Even though the tape recorder is humming smoothly at Joan Didion’s elbow, she can’t help noticing how ominous it is.
“Is that still going?” she says sweetly. “I always worry about my own, that sense of dread when you look down and the little thing isn’t moving anymore and you realize you don’t know how long it has not been moving.”
There it is--the notorious Didion dread. She has always felt at home in the foyer of the apocalypse.
Didion’s exquisite sense of the dank underbelly of things has earned her a place on the dais of the country’s most important writers. A fifth generation Californian, she is widely viewed as the grande dame of the Golden State. “Joan Didion is the quintessential California writer,” says Michael Levin, who teaches fiction writing at UCLA.
Didion’s work has spawned a generation of writers romantically addicted to her sense of peril in the everyday.
Even her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne was the stuff of a Didion piece. She happened to buy her wedding dress the day of JFK’s assassination (several years later, Roman Polanski spilled red wine on it at a Bel-Air party for Sharon Tate). She kept her sunglasses on and cried through the ceremony.
But the sunglasses have come off. And on a recent San Francisco afternoon, the frail-looking Didion, 61, had graduated to Armani, the jacket of her houndstooth suit tossed casually behind her on a chair in the Hotel Nikko lobby.
As it turned out, the tearful wedding inaugurated an Energizer bunny of a marriage, which after 32 years has evolved into one of the most celebrated literary couplings in recent memory. Indeed, if Didion has seen into the apocalypse, she’s certainly smiling through it.
“I think of myself as a realistic, cheerful person,” she says. “Everybody has moments when they are filled with dread, and at certain points in my life I have expressed those moments. But they weren’t the only moments necessarily. I get tired of being called the ‘empress of angst’ and things like that. It’s a big joke in our family.”
Even now, with the publication of her first novel in 12 years, “The Last Thing He Wanted” (Knopf), Didion’s worldview still gets on some prominent nerves. Despite mostly glowing reviews, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani tartly dismissed her as paranoid.
The book, written in her signature taut prose, is a political thriller about running guns to the Nicaraguan contras. A doomed love story as well, it underscores Didion’s identity as a romantic. “Only when I write fiction, that’s the only time I let that come into play,” she says.
The story centers on Elena McMahon, a prototypically alienated Didion heroine. McMahon walks away from her life as a wealthy California wife and, later, a political reporter for the Washington Post, to help out her gun-running father, who is felled by fever in a Florida hospital. She goes in his place to do one last deal, accompany an arms shipment to Costa Rica and come back with the cash.
Didion says she didn’t even attempt writing it until 1990, six years after her last novel, “Democracy” (Simon & Schuster, 1984). “I didn’t have a very good time with ‘Democracy.’ I never had the conviction it was going to finish. I really wasn’t ready to enter a prolonged period of being in a bad mood.”
If New York’s literary establishment can be thorny when it comes to Didion, the sometimes reclusive writer often squirms under its scrutiny. And when she lived in Los Angeles from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s, she reveled in the void.
“You were totally invisible, which I actually like,” says Didion, who will discuss her new book at 7 tonight at a Writers Guild Theatre event sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Writers Bloc. “It kind of frees you up. You can be doing whatever you want, nobody is watching you do it. It’s a terrific place to work for a writer.”
Los Angeles is better for writers than New York? Joan Didion is actually cheerful?
If she seems to enjoy confounding expectations, there are also truisms about her. Such as her tongue-tying unease in the presence of strangers. Didion famously immortalized the dissonance between her written and spoken self with the preface to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968), which established her as an essayist. In it she described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” and at the Hotel Nikko lo these many years later, she’s still apologizing for it, although she’s no longer deriding herself as neurotic.
In fact, her words come out painfully slowly after considerable thought and, as she speaks, her hands flutter about like bony birds. Much of what she says is punctuated with laughter.
Didion is asked whether she still believes something else she wrote in that preface, the oft-repeated “writers are always selling somebody out.”
“In the sense that I meant it I definitely believe it, but nobody really got the sense in which I meant it,” she says. “It was about the impossibility of representing anybody as he or she sees him or herself. None of us look in the mirror and see the same thing that everybody else sees. People feel sold out, people feel that they’ve exposed themselves to you and they feel that you’ve misrepresented them.”
So how does she feel about this interview?
“I have a public life as well as a private life,” she says. “It is the cost of being allowed to do what you want to do.”
What Didion has wanted to do has changed over the years. One constant is her attraction to the Triple Crown of prose--fiction, journalism and screenwriting. But the personal essays that helped forge her distinctive voice no longer interest her.
