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Joan Didion

Interview: Joan Didion
National Book Award

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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When did you first see yourself as a writer?

Joan Didion: When I was about five, because I started writing things down. I mean, I didn't see myself as a professional writer, obviously. I had no concept of that. I didn't see myself as a writer until after I had published.

Did you ever consider any other career path?

Joan Didion: At one point, I made a decision. When I was in my early 20s, I was writing a first novel at night. I was working for Vogue during the day, and I was bored with working for Vogue, and I was having trouble with the novel, and I was living in one dark room, and I was tired of living this way, and so I decided to become an oceanographer. So I went out to the Scripps Institute to try to find out how to implement this, and, of course, I learned that I was so lacking in basic science that I would have to go back to the seventh grade and start over. So I didn't do that.

Why oceanography?

Joan Didion: I've always been fascinated with marine geography and how deep things are. I was spellbound by the tsunami, for example, I mean by the actual maps. There is just something about the unseen bottom of the sea that has always fascinated me, how deep is it.

So you decided you really didn't want to go back to seventh-grade science?

Joan Didion: Right. I was not going. It was an unpractical plan.

Going back further, you were obviously drawn to the written word. What did you like to read as a kid?

Joan Didion: I just read everything I could get my hands on. I taught myself to read or my mother taught me. Who knows how I learned to read? It was before I went to school, so I would go to the library and just take things off the shelf. My mother had to sign a piece of paper saying I could take adult books.

That was nice of her. Are there particular books that you remember really enjoying?

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Joan Didion: I read so ravenously that I would read through whole categories. I was crazy about reading biographies, because it told how you got from the helpless place I was to being Katherine Cornell, say.

A lot of the people we've interviewed for this project read biographies as children.

Joan Didion: I think biographies are very urgent to children. I don't find myself reading biography with the same urgency now.

Do you think it gave you a vision of what could be accomplished?

Joan Didion: It was a "how to." How to do this.

What fiction did you like?

Joan Didion: I liked Hemingway. Those sentences just knocked me out. In fact, I taught myself to type by typing out the beginning of Farewell to Arms and a couple of short stories. I was just trying to learn how to type, but you get those rhythms in your head.

That's interesting, because conciseness and the power of spare language is something that's often associated with your work as well.

Joan Didion: The thing about Hemingway sentences is that they are really loaded. Every comma and absence of a comma makes a huge difference, and it's really been deliberated. This is also true of Norman Mailer. We sometimes don't realize what a great stylist he is. One place you notice it is in The Executioner's Song, where he was using a deliberately reduced language, and in another place you notice it is the changes he made in The Deer Park, which I think appear in Advertisements For Myself. He calls it totally rewriting it. Well, it was totally rewriting it in terms of its effect, but he was actually doing very little. He was breaking up the sentences.

It's like a crucible, paring things down to their essence. Is that what appealed to you about these writers?

Joan Didion: Yes. It always seems to me that anything extra detracts from the point.

How did you do at school? You said you learned to read before you started school. Was school boring?

Joan Didion: It was boring.

I didn't go to school for a few years. I went to kindergarten, and I went to first grade, but then it was World War II, and my father was in the Army Air Corps. He didn't leave the country, because he was over-age, but we were following him from place to place. So sometimes I went to school, and sometimes I didn't, until about the fourth grade, I guess. So there were certain things I missed, like subtraction, and I still have trouble subtracting.

You moved on to multiplication before subtraction.

Joan Didion: Shakily, yes.

In your book, Where I Was From, you say at one point you lived with your mother and brother, all in one room, in the house of another family.

Joan Didion: Yep, we did.

There was no place to live during World War II around Army bases or airfields because suddenly there was this huge influx into the town, and there was just no place to live. I remember when we got to Fort Lewis, which was the first place we went, I can remember my mother going in every single day to the Army housing office, which was in town, to see if there was a room that day, and meanwhile, we were living in a hotel with a shared bathroom. It was in sort of a nice part of town. I don't think it was a bad hotel, but it was a period of American life when hotels rooms didn't necessarily come with bathrooms. So my mother, I remember her emptying an entire bottle of pine-scented disinfectant into the bathtub every time she gave us a bath.

You were living at one point with a fundamentalist preacher and his family who ate a lot of peach ice cream.

Joan Didion: Sit on the porch and eat peach ice cream every night, yeah.

Each from their own quart carton.

Joan Didion: Yes. They were big too. The daughters had a full set of Gone With the Wind paper dolls. I remember that. Not much else.

What effect do you think all that moving around and displacement had on your personality and on your sense of the importance of place?

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Joan Didion: think it had an enormous influence. It made me feel perpetually like an outsider. It very rapidly punctured the idea that I was smarter than other people. I had been put ahead in California schools and then, because then I hadn't gone to school for a couple of years, I was immediately put back. So I was kind of the dumb new girl in the class, and that had a certain effect. As far as my sense of place, I idealized Sacramento during those years. I was just yearning to get home.

