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Authors Share Personal Footnotes : Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe Speak to Literati at PEN Meeting

Times Staff Writer

Why not get right down to it, Calvin Trillin said in introducing Joan Didion at the Royale Theater:

“I think the way to begin an introduction of Joan Didion to a New York literary crowd is obviously to read the letter of recommendation I wrote for her and her family when she was looking for a co-op apartment here.”

The capacity audience gathered for this latest in a series of eight celebrations benefitting the writers’ group PEN roared. Among the literati, nabbing the perfect New York co-op is a coup on much the same level as bagging a seven-figure advance.

The Didion-Dunne Household

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So Trillin explained in his letter that “the male nurse” in residence in the household of Didion and her writer husband John Gregory Dunne had as his primary responsibility the job of accompanying Dunne home after evenings on the town. Quintana, the Dunnes’ 16-year-old daughter, made no more noise at home than any other aspiring hard-rock drummer, Trillin wrote, and oh, yes, “the dog that ate the UPS man was hers.”

As for Didion, “I don’t know if there is anything left to say about her,” Trillin said. “You probably know that she is from California.”

For that matter, “she’s not from California in the sense that we use it here: ‘She just flew in from California . . . ‘ “

No, said Trillin, “she is seriously from California. She is from California for a very long time.”

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In fact, “her mother’s family, I learned after talking to her, settled in the Sacramento Valley sometime in the 15th Century.

“California novelist,” Trillin said, “has become part of her name, ‘California novelist Joan Didion.’ ” But “her friends found it rather awkward to say, ‘Hello, California novelist Joan Didion,’ ” prompting Didion to reply, “ ‘as we used to say when I was growing up in the Sacramento Valley, hello.’ ”

Lavishly, Trillin praised Didion’s skill as a reporter, notably in her books, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and, more recently, her account of the troubles in Central America in “Salvador.”

“Some of it is not cheerful,” Trillin said in one of the evening’s more colossal understatements. “I say that because some years ago I signed a document saying that if I ever introduced her I would not use the words angst or despair.

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Ritual at the Podium

Characteristically frail, almost bird-like, Didion hunched over the microphone as she took to the stage. First she fiddled with a sheaf of papers, meticulously arranging them and rearranging them. Then she removed her watch and laid it out in front of her. A volume of Didion’s, her novel “Democracy,” was carefully placed in a corner on the lectern.

This process, it turned out, was also part of the Didion speaking ritual: “The first time I ever taught,” she began, “it was at UCLA in 1967. I was afraid to begin talking in the classroom, so three times a week, I would go in and I would look at them, and they would look at me, and I would do all these tricks. I would lay out my watch and arrange my papers, look at a picture of my daughter, and then I would go out and get a Coke.”

Apparently Didion’s students found this rather mesmerizing. After all, said Didion, “it was probably the only class they had where they got to watch a grown woman drink a Coke.”

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Eventually, said Didion, one student would summon courage to ask a question. “It was as if they had drawn straws while I was gone,” she said, to determine who would speak. The student would say something like, “Miss Didion, that paper . . . “

“And I would say ‘Yes,’ ” Didion said, “and then I had spoken a word.”

The student would say, “You said 10 pages. Does that mean double spaced?”

And so then Didion, relieved, could discourse on the comparative virtues of double- and single-spaced writing.

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Didion’s stage fright is legendary, even if now she clearly has learned to laugh about it. Her discomfort in speaking publicly has earned her a reputation as something of a recluse. But Sunday, surrounded by this theater full of peers and admirers, supporters all of the 48th International PEN Congress to be held in New York in January, Didion seemed almost relaxed, and certainly highly forthcoming.

She began, for example, by borrowing from an early essay, “Why I Write,” a “title I stole from George Orwell.” Didion picked that title, she said, because “there you had three short, unambiguous words that shared a sound: I, I, I.”

“In many ways,” she said, “writing is the act of saying I, imposing yourself on other people.”

Writing, said Didion, “is an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise the aggressiveness any way you want. But there’s no getting around the fact that the act of putting your words on paper is the act of a secret bully.”

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For Didion, 51, there was almost no choice but to write: “Like many writers, I have only this one area, writing. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual. I do not think in abstracts.”

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Didion said, “I would try, try, try to buy some sort of temporary visa into the world of ideas. In short, I would try to think.

“I failed.”

What happened was that “I would try to contemplate Marx and instead would contemplate the flowers on the pear tree outside my window.” In the end, Didion said, “I had trouble graduating from Berkeley.” When the time came when, “for complicated reasons,” she needed a degree by the end of the summer, “I was majoring in English, but I had neglected to take a course in Milton.”

