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Joan Didion: a territorial writer who knows her place

“People always confuse writers with their ideas ... especially lady writers.” From the book “How to Save Your Own Life” by Erica Jong.

A black snake lives in the ivy. A beautiful, benign king snake, protector against rattlers, but a snake nonetheless, one of 4 to 5-foot proportion, her symbol of slithery horror and evil. When they were adding a room to the beach house, she would ask the carpenters to gather the snakes and take them down the cliff. She figured it would take a while for the snakes to work their way back up. Others disappeared but the king snake persisted, somehow making the climb past the wild fennel, past the house of gleaming tile to set up housekeeping in the ivy and a vacation spot in the stack of oak they burned in the fireplace.

This afternoon, with the fog misting at the ocean horizon off Trancas, Joan Didion approach the woodpile unafraid. Joan Didion. The author whose aching eyes suggest imminent collapse, whose work wanders the psychic terrain of delusion and devastation, whose imagery teems with snakes lying in wait on dry Nevada highways (“Play It as It Lays”) or moist Central American jungle (“A Book of Common Prayer”).

“I was getting the firewood, thinking how far I’d come,” Didion said.

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We are not always as we appear. Joan Didion is not what she writes — “the stuff of bad dreams,” she once described it.

Certainly, she is physically fragile: 90 pounds, “5 foot 2 ... no 1 3/4.” She is not a macha to propose arm wrestling after six beers in an El Monte saloon. Didion likes limousines, silky dresses, furs.

But she drinks her bourbon neat in front of the fire after a day of writing. She wears gold earrings thick enough to pierce a bull’s nose. She lights her Pall Malls with Ohio Blue Tip matches—real barn burners. And she writes with discipline and control bordering perfection. Withness “A Book of Common Prayer” (Simon & Schuster $8.95), her third and most acclaimed novel.

It is the story of Charlotte Douglas, an American who leaves two husbands, endures the disappearance of one daughter as a terrorist-fugitive and the infant death of another, to arrive in “Boca Grande,” illusions intact.

“I finished the book last June,” Didion said, settling before the fire with a cup of coffee. She is happy—relieved, to be more precise—about its acceptance. But she hasn’t read it.

“When I was working on the book, I read it constantly, just constantly for several years. In fact, every comma is in my mind. Toward the end I could wake up in the middle of the night and see something wrong maybe 150 pages back. It’s amazing. It’s all there in your mind. It keeps coming forward when you need it.”

She turned to light a cigarette. The glow from the fire and the glare from a wall of windows facing the ocean turned her blonde hair red.

“When you finish a book, you don’t want to read it because you’ll see stuff wrong, stuff you wanted to fix.” She laughed.

“Common Prayer” grew out of notes Didion had begun in 1970 for a novel to take place in motels in the South. The idea was too thin, she said, and in 1973 after she and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, returned from a film festival in Colombia, she switched settings.

Didion had become intrigued with Latin America. She remembered an extraordinary line from Christopher Isherwood’s “The Condor and the Cow.” He had gone to Caracas by ship and stood on the deck in port, overcome by the sudden apprehension that South America was down there every day he was alive.

She laughed again. “I had that same sense, I mean, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.” She rejected the suggestion that Charlotte Douglas, a tourista of life, could have fled to any city. Latin America was central to the story, Didion said. “The light. The equator. There’s a strangeness about the equator I can’t think about any other way.”

Didion, 42, has a deep sense of place. Her next book, nonfiction, will be about California. “I don’t know what it’s about,” she said, lighting another cigarette. “That’s one of the problems I’m having. It’s sort of an attempt to find out what it means to me to come from California. It’s called ‘Fairy Tales,’ which is a clue to what I think it is, but I don’t know.”

Her house reflects her feeling of being “grounded” in California. “It’s the only place I feel comfortable,” she said. A map of the coast lay under the glass-topped table at her elbow. On the wall behind her hung a blow-up of a black and white photograph of the state line at Death Valley with a sign warning, “Loose Gravel.” On the facing wall was a still-larger black and white of the Di Giorgio grape fields, taken for Dunne’s book “Delano.”

Dunne, a big beared man, came into the living room, whistling. The two write in separate rooms, coming together to edit each other. “It works terrifically,” Dunne said.

“There’s a certain edge,” Didion ventured.

“A certain low-level irritability,” he agreed.

“No more irritability than any other thing that brings people into contact,” she said.

“Also, if we say we don’t like something, we have a suggestion how to fix it,” Dunne said.

“You do especially.”

“Yeah.”

“I tend to be more destructive, less constructive.”

They smiled, sharing an easy affection.

And the understanding: once argued, an editing issue is not brought up again. Oddly enough, Dunne said, professional jealousy has never figured in their 13-year marriage. “Marriage or any relationship between two people is not always beer and skittles but that’s never been a problem. Probably because we were really close friends (before marriage).”

He returned to his study to tackle the last 30 pages of a novel-in-progress.

“I can’t imagine not being married to a writer,” Didion said. “I was really at my wit’s end finishing ‘Common Prayer’ and had I been married, let us say, to a lawyer or a disc jockey or somebody else, he might have expected conversation at dinner for one thing.”

Didion begins writing each morning at 11, after the mail has come. She writers at a Hemingwayesque pace of several hundred words a day. “Early on I might think it’s a wonderful day if I do one page. Later it goes faster.”

She enjoys the process. “I don’t love it when I’m not doing it. I mean, every morning I don’t want to do it. Then I go into the office and it’s all right. By midafternoon I really love it. Then when I stop around 5 o’clock, I just try not to think about it, to hold it right there until I start again the next day.”

She fights back the fear: “Can I hold it and not think about it because if I think about it, it might not seem too good to me. Or the other danger, you might become euphoric and start taking it too far. Writing a novel, as opposed to something short, is largely a matter of pacing yourself. You can’t get excited and work all night because then you’re not going to work for three days. You lose control. You have to get real keyed down. Too much stimulation and the mind is all over the place.”

In praising Didion’s laconic style, critics also have noted she handles sexual scenes only obliquely. Her protagonists seem to take little pleasure in sex, only suffer its consequences. She admits discomfort in writing overtly sexual scenes. “I don’t know too many people who do it well, who convey the wonder of it, the joy of it. On the page it tends to be a question of mechanics. The essence of it somehow isn’t conveyed.”

There are those, women especially, who say her protagonists are will-less creatures, given to recitations of Matthew Arnold and musings in darkened rooms, incapable of shaping their own lives. They seem to be looking to Didion—acknowledged with this novel as a major American writer—to make a political statement of women’s strength. “Then I would be writing the ways things should be instead of the way they are. And I couldn’t do it,” she said.

Joan Didion may savor the daily joys of chopping vegetables and talking with her daughter, Quintana Roo, 11, but she still is, as she wrote in Life in 1969, “a woman alert only to the stuff of bad dreams.” The suicides. Cancer victims. Infant deaths. They fill her subconscious and her books.

Amazingly, she is not overwhelmed by this fascination with life’s horrors. She is simply aware, watching, recording, her eye unflinchingly on the realities. Like the snake in the ivy.


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