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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,
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Amy Tan,
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: 5 / 6)

National Book Award

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  Joan Didion

When did you and John Gregory Dunne first work on something together?

Joan Didion: We didn't collaborate until we wrote a screenplay, which I think was 1969. We did Panic in Needle Park. That's all we ever collaborated on was screenplays.

Did that change the balance of how you worked together as editors?

Joan Didion: No, because it was a totally different activity.

And also because you were dealing with a studio? As in A Star is Born?

Joan Didion: You're always dealing with somebody else. Yes.

We did A Star is Born in 1972 or '3, yeah. That movie was actually John's idea, because it was conceived as a rock-and-roll remake of A Star is Born. The names that came to mind were not necessarily the names who were going to be in it, but it was just two faces. It was Carly Simon and James Taylor, and Warner Brothers picked this up right away because they had a lot of music, so they got the idea. They had Warner Brothers music. So it was very easy to set up a contract, and Warner Brothers set up so we could do the research. We went out on tour with bands that summer and then wrote the screenplay, which we had a lot of fun doing because it was totally research. It was fun. You'd find yourself in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on a summer night with a really bad English metal band -- you know, I mean just hopeless -- and being really thrilled.

Then it got to be heavy weather on that picture because the question of casting came up, and it turned out to be a lot of other personalities involved.

As writers, you don't have that much control in movies.

Joan Didion: You don't on a movie, no. Never.

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 Interview Photo
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 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 Interview Photo
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.

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