John Callaway 0:05
We're going to be talking tonight about life around the edges. And what happens when the center does not hold. We're also going to be talking about the place of the artists, or the writers perception of these things. Does a private vision related all to a larger social reality? And if not, so what? That's just a part of what we'll be talking about. I also want for the next 30 minutes for this to be an opportunity for you to see Joan Didion because for a long time, I did not think that we would see her. I did not think that she would make herself available for interviews. And I frankly didn't think I would interview her if she did make herself available for interviews. I had a problem wondering how one could enhance in an interview what she had already written in her books. And so we'll also see about that tonight. Joan Didion grew up in Sacramento, California, a fact that is not unimportant in her writing. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. Later on, she went to New York City to live and work. Her first novel Run River was published in 1963. In 1968, a book of her magazine essays was published. The title is Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In 1970, her second novel play it as it lays was published. She had her husband John Gregory Dunne collaborated on screenwriting for two movies play it as it lays in the panic in needle Park. And I believe they also collaborated on the initial drafts of the screenplay for A star is born. And now Joan Didion's third novel is out. And it is entitled A Book of Common Prayer. And I want to go back if I can to the matter of interviewing because I said to friends a long time ago that there were a handful of writers in this country that I didn't want to interview. And I said, Joan Didion is one of them her work, there's a cliche of some artists say my work speaks for itself. Thank you and good night. And I said Joan Didion's work speaks for itself, and I'm going to be wrestling with it for the rest of my life. I don't want to talk to her. Let me just wrestle with it. And my producer, Jerry Goodman came in one day and said, How would you like to interview Joan Didion? And I said, Yes. I don't know why I changed my mind with what I wanted. It was what? What are you doing out here on the talk show circuit?
Joan Didion 2:17
Well, I had one reason I had never done it is that I'm not terribly articulate. I have trouble finishing sentences. And I just unless I'm sitting in front of a typewriter, and so it didn't seem anything that I would be particularly good at. So I didn't do it. As I, as this book started to come out, I thought I would do some lectures. Because I had been lecturing once in a while, during the past few years at colleges, and I'd become terribly impressed with how important that was to do I mean, it always I always went away from a campus with a slight glow, self congratulation, like feeling that I was somehow helping people, you know. And so I thought I'd do that. And it just kind of evolved, that while I was going to do some lectures, I would do some interviews, and I became used to that idea. And then it evolves that I wasn't really going to do the lectures, and so I'd sort of slipped into it.
John Callaway 3:23
How you feel about it, now that you've done it,
Joan Didion 3:26
I am very glad to have done it. I have seen a lot of cities, I have talked to a lot of people. It's something I don't normally do. I've I've liked doing it.
John Callaway 3:43
You know, one of the things that may be a myth, Alex Haley's experience may be a part of it also, is, is this business, this mystique of writers really should write and not talk. writers should not analyze what they've written. And for heaven's sakes, writers should not talk about what they're writing while they're writing it.
Joan Didion 4:05
I believe that
John Callaway 4:07
Well, I think a lot of writers do. But Alex Haley apparently needed money. And so I guess all those years he was writing Roots, he was talking about it same time, and I don't think it destroyed the book at all, I think I think the book is, is strong, although the kind of writing that that you do, I think would be destroyed. If you talked about it.
chicago TALK SHOW HOST JOHN CALLAWAY INTERVIEWS WRITER JOAN DIDION IN 1977 - writer of " panic in needle park" and others
Joan Didion 4:25
I think it would be for one thing. I have a very short attention span. And I'm not sure that I could sustain my own attention over the course of a novel if I knew what it was about. If I'd worked out what it was about. That's one reason. The other thing is that by explaining anything, you somehow limit its possibilities. If you can get it down into something if you were sitting around at dinner and somebody asks you what your new book is about. We writers never ask each other. If you were able to say at dinner what your new book was about, I think you would have seriously limited its possibilities. When you discover what it's about why you're writing it. I never knew what a Book of Common Prayer was about. And when I was writing it, before I wrote it, I didn't know what it was about while I was writing it. I'm not sure I know what it's about. Now,
John Callaway 5:21
I was going to say one of the things I, I paced around here today, saying, How do I describe what this book is about? Now you can, I suppose you can take two approaches to it. You can describe a so called storyline and mentioned the characters names I've brought, I've brought a Time Magazine. There, people are better at it than I am at those kinds of paragraphs. Or you can say this book is about dislocation. It's about fear. It's about death. It's about performance under crisis, or lack of performance after crisis. It's about life around the edges, you can use all those kinds of phrases. And a viewer will say, Good, John, that's, that's great. And thanks very much. They don't, it's difficult to communicate it. So in a way what I want to get done here, I don't I whatever we talk about, I hope that our viewers will read your books, not just a Book of Common Prayer, but read your books, because I think they're worth reading that if we don't get anything else done this evening is a piece of business that I want us to get done. There are a couple of interesting pieces written somehow in the past month or so. The world of the novel has become fairly big news again
Joan Didion 6:34
It's been sort of exciting, yeah.
