Courtesy Netflix

joan didion on california, social responsibility and becoming a cultural icon

As a documentary charting her life comes to Netflix, the legendary author speaks to i-D about what she’s learned during her 50 years as a writer.

by Holly Shackleton
31 October 2017, 8:30am

Courtesy Netflix

One of the greatest living writers of our times, over a 50-year career Joan Didion has morphed from critically acclaimed journalist and author to cultural commentator, sage, style icon and beyond. With a new Netflix documentary out now, we meet the woman whose writing has inspired a generation of authors, thinkers and activists.

"Why do I write? Impossible as it seems, I still don't know. I guess I write because it gives me pleasure, but beyond that I'm not sure." Joan Didion

Over your 50-year career, you've moved beyond the status of writer to cultural icon. How does that make you feel?
I would say it's neither a source of pride nor responsibility. It's just something that apparently happened. Certainly I'm grateful for it, because it tells me that I've had an audience.

Do you feel a social responsibility as a writer, or do you write to satisfy something within yourself?
I write to understand how I feel about things. As for a writer's social responsibilities -- I don't know what the right answer is there. When I've written about politics, for instance, I've always written with an eye toward the truth, not toward social responsibility. Maybe they're the same, but they have not seemed so to me.

California is a huge part of who you are, both as a woman and as a writer. What are your feelings towards California today?
I do and I always will hold it in the same regard. Naturally my thinking about California has changed. I don't know how though. Some of the things that I loved there have gone now. Amado Vazquez is gone. My house in Malibu is gone. The yellow magnolia in Brentwood is gone. My swimming pool. Yet even as I've lost all these aspects of what California was to me, I still think of it as home.

In what ways would your writing have been different had you only lived in New York?
It would have been totally different. Better not to think of that though.

Where do you feel you most belong?
I suppose in California. I love Hawaii but I don't belong there. It's very difficult to belong to a place you're not from.

Why do you write?
Why do I write? Impossible as it seems, I still don't know. I guess I write because it gives me pleasure, but beyond that I'm not sure.

Does the process of writing energise or exhaust you?
It exhausts me less than other things. Dinner parties are far more exhausting!

How do you think the digital world is shaping our attitudes towards the written word and the ways in which we both appreciate and absorb it?
I don't think it's making much difference one way or another. Then again, I still read the physical newspaper, so I may not be the right person to ask.

Do you think the new generation read as much as they should?
Perhaps not… Do they read with their children, for instance?

How important is honesty to you as a writer?
Honesty is everything to me as a writer and as a human being.

"The biggest misconception about me is that I'm weak. I am anything but." Joan Didion

You've said before, " I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means..." Have you always approached writing as a window to the world and to yourself?
I have since childhood approached writing that way. This has not changed at all. It's helpful in that if you do it right you can see what's really there.

Are you ever satisfied?
With something I've written? Yes. Sometimes I have been satisfied. These moments are unfortunately fleeting, but I treasure them.

When your work is published, do you ever feel if you have given a part of yourself away? And if so, do you ever feel remorseful?
I don't feel remorseful, unless it's because I feel I haven't given enough away. If I do feel I haven't given enough away, I start over.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem , you wrote, " Writers are always selling somebody out" . Do you still stand by that statement, and if so, who have you sold out and how have you made peace with it?
Yes, I stand by it. I don't know that I've ever sold somebody out though.

Do you ever question your authority to tell a story?

How has writing changed your life?
How hasn't it?

Landscape and a sense of place are integral parts of your work. Where is your happy place?
My happiest place is Hawaii, though I haven't gone back since John died. After that it is Los Angeles, which I get to every once in a while.

Is there anywhere in the world you would still like to travel to?
Yes, lots of places. Sri Lanka. I always miss The Bristol in Paris.

What is the greatest life lesson you have learned?
Move on.

What is the biggest misconception about you?
That I'm weak. I am anything but.

What books have had the greatest influence on your life, both personally and professionally?
Moby Dick, Victory, A Farewell to Arms and The Good Soldier.

What contemporary writers do you admire today?
I love W.S. Merwin. He writes perfect poems.

Do you believe the saying that "everyone has a book in them"?
No. I don't.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what could you not live without?
I could live without a book. I couldn't live without paper and pen.

"Honesty is everything to me as a writer and as a human being." Joan Didion

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Joan Didion
the centre will not hold