In January 1977, I was riding north on the Pacific Coast Highway to interview Joan Didion at her home by the sea. I was euphoric and scribbling my impressions. It was raining that morning. On my left the bright gray ocean looked like wrinkled silver foil. On my right sat dirt-colored palisades, low cliffs covered by sparse brush. Beach houses soon faded from view behind fences and steep hills leading down to the ocean.
I’d been feverishly reading and re-reading shards of Didion prosody to prep for the interview. One extraordinary sentence from her novel, A Book of Common Prayer, which would soon be published, seemed to me to be drawn from her own psyche: “I do not know why I did or did not do anything at all.”
Another sentence, from her first book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was clearly autobiographical: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
I was trying to summon the nerve to ask about her notebooks. (I couldn’t do it.)
Luckily for me, Joan Didion’s slender new book South and West, out this month, consists mostly of notes she made in June 1970 during an uncomfortable road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with her late husband, the author John Gregory Dunne. Didion’s work puts words to the shrieks and moans that most women bury to go on living their lives. But she doesn’t limit herself to women: her wider observations about America, made with what the late critic John Leonard called her “sonar ear” and “radar eye,” feel startlingly prescient in 2017.
Some 40 years ago, I had been profoundly altered by Slouching Towards Bethlehem. My ex-husband had bought a copy for me and inscribed on the title page, “For inspiration.” I believed—believe—that Didion is best as a subjective journalist. She’s a beacon to women writers because she records what previously felt unsayable in heart-wrenching particulars.
I had been flattered into a coughing silence when Lois Wallace, Didion’s and my literary agent, asked if I wanted to take over Didion’s Life magazine column. It never happened.
Nearly a decade later, I decided to write about her for Ms. magazine, where I was an editor. At the time, I didn’t know Didion had been attacked by radical feminists; they argued that she offered few solutions for women’s problems. Radicals like Joanna Russ and Shulamith Firestone accused her of being masochistic—of believing that suffering is better than fighting back.
Didion had in turn attacked several feminist authors in an article in the New York Times Book Review that I found cryptic, quixotic, almost impossible to understand.
“Maybe,” suggested my Ms. editor, “she was saying that women are not a class worth defining—but she never really proved that. She said they’re more in touch with blood and life and death because they menstruate and give birth.”
“I never understood that piece too well,” I answered. “But I think she was saying she’s not a joiner, a political person, a utopist, that she’s a loner, a Western writer, sort of a John Wayne character. She’s against political cures for terror, loneliness or pain. It’s her art to describe the pain, not to cure it. And,” I insisted, “I think she’s the best woman writer in America right now who writes both fiction and nonfiction.”
Gloria Steinem, our brainy, beautiful, and, yes, cunning Ms. editor-in-chief, was not consulted about my assignment. She was on the road campaigning for women running for congress.
I didn’t suspect how much my piece would alienate her. As second-wave feminism was becoming fodder for other women’s magazines, Gloria was growing increasingly radical. She hoped to out-feminist everybody. She wanted to publish turgid theoretical essays in Ms. that couldn’t appear anywhere else. I thought hers an elitist, embattled stance. I didn’t think it was productive to label women as either “good” or “bad.” I felt I was not the only Ms. editor who believed we had to appeal to women of every political stripe.
And anyway, hadn’t Didion agreed to let me write about her for Ms.?
As a teenager, I had taken Albert Camus’s artistic credo to heart: “We always take a step forward when we substitute a personal problem for a political problem.” But now, after a few years at Ms., I’d undergone my own political awakening, and was coming to understand that if women joined forces we could alter the patriarchy we’d inherited.
“Go for it,” my Ms. editor told me when I pitched the story. “But only if you ask her why she writes about nonfunctioning women when she is such a tough, highly functioning writer.”
On the plane ride from New York to LA, I crossed my fingers for luck and nervously copied one of Didion’s wry maxims into my spiral notebook: “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes.”