John Callaway 6:36
Cheever on the cover of Newsweek
Joan Didion 6:36
people are actually talking about novels
John Callaway 6:38
We're seeing you on things like on the Today Show, George F Will wrote a column. It was so good in the midst of all of that politics to see a column in the Sun Times about novels.
Joan Didion 6:50
I didn't see that
John Callaway 6:51
called three novels of our time in which your your book and your writing is commented upon, and Walker Percy's new novel and John Cheever's, Falconer and he concludes by saying art is only occasionally and secondarily evidence of anything other than the artists spirit. But these novels, including yours may be evidence of a deepening American inwardness, a quest for durable values that Jimmy Carter and California Governor Jerry Brown detected early and have addressed brilliantly, after a decade of disorienting public events, literature and politics are in phase. John Leonard, on the other hand, and the New York Times Book Review this past week, if I can quote him, said in an essay, I've been reading and rereading, and it occurs to me that I no longer believe most of our serious writers, more than I believe TV commercials, you've been writing a lot about television seeing it? What are they selling blood on a crust of a dread? Instead of horse meat and on cola? Where do we live? At a dead end in a country called catatonia? What do we see when we look in the mirror? The avise? What when we aren't watching television do we do with our time rape, incest, cannibalism, fratricide, booze, needles and pills. Who are we? If we are man, we are monsters of insensitive sexual pirates. If we are women, we are whiners or castrating bitches. If we are children, we are victims. What is the purpose of the modern novel to prove that language is inadequate? What is our sense of life? Tragic? How do we feel about sex and history bad? And then he went on to say you should write more about your friends. I know we were talking before we started this that you've thought about that and you talked about it
Joan Didion 8:36
Well, I thought about it after I read John Leonard's piece. And I thought that was interesting that nobody nobody wrote about their friends. I mean, and it occurred to me, I mean, for about 10 minutes on the airplane I felt guilty that I'd never written about people with friends. And then it occurred to me it just wouldn't work in the first place. I tried to imagine a scene in which in which I wrote somebody getting a phone call from a friend. Well, there's a there's a sense in which when you get phone calls from your friends, you don't really exchange meaningful information. It's a I couldn't imagine that that phone call taking place in one of my novels. I couldn't imagine it taking place in common prayer. Obviously, Charlotte had friends or people she knew. They didn't figure somehow in her life that deeply. Also, I took exception with with with with John there about despair, I thought about everybody, now writing being on the edge of the void. I thought that when I was writing common prayer, I was convinced that this was a novel full of joy. I'm sure Cheever was convinced that Falconer was an, I mean, I think he said in a, in an interview of that interview with his daughter and Newsweek that he had been trying for radiance. I, I just, I'm not sure that looking into the, into the void is what? What all novels I've read recently are about,
John Callaway 10:27
well, if it's, if it's, if it's a matter of joy for you, is it a matter of joy? After you've gotten this thing out of your system?
Joan Didion 10:36
No, no, there was real. I loved writing this book. I thought I was making an object. That's what I thought I was doing. I mean, I wasn't telling. I was making a rainbow. A rainbow and an oil slick, you know, I mean, that I love doing it. I wanted it to be something you could look through and see a lot of different they would keep changing on you would be like an opal. You know, with with the changes the colors and Opal or rainbow slick, I loved doing it.
