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THe New Yorker
Joan Didion Interview (page: 5 / 6)
National Book Award
You and your husband came out to Los Angeles, initially, for a period of months and ended up staying for many years.
Joan Didion: We came out for six months. John had taken a six-month leave of absence from Time, and we stayed about 24 years.
What made you stay?
Joan Didion: We were crazy about it. We just loved it. I didn't even notice that six months had slipped into a year. John must have noticed because he must have told them he was going to be gone another six months. It was a very liberating place to live after a period of living in New York. It was just easier to do everything, like take your clothes to the laundry.
Did you feel more at home out here in Los Angeles?
Joan Didion: Yeah, I did. And also there weren't a lot of people talking to me at all times about their advances. We were totally in another climate.
Did he give up his job at Time?
Joan Didion: He left Time after either two or two-and-a-half years. He got a letter from the managing editor saying either come back or -- or it might be time to quit. Basically, he had just been hanging on, sort of stringing this along because he wanted to stay on the health plan, but we converted the health plan and moved on.
There are so many different aspects of California life in that era that come up in your writings. One that stands out is the Manson murders and how they jolted the town from its previous state of self-satisfaction or complacency. Could you tell us about that?
Joan Didion: What struck me about the Manson murders was how at the moment they happened, it seemed as if they were inevitable. It seemed as if we had been moving toward that moment for about a year.
There were a lot of rumors about stuff, a lot of stuff going on around town, which you would kind of hear about on the edges of your mind and not want to know any more about. After the fact, it was kind of amazing to see how many lives had intersected with the Manson Family's. I can remember we had a baby-sitter from Nayarit then, and she was very frightened on the night of the murders, or the afternoon when we heard about the murders, and I assured her, "Don't worry. It has nothing to do with us," but it did. It had to do with everyone. Then later I was interviewing Linda Kasabian, who was the wheel person -- she wasn't the "wheel man," she was the "wheel person" -- for the LaBianca murder. I can't remember. Maybe also for Tate. But anyway, the night they did the LaBianca murder, they were driving along Franklin Avenue looking for a place to hit, and that's where we lived, and we had French windows open, lights blazing all along on the street.
Too close to home. Wasn't there almost a sense that if this can happen to these people, anything can happen to anyone?
Joan Didion: Yes. There was a kind of conflicting sense that a lot of people had that they had somehow done it to themselves, that it had to do with too much sex, drugs and rock and roll.
So the swinging '60s in Hollywood turned out to be a darker period than we like to remember?
Joan Didion: Yeah. Well, it was much darker than it was anyplace else, I think. It didn't seem very dark in San Francisco, and in New York, it just kind of seemed like another version of New York. This was pretty specific.
What finally prompted you to leave Los Angeles?
Joan Didion: I don't know. John was between books. He was sort of restless. Our daughter was at Barnard. We were living in Brentwood Park in a house we had moved to when she was in the seventh grade, so she could go to school in town. Suddenly it seemed as if there was no particular reason to stay. We had a small apartment in New York, and we were spending a lot of time in this small apartment, and it seemed kind of silly to be supporting this house and dog and growing lemons which got FedExed to us in New York and meanwhile living uncomfortably in this small apartment. It wasn't adding up.
Did it feel right to go back to New York?
Joan Didion: No. I was quite desolate for about a year. We moved in April of '88, and in June, I had to come back to Los Angeles. I was doing a piece on the campaign, and I came out on Jesse Jackson's plane just before the California primary in June. The plane landed in LAX, and we got on a bus to go to a rally in South Central, and I was just in tears the whole way. I just said I couldn't even deal with the rally because it was so beautiful. Los Angeles was so beautiful, and I had given it up. It took me a while to get sorted out. I've still got boxes that haven't been unpacked.
We'd like to turn to your most recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. When did you start writing it? Was it right after your husband's death?
Joan Didion: No. John died in December 2003. I started writing it in October 2004. In between, Quintana had been in the hospital the whole time, so I really was not thinking about writing anything. Then I had to do a piece about the campaign that year. So I did the conventions. Then I realized I didn't feel like doing the book I was under contract to do, and at some point, I had started making these notes. So I decided to do that. They weren't notes for a book. They were just notes. Everybody who undergoes a death and finds themselves grieving is obsessed with -- or maybe overly focused on -- the idea that they can't display self-pity, they have to be strong. Actually there are a lot of reasons why you are going to feel sorry for yourself, but that's your first concern.
You've written that in our society, grief is sort of frowned upon.
Joan Didion: Right. It's a sense that you get over it, that it's a progressive thing. You have this few days before the funeral, and then it's time to move on, start the healing process.
It doesn't work that way, does it?
Joan Didion: No.
Sometimes, a year after someone's death is when it really kicks in.
Joan Didion: Sometimes it kicks in at a year, or at odd times. It keeps kicking in is what I've found, for no particular reason. Suddenly, it will hit you one day when you thought you were perfectly beyond it.
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