Thu, Jun

“I Think of Myself as Attached to California:” Interviewing Joan Didion


VOICES - Some of my friends who were Californians and writers didn’t approve of Joan Didion’s essays about California, but they didn’t say so publicly.

Didion was too big and too famous to rebuke in a newspaper article or from the podium. The California she wrote about—coastal California, for the most part— wasn’t “their” California—the Central Valley—which some of them promoted as “The Other California.” In fact there was and is no one “Other California.” There were and still are two, three, many Californias. The place is too diverse and too multidimensional to be contained by just two identities, much as Didion herself wasn’t one dimensional, but rather had several identities as a bicoastal American: a Calfornian and a New Yorker. Born in Sacramento, in 1934, she graduated from Berkeley, moved to New York and wrote for Vogue. She and her writer husband John Gregory Dunne divided their time between New York and California until his death in 2003.  She spent the last act of her life in New York, the city that claimed her as one of its own, much as California also claimed her as a native daughter of the golden west. I admired her writing, and said so in print though friends rebuked me for praising someone they thought of as conservative. Perhaps she was, though her conservatism didn’t lend itself to the Republican Party or the rightwing. I interviewed her once, shortly after one of her books was published. I think it’s worth republishing now. It provides some insights into a novelist, essayist and memoirist who drew some of her best writings from her own inner pain and inner strength.

Q: Your book, Where I Was From (2003), was recently reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. The title was “Giving Up On California.” Have you given up on your native state?

A: No, I haven’t. Their title was far broader than any intention I ever had. But people in New York often hope that Californians give up on California.

Q: How would you describe the 2003 California recall election of Governor Gray Davis? Is it a tragedy or a farce? 

A: I vote in New York. I have since 1988, but if I could vote in California I would have voted against the recall. I would not vote for Schwarzenegger. I feel the same way about him that I felt about Reagan for governor.

Q: You have described the women in your own family as “clinically radical”? Would you describe yourself as “clinically radical”? 

A: I was talking, there, about personal attachments. The women in my family threw away personal attachments. I see some of that in myself. But I wouldn’t want to talk about those personal attachments in public.

Q: You seem to be a public person.

A: Not really. I lived in L.A. for about 20 years and I was always the least public person in the room. When my daughter went to college she was surprised to find out that people knew the names Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

Q: You were born in California and you live in New York. Do you feel like an exile? Are you a fugitive from California?

A: I am not in exile and I am not a fugitive from California. I think of myself as attached to California– whether I am there or not. I still have a California license and that’s important to me. I lived in New York from 1956 to 1964 and I thought then that I’d always live in New York. Then I got homesick for California and I moved to L.A. after I got married. It took a year to “get” L.A. When I got it I didn’t want to live there anymore.

Q: What’s there to “get” about L.A.?

A: L.A. is resistant to being sentimentalized. In L.A. you realize that L.A. has no reason to be there and that you have no reason to be there, either. In 1988 we moved back to New York, and for a long time I thought of myself as living in both New York and L.A. I was bi-coastal.

Q: Could we play a free association game? Could I mention some names in the news and get your immediate thoughts?  

A: Yes.

Q: Arnold Schwarzenegger

A: I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of his movies and I never gave him a thought until he entered the race.

Q: Gray Davis

A: I’ve known him since he was Jerry Brown’s chief of staff and I generally like him.

Q: Ariana Huffington

A: I don’t know her, but I admire her columns. She’s sharp.

Q: George Bush?

A: I am writing something that touches on George Bush now and I really can’t say. I never talk about the articles I’m writing. They can turn out to be something entirely different from where they start.

Q: What book of all your own books do you like best now?

A: I don’t know. When I finish a book it usually goes out of my head. I went back to Run River recently and I found flaws, so I don’t like to go back to my work.

Q: Could you say, briefly, what it means to be a Californian? Is it a complex fate?

A: To be a Californian means to be full of contradictions. That’s what I say in my new book. I think it’s more contradictory than any other place in the country. There is an idealization of California that you don’t get anyplace else and that idealization tends to produce contradictions.

Q: Is California the locomotive or the caboose? Do things start here and move to the rest of the country?

A: When we lived in L.A. in the mid-1960s people would say that. They would say that cults started in California and that they’d spread to the rest of the country. I didn’t think that was true then and I still don’t. I don’t think that California leads the way. I used to think that if you wanted to know the future of America go to New Orleans or to Miami and I did. But I don’t know where to go today to see the future of America and so I don’t know what to write next.

Q: What do you see in store for democracy in America?

A; Well, I think that democracy has shallow roots in America. Unless people take care of it, it is not assured.


(Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955. This article was featured in Counter Punch.)