John Callaway 11:12
Well, it's haunting your books. Common Prayer and Play it as it Lays, you come away. I was rereading play it as it lays. And I kept saying to myself, now John, if you'd had to have taken an examination on this, you would not have been able to, in a factual sort of way, remember the names of the characters, etc. But you would have succeeded in remembering a tone. And I would succeed in common prayer and remembering the heat. And, and almost a spell like, since I will remember, as you have said, an interview, you start with pictures, I have pictures. And I don't know what they mean to my life, except that I feel them. I feel related to them. And I fear part of it. I fear a part of what of what is transmitted to me there. That sense of dislocation, there's death. There's wondering what it's all about. One take some comfort in knowing that one isn't alone.
Joan Didion 12:22
There's a lot of death in that book. I mean, it occurred to me halfway through it, that it was that there was a lot of a lot of dying. And maybe it was on my mind, you know, we all work out and in novels, things were maybe afraid of or, or thinking about, but don't know, we're thinking about. I mean, there were several things in common prayer that I became aware of where I realized were on my mind, for the first time, I mean, while I was writing the book, and one of them was, was death. And one of them was mothers and daughters, I realized that play it as it lays had been about mothers and daughters too on a certain level, this common prayers about a mother and a daughter and, and the separation between them. And I think I was in that sense that a novel is a cautionary tale. For the person who says any story, you tell a story, and it's a story. If you tell the story and work it out. All right, then it won't happen to you. And I had a feeling that I was working out. My own daughter is growing up.
John Callaway 13:39
But in a way at the national level, it was a story of what already had happened in this country. And the question that many of us have is how are we to feel about all of that, what not only what can we learn? But how are we to feel about it? You know, I'm not sure what the answer that is. I mean, I think you just keep working at that. Feeling it you can feel anything
Joan Didion 14:05
it happened. I mean, all we did have the 60s. And I'm not sure what the 60s were I wasn't I've never been convinced that the 60s were the cause of anything, or were a thing unto themselves. They was just sort of the external evidence of some great change that had come about in this country long before maybe not in this country. Maybe in the world. I mean, that that certain things were no longer going to work and we started seeing it showing up in the 60s.
John Callaway 14:40
But as you I will only get back I think to the to the point that John Leonard was trying to get to let's say that your books, and particularly a common prayer are read by impressionable people. People who are really deeply moved by this haunting spell that you cast, I think that's an accurate statement about your books. And about this book. And one has, one does share a sense of dread one perceives the sense of dread, and death and dislocation and running away, and trying to keep loyal to things which keep falling apart from the middle or coming around at the edges. And one can say, I may not feel real good about that. But it is a cautionary tale. And that's the way it really is. And thank God for the Joan Didion's of this world and their art where somebody else might say, almost a Reader's Digest cliche way. Give us affirmation. Life is really, you know, most people don't live this way. The daughter in your book is a revolutionary. I mean, she's a Patty Hearst type character. And, and life isn't, you know, you're not representative of the larger social change. And you're certainly not representative of a country that now has. Let's bring us all together. Jimmy Carter?
Joan Didion 16:06
No, no, I've never bought that. That sense that that that writers should be somehow aiding the national purpose, purpose. Remember that time when life had an editorial national purpose? If there could be one national purpose. I mean, it's become a thing in my mind ever since.
John Callaway 16:29
It's like people who refer to the Oriental mind.
Joan Didion 16:36
I mean, as I said, I thought this book was affirmative and full of joy in a way. But it wasn't full of of any particular joy about the social situation.
John Callaway 16:51
But I don't understand I don't understand how this book is full of joy.
Joan Didion 16:56
Well, Charlotte, is in a way. She is almost holy at the end. She, she takes on a certain I don't mean holy in any particularly or specifically, religious sense. She takes on a she, she she transcends herself. It seemed to me. Well, that's what I hoped for.
John Callaway 17:30
I think that's true at the end. But Charlotte is a very depressing character in terms of the kind of chaos that she's gone through. And there's nothing in the book that is particularly instructive. I mean, you're it's not a manual on how to survive that sort of thing. I mean, I agree with your impression at the end. But it is such there is such chaos, that I didn't feel an uplifted sense. I
Joan Didion 18:01
didn't you think some of it was funny?
