SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
There are no terrific stories, there are only terrific ways of writing them down.” Joan Didion said that, and proves it, in each of her novels: Run River, Play It As It Lays, and the newest, A Book of Common Prayer.” They’re depressing stories. Carefully, brilliantly sculpted, surgically written – about people to whom nothing makes any difference. Who move through bleached physical and emotional landscapes, creating a sense of imminent catastrophe. Joan Didion is one of our very best writers. 43 years old, small, very thin – a Californian who doesn’t look like a Californian, she says. She also says she writes entirely to find out what is on her mind – what she thinks, what she sees, what she’s afraid of. She begins each book with a picture in her mind, and the act of writing is to find out what’s going on in the picture. For Run River, the picture was of a house on a river in hot weather, a woman upstairs in the house, a man downstairs, and they weren’t talking to one another. For Play It As It Lays, the picture was of a blond girl in a white halter dress being paged at 1 o’clock in the morning at a Las Vegas casino. For A Book of Common Prayer, the picture was of the Panama airport at 6 A.M., heat steaming up from the tarmac. Joan Didion also writes non-fiction. A column, now, for Esquire. Earlier, journalism for The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue. Her best non-fiction essays are collected in the 1968 book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Here’s a quote from her introduction to that book: My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally so unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.
JOAN DIDION: That’s an odd quote. People – when I go to colleges to talk – people are always asking me about “writers are always selling somebody out.” And all I meant by it was that it is impossible to describe anybody – a friend, or somebody you know very well – and please them. Because your image of them, no matter how flattering, never corresponds with their self-image. It’s a..
STAMBERG: (Interrupting) It can be short or long?
DIDION: Right, yes.
STAMBERG: Now I hear it a different way for my work. I hear it as… right now sitting here, wanting to talk to you about the things that most concern you in your life, and feeling I could never do that because there’s no reason I should rip off your emotions and your privacy to make my living. That’s how I hear this line.
DIDION: I meant something so specific by it that it was..
STAMBERG: (Interrupting) But I’m saying the same thing you are, in a different way. To give me my great story. Tell me about your nervous breakdown, how awful it was. Give me my great radio tape. And knowing I could never dare, never dare to ask that. Or whatever… Because it simply would invade a kind of privacy that’s nobody’s damn business.
DIDION: I can never ask people even simple questions like – that all reporters know how to ask. I can never ask anybody how much money they made on something or… I think as a reporter I had to develop a stronger instinct for what was going on because I wasn’t a very good reporter. I mean, I could never…
DIDION: … go out and get the story. And if I got into town where a story wasn’t, I’d found a life team there, I’d go home. I think a lot of the way people work comes out of their weaknesses, out of their failings.
STAMBERG: It’s a way around something that other people can do straight on.
DIDION: If you can’t talk to the mayor, then maybe if you sit around the gas station and figure out what it’s all about, it will. I almost use interviews – when I do do them, in that kind of situation – as a way of insinuating myself into the person’s day. That the actual answers aren’t ever very significant. I’m never happier than if I go on a story and the person is... I find myself with the person and they’re doing whatever they do. And it turns out, maybe, let’s just say it’s on a movie set – and it turns out that they’re too busy to give me 20 minutes, because I am there without having to go through the interview. (laughter)
STAMBERG: Yes. That desolate landscape that you create, and those characters who move through it in their parched ways—it seems to me you’re giving kind of a world view in that, and it also seems to me that you’d never get a Nobel Prize for Literature. Because that prize is - not because of any lack of skill, mind you - but because that prize is given for optimistic and positive views of life.
DIDION: I am more attracted to the underside of the tapestry. I tend to always look for the wrong side, the bleak side. I have since I was a child. I have no idea why. I’m rather a slow study, and I came late to the apprehension that there was a void at the center of experience. A lot of people realize this when they’re fifteen or sixteen, but I didn’t realize it until I was writing Play It As It Lays. And until around that time… that it was possible that the dark night of the soul was… it had not occurred to me that it was dryness, that it was aridity. I had thought that it was something much riper and sinful. And I think that Play It As It Lays was a way of working that out, dealing myself with the idea that experience was largely meaningless. It seems to me my adult life has been a succession of expectations, misperceptions, that I dealt only with an idea I had of the world, not with the world as it was. Reality does intervene. One of the books that made the strongest impression on me when I was in college, I remember, was The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer was the prototype romantic idealist. And it trapped her, and she ended up a prisoner of her own idea. I think a lot of us do.
STAMBERG: You talk a lot about the picture that’s in your mind. And that picture that tarmac in book of grande in Panama.. actually, which was with you, you lived with it for several years.. you finished that book. Do you have a picture in your mind, now, of something else that you’re going to have to be working on?
DIDION: Yes. My next novel is going to take place in Hawaii. I can’t describe the picture, except that it is very pink and it smells like flowers, and I’m afraid to describe it out loud because if I describe it out loud I won’t write it down.
STAMBERG: Joan Didion. Her new novel is A Book Of Common Prayer. Her next novel hasn’t begun to be written, and she doesn’t really know what it will be about beyond that pink and fragrant picture. Joan Didion says if she did know what it was about, she wouldn’t need to write it.
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