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Highlights from our brief encounters with Joan Didion

As the subject of a story, she could be ‘reticent’ yet forthcoming, as three Washington Post articles reveal

Author Joan Didion in New York in 2007. She died Dec. 23 at 87. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Writer Joan Didion, who died Thursday in New York at 87, was famously bad at giving interviews. By all accounts, she was polite, prepared, gracious, but apologetic about her lack of chattiness; she often said she was best at the typewriter keys, writing and rewriting until she knew what she really thought about something. She was widely regarded as the consummate observer: quiet, dangerously perceptive and rarely off the cuff. It’s no surprise to anyone who has ever read her work that she was not exactly a rambler, or attention-seeker.

Obituary: Joan Didion, who chronicled American decadence and hypocrisy, dies at 87

But as a book author, she still had to make the publicity rounds. This is when she was most available for the free-association exercise known as the sit-down interview, which she gave several times over the years to reporters from The Washington Post’s Style section, whether on her book tours or in her New York apartment. What follows are some highlights from Style’s archives.

1977: ‘Joan Didion: A Romantic’s Sense of the Absurd’

Style reporter Sally Quinn met Didion, then 42, for tea in a room at the Madison hotel on 15th Street NW. Didion had just released her novel “A Book of Common Prayer.” From April 4, 1977:

You’re not prepared for it at first. Not prepared because you’ve read all those stories about how she looks like she’s about to burst into tears all the time, how her eyes are just two big tear ducts, how her books about despairing, passive tragic heroines are all autobiographical.

So, the first time she says something funny, speaking in that whispery voice, ending her sentences and then gasping back her giggle so as not to disappoint your image of her, you think maybe you misunderstood. But then it happens again. And again. And finally you know you’re not mistaken.

Joan Didion is a comedian.

...

She doesn’t look or act or even talk the way a comedian should. In fact, her delivery belies any humor at all.

She is a tiny person. That is what strikes everyone first who meets her. She is not only very short, but also very thin, with tiny bones, small slim fingers and limbs. She looks crushable. Her strawberry blond hair she pulls back to one side with a white flower, which gives the impression of her being even more delicate.

...

“I don’t know why people say I am sad. It really puzzles me. It bothers me terribly. I don’t think it has anything to do with what I write. I keep thinking it’s because I’m physically small and I look too thin and ummmm ... if you are asked a question like where does your despair come from ... you answer it the way you can.” And she shrugs and laughs.

“I noticed that the reviewers of ‘Play It as It Lays’ thought it was autobiographical. It’s not. Any more than ‘A Book of Common Prayer’ is about human emotions. It’s a book about history.” She pauses for a second, then says “to the extent that I would ever write a book about history. I thought I had some very funny things in there. And there’s a very clear eye on the heroine. It’s not a subjective eye. I thought it was very funny. John did too.”

Author John Gregory Dunne is her husband and sometimes collaborator when they do screenplays. ...

“I have the constant sense, whenever I read anything about me, that my marriage is about to break up,” says Didion. “I once said in Life magazine that I was in Hawaii in lieu of getting a divorce. Well, everything you do is in lieu of getting a divorce. In fact the act of being married is in lieu of getting a divorce,” and she stops, eyebrows knitted, and then giggles.

“John,” she says, “is even more puzzled by people’s image of me as always being sadder that I am. He probably perceives me as being very cheerful and undepressive.”

Perspective: Joan Didion was the essence of effortless cool, amid a life of loss and disillusionment

Talk to almost anyone who has met Joan Didion and they will tell you, “She’s very shy, you know.” It’s the one thing about her which seems to be universally agreed upon.

She, however, disagrees.

“I’m just reticent,” she will say.

“My whole style is rather laconic.”

She says that she makes a distinction between being shy and being reticent. “When I was about 25 I decided that it was ridiculous for a grown woman to be shy. You know what I mean? So I became ‘reticent.’ I think people always perceive of themselves as shy. But it occurred to me that I had been using it as a crutch because I was small. And it had a crippling effect.”

1996: ‘Didion’s Plot’

Style reporter David Streitfeld interviewed Didion at 61 in her New York apartment about her novel “The Last Thing He Wanted,” admiring the stacks of research she’d amassed to get deeply into the Iran-contra affair. From Sept. 18, 1996:

There are files elsewhere in the apartment, many of them, full of photocopies and crumbling newspaper clips. Didion provides two thick folders for perusal. Formal invitations to parties at unnamed U.S. embassies. Headlines from another era: “Inquiry Reported Into Contra Arms.” “Miami Dealer Tried to Deliver Arms to Contras.” “McFarlane Denies Illegal Ties to Contras.” “Sources: White House OKd Contra Supply Network.” A copy of the 1972 State Department Biographic Register for intelligence operative Theodore George Shackley. A Newsweek chart titled “How the North Operatives Came to Know One Another.” Someone has circled Shackley’s name with a red marker the three times he comes up — involved with covert operations against the Castro in the early ’60s, in the secret war in Southeast Asia, in arms deals with Egypt in the early ’80s.

