The Salon Interview: Joan Didion

Published October 28, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Joan Didion's new novel, "The Last Thing He Wanted," is her first in 12 years. Set in 1984, it centers on Elena McMahon, an American journalist who gets tangled up in the covert sales of American arms in Central America. It is sparely written and tightly plotted and fiercely intelligent — all the sorts of things we've come to expect from Didion.

Some things that you probably know but if not will be helpful in enjoying this interview:

  • Didion is married to John Gregory Dunne, and has been for a long time. When she says "we," he makes "we."
  • Though she no longer writes the sort of personal-social essays that made up books like "The White Album" and "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," she still contributes journalism and critical essays to magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
  • In person she is very small. She is also graceful, personable, warm and funny.

With "The Last Thing He Wanted," I read that you weren't sure how it was going to turn out until you were finished with it.

No, no I wasn't. I wanted to do a very, very tight plot, just a single thread — you wouldn't even see the thread and then when you pulled it at the end everything would fall into place. That was the intention there. But you would go mad if you tried to plot that closely ahead of time. So essentially what you have to do, I found, is you have to make it up every day as you go along. And then you have to play the cards you already have on the table — you have to deal with what you've already said. Quite often, you've got yourself into things that seem to lead nowhere, but if you force yourself to deal with them, that was the discipline of it.

For example, one of the first things I had started with in this book was the idea of this woman walking off a campaign. Because I'd covered some campaigns in '88 and '92, I wanted to use some of that sense of a campaign. So then, I didn't know, then she would go to Miami to see her father. Then, I couldn't figure out where she'd been. Then I decided she ought to be from Los Angeles and had been married to someone in the oil business. That kind of gave me a fresh start. But then I was having to get her from Los Angeles to being a political reporter, right? It was a really hard thing to do. It was also a lot of fun.

There were certain chapters where it does sound like you're starting from scratch almost, when you start hearing about Elena's dreams, for example.

Yeah, I mean, I was just sitting there wondering what I could do that day. Sometimes, also, you just feel it's right to step back from it a little bit. Otherwise it's going to get linear, "and then she said, and then she did..." It doesn't keep you awake to write it.

while your fiction seems to be getting increasingly lean, your essays seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

They're getting denser and denser. There's a whole lot of stuff going on in a piece — you're trying to think it through. Generally, you think about a question or a situation in a more complex way than you would make a scene. Novels are almost like music or poetry — they just come to me in simple sentences, whereas I think my pieces get more and more complex ever since I've started using a computer.

What do you use?

I use an IBM Thinkpad. I just use it like a typewriter, but when I started using it in 1987, I thought I won't be able to write anymore, so I thought I'd go back to the typewriter. But you couldn't go back to the typewriter after using the computer, so finally after about a month I got proficient enough that I could actually work on it without being distracted by it, and in fact then it started making me a whole lot more logical than I ever had been. Because the computer was so logical, it was always right, I was wrong ... and the time saved.

Before I started working on a computer, writing a piece would be like making something up every day, taking the material and never quite knowing where you were going to go next with the material. With a computer it was less like painting and more like sculpture, where you start with a block of something and then start shaping it.

You feel like it's just there ...

It's just there, and sometimes you'll find yourself — you get one paragraph partly right, and then you'll go back and work on the other part. It's a different thing.

Your work feels like it was written by a slow writer. I mean that in the best possible way.

Over the course of several years I had false starts on this novel several times. I couldn't get anywhere with it. Then I had this block of time last fall from the end of August until Christmas, so I just decided I would try to finish it in that period. So I went back and I started, and I did finish it about Christmas time, but that was about as fast as I could work. And a lot of it turned out to already be done in note form to hang together. So this was just running it through with the thread.

There is a character in the book named Bob Weir. Are you a Grateful Dead fan?

[laughs] No, that is where that name comes from, isn't it? I had totally forgotten that. No, I had no idea, I knew there was something just right about that name.

Elena resembles, in certain ways, some of your other characters from some of your other novels, in that she finds herself in the middle of this huge life change, and it's seemingly irreversible, and yet she goes with it. What does that pattern mean to you?

I don't know, it's nothing I want to examine too closely. Every time I do it, I think it's brand new. It comes to me in a flash! [laughs] It would certainly make things easier if I remembered, but it's — I guess all novels are dreams of what might happen or dreams of what you don't want to happen. When you're working on them, it's very much like a dream you're moving in. So, to some extent, obviously, the same characters are going to keep populating your dreams.

Have you ever done something like Elena does here — walked off a campaign, reinvented youself?

Not really, no. But you can see the possibility, it's something you might be afraid of happening. It's definitely something you don't want to happen. I don't want to happen. That's what I would take from it.

I read somewhere that you identified yourself as a libertarian.

I was explaining to somebody what kind of Republican I had been. That was essentially why I had been feeling estranged from the Republican Party per se, because my whole point of view had been libertarian. I mean, I wouldn't call it totally "on the program" libertarian.

You don't vote the ticket?

[laugh] No ... I think the attraction was that it was totally free. It was totally based on individual rights, which, as a Westerner, I was responsive to. Then I started realizing there was a lot of ambiguity in the West's belief that it had a stronghold on rugged individualism, since basically it was created by the federal government. So I haven't come to any hard conclusion, here.

Are you watching the campaign? What do you think of Clinton?

Well, he's the luckiest man alive, isn't he? He seems to be lucky, which I guess in a lot of cultures has been what people wanted. Luck had a kind of totemic power, that made you the leader.

I read your review of Bob Woodward's "The Choice," in The New York Review of Books. It seemed that his lengthy descriptions of his reporterly methods got under your skin.

Yes. There's a certain kind of reporting of a book that when you're casually reading through you think you've missed something, you're not informed here, you've totally missed the point, there must be something more to this than meets the eye. So then I started reading "The Choice" and I had been actually following the campaign in a way until then, so I did know something about it, and I thought, what's going on here? There's nothing here we don't know. And even then, I would sort of doze off every now and then and think "I must be missing this — there must be more to this than I'm finding."

You and your husband wrote the screenplay for "Up Close and Personal." How do you think it turned out?

Well, it turned out — from the beginning, what it was supposed to be was a vehicle for two movie stars, and that's what it was.

You have no illusions, it seems, about the Hollywood game.

Well, if you don't know how to play it you shouldn't be in it. It's always sort of amused me.

I just read an interview with Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts. He's a billionaire, of course, and he was asked what his idea of success was — if he considered himself "successful." He said something like, "Yes, because now I feel like I can go into any bookstore, and if I see a book I really like, I can buy it." I thought that was really beautiful. Do you consider yourself successful?

I never feel particularly successful. I always feel like I've not quite done it right, that I ought to be doing better or something. In terms of work, I never felt that I've done it right. I always want to have done it differently, to have done it better, a different way, unlike Charles Schulz. So I don't know. The one time I felt successful was when he [Schultz] put my daughter Quintana's name in a cartoon.

By Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is the author of "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

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