The Interview

I’ve loved Joan Didion’s writing since I discovered her work at age eighteen (I share more about this in my essay on what Joan means to me), so to get the chance to interview her for Belletrist was an honor. We share a few things in common: our fondness for California; our journaling habit; and our love of acting.

We were able to dive into all of that and more during our conversation about her new book, South and West. In the process of interviewing this iconic author, and one of my personal heroes, I was once again overwhelmed by her wisdom, her work ethic, and her commitment to experiencing life.

California, 1968

Joan and John at Los Angeles Airport.

On being a writer

Emma
What was it like to go back through your notes? Sometimes I will watch a movie that I acted in and have zero recollection of the scene or ever even being in the movie. Do you ever read some notes & have no memory of writing them?
Joan
No—all too often I remember everything about writing them. I remember being in the places that I talk about, and wishing I could have a less clear idea of where I went wrong. Going through those notes was interesting, because they showed me a younger version of myself. That version was less interesting than I had hoped she was.
Emma
What came first: the idea of publishing something about the South and the West, or did you go through your notebooks and think to yourself, “I might have something here?”
Joan
I went through my notebooks and thought I might have something here. I’ve yet to discover whether I did or not. I know when most pieces are finished, but with these I never knew. At the moment, I don’t seem to be any closer to knowing.
Emma
Do you feel like being a journalist makes it hard for you to live in “the moment?” For me, as an actress, it’s hard because you're constantly using your life for your work. I guess what I mean is, when is your life just your life?
Joan
Your life is always just your life regardless of how you use it. I find it difficult to live in the moment. It’s hard to do that because we would rather not. We prefer to live at the furthest reach from ourselves.
Emma
In an interview in The Paris Review, you said that when you were a little girl you wrote stories, but you really wanted to be an actress. What changed? Did you ever go on auditions? What was that like for you? Do you think there’s more or less pressure and rejection in writing than in acting?
Joan
I think there’s the same amount of pressure. Writing and acting are the same in that each involves an exposure of some kind. Writing and acting differ only in the relationship each has with its audience. I never stopped wanting to be an actress—I still want to be one. I played little theater parts in Sacramento at the Repertory Theater, and I did some other things. Nothing major, though.
Emma
You’ve said before that writers are always selling somebody out. One of many of my fears about writing is that I will write something that will hurt someone, or I will write something that will come back to hurt me—that somehow the person I was when I was writing will be unsavory to the person I will be when I am reading what I wrote. How do you reconcile this? How do you let these fears go?
Joan
You just have to let those fears go.

San Francisco, 1967

Joan Didion in Golden Gate Park.

Building character

Emma
In South and West you talk about looking at old photos that your father took, that you, “Look at from time to time,” and you say that the girl in the photo is someone, “who resembles me." In the essay “Goodbye To All That” you reference the line from a song that was playing on the jukeboxes on the Upper East Side:  "...but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me?" Do you now feel disconnected from past selves? Is this something we all go through, especially women, because youth is so inextricably linked to beauty?
Joan
Youth and beauty being linked doesn’t have much to do with it. I sometimes feel disconnected from past selves, and I think that’s something we all go through. But we get over it because we have to. If we don’t get over it, we drown. If we don’t get over it, work becomes impossible.
Emma
In South and West you write “I had never expected to come to the Gulf Coast married.” Did you expect to come, unmarried, or is it that in writing that line you meant to say something larger about seeing yourself as a married person? I think young people, myself included, have an easy time imagining their weddings, but a more difficult time imagining married life. Did you ever feel uncomfortable with the idea of being seen as married or unmarried?
Joan
I always wanted to be married, and I loved being married. I loved being taken care of, and John did that. It never occurred to me to care how people saw it.
Emma
There’s a part in “California Notes” where you discuss your success, early on, both as a student, but also as a social person—one might even call it, in modern terms, “an overachiever,” and yet you explain that all you can remember is “…failing, failures and slights and refusals.” Why do you think this is? And maybe to make it about gender for a moment—is this a markedly feminine trait? To so readily recall flaws and failures? I certainly can relate...
Joan
I don’t think it’s a markedly feminine trait. For better or for worse, those are simply the things that I keep in my mind. I don’t know why that is, but these are thoughts that persist. I suspect I must find them useful on some level.
I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Malibu, 1976

Quintana Roo Dunne with her parents, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

A unique journey

Emma
“My weight was ninety-six and my fortune was ‘You are inclined to let your heart rule your head.’” Because I suffer from this misfortune—I must know: are you…inclined to let your heart rule your head?
Joan
No, I don’t let my heart rule my head—or at least I try not to.
Emma
In “California Notes” you write of an upbringing wherein you were doomed for unconventionality. What is it about being unconventional that ended up being unfortunate for you? Do you think that being unconventional is a gift or a curse? Especially for women?
Joan
I think being unconventional is a curse for anyone. I don’t know that it is worse for women. But it can give you a perspective that is unusual. It leaves you with no place to go.
Emma
One of my favorite moments in South and West is when you are at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Lunch and you hear one of the women saying “I never been anyplace I wanted to go.” I don’t really know how to react to that. At first read I found it profoundly sad. But I realized, like with a lot of your writing, you weren’t really calling upon the reader to feel bad for these women. I guess what I’m asking is: did you find any relief in being in The Gulf, so far away from your sources of “good” information?
Joan
I did not find the South to be a relief. I had lived there briefly as a child with my family, but on this later trip I did not feel at home there.
Emma
Is the journey you took something that, especially in this day-and-age, you would suggest to just about anyone trying to “clarify the pictures in their mind?” Or is it too much of a luxury in a time when so much is at stake?
Joan
I don’t consider it a luxury. Despite the fact that it didn’t work, it seemed to me to be something that I had to do.
Emma
As someone who keeps a journal, I have to ask, what is your journal of choice? Pen or pencil?
Joan
I just used spiral notebooks and I would then type up what I had written and keep it in a loose leaf binder. I use pen.

About the Book

From the best-selling author of the National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking: two extended excerpts from her never-before-seen notebooks–writings that offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary writer. Didion’s notes display her characteristic verbal power: details such as “bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas” (about New Orleans weather) punctuate this short volume. Students of social history, fans of Didion, and those seeking a quick, engaging read will appreciate this work: the raw immediacy of unedited prose by a master has an urgency that more polished works often lack.

© Brigitte Lacombe

About Joan Didion

Joan Didion is the author of five novels and nine books of nonfiction. Her collected nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, was published by Everyman’s Library in 2006. Born in Sacramento, California, Didion now lives in New York City.

Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, Blue Nights, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted, Miami, Political Fictions, Run River, Salvador, Where I Was From, and The Year of Magical Thinking are available in Vintage paperback.

About Emma Roberts

Emma Roberts is an actress & producer known for her roles in films such as We’re The Millers & Nerve, and the television series Scream Queens & American Horror Story. Born in New York, but raised in LA, Emma now splits her time between both, but prefers New Orleans. When she was 5 years old, Emma wrote a wish list, and at the top of it she wished “to own all the books in the world.” As of 2017, the wish has not been granted, but not for a lack of trying.

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