Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1

*excerpt from the Paris Review

Interviewed by Hilton Als



INTERVIEWER

By now you’ve written at least as much nonfiction as you have fiction. How would you describe the difference between writing the one or the other?

JOAN DIDION

Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. You have no notes—or sometimes you do, I made extensive notes for A Book of Common Prayer—but the notes give you only the background, not the novel itself. In nonfiction the notes give you the piece. Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do a lot of rewriting?

DIDION

When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five, or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do that sort of retyping for The Year of Magical Thinking?

DIDION

I did. It was especially important with this book because so much of it depended on echo. I wrote it in three months, but I marked it up every night.

INTERVIEWER

The book moves quickly. Did you think about how your readers would read it?

DIDION

Of course, you always think about how it will be read. I always aim for a reading in one sitting.

INTERVIEWER

At what point did you know that the notes you were writing in response to John’s death would be a book for publication?

DIDION

John died December 30, 2003. Except for a few lines written a day or so after he died, I didn’t begin making the notes that became the book until the following October. After a few days of making notes, I realized that I was thinking about how to structure a book, which was the point at which I realized that I was writing one. This realization in no way changed what I was writing.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to finish the book? Or were you happy to have your life back—to live with a lower level of self-scrutiny?

DIDION

Yes. It was difficult to finish the book. I didn’t want to let John go. I don’t really have my life back yet, since Quintana died only on August 26.

INTERVIEWER

Since you write about yourself, interviewers tend to ask about your personal life; I want to ask you about writing and books. In the past you’ve written pieces on V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway—titanic, controversial iconoclasts whom you tend to defend. Were these the writers you grew up with and wanted to emulate?

DIDION

Hemingway was really early. I probably started reading him when I was just eleven or twelve. There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences. Because they were so simple—or rather they appeared to be so simple, but they weren’t.

Something I was looking up the other day, that’s been in the back of my mind, is a study done several years ago about young women’s writing skills and the incidence of Alzheimer’s. As it happens, the subjects were all nuns, because all of these women had been trained in a certain convent. They found that those who wrote simple sentences as young women later had a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s, while those who wrote complicated sentences with several clauses had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. The assumption—which I thought was probably erroneous—was that those who tended to write simple sentences as young women did not have strong memory skills.

INTERVIEWER

Though you wouldn’t classify Hemingway’s sentences as simple.

DIDION

No, they’re deceptively simple because he always brings a change in.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think you could write that kind of sentence? Did you want to try?

DIDION

I didn’t think that I could do them, but I thought that I could learn—because they felt so natural. I could see how they worked once I started typing them out. That was when I was about fifteen. I would just type those stories. It’s a great way to get rhythms into your head.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read anyone else before Hemingway?

DIDION

No one who attracted me in that way. I had been reading a lot of plays. I had a misguided idea that I wanted to act. The form this took was not acting, however, but reading plays. Sacramento was not a place where you saw a lot of plays. I think the first play I ever saw was the Lunts in the touring company of O Mistress Mine. I don’t think that that’s what inspired me. The Theater Guild used to do plays on the radio, and I remember being very excited about listening to them. I remember memorizing speeches from Death of a Salesman and Member of the Wedding in the period right after the war.

INTERVIEWER

Which playwrights did you read?

DIDION

I remember at one point going through everything of Eugene O’Neill’s. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of his plays. You could see how they worked. I read them all one summer. I had nosebleeds, and for some reason it took all summer to get the appointment to get my nose cauterized. So I just lay still on the porch all day and read Eugene O’Neill. That was all I did. And dab at my face with an ice cube.

INTERVIEWER

What you really seem to have responded to in these early influences was style—voice and form.

DIDION

Yes, but another writer I read in high school who just knocked me out was Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy all in one weekend and couldn’t put it down—I locked myself in my room. Now that was antithetical to every other book I was reading at the time because Dreiser really had no style, but it was powerful.

And one book I totally missed when I first read it was Moby-Dick. I reread it when Quintana was assigned it in high school. It was clear that she wasn’t going to get through it unless we did little talks about it at dinner. I had not gotten it at all when I read it at her age. I had missed that wild control of language. What I had thought discursive were really these great leaps. The book had just seemed a jumble; I didn’t get the control 
in it.

INTERVIEWER

After high school you wanted to go to Stanford. Why?

DIDION

It’s pretty straightforward—all my friends were going to Stanford.

INTERVIEWER

But you went to Berkeley and majored in literature. What were you reading there?

DIDION

The people I did the most work on were Henry James and D. H. Lawrence, who I was not high on. He irritated me on almost every level.

INTERVIEWER

He didn’t know anything about women at all.

DIDION

No, nothing. And the writing was so clotted and sentimental. It didn’t work for me on any level.

INTERVIEWER

Was he writing too quickly, do you think?

DIDION

I don’t know, I think he just had a clotted and sentimental mind.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned reading Moby-Dick. Do you do much rereading?

DIDION

I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world.

INTERVIEWER

Conrad? Really? Why?

DIDION

The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel—I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel—I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing. In the same way, John and I always prepared for writing a movie by watching The Third Man. It’s perfectly told.

INTERVIEWER

Conrad was also a huge inspiration for Naipaul, whose work you admire. What drew you to Naipaul?

DIDION

I read the nonfiction first. But the novel that really attracted me—and I still read the beginning of it now and then—is Guerillas. It has that bauxite factory in the opening pages, which just gives you the whole feel of that part of the world. That was a thrilling book to me. The nonfiction had the same effect on me as reading Elizabeth Hardwick—you get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something. Naipaul is a great person to read before you have to do a piece. And Edmund Wilson, his essays for The American Earthquake. They have that everyday-traveler-in-the-world aspect, which is the opposite of an authoritative tone.
INTERVIEWER

Was it as a student at Berkeley that you began to feel that you were 
a writer?

DIDION

No, it began to feel almost impossible at Berkeley because we were constantly being impressed with the fact that everybody else had done it already and better. It was very daunting to me. I didn’t think I could write. It took me a couple of years after I got out of Berkeley before I dared to start writing. That academic mind-set—which was kind of shallow in my case anyway—had begun to fade. Then I did write a novel over a long period of time, Run River. And after that it seemed feasible that maybe I could write another one.

From Wikipedia: Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

For the complete interview go to The Paris Review

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