Even a casual browse through this material shows how closely linked the novel is to real events — although unlike some clunky techno-thrillers, it will weigh no reader down with chunks of exposition.

“Isn’t that how you use research? You assimilate it, and then basically throw it out,” Didion says. “It just sinks into you, so you think that way. It becomes part of your wiring.”

Maybe it always was. Didion was in Miami in the mid-'80s, working on a book about the place. She was immediately hooked by the first news about Iran-contra in the one city, besides Washington, where it had a special resonance. “The whole story was written every day in the papers, by the reporters who were there in the various places.”

She’s still frustrated, still angry. “We were being systematically lied to. By certain people in the government.” She corrects herself: “By many people in the government.”

Yet the story never came into focus for the public, never became an issue. “A lot of people have a great fear of, or aversion to, conspiracy. They won’t see it. And since everything that happened had to do with conspiracy, it wasn’t anything they wanted to look at.”

...

In her early teens, Didion wrote stories about suicide. One summer, when her parents rented a beach cottage, she decided to take notes on what a watery grave would feel like. She took her notebook and walked out into the water. A big wave flattened her.

The experiment was abandoned but another pattern was set: Didion would go to the limits, and record what happened. The autobiography in her early work is raw.

...

Remembers Didion: “I felt a kind of contract with the readers — that they would know who I was, so they would know where they stood with me.” But there was more to it than that. “For a while, I was operating pretty directly on emotions. A lot of people do at that age.”

In an era that had not yet attempted to put every imaginable feeling on daytime talk shows, Didion quickly became famous for the intelligence of her perceptions and the depth of her despair. Her columns and stories appeared in publications with huge circulations — Life, the Saturday Evening Post — and then became popular and well-reviewed books. Readers responded quite personally, in an outpouring that threatened to further overload her fragile circuits.

Didion became an icon, which means the persona was known even when the work that inspired it was not. And then she did something both extremely difficult and extremely smart: She left her persona behind. “Past your thirties, you just lose interest in yourself,” she says. Her essays are now densely argued. “I came to trust my mind a little more.”

2005: ‘The Phrases of Grief’

Style reporter Bob Thompson also interviewed Didion in her New York apartment. At 70, she was about to release her biggest-selling book yet, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a rumination on grief and the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, that was later adapted into a Broadway play. (At the time of the interview, Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, had died only weeks earlier. She wrote about that loss in a later book, “Blue Nights.”) From Oct. 26, 2005:

Didion never writes from outlines. Sometimes she thinks as much as 30 pages ahead, but in this case, she didn’t even do that. She knew the book would end a year after her husband’s death. She sensed that an especially intense crisis in her daughter’s illness would form a “movement” that should fall a certain distance into the narrative. Otherwise she didn’t plan it out. She just wrote.

Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was a writer as well. Over the years, he had drilled into her the need to include a so-called billboard section: a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what you’re writing about. At the beginning of Didion’s career, she had sometimes neglected to do this.

On that first writing day, when she got to the place where the billboard should fall, she typed one in.

This was her effort, she explained, to make sense of the disorienting months after her husband died and their daughter fell ill, a period “that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

It was a classic billboard, a billboard to make John proud — but it didn’t stop there. It went on to signal a dramatic change in Didion’s writing style.

“As a writer, even as a child,” she continued, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”

Then her world changed.

Polished language wasn’t enough anymore.

...

She greets you at the door of her Upper East Side apartment, a tiny, pink-sweatered woman of 70 who can’t weigh much more than her age. “She doesn’t look like she works on the docks” is how her friend Calvin Trillin describes her.

Framed photographs, many of John and their daughter, Quintana, fill flat surfaces in the living room. Neatly squared-off stacks of books lie on the coffee table. One is topped by “The High Sierra,” another by “Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss.”

Quintana died in August, after Didion had finished her book. “Many people have said to me: You don’t have to promote this,” she says, yet “if I didn’t do it, it still wouldn’t bring her back.”

...

“I’ve been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours,” critic John Leonard wrote recently. The answer is “something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, ice-pick laser beams, or waves.”

“There are not many writers of nonfiction who get part of the effect by rhythm,” Trillin says. In some hard-to-explain way, this also relates to the knack Didion has shown for “being personal without being personal.”

...

“You think: If I can write it down, I can keep it,” Didion says. She’s had this feeling more strongly about some books than others. Her first, for one, because she was writing to “re-create home.” Her latest, for another.

“I had it very strongly about this book: that I could keep John.”

Not surprisingly, she found it hard to end. The problem is there’s no resolution: “The conventional way to end something like this is you come to a resolution, right?”

It would be easier if she had faith. But Didion, though she was raised Episcopalian, lacks it.

“To have faith, you have to believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary,” she explains. “That has to be the beauty of it and the point of it, but it’s a very hard place to reach.” She can see the attraction, but has never quite gotten there.

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