How old were you when you stopped moving around?

Joan Didion: I was nine or ten when we stopped moving around. I think we came back to Sacramento in 1943 or early '44. My father went to Detroit, and we didn't go to Detroit with him. He went to Detroit to settle out defense contracts. They were trying to settle out the World War I contracts, so they could begin to settle out the World War II contracts. He was working on that, and then he came back when the war ended. But I think mother just couldn't face looking for another room in Detroit.

So for at least a while there, she was a single mom?

Joan Didion: Yes. We lived with her mother.

Moving around as you did must have made it very difficult socially in school.

Joan Didion: It did, and I was sort of a shy child to begin with. It didn't improve that situation.

Were you able to connect with any teachers? Were there any teachers that recognized your gifts?

Joan Didion: No, not at that time. Not during that grammar school period. When I got back to Sacramento and sort of caught up, there were teachers who were very helpful. I remember a high school English teacher, and I remember another high school English teacher who wasn't mine, but I knew her because she was an actress, and I was doing little theater. Sacramento had a repertory theater, and I was playing children because I was small. I was old enough to go downtown by myself. I could go to the rehearsals at night and still look like a tiny child. So that was a perfect set-up. She always had the lead in these plays that I would play the child in, and so I became very fond of her.

How did you land a job at Vogue?

Joan Didion: Vogue used to have a contest for college seniors called the Prix de Paris, and my mother had pointed it out to me when we were living in Colorado Springs during the war, and we were snowbound, and we were looking through Vogue. We had all these little entertainments, and she pointed it out to me as something I could win when I got old enough. So lo and behold, I entered it, and I did win it. So the prize at that time was a job.

A full-time job? Doing what?

Joan Didion: Well, for the first year, I think all I did was read old Vogues. I read through World War II in Vogue. It was kind of interesting and heartbreaking, because there was a piece in 1941, not long before December 7th, by a commentator of note named John Vandercook. It was about Pearl Harbor, and he kept talking about it as our one fortress in the vast Pacific. I sat there reading it with tears running down my face. And then I started writing merchandising copy and then promotional copy and then finally editorial copy. I was in the feature department.

Did you see yourself with a career in magazine writing at that point?

Joan Didion: I was doing pieces for other magazines too, and I knew I could do pieces for magazines, but I was trying to write a novel at night. I did not see a career for myself on the staff of a magazine, because I had no interest in the politics involved. I had no interest in dressing right and doing all of the things that you had to do if you were on a career track.

Did Vogue have a dress code?

Joan Didion: Dress code? You had to wear a hat in the office at that time. In fact, the nurse assured me that the reason I had a cold was because I wasn't wearing my hat in the office. She said you lose 90 percent of your body heat in your head. There was a great metaphor in what she was saying. Of course, the reason I was sick and not happy is because I wasn't wearing my hat in the office, I wasn't playing the game.

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.

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.

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?

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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.

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?

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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.

Do you carve out certain hours of the day that are devoted to writing, or is it sort of as the mood strikes you?

Joan Didion: I work every day. Sometimes I don't accomplish anything every day, but if I don't work every day, I get depressed and get afraid to start again. So I do something every day.

Seven days a week?

Joan Didion: Yeah. Obviously, today I'm not doing something, and tomorrow I'm not doing something because I'm flying. So it will take me about three days this week to get to working again.

So you feel like if you stay away from it for very long, you won't feel confident enough to go back. Even today?

Joan Didion: Even more so now, because I know I'll lose the impetus to do it.

We interviewed John Updike, and he said when he sees his books in the bookstore, he always feels like he got away with something. It's astonishing that someone of his stature would still have that insecurity.

Joan Didion: It's not an occupation that attracts really secure people. I've never really examined it, but I suppose it's a kind of secret activity which you can undertake on your own. In fact, you need to undertake it on your own. It doesn't increase your socialization.

You have said that you write to find out how you feel.

Joan Didion: And what you think.

When commentators look at your work, they sometimes group you with the so-called "New Journalists" --Tom Wolfe and so on. In your non-fiction, you've always been present as a character, as a protagonist in a way.

Joan Didion: I had a strong feeling that it was necessary, that there was no reason to trust the reporter unless you knew where the reporter was. And if you didn't know where the reporter was standing, then I really objected to the notion of objectivity, soi disant objectivity, because it didn't seem to me very real. The reporter is always standing someplace.

Joan Didion: I don't mean that he is biased, you just want to know where he's standing, so that you can triangulate different reports from different people against each other.

It's paradoxical. You've described yourself as being soft-spoken, yet in your writing, you are very outspoken.

Joan Didion: That's another sneaky part of it. It's a place where I can be someone other than my exact face to the world.

So there's a difference between how you are in the world and your writing?

Joan Didion: I think there is less of a difference now, but there certainly was a difference.

