fiction, that there’s any area that can’t be dealt with. I don’t in point of fact know very many people who deal with sex well. The only person who deals with sex in an explicit way whom I can read without being made profoundly uncomfortable is Norman Mailer. I know that’s not an opinion shared by many. Mailer deals with sex in a very clean, direct way. There’s no sentimentality around it. He takes it seriously.
I tend to deal with sex obliquely. There is a lot of sexual content in Common Prayer, there was quite a lot in Play It as It Lays, but it was underneath. I’m just more comfortable dealing with it as an undertone.
SARA. Some people complain that your female characters are passive drifters who lead purposeless lives. Do you see Charlotte Douglas that way?
JOAN. No, I don’t see that about any woman I’ve written about. I think there is a confusion between passive and successful. Passive simply mean passive and active means active. Active doesn’t necessarily imply success. Charlotte is very much in control there in Boca Grande when everyone else is running out. She knows just what she’s doing.
SARA. She doesn’t seem to have a center, something in herself for which she’s living.
JOAN. Obviously the book finds her at a crisis. I don’t know too many people who have what you could call clearly functioning centers.
SARA. You have your work, that sustains you no matter what, and devotion to your family.
JOAN. They could all fall apart tomorrow. This is not a problem peculiar to women, it is a problem for all of us to find something at the center. Charlotte finds her center in Boca Grande. She finds her life by leaving it. I think most of us build elaborate structures to fend off spending much time in our own center.
SARA. Do you think of yourself as sad or depressed?
JOAN. No, I think of myself as really happy. Cheerful. I’m always amazed at what simple things can make me happy. I’m really happy every night when I walk past the windows and the evening star comes out. A star of course is not a simple thing, but it makes me happy. I look at it for a long time. I’m always happy, really.
SARA. How do you feel about getting older?
JOAN. I’m a very slow writer and I could count, if I wanted to, which I don’t, the number of books I will have time to write. I work more. I work harder. There is a sense of urgency now.