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If you like Joan Didion's story, you might also like:
Maya Angelou,
Nora Ephron,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
Khaled Hosseini,
John Irving,
Norman Mailer,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields,
Amy Tan,
John Updike,
Gore Vidal
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

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

When one reads your prose, it feels like you just sat down and wrote it that way the first time, because it's so spare, and because the language is so powerful, but from what you are describing, there are actually a number of drafts.

Joan Didion: Endless drafts.

Has the computer helped you a lot?

Joan Didion: I didn't like it when I first began using it. Where it's helped me a lot is in non-fiction which is a kind of different process. You've got research, you've got your notes, You can block out what you want to work on for the next 10 pages and put it in another file, and then you can kind of carve it into shape. When you're writing fiction, you don't have notes necessarily. You don't carve it, it's not like a piece of sculpture, it's more like water color.

When you're writing fiction, do you know how it's going to turn out?

Joan Didion: Sometimes I do. I don't know how it's going to get there, but I know how it's going to end. For example, in The Last Thing He Wanted, which was my last novel, I knew that the end required a double set-up, but I didn't know what the set-up would be until I got there.

So what did you end up doing there?

Joan Didion Interview Photo
Joan Didion: This book had so complicated a plot that I had to write it in about three months in order to keep the plot in my mind. It's too complicated to explain, but basically she gets set up, and he gets set up. The way she is set up is she is supposed to have killed him. She apparently kills him. Now, actually, she doesn't kill him. Someone else kills him. A sniper kills him, but she is targeted as the alleged assassin because some Sandinista literature will be discovered in her hotel room. It was a double set-up.

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