From The Archive: Joan Didion On Writing ‘The White Album’ And Her Years On The Features Desk At Vogue

In 1979, British Vogue sent Georgina Howell to meet Joan Didion on the eve of the publication of her seminal work, 'The White Album'. Following the revered author’s death at the age of 87, revisit the interview in full.

Arts & Lifestyle, Books

1/14/2022 8:05:00 PM

In 1979, British Vogue sent Georgina Howell to meet Joan Didion on the eve of the publication of her seminal work, 'The White Album'. Following the revered author’s death at the age of 87, revisit the interview in full.

In 1979, British Vogue sent Georgina Howell to meet Joan Didion on the eve of the publication of her seminal work, The White Album. Following the revered author’s death on 23 December 2021 at the age of 87, revisit the interview in full, below.

The New Journalismincluded work by most of the best young writers who broke through the traditional limitations of journalistic form to make the newspaper and magazine columns of America, rather than the new novels, the most interesting literary events. In his preface to Joan Didion’s contribution, the haunting account of the murder of a San Bernardino dentist by his wife, Tom Wolfe drew attention to her Chekhov-like ability to achieve a resonance far beyond what happens or fails to happen in the narrative. Joan Didion is no less generous to Tom Wolfe, “the best social reporter ever to come out of America –

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, and the feature and profile writing of such journalists as Hunter S Thompson, George Plimpton, Rex Reed and Michael Herr. “There is no law that says the narrator has to speak in beige.” The New Journalism included work by most of the best young writers who broke through the traditional limitations of journalistic form to make the newspaper and magazine columns of America, rather than the new novels, the most interesting literary events. In his preface to Joan Didion’s contribution, the haunting account of the murder of a San Bernardino dentist by his wife, Tom Wolfe drew attention to her Chekhov-like ability to achieve a resonance far beyond what happens or fails to happen in the narrative. Joan Didion is no less generous to Tom Wolfe, “the best social reporter ever to come out of America – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test told us more about America in the ’60s than any other book”. Her own targets, at least in her earlier work collected in Slouching Toward Bethlehem , include all kinds of American sentimentality, whether her subject is John Wayne, Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party USA, or the hippy community of San Francisco in 1967. She writes short and never overstates her case, but unerringly transfixes the victim with a line or two of their own words. “It is useful to be considered to be part of the wallpaper,” she says. “In a lot of situations people will not pay any attention to me because I’m not a vivid person. But I don’t control it well enough to use it.” The best of her work, novels and features, is a metaphor for a larger ground, and her chosen theme is nearly always California. She was born in Sacramento and has lived on the West Coast for most of her life. If she is the best chronicler that California has, it is because she exactly hits the tone of the coast – anxious, high-strung, close to the edge. She inherits, and takes further, the romanticism of Raymond Chandler. “I think that at the very heart of the California experience there’s probably annihilism. Maybe it comes out of the landscape, because the landscape is so pointlessly dramatic. It is so theatrical, so Wagnerian – and yet it doesn’t mean anything. One time, I think I was doing a piece on Eastern Oregon, I came through the Columbia River gorge, the same way some member of my family came through for the first time in 1836. The landscape was exactly the same as it had been, except for the highway I was driving along, and at one point on the Columbia River there was a dam. Other than that there was nothing but a strange play of mists and sudden shadows. It had a kind of mysticism about it. And yet, it didn’t mean a thing…” We are in Joan Didion’s chosen territory, what she calls “the triumph of being over nothingness”. For her, the novel is still the main event – and her three novels revolve around the still point reached when a woman hits rock bottom, falls deeper yet, and finally accepts that nothing matters. This is something that she finds “unpleasant” to write about, and against which her readers tend to revolt. “Do you see any hope for us at all?” asked a melancholy questioner at her recent talk at the ICA. The plain man’s irritation makes her laugh. “I can remember someone I was going out with at school asking me what I was thinking. I said I wasn’t thinking about anything. It drove him into a fury. I’ve always gone around most of the day totally blank. I never even know what I think about a book unless I’m asked to review it. Then I sit down and laboriously find my way through to what I think about it.” This nameless affliction – going around in a dream, forgetting to attach importance to things, and not knowing what is expected of you – is something from which all Joan Didion’s main women characters suffer. Maria Wyeth, coming apart at the seams in Play It as It Lays , saying, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.” Lily in Run, River , saying, “Women don’t win Everett, can’t you see. Because winners have to believe they can affect the dice.” And Martha: “All the connections had been broken, all the bridges burned miles back…” Yet Joan Didion points out the strength in disillusioned survival. “My women characters are sort of strong in a peculiar way. They appear brittle, victims on the surface. But underneath they’re tough, they’re survivors.” Has she been there herself? The nearest she has got to an autobiography is a piece called “Goodbye to All That” written for The Saturday Evening Post , describing “some people I used to be”. For such a writer, and one of the only two women included in The New Journalism , Joan Didion has stayed remarkably aloof from the political battlefield of the women’s movement. Yet in The White Album