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Joan Didion

Biography: Joan Didion
National Book Award

Joan Didion Date of birth: December 5, 1934

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Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California. Didion spent most of her childhood in Sacramento, except for several years during World War II, when she traveled across the county with her mother and brother to be near her father, who served in a succession of posts as an officer in the Army Air Corps. Her family had deep roots in the West; family tales of pioneer days informed her first novel, as well as her later memoir, Where I Was From.

By her own account, Didion was a shy, bookish child, although she also pushed herself to overcome her shyness through acting and public speaking. In her final year at the University of California, Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. The first prize was a job in the magazine's New York office. Didion remained at Vogue for two years, progressing from research assistant to contributing writer. At the same time, she published articles in other magazines and wrote her first novel, Run River (1963). Although the novel sold poorly, it attracted favorable reviews, and she was offered a contract to write a second book.

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In 1964, Didion married John Gregory Dunne, an aspiring novelist who was writing for Time magazine. The couple moved to Los Angeles with the intention of staying six months and ended up making their home there for the next 20 years. The pair adopted a baby girl they named Quintana Roo, after the state on the eastern coast of Mexico.

The atmosphere of California in the 1960s provided Didion and Dunne with ample opportunities for writing in the personal mode that was becoming known as the New Journalism, also associated with the writers Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese. Didion's essays on the '60s counterculture were collected in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Published to critical acclaim, the book is one of the signature works of the decade. Didion's second novel, Play It As it Lays (1970), set among aimless souls adrift at the edges of the film industry, captured a mood of anomie and alienation that crept over the film colony at the decade's close.

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Working in collaboration for the first time, Didion and Dunne wrote the screenplay for the film, Panic in Needle Park (1971). Set among homeless drug addicts in New York City, the film introduced film audiences to the actor Al Pacino. Their work on the film was much admired and the pair would become one of Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriting teams, a lucrative sideline to their journalism and fiction. Among the many screenplays they wrote together, the best known are screenplays for the film adaptation of Play It As it Lays (1972); the 1976 remake of A Star is Born , starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; the film version of Dunne's novel True Confessions (1981); and Up Close and Personal (1996) with Robert Redford.

Didion published a second volume of essays, The White Album, in 1979. She had won a national reputation as an intensely acute social observer and prose stylist; her voice was admired for its gemlike precision and elegance. In the 1980s, Didion's interest turned to the state of her country's relations with its southern neighbors, examined in two book-length essays, Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987). Travels in Central America and the Pacific also provided the background for novels of political intrigue, including A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996).

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Over the years, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne often found themselves in the position of explaining New York to Californians, and California to New Yorkers. In the mid 1980s, the couple moved back to New York City. Many of Didion's observations of the city appear in her essay collection After Henry (1992). Years of Didion's essays on American politics and government were collected in the volume Political Fictions (2001). Her thoughts turned back to California in Where I Was From (2003), a wide-ranging volume of reflections on California's past and present. Her first seven books of nonfiction have been collected in a single volume, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

In late 2003, Didion's daughter, Quintana, fell gravely ill. Shortly after returning from a visit to their comatose child in the hospital, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack. Joan Didion wrote a searing account of her journey through grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. At the time she finished the book, her daughter appeared to be recovering from her illness, but by the time the book was published, Quintana had died. The Year of Magical Thinking was published to widespread acclaim and received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. Didion continued to document her heartwrenching loss in the 2011 memoir Blue Nights, which directly addressed the death of her daughter, among wide-ranging observations on childhood, motherhood, grief, mortality and the aging process.




This page last revised on Nov 04, 2011 13:07 EST