Could you tell us about how you met John Gregory Dunne and how you came to work together as a team?

Joan Didion: We were friends for a long time before we decided to get married. I met him, he was working for Time. He was writing foreign news for Time, and he was just someone I liked and he made me laugh, and we would occasionally have lunch. We had friends in common. Then, for some reason -- I don't remember exactly why -- but one night we had dinner. He said he was going to drive to Hartford the next day -- he was from Hartford -- did I want to come up, and I said sure. So I went up to Hartford, where his family lived, and I was so taken with this entire family that we started seeing each other in a more serious light. Really, at that time, he was, as I said, working for Time. I had published one novel. Neither one of us was very well established, and we went to California and started supporting ourselves by writing pieces. So that required one or the other of us -- me to read his pieces, him to read my pieces. So we began to trust each other as first reader.

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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

Had you seen yourself as someone who, generally speaking, did not indulge in magical thinking?

Joan Didion: Right. I had. But in fact, I realized later that I had thought magically all along, because John had a heart condition which I persisted in thinking had been fixed, even though he was not under that misapprehension.

So, from comments he made, you think he knew that this would be how he would go?

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Joan Didion: Yes, a sense. It's hard to take seriously the idea that you can't control something. There's nowhere to go with that idea. It's not useful. So I tended to reject it.

Maybe that's why people tend to blame themselves in some way for the death of a parent, for instance. If they had only come to the hospital an hour earlier.

Joan Didion: Yeah. All children think that. If I had eaten, if I had not opened the window when they told me not to. Most of us have felt that, all children do.

Sometimes it's easier to feel guilt than to feel lack of control. Isn't it?

Joan Didion: Yeah. It's a grandiose reaction. You are claiming you could really control this, but you failed.

What did writing the book do for you?

Joan Didion: It organized it. It gave it a shape. It showed me what I thought about it. It enabled me to grieve, actually.

Was it very difficult to write this book, especially, without his advice, or his editorial eye?

Joan Didion: It was less difficult than the first piece I did after he died, which was on the campaign that year. That was very difficult. This book, for some reason, I thought it was as if he had read it because he was so much a part of it.

Do you feel that? Do you feel a sense that John as an editor is still with you?

Joan Didion: I certainly did with that book. I don't know about all the time.

It was very generous of you to share your experience with grief and magical thinking, because it's something that most people don't admit to.

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Joan Didion: The whole thing was such a surprise to me, I felt like, "You've got to tell somebody this." It was a didactic impulse.

What lies ahead for you?

Joan Didion: Well, I have just done a theatrical adaptation of that book. It won't be produced until the spring of 2007.

You have a very great actress for the play, Vanessa Redgrave. Was she your choice?

Joan Didion: She was all of our choices. I mean, the three of us: me, the producer, and the director. There was no disagreement.

Once again, you're revealing a very intimate part of yourself. Is that difficult, or did it feel like the right thing to do?

Joan Didion: It never feels difficult to me. When you write, you're always revealing a difficult part of yourself. It may not be a part of yourself that looks as difficult -- there are parts that look more difficult -- but in fact, they are all difficult, and you get kind of used to doing that. It is sort of the nature of the thing.

Way back in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, you wrote that a writer is always selling somebody out.

Joan Didion: I meant that in a different way than most people read it.

If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they're not used to being written about -- this doesn't hold true of public figures -- but if they're civilians, they're not used to seeing themselves through other people's eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.

Was there ever any self-consciousness on your part with regard to family? You describe your mother as being very opinionated and having some very set views. In view of your own outspokenness as an author, was that ever difficult?

Joan Didion: Not as an author, because they weren't a part of that, but I used to have stage fright when I spoke in public. Sometimes it would come, and sometimes it wouldn't come, and only about two years ago, I suddenly realized that the only two instances when I had had such stage fright that I had been throwing up all day before the event, both of them involved the presence of both of my parents.

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You've written so much about dark chapters in our country's history. What is the state of the American Dream today, as you see it?

Joan Didion: I don't know. I hardly ever think about it. I don't really think in those abstract terms.

Is democracy viable, do you think, the way the government operates?

Joan Didion: It's certainly not working the way it's being operated right now. It's being dismantled. Not only democracy, but the entire apparatus. Partly, that's ideological, and partly I think it was just a way of some people enriching themselves.

The title of your book, Political Fictions, says a great deal, but you've written about the sense of received wisdom, that people kind of swallow what they want to swallow. Do you think it's possible for a U.S. leader to tell the truth? Do people want to hear it?

Joan Didion: I don't know. Isn't it odd? It's hard to know whether it matters to large numbers of Americans. That's the really discouraging thing. If we could quiet down and maybe not communicate for a period of time, everything might cool off and people wouldn't jump into these reflexive polarized positions.

Thank you for the interview. We really appreciate it.

Joan Didion: Thank you.




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