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If you like Joan Didion's story, you might also like:
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Nora Ephron,
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Nadine Gordimer,
Khaled Hosseini,
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and Tom Wolfe

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Joan Didion
 
Joan Didion
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Joan Didion Interview (page: 2 / 6)

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  Joan Didion

In your book, Where I Was From, you say at one point you lived with your mother and brother, all in one room, in the house of another family.

Joan Didion: Yep, we did.


There was no place to live during World War II around Army bases or airfields because suddenly there was this huge influx into the town, and there was just no place to live. I remember when we got to Fort Lewis, which was the first place we went, I can remember my mother going in every single day to the Army housing office, which was in town, to see if there was a room that day, and meanwhile, we were living in a hotel with a shared bathroom. It was in sort of a nice part of town. I don't think it was a bad hotel, but it was a period of American life when hotels rooms didn't necessarily come with bathrooms. So my mother, I remember her emptying an entire bottle of pine-scented disinfectant into the bathtub every time she gave us a bath.


You were living at one point with a fundamentalist preacher and his family who ate a lot of peach ice cream.

Joan Didion: Sit on the porch and eat peach ice cream every night, yeah.

Each from their own quart carton.

Joan Didion: Yes. They were big too. The daughters had a full set of Gone With the Wind paper dolls. I remember that. Not much else.

What effect do you think all that moving around and displacement had on your personality and on your sense of the importance of place?

Joan Didion Interview Photo
Joan Didion: think it had an enormous influence. It made me feel perpetually like an outsider. It very rapidly punctured the idea that I was smarter than other people. I had been put ahead in California schools and then, because then I hadn't gone to school for a couple of years, I was immediately put back. So I was kind of the dumb new girl in the class, and that had a certain effect. As far as my sense of place, I idealized Sacramento during those years. I was just yearning to get home.

How old were you when you stopped moving around?

Joan Didion: I was nine or ten when we stopped moving around. I think we came back to Sacramento in 1943 or early '44. My father went to Detroit, and we didn't go to Detroit with him. He went to Detroit to settle out defense contracts. They were trying to settle out the World War I contracts, so they could begin to settle out the World War II contracts. He was working on that, and then he came back when the war ended. But I think mother just couldn't face looking for another room in Detroit.

So for at least a while there, she was a single mom?

Joan Didion: Yes. We lived with her mother.

Moving around as you did must have made it very difficult socially in school.

Joan Didion: It did, and I was sort of a shy child to begin with. It didn't improve that situation.

Were you able to connect with any teachers? Were there any teachers that recognized your gifts?

Joan Didion: No, not at that time. Not during that grammar school period. When I got back to Sacramento and sort of caught up, there were teachers who were very helpful. I remember a high school English teacher, and I remember another high school English teacher who wasn't mine, but I knew her because she was an actress, and I was doing little theater. Sacramento had a repertory theater, and I was playing children because I was small. I was old enough to go downtown by myself. I could go to the rehearsals at night and still look like a tiny child. So that was a perfect set-up. She always had the lead in these plays that I would play the child in, and so I became very fond of her.

How did you land a job at Vogue?


Joan Didion: Vogue used to have a contest for college seniors called the Prix de Paris, and my mother had pointed it out to me when we were living in Colorado Springs during the war, and we were snowbound, and we were looking through Vogue. We had all these little entertainments, and she pointed it out to me as something I could win when I got old enough. So lo and behold, I entered it, and I did win it. So the prize at that time was a job.

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A full-time job? Doing what?

Joan Didion: Well, for the first year, I think all I did was read old Vogues. I read through World War II in Vogue. It was kind of interesting and heartbreaking, because there was a piece in 1941, not long before December 7th, by a commentator of note named John Vandercook. It was about Pearl Harbor, and he kept talking about it as our one fortress in the vast Pacific. I sat there reading it with tears running down my face. And then I started writing merchandising copy and then promotional copy and then finally editorial copy. I was in the feature department.

Did you see yourself with a career in magazine writing at that point?

Joan Didion: I was doing pieces for other magazines too, and I knew I could do pieces for magazines, but I was trying to write a novel at night. I did not see a career for myself on the staff of a magazine, because I had no interest in the politics involved. I had no interest in dressing right and doing all of the things that you had to do if you were on a career track.

Did Vogue have a dress code?

Joan Didion: Dress code? You had to wear a hat in the office at that time. In fact, the nurse assured me that the reason I had a cold was because I wasn't wearing my hat in the office. She said you lose 90 percent of your body heat in your head. There was a great metaphor in what she was saying. Of course, the reason I was sick and not happy is because I wasn't wearing my hat in the office, I wasn't playing the game.

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This page last revised on Mar 28, 2011 11:26 EDT