Joan Didion

The following excerpts were taken from Hilton Als' 2006 interview of Joan Didion for The Paris Review.  Didion has published over sixteen books including fiction, nonfiction and drama, as well as several screenplays.  Before the publication of her first novel, Didion was a journalist.  Her writing has spanned both disciplines throughout her career.  

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 therein the texture of the thing.

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 I can retype them in the morning.  It gets me past that blank terror.

I probably started reading [Hemingway] when I was just eleven or twelve.  There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences.  Because they weren't so simple--or rather they appeared to be so simple, but they weren't.

[Writing] began to feel almost impossible at Berkeley because we were constantly be 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.

I remember at one point [as a high school student] 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.

 

The Paris Review Interviews Vol.1. New York: Picador, 2006. pp. 475-500

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