I’d been waking up in the middle of the night to write questions for the big interview. I also listened over and over to a recording of “Why I Write,” a speech Didion had delivered a few months earlier to the faculty at Berkeley, her alma mater. (She’d hid in the bathroom beforehand, afraid she’d vomit from nervous tension.)
After clearing her throat she told the crowd in a soft, unexpectedly Western drawl, “I’ve been sitting here trying to get used to the idea that I’m here and you’re there, but it may take me a little while. So if I look at my feet and don’t talk very loud, I hope you’ll bear with me until I get used to the idea.
“I write to find out what’s on my mind, what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I’m seeing and what it means.”
She began to land more confidently on her consonants as she explained the reasons she took the title “Why I Write” from an essay by George Orwell. “You have three short, unambiguous words that have the same sounds, and the sound they have is ‘i, i, i.’ In many ways writing is the act of saying ‘i, i, i,’ of imposing oneself upon other people—of saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.’”
“I’m Joan Dunne, come on in,” Joan Didion said to me, her words ending on a questioning sound. I politely ignored the pointed use of her married name—it seemed to me like her rebuke to a Ms. writer. She was standing in the doorway to her seaside home, her narrow right hand extended toward me. It felt tiny. Her delicate physical presence surprised me; I thought she weighed barely a hundred pounds.
A blue cardigan sweater slipped from one of her small shoulders and she pulled it back with one hand crossed over her chest. She ducked her lovely head uncertainly, staring at the floor, her hair falling across her face.
“Quintana Roo,” she called. A robust California child, Didion’s and John Gregory Dunne’s daughter, strode into the room wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. She had a reddish suntan and sun-streaked blonde hair. She looked about 10. (She was named for one of the 31 Mexican states. I suspect the Dunnes fell in love with the euphony of the words.)
I stared at Didion as she backed into her living room—her pale skin, her light-blue eyeshadow—trying to memorize her physical appearance. She looked pained, as if sorry she’d agreed to let a staring stranger into her home.
“My fantasy was that it would be sunny today and we would sit on the deck and eat chicken salad,” she said with the instant nostalgia I recognized from her writing. She and her husband sat down facing me in their spare tiled living room. Unlike Didion, Dunne seemed large, even muscular, and had a hearty cocktail party manner.
Didion sat in an armchair, her back to the ocean. The front of their home was mostly glass and filled with glorious sea and sky. With the light bouncing off the gray surf behind her, I had difficulty seeing her face. I did see her eyes, which glistened as though she might cry. She gripped her body tightly with her elbows. Her hands shook both times she filled my coffee cup.
My companion and driver that day was the screenwriter Paul Schrader, who’d recently written Taxi Driver. We were attempting a romantic relationship at the time. He’d agreed to take me to the Dunnes because I don’t drive and because the Dunnes were hot.
He and Didion’s husband, John, gossiped about the movie industry: they said Francis Coppola had paid Robert Towne to rewrite The Godfather by filming in his house and having the studio pay to redecorate it. Together, the two men dominated the conversation at first. Today, I might not have allowed that to happen. (I’m either more evolved or more short-tempered.)
As I tried to feel comfortable on a tan couch, I blurted that I was surprised by the orderliness of their home. (I didn’t understand that besides taste it implied wealth.) They rushed to speak of the shambles it had passed through.
“We walked in the first day and thought, what a mess,” said Dunne, throwing a log into the fireplace. “We said, why did we buy it? The floors were covered with green wall-to-wall, and the walls were covered—”
“—with that awful prefabricated plywood with fake wood marks and separations,” said Didion, placing goblets and napkins on a table for lunch.
Her rubber-soled shoes squinched on the terracotta tiles as she disappeared into the kitchen to return with three limes. “This place was a mess,” she said, sitting and facing me again, a cutting board on her lap. She sliced the limes in a rolling motion like a chef. In this pristine room, her actions looked like ancient holy rituals.
Didion disappeared once more to get another log for the fire. Dunne disappeared twice to answer the telephone. Friends had told me Didion rarely spoke on the phone; Dunne handled that part of the exterior world for her. I memorized the objects on the glass table between me and the couple: a precise row of seashells, statistics about American deaths in the Vietnam War, and photographs of John, Joan, and Quintana.
