What do Harrison Ford and Joan Didion have in common? They’ll both be at the PEN Center USA awards dinner in October, where he will present her with the lifetime achievement award. Their connection is personal rather than literary: The actor and author have known each other since 1971, when the not-yet movie star built her beach house.
“He was a carpenter,” she explains by phone from New York. “I was happy with his work -- and even happier with his presence in the house because he was a great moral force.”
PEN Center USA creates a bridge between writing as a creative and political act, making the choice of Didion for the award -- previously given to Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others -- particularly fitting because she has crossed that bridge many times in her work.
She won the National Book Award for the beautifully written, very personal 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Decades earlier, she published the novels “A Book of Common Prayer” and “Democracy” that explored America’s involvement in Central America.
“Not many people were speaking truth to power in the ’80s,” she says. “I had a really good time doing it — I found it gratifying. It was a joy to have an opportunity to say what you believed. It’s challenging to do it in fiction, but I liked writing the novels. I liked writing ‘Democracy’ particularly.”
Didion was one of the pioneers of New Journalism, a term coined by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s to describe true stories told with the flair of fiction. A meticulous prose stylist with a keen eye for melancholy and irony, Didion leapt to the national stage with her 1968 essay collection, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”
Angelenos tend to think of Didion as one of our own -- she and her husband lived here and wrote for Hollywood for 24 years -- and PEN board member Jamie Wolf hails “Slouching” and “The White Album” as Los Angeles favorites, as well as declaring “Play It As It Lays” to be “a real classic of L.A. fiction.”
PEN’s October award presentation event, to be held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, serves as both fundraiser and membership celebration. It’s the best place to rub shoulders with big-name novelists, free-speech activists and Harrison Ford all at once.
At the event, the First Amendment award will be presented to Chris Hedges, author of “Death of the Liberal Class,” “Empire of Illusion” and, with Joe Sacco, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.”
Filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole will receive the Freedom to Write Award, and Kickstarter founders Perry Chen, Charles Adler and Yancey Strickler will receive the Award of Honor.
PEN has announced the full list of 2013 literary prize winners, led by newcomer Ramona Ausubel, who wins in the fiction category for her novel “Nobody Is Here Except All of Us.”
Seth Rosenfeld takes the research nonfiction prize for “Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power”; Joy Harjo in creative nonfiction for “Crazy Brave”; Mark Boal for his screenplay for “Zero Dark Thirty”; Danny Strong, who wins for his teleplay for HBO’s “Game Change”; Amanda Auchter in poetry for “The Wishing Tomb”; Philip Boehm, for translation of “An Ermine in Czernopol,” originally by Gregor von Rezzori; Michael Harmon in children's literature for “Under the Bridge”; Ed Leibowitz for journalism for “The Takeover Artist” in Los Angeles Magazine; and Dan O’Brien for drama with “The Body of an American.”