“It would be kind of silly at my age to do that. I’ve been alive long enough to either have resolved or to basically have lost interest in my personal life,” she says with a laugh.
Gone are the days when she would muse idly in a famous 1969 essay for Life magazine that she was visiting Honolulu with her husband and daughter “in lieu of filing for divorce.”
“Being married always gets easier,” she says. “We’ve had most arguments already. We don’t have such a long attention span that we keep them going.”
They like each other. They laugh a lot. They harmonize for fun and profit, writing screenplays together that have placed them among Hollywood’s better-paid screenwriters--despite their taste for swiping at the industry in print.
“Anything that John or I has written about Hollywood, sometimes it’s been negative and sometimes it’s been positive, but whatever it’s been hasn’t seemed to bother people in Hollywood because we are part of the business. It’s not quite the same thing as someone coming in from the outside.”
Despite their move to New York in 1988, Didion says she is at heart a Californian.
“It shaped me as a person in every possible way,” she says. “I am more comfortable if I have space around me and if I have flat horizons.”
While California beckoned, San Francisco was out of the question because it was too near the headquarters of her past--her Sacramento childhood and youth at UC Berkeley.
So Los Angeles it was. The late ‘60s was a period of high anxiety for both Didion and California. In “The White Album” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), she quoted from her psychiatric evaluation at St. John’s Hospital in 1968 after she suffered an attack of vertigo and nausea. Hospital staff noted “her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure. . . .”
At the time, the couple were renting an odd, 28-room house on Franklin Avenue west of La Brea Avenue, a neighborhood Didion found strange and threatening. Strange people would follow her home from the supermarket and “things sort of happened.” Her daughter, Quintana Roo, now a 30-year-old photo editor for Elle Decor, was small then, and Didion found herself constantly terrified that a rattlesnake would invade the playpen.
“1968 was a really heated year,” she says. “The whole country seemed to be breaking apart. All kinds of strange dark journey stuff was going on around people we knew in Los Angeles. Both on a personal and public level, everything seemed to be breaking apart.”
“Play It as It Lays” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970) came out of that period. Didion’s second novel, which mercilessly examined the disintegration of a Hollywood wife, helped forge her reputation.
In a famous image from the novel, Maria Wyeth, awash in anomie, aimlessly drives L.A.'s freeways in search of solace and structure. Didion herself was afraid of the fast lane and always took surface streets.
“A simple drive on the freeway and I would have to pry my hands off the steering wheel,” she says. “The freeway sequence, that whole thing came out of my absolute fear of it. No one who took the freeway for granted would have written that.”
It wasn’t until after the couple moved to New York and Didion returned to L.A. as a visitor--she wrote about Lakewood and the Spur Posse for the New Yorker in 1993--that she conquered her freeway fear. They had made the move in part because they were spending more time in their tiny New York apartment and less in their sprawling Brentwood home.
“It started being ridiculous to be uncomfortable in this little apartment while we had a house in California, which was running along at some expense without us. Lemons would be FedExed to us in New York. Tortillas would be FedExed to us. It just started making no sense. Like some kind of totally reversed life.”
By then, Didion’s fascination with America’s involvement in Central America was in full flower. She’d been thinking about it ever since the mid ‘60s, when post-mortems into the assassination of JFK were focusing attention on the region.
“Time and Newsweek were having covers on California saying California is what America will look like tomorrow. Meanwhile, there was all this stuff coming out in hearings . . . I don’t mean having to do necessarily with the assassination. But there was definitely some weird stuff going on in the whole Gulf Coast around Miami.
“And we were developing in this country a kind of Caribbean politics. That seemed a lot more interesting than what was at that time going on in California in terms of, wake up, this is news, this is what America is going to look like tomorrow.”
Didion’s fascination with the area produced two books of nonfiction--"Miami” (Simon & Schuster, 1987) and “Salvador” (Simon & Schuster, 1983)--as well as two novels--"A Book of Common Prayer (Simon & Schuster, 1977) and now “The Last Thing He Wanted.”
Didion thinks she may be finished writing about Central America, but California still intrigues. She finds Los Angeles more beautiful than ever now, and the Lakewood piece raised more questions for her about Californians and their government. She’s thinking about “taking this conundrum of California a little further if I can find a way to do it.”
Fortunately, Didion will be well equipped for a return visit to her new friend, the freeway. She still has a California driver’s license--even though it has her New York address. She got it after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had sown semi-chaos at the Seaside DMV.
“They said just ‘put down whatever address you want it sent to’ and I did.” She laughs. “Now I just keep renewing it.” A handy accessory for a daughter of the Golden West. “I always kind of feel like somebody from California who just happens to be in New York.”