Dunne continued talking in a bright tone about renovating their house. “So we hired a contractor,” he explained. “Everyone who does that work out here once wrote a screenplay and is an actor. So we had to hear about everybody’s problems—their boyfriends, their girlfriends, the third acts of their scripts. We escaped. We went East. We were pouring money down a hole. The house was killing us.
“So we decided,” said Dunne, still talking in an amiable party voice, “to get a divorce. They brought in a jackhammer and Joan started crying in seconds. But there was only a plastic sheet between us and the sea. Nobody could buy the house.”
They chuckled merrily as we moved to the dining table. Didion continued her husband’s monologue: “So, since we couldn’t get a divorce, we rehired the contractor. It was awful.”
Sweet peas in a vase and a dish of eggs painted in pale watercolors were the dining table’s centerpiece. A helicopter in the sky appeared to be flying lower than the house. Didion passed me chicken salad garnished with lime and insisted I take a painted egg. While cracking a delicate pink shell, I was reminded of Didion’s own fragile surfaces. I wondered if she’d served the eggs deliberately.
I complimented Didion on an article she’d written in the New York Review of Books about how in Hollywood the deal, not the film, is the art form. She froze.
“Oh my god, yes,” her husband jumped in, “Joan’s piece was the best thing ever written on the industry.” I was surprised that Dunne sat through the interview and did nearly all the talking. They were like the left and right hands of a pianist. Didion supplied delicate melody, while Dunne surged on with mighty supporting chords.
JOAN: I don’t hear the sound of the sea anymore because—
JOHN: —it’s like street sounds in New York. You filter them out—
JOAN: —well, but when it’s high tide or low tide, the waves actually stop. Then I wake up frightened in the middle of the night.
I almost lost track of who was saying what. Didion and Dunne didn’t interrupt each other so much as finish paragraphs or emphasize each other’s phrases. Dunne worked harder, making elisions, supplying topic sentences, ends of paragraphs, and—after threatening silences—answering my remarks directed to his wife. Their conversation was a two-person monologue.
Like traumatized children, they spoke of frightening events, such as a recent fire a few miles up the highway.
JOAN: The TV camera panned in and picked up our street sign and you—
JOHN: —saw the sun setting behind a palm tree—
JOAN: —and the palm tree caught fire and—
JOHN: —our telephone never stopped ringing.
JOAN: That blazing palm was amazing.
(She puts her arms together to make a trunk and spreads her fingers like branches.)
JOHN: We were supposed to go out to dinner at 7:30 but we were riveted—
JOAN: —you know how dignified palm trees are. This had the outline of a palm tree, but it was a fireball. The TV camera just held on the palm tree and you could hear the—
JOHN: —and here we were sitting by this placid ocean with the sun going down.
JOAN: You kept thinking you’d look out the window any minute and see fire.
JOHN: In the fall the Santa Ana wind whips flames through the canyon. It’s so real to us. It was really scary, scary to see the flames. Fire can go five miles in five minutes because it’s so dry. Five miles are nothing if the wind is blowing.
JOAN: We had a map out but we couldn’t find the fire.
JOHN: We had bags packed and ready to go. Actually, we only packed Joan’s manuscript and mine and—
JOAN: —and the silver.
JOAN: Afterward we got a safe-deposit box for manuscripts. But all we have in it is the pink slip for the Corvette and Quintana’s birth certificate.
JOHN: We did get it for manuscripts—
JOAN: —but it takes organization to get things into it.
After an hour, Dunne and Schrader finally left us. Dunne had to run a quick errand about a script he was doctoring. Didion sat down on floor pillows beneath two huge photographs. One was of a desert road with two signs: “Welcome to California” and “Death Valley.”
I relaxed a little and asked a single question: if she were to write a nonfiction piece about herself, what scene would she start with?