John Callaway 18:04
Joan Didion 18:05
I have been troubled by some of the reviews in which not troubled, but I've been puzzled because I thought quite a lot of it was funny. I mean, it was It struck me funny while I was writing it, but it was it's not uplifting. No. But it is. It's just an attempt to see what's there. And how impossible it is to really see what's there. I mean, the colors keep changing.
John Callaway 18:39
Do you? Do you care about things like awards and prizes?
Joan Didion 18:46
Well, I've never gotten one that I can Oh, I mean
John Callaway 18:50
Are they important to writers?
Joan Didion 18:55
I don't think so. I mean, I wouldn't say I've never gotten one or missed one comment. What I mean is I've never
John Callaway 19:02
You've lost a Pulitzer Prize several years in a row.
Joan Didion 19:05
I don't think I will ever get a Pulitzer Prize or be even considered for pulitzer prize because my books are not I think there's a specific thing about the pulitzer which is they are to in some way, glorify America is that isn't there?
John Callaway 19:27
They're very well made.
Joan Didion 19:28
Yeah. I think there's an aspect in which they're supposed to be nationally redeeming.
John Callaway 19:36
Do you have a fear of snakes?
Joan Didion 19:38
Yeah, I don't like them at all.
John Callaway 19:41
Snakes keep coming back through a lot of your work.
Joan Didion 19:44
I tried to keep them out of Common Prayer. Johnson, my husband said to me, keep the snakes out of that book. And I really tried to
John Callaway 19:53
Are there any I can't
Joan Didion 19:54
There maybe one, or two. yeah
John Callaway 19:57
And even in your essays, I mean, snakes keep snakes edge their way back into your fiction and nonfiction.
Joan Didion 20:04
Yeah, we've got one around the house now actually
John Callaway 20:06
Joan Didion 20:07
yeah, it's, I mean, it's outside the house on the house. It's a wild snake, but it's king snake and it is supposed to keep rattlesnakes away. So we keep it there. I mean, we don't kill it. It sits on the hood of my car quite a lot
John Callaway 20:21
Do you still keep notebooks,
Joan Didion 20:23
I throw things in a box instead of keeping notebooks now because the notebooks got too unwieldy, because since quite a lot of what I wanted to put in them were newspaper clips. So it started just going in a box. And I go through it once in a while and could never find what I'm looking for.
John Callaway 20:45
If somebody gave you a camera crew, and say a budget of $200,000 a year or half a million or whatever, and said, Joan Didion, I want you to be a big time television police reporter in Southern California, I want you to take your eye and your ear and your nose and all of that go out with the camera crew, and you can go on the air when you want to go on the air. You don't have to worry about being a big deal. Actor, you know, deep voice and all that stuff. But you can you can show us homicide, loss, fear Southern California, would you do it?
Joan Didion 21:24
I'm not sure I would. I'm really not sure I would simply because I would rather for two years be sitting at the typewriter. I mean, I have I feel impelled to write some more books. And I don't want to I would rather do it in a book. I would rather in certain ways I'd rather be alone than going out with a crew.
John Callaway 21:58
I always thought I always thought it was part of your writing. It was great police reporting. Yeah, I had an all star cast to police reporters.
Joan Didion 22:06
I'm terrible at it. I never know what
John Callaway 22:08
No, you're not terrible at it. The slouch slou stuff and Slouching Towards Bethlehem that, that you got it you get it exactly right. Every police were anybody doing any urban reporting to be required to read your pieces?
Joan Didion 22:20
I never even know where the Hall of Records is. I have to be told where the hall of records is. And I never know what I'm supposed to look up in the Hall of Records. I mean, I can't I have no sense of I just have to hang around someplace. I mean, out of sheer out of all my faults. That's what I end up doing hanging around because I can't do anything else really well, like interview and look or find the facts out in the hall of records become a joke between my husband and me. Where's the Hall of Records? There's a certain kind of reporter always knows where it is. And he's always going by there when we have lunch. And he's off to the Hall of record
John Callaway 22:56
and just filled with facts and got new truth.
