THIS INTERVIEW WAS conducted on a warm September afternoon in Regent's Park, London, where I had gone with John Gregory and our daughter Quintana. It was interrupted by lunch, the search for a laundromat, and considerable idle speculation about how much it would cost to rent a Nash house overlooking the park. Q. Publishers' Weekly described True Confessions (reviewed on page 3) as a "book by Joan Didion's husband" quote unquote. What's your reaction to that?
A. Unprintable quote unquote.
Q. True Confessions has been called your "break-through" book.
A. If "breakthrough" means it was my first novel, it wasn't. Vegas was a novel. A novel in the form of a memoir. I had intended writing a nonfiction book about Las Vegas, a book rather like The Studio . But technically I'd already written that book, and I didn't want to write it again.
Q. You didn't like The Studio when you finished it.
A. I didn't want to publish it.
Q. We had an argument about it. You wouldn't even read it. I read the galleys.
A. I read it for the first time a few months ago and I liked it. At the time it seemed like typing. Taking notes and typing them. It wasn't any fun to write.
Q. You had fun writing Vegas .
A.I had fun writing Vegas once I decided to invent it , make it all up, write a novel set in Las Vegas.
Q. Most people thought the "I" character in Vegas was you.
A. The "I" character in Vegas beara about as much resemblance to me as Eugene Gant bears to Thomas Wolfe.
Q. Some of the Irish Catholic stuff in Vegas came out of your own experience.
A. Of course it did. Actually it was when I was doing Vegas that I realized what I had in my own Irish Catholic experience. I had the Mother Lode. I wanted to do a new novel that was entirely Irish Catholic Nuns and midgets. All I knew about True Confessions in the beginning was that the texture of it was all nuns and midgets.
Q. The particular Irish Catholic world in which you grew up - Haviland dishes, privaee schools, plenty of help - doesn't much resemble the Irish Catholic world in True Confessions .
A. No. It's more the world of my grandfather, who came to Hartford from Ireland at age ten with a card around his neck telling who he was and who was meeting him. He became a grocer. He became a very successful grocer, even a rich grocer. In a section of Hartford called Frog Hollow, which was the Irish ghetto. He started a bank in Frog Hollow, the Park Street Trust, moved out of Frog Hollow and became a rather substantial man in the city. But he still went into his grocery every day. I remember him in his eighties in a long white grocer's coat and a straw boater. He always carried a pocketfull of change for his grandchildren. There were six of us. He recited poetry all the time, all the Irish poets.
Q. Do you remember the poems?
A. I don't understand poetry. I'm badly educated. No, I'm badly read . I'm a well-educated, badly read person.
Q. You spend a lot of time driving around that old part of Hartford.
A. Everything I think and everything I am comes from that old part of Hartford. I get a strong sense of who I am down there. I don't get it in West Hartford, where I actually grew up. I don't get in from anyplace connected with my own sort of upper-middle-class Princeton-West Hartford background.
Q. Is that where your rather dark view of human nature comes from? Frog Hollow?
A. What do you mean, my rather dark view of human nature?
Q. Well, call it a realist's view. There are a couple of places in True Confessions which seem to me to define not only that views but the spirit of the book. The first has to do with the Cardinal: "One thing the Cardinal knew about policemen, they accepted as a given the taint on the human condition." The second is late in the book, when Des is thinking about his brother Tom: "He wondered when Tom began to accept vemlity as a constant of the human condition. He suddenly thought: About the same time I did." I mean the book is almost a tableau [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of venality. Every move has a venal motive.
A. I guess that's basically my view of life. Man is born imperfect. That's Catholic. I don't go to church but a I grow older I realize more and more how Catholic I am.
Q. The sexual references in True Confessions are all harsh, ugly, almost misogynistic. I know you're not a misogynist. Neither is Tom Spellacy, really. And yet he talks that way.
A. Tom is guilt-ridden.If you're educated by the nuns as Tom was you tend to have a view of sexual conduct that is essentially guilt-ridden. If you're taught from kindergarten on that the only function of sex is the propagation of the faith, then the idea that there might be pleasure in it makes you feel guilty.
Q. In what ways does your training as a reporter show up in the True Confessions?
A. It shows up in bits and pieces. I think I have a pretty good ear. I didn't 15 years ago. Reporting trained my ear to pick up the rhythm of spoken speech. I'm a terrible reporter in the sense of asking questions. There's a kind of reporter who thinks that the answers to questions matter. I don't . If you're talking to somebody who's practiced in giving answers, you're going to get his standard practiced answers. If you're talking to somebody who's not practiced in giving answers, you're not going to find out what's on his mind by asking him, because usually he doesn't know. The answers are totally irrelevant and so are the questions. What matters is that he's wearing brown shoes with a blue suit. What matters is that he bites his nails. I like to kind of hang around and pick up the scene, get the speech patterns right.
Q. You picked up a line of my father's in True Confessions .
A. "Only the winner goes to dinner."
Q. You also picked up a line you heard at my grandmother's dinner table, "A meal fit for the Queen of Spain."
A. Your grandmother's dinner table was gold.
Q. There are some obligatory questions I have to ask. Other people always ask how you and I handle professional jealousies and antagonisms. How do we?
A. Nobody ever believes the answer. The answer is banal. We don't have any professional jealousies and in 15 years I can recall only one instance of professional antagonism.
Q. You mean the time we were going to cover a Rolling Stones' tour together.
A. We were fighting about how to do it 10 minutes after I told you we'd been asked.
Q. I'm not sure that fight was a function of professional antagonism. I think maybe that fight was a function of my having just gotten off a plane from Oakland.
A.Have it your way. Basically we like to live the same way.
A. Quietly in California.
Q. Another thing some people wonder is how we survive without daily immersion in "the real world," by which they usually mean New York.
A. A lot of those people who talk about being immersed in the real world only go out in public if it's a party for Sue Mengers or George Weidenfeld.
Q. Don't you think they mean opinions? That we miss out on a lot of opinions, not living in New York?
A. I'm not in the opinion business. Neither are you. Between us, we have maybe six opinions.
Q. What are they?
A. I'm not quite clear on what they are.
Q.Are you scared of your next book?
A. Of course I am. I was scared of this book.
Q. You kept a medicine bottle full of holy water on your desk the whole time you were writing it.
A. I got it as a present, the day I finished Vegas . A medicine bottle of holy water and a ream of paper. I forgot I had that holy water on my desk.
Q. You still do.
A. I still need it.