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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,
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John Irving,
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John Updike,
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and Tom Wolfe

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Joan Didion
Joan Didion
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Joan Didion Interview (page: 3 / 6)

National Book Award

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  Joan Didion

When you were working at Vogue in the '60s, did you already see yourself as an independent essayist?

Joan Didion: I was writing pieces that I just sent out. I really didn't have any control over them.

I did see myself as a novelist, even though I was having trouble finishing this first novel. After it was published, it was only read by about ten people, but they happened to be ten people who gave it to ten other people and eventually -- you know, not only was it not a commercial success, it wasn't by any means, I don't think, a success on its own terms. I didn't know how to do it, and it ended up, because I didn't know how to do it -- I wanted to have a shattered narrative, but I didn't have a clue how to do that, and so it was confusing. So the publisher pressed me to straighten out the chronology, so it became just a simple novel with a flashback, which wasn't my intention at all. But anyway, enough people read it so that I was offered a contract for a second novel.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

What was the first novel called?

Joan Didion: Well, that was another thing. It was called Run River, but that was the publisher's title. I said, "What does it mean?" He said, "It means life goes on," and I said, "That's not what the book is about."

And what was the second book?

Joan Didion: The second was Play It As It Lays.

You've said that one of your intentions in that work was to write a novel that moved so fast that it would be over before you noticed it, so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page.

Joan Didion: I just wanted to write a fast novel. You always have a vision of what kind of object a piece of fiction is going to be, or anything that you're making. In that case, it was going to exist in a white space. It was going to exist between the paragraphs. Some of the chapters are only three or four lines long in that book, and I found a way to speed it up. I had started it -- just because I didn't know how else to start it -- I started it with two or three characters (who) have short first-person statements, and then it goes into a "close third" for what appears to be the rest of the book, but as the book comes to an end and starts gaining momentum, you can pick up a lot of momentum by going back to this device from the beginning. This sounds so technical. You go back to that first person and shorter and shorter bursts, and it really gives you a lot of speed. So I was sort of thrilled with that.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

It was a fairly revolutionary structure, wasn't it, to employ both third- and first-person narrators that way?

Joan Didion: There is nothing you can't do, it turns out.

Faulkner, in As I Lay Dying, used all these different first-person narrators, but you mixed that up even further by having first and third-person narrators. When you say you wanted the book to move fast, do you mean you want the reader to kind of gobble it up?

Joan Didion Interview Photo
Joan Didion: I always want everything read in one sitting. If they can't read it in one sitting, you're going to lose the rhythm of it. You're going to lose the shape of it. I myself love to read those Victorian novels which go on and on, and you don't read them in one sitting. You might read one over the course of a summer, but that isn't what I want to write.

To this day, your books are fairly short, for the most part. Did a publisher ever give you any trouble about that?

Joan Didion: No. Publishers now, it turns out, like short books. They didn't used to like short books, but they are now convinced that that's what people want.

I would imagine that it's harder to write a short book because every word has to be so exact. Isn't it easier to write long?

Joan Didion: It might be for some people, but it wouldn't be for me because I would lose interest as it kind of meandered on.

It sounds like, for you, writing is, in large part, editing.

Joan Didion: It happens in the course of writing.

I can't go on if it's not pretty much the way that it should be. Towards the beginning of a book, I will go back to page one every day and rewrite. I'll start out the day with some marked-up pages that I have marked up the night before, and by the time you get to page, maybe, 270, you are not going back to page 1 necessarily anymore, but you're going back to page 158 and starting over from there.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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