Joan Didion 22:59
And I'm and I'm off to read the telephone book and find out where the Pentecostal church is and where the neurosurgeons live so I can figure out what is the good part of down and the bad part of down I mean, it's a it's a
John Callaway 23:14
does the Santa Ana wind did it really get was? Did you do some factual research? Did it really? Was it really so bad? That Indians jumped into the ocean? That sort of stuff really? Doesn't? I mean, people go a little bit crazy.
Joan Didion 23:29
They do. Yeah, I did do research. I talked to people at UCLA about it. It was actually people now. There's been a great deal more work done on it. And even more odd things are turning up about the Santa Ana
John Callaway 23:49
Joan Didion 23:51
well. There's been more medical research done. People feel they don't. They don't operate as well. Their metabolism changes. I mean, physically, if you if you test their if you run them through tests during a Santa Ana and at other times, there is a chemical difference. And you do feel it.
John Callaway 24:19
My daughter has been thinking about going to college. My younger daughter has been thinking about going to college in California. And I've only spent a few weeks in California and a good bit of my sensibility from California comes from your writing. I mean, I trust that you've got it right. And I want her to read your writing because I know you live there and you chose to leave New York and go to California. But it's a it's a it's a world or at least a part of it is a world of suicide, dislocation and hot winds. Snakes
Joan Didion 24:54
Yeah, its a very hostile environment. She ought to go to school and Cal it seems to me Did everybody in the East ought to spend an obligatory three or four years in the west and everybody from the West ought to spend an obligatory three or four years in the East because they really are quite different. In just didn't in the whole sense of ways that you're the way things are done. I mean, there's a kind of I had, I went I underwent culture shock when I moved to New York. I had never even seen anyone wear Chesterfield coat. I never seen one. I mean, that's a tiny thing. But everything was a great shock to me.
John Callaway 25:34
It wasn't a great joy for at least until until you became 28 years old. It's starting to fall apart.
Joan Didion 25:40
Yes. I wish I'd gotten there sooner. I mean, I wish I'd gone to school there.
John Callaway 25:46
Did you as a part of this tour, did you you were back in New York.
Joan Didion 25:50
Yeah, I was there for a week. It was nice
John Callaway 25:52
how was it
Joan Didion 25:52
It was lovely. It was
John Callaway 25:52
what did you do? Did you get off alone at all?
Joan Didion 25:58
Yes. And walked. Which is what I like to bring walking. Yeah.
John Callaway 26:07
But if it's so hostile in California, why do you stay there?
Joan Didion 26:11
Well, I'm from there is one reason, and I live there now. It is a wonderful place to work. I love Los Angeles. I mean, you can love someplace, it's hostile. But it's not easy to it's not an easy place to live particularly, but I love it.
John Callaway 26:34
Nelson Auburn left Chicago,
Joan Didion 26:36
went to New Jersey, right?
John Callaway 26:37
he went to New Jersey. And when he left, it was clear. We had been clear for years that he didn't think he was appreciated in the city. Do you feel appreciated or is it important at all? You?
Joan Didion 26:49
It's not particular? It doesn't really? Figure? Probably there was a period when probably more people in New York. More people I was likely to meet in New York had read me then then then the people. I was meeting in Los Angeles. That's less true now. But it didn't really bother me. I wasn't terribly aware of it.
John Callaway 27:20
Why do you go home to Sacramento to finish your books?
Joan Didion 27:23
Because I'm I'm just like a child there. I mean, I go home. Nobody asked me any questions. I get breakfast. My morning. I get dinner at night. Everything. Everybody talks about something other than what I'm doing. Nobody asked me when I'm going to finish. Nobody asked me to do anything at all. I don't have to worry about the weather the dog has run away or or any of those things that you worry about are in your own house.
John Callaway 27:59
Always Thank you very much for being with us tonight. Our guest this evening, Joan Didion whose new book is called a Book of Common Prayer, which is published by Simon and Schuster. And if you don't have her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem it is a really fine book of essays from set Evening Post and life right. And oh boy, yeah, everyplace else races and play it as it lays. I'm John Callaway, good night
Description: INTERVIEW WITH WRITER JOAN DIDION Joan Didion is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation
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