“Ah, I can’t answer that question.” Didion watched her trembling hands as she smoothed her ironed dungarees. “I mean it’s ludicrous to be a 39-year-old woman who is shy, but I’m really too shy. I don’t talk much. I am not articulate. I don’t make judgments except when I’m sitting in front of the typewriter. I am a terrible interviewer. When I wrote about John Wayne, he kept sitting down and waiting for me to ask him questions. I had no questions.”
“Me too,” I said too eagerly, and then shamelessly begged her to reconsider my question.
“No, no, I can’t think of it.” She paused. “You know, sometimes I think I can’t think at all unless I’m behind my typewriter. Like now I’m just recording sensory impressions, the light bouncing off the floor, your tapestry bag...”
A silence followed, and the horizon line between the ocean and the gray sky disappeared.
“No wait,” she said. “I do have a scene. I remember one day we had a bunch of people here for a beach party, and the house was filled with people. I began to feel scattered, upset, not myself. I could have gone and sat in the bathroom for a while by myself. I could have gone for a walk on the beach. Instead, I went to my office and just sat in front of my typewriter, and it was okay. I got control. I calmed down. I’m only myself in front of my typewriter.”
She exhaled with relief when her husband returned to the room.
Facing the two of them, I uneasily posed the question my Ms. editor had insisted I ask: the “feminist question.” Why did Didion write about women in despair, who believed in nothing and did nothing, when she herself was a strong woman who did an amazing thing—her writing? Why didn’t she write about women more like herself?
Didion stared unhappily at her lap. Dunne spoke sharply: “Whoever asks that question doesn’t know a goddamn thing about the questions of literature. Joan writes because she writes.”
Nearly 50 years later, so much has happened in Joan Didion’s life. She’s won a National Medal of Arts and Humanities. She’s written important books about her husband dying before her eyes and the tragic death of her daughter.
I’ve been underlining and re-reading South and West.
In this book, Didion records overheard conversations and disturbing observations in hard-scrabble places with melodious names—Tuscaloosa, Biloxi, Pontchartrain. Her details of life-shortening poverty and malodorous, casually villainous preoccupations with race and money seem like prelude to our poisonous present.
She does reveal a feminist sensibility when spending a hot summer afternoon in a laundromat near Meridian, Mississippi. She calls the laundromat a “steaming bleak structure,” and describes one woman who helps her save money by pointing out a broken dryer. The women are “moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.” Like the heroines of her novels, they are silent, static. “All women,” she writes, “are sisters in misery.”
She also writes, “At every social level [there is] the whole quality of maleness, the concentration on hunting and fishing. Leave the women to their cooking, their canning, their ‘prettifying.’”
As Nathaniel Rich writes in his excellent foreword, Didion’s observations “read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the ‘dense obsessiveness’ of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return.”
Didion claims she doesn’t deal in abstractions, that her writing begins with details. In “Why I Write,” she told the Berkeley faculty about her time as a student there:
“In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.
“...certain images,” she continued, “do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.”
I think Didion can be disingenuous. Her process is not simply inductive. Along with her genius for recording detail, she’s an intellectual. Her achingly telling observations of people in the South align too neatly with the ugly abstractions of greed, selfishness, and bigotry that buttress our current dystopia.
In one passage of South and West, Didion describes the white owner of a Meridian radio station bragging about how his channel reaches 180,000 black people in Mississippi and Alabama. He adds, casually: “I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight ‘cause I’m not.”
Despite Didion’s protestations to the contrary, her written details support her beliefs about the South. She observes Southerners like she does women—isolated, pained—without proposing solutions.
When Didion went South in 1970, she knew what she was looking for. What’s stunning now is that her vision of the South has become our version of America.
Susan Braudy is the Pulitzer Prize nominated author of five books, including her 1975 bestselling memoir, Between Marriage and Divorce: A Woman’s Diary and her historic investigation of a liberal dynasty, Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. She’s written screenplays for Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola, and is on the board of The New Journal at Yale. She blogs at Manhattan Voyeur. She wrote about her interview with Didion previously in the February 1977 issue of Ms. Magazine. She last wrote for Jezebel about her experience reporting for Playboy in 1969.
The author thanks Connor Hoffman for his editorial assistance.