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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

National Book Award

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Joan Didion

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?

Joan Didion Interview Photo
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.

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