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Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”

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Montgomery Fellow Joan Didion brought her stories to Dartmouth Oct. 6 through 8, discussing her work with four groups of students and their professors, and drawing an overflow crowd to Filene Auditorium for her public lecture. Didion is the author of 13 books, including five novels, as well as essays and screenplays. An anthology of her nonfiction, titled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live, was published in 2006. Didion won the 2005 National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of the year that followed the sudden death of her husband, writer Gregory Dunne. Didion later adapted the book into a one-woman play, expanding its time frame to include the death of Didion and Dunne’s daughter Quintana, whose illness had begun just before Dunne’s death.

Joan Didion (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69).

“A lot of things in life have struck me as too dramatic to be true,” Didion told VOX of Dartmouth after her initial classroom session. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview; also present was Montgomery Endowment Executive Director Susan Wright.

How was class this morning?

It was great—really nice kids.

You talked about Slouching Towards Bethlehem? [Didion’s collection of essays published in 1968.]

We ended up talking about everything. … I mean about life itself, ideally what life [should be].

Did you come up with any answers?

[laughing] We didn’t, no answers.

Susan Wright: But with another hour I think we could have solved the gap between the 60s and the current generation …

Is there anything about the current presidential campaign that has puzzled or intrigued you?

What’s striking about it to me was how much the same it was rather than how different it was. I mean the responses to some rather changed circumstances were the same old responses, both in terms of the historic nature of the candidacy, and the economy. The changed circumstances didn’t seem to inspire changed answers.

Your anthology is titled We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, the opening line of  your book The White Album. Does that phrase work as personal credo?

Oh yeah.

Did you expect that the play The Year of Magical Thinking would continue to be produced as much as it has?

It’s stunning to me. I mean, it’s being produced pretty much around the world. One of the producers, Scott Rudin, told me when he suggested that I do it, that this would be the case, because everyone was always looking for a one-person play: they’re cheap to produce, he said, and every country has an actress who’s looking for a part.

Was that a difficult thing to do, to take a story as personal and as constrained by time and voice as the book was, and turn it into a play?

No, actually. It was quite exhilarating to do it because I’d never done it. Once the idea had presented itself that …[the play could use] the conflict of the voice with itself, it was interesting to do. [Rudin] said, “Sometimes you think she’s lying, sometimes you think she’s crazy.” Once he had said that, the way of doing a play presented itself.

Any big projects brewing?

I’m supposed to be working on a book but I haven’t gotten very far.

To the point where you know what it might be about?

I can’t even talk about what it might be about because it might turn out to be something totally different; it’s still at that phase. … I always have a notebook with me. I don’t make notes as faithfully as I should. [Didion brings out a passport-sized notebook and pages through it.] I’ve got grocery lists …

But you can reconstruct whole lives from those.

Yeah, you can.





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Last Updated: 12/17/08