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Eventually, after some negotiations, “the English department agreed that if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and discuss the cosmology in ‘Paradise Lost’ they would certify me proficient in Milton.”

Credit for Milton

Once a week, Didion said, she would board the Greyhound bus or the City of San Francisco, Southern Pacific’s proud old train, and make her way from Sacramento to Berkeley. Still, nearly 30 years later, the lights from the oil refineries at the Carquinez Straits continue to burn in her brain.

Now, all these years later, Didion said, after writing “10,000 words” on Milton, “I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the moon at the center of the universe in ‘Paradise Lost.’ But I can recall the exact rancidity of the butter on the City of San Francisco.

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“Even then,” said Didion, “I was on the periphery.”

What she has realized, Didion said, is that, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking of, what I want and what it means.”

Even today, for example, she wonders, “Why did the oil refinery at the Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in 1956?”

Praised so often for the precision of her words, the clarity of her vision, Didion writes from some inner guide. Of grammar, she said, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”

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Her stories, essays, screenplays start often from a single image. “This picture in your mind dictates the arrangement.”

For instance, as she started to write “Play It As It Lays,” she had just one scene in her brain: a young woman in a white halter dress, walking across the lobby of the Riviera Hotel casino in Las Vegas, and picking up the house phone. “I had no idea of character or even incident. I had an idea to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you even knew it.”

In writing “A Book of Common Prayer,” Didion said she was haunted by the memory of landing at the airport in Panama at 6 in the morning. In the book, that mind-picture became this sentence, midway through the novel: “I knew why Charlotte went to the airport, even if Victor did not. I knew about airports.”

As she penned that phrase, Didion admitted that she really didn’t know who Charlotte was, much less why she went to the airport. She had no idea who Victor was, and hadn’t even firmly established the voice of the narrator.

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“Had I known the answer to any of those questions, I would not have had to write the novel at all.”

To loud applause, Didion fairly slipped off the stage. Soon master of ceremonies Jerzy Kosinski was back on stage, and in what has become a minor PEN celebration tradition, Kosinski was eagerly introducing the next introducer. “Since Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are married,” Kosinski had said earlier, “it has to be assumed that they have been introduced.” So Dunne, as big and burly as Didion is diminutive, was charged with bringing on the evening’s closing act, writer-impresario Tom Wolfe.

“We seem to be talking a great deal about the Dunnes’ real estate,” he began. “We did not get the apartment that Calvin Trillin wrote the letter for.”

On the other hand, Dunne was full of memories of the college-fraternity-size house he and Didion had once rented in a section of Hollywood he said had seen happier days. It was in that house that Dunne and Didion were asked to give the West Coast publication party for Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

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How could Dunne forget that evening. “We invited 100 people, and after the first 250 showed up, we stopped counting.”

Asked for Brandy

There, for example, was Janis Joplin, asking for a little brandy. “And when I gave it to her in a snifter,” Dunne said, “she said, ‘What’re you doing? Saving it?’ ”

Resplendent in his trademark white suit and white shoes, Wolfe said he, too, had memories of the famous Didion-Dunne bash in honor of his early book about the ‘60s. “I can still see Janis Joplin,” Wolfe said. “Just before she passed out on the divan, she said, ‘I paid my dues. I paid my dues.’ ”

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Wolfe kept promising to read from his upcoming novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but each time he would pull out his white-framed glasses to begin his reading, he would digress to some other subject. Back went the glasses, for example, when Wolfe offered a paean to “Mother O’Hare,” the Midwestern airport that Wolfe called “the literary center of the United States.”

There, said Wolfe, “day after day, they sit, from one-tenth to one-third of the literary figures in the United States. In peak months, April to October, the figure goes up to one-half, because they are going out into the United States to give lectures and readings,” living, yellow-padded proof that “the lecture circuit is the writer’s ever-present friend-in-deed.”

Wolfe said he had had a terrible time writing fiction, because real life kept imitating everything he made up.

Imagine how difficult it would be, Wolfe said, “for anyone to believe a book that would say that in the 1970s and 1980s that it would become a custom whereby small groups of armed people would paralyze the world by taking hostages on cruise ships, on airplanes?

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“I think it was Philip Roth, who said in the early 1960s that we live in an age where the imagination of the novelist is powerless against what he knows he is going to read in the newspaper the next morning.”

Three more PEN Sunday celebrations will continue through December. At $1,000 for the series, the events were sold out before they began.


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