One of the strongest voices in American letters, Joan Didion has made her mark with fiercely intelligent novels (Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer), insightful nonfiction (Salvador, Political Fictions), and screenplays co-written with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne (Panic in Needle Park, Up Close and Personal).
Born in Sacramento, Didion attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1956 with a degree in English. After college, she moved to New York to work for Vogue magazine. Recognized immediately as a talented and insightful writer, she contributed frequently to such diverse publications as Mademoiselle, Esquire, The New York Times, and National Review; and in 1963 she published her first novel, Run River. She and Dunne were wed in 1964; and for the remainder of their married life, they divided their time between New York and L.A., collaborating frequently on Hollywood scripts while developing separate and distinguished literary careers.
In December of 2003, Dunne died of a massive heart attack, while the couple's recently married daughter, Quintana Roo, lay comatose in a New York hospital. Didion spent the next year blindsided by a grief so profound it propelled her into a sort of madness. She chronicled the entire experience in The Year of Magical Thinking, a spellbinding memoir of bereavement written in the spare, elegant prose that has become a hallmark of her work. Published in 2005 (scant months after Quintana's death), this elegiac book -- Didion's most personal and affecting work to date -- became a huge bestseller. It received a National Book Award and was turned, two years later, into a successful Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Since her 1963 debut, Didion has alternated between novels and nonfiction, proving herself a wry and astute observer of America's shifting political and cultural landscape. Written nearly a decade apart, her two essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) are considered classics of 1960s counterculture. Moreover, the author's identity as a seventh-generation Californian has colored her writing in profoundly significant ways. For our money, no contemporary American writer has examined more deftly the unique role of "place" in everyday life.
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A few interesting outtakes from our interview with Didion:
"My first (and only, ever) job was at Vogue. I learned a great deal there – I learned how to use words economically (because I was writing to space), I learned how to very quickly take in enough information about an entirely foreign subject to produce a few paragraphs that at least sounded authoritative."
"I would like my readers to know that writing never gets any easier. You don't gain confidence. You are always flying blind."
Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote seven screenplays, including: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1973), A Star Is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), Hills Like White Elephants (1990), Broken Trust(1995) and Up Close and Personal (1995).
She is the sister-in-law of author Dominick Dunne and the aunt of actor/director Griffin Dunne.
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In the spring of 2006, Joan Didion took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It's hard to limit this to one book, but the book from which I learned the most as a writer was Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I taught myself to type by tying out passages from a lot of Hemingway, but that book especially -- it taught me the importance of absolute precision, of how every word and every comma and every absence of a word or comma can change the meaning, make the rhythm, make the difference.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
My ten favorite books differ from month to month. One (always) favorite book is Joseph Conrad's Victory. Every time I read it, it becomes more mysterious to me.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The Third Man is one of my favorite films – it works at every level in a very clean economical way. Anyone writing for the screen could learn a lot from the penicillin montage – it gives you the plot in a very short amount of screen time, yet when you actually analyze it, there are no details. Just images.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to anything while I'm writing but when I'm going over pages in the evening, I will listen to something. What depends on the book. With Democracy I listened over and over to Mabel Mercer singing "This Will Be My Shining Hour."
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I think it might be an interesting time to read with a group about World War I and the remapping the followed it, since it seems to explain how we got where we are today.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give and get as gifts?
I like to give poetry, I guess because I like to read it.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Long experience has taught me that I can't afford rituals – or even cleaning my desk – I just need to plunge in and do it.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It literally took me until today to get where I am today. My first novel, Run River, was turned down by twelve publishers before a 13th took a chance and gave me $1000 to finish it.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Just keep writing. And rewriting. I don't know any other secrets.
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