PW: Your new book, Where I Was From, takes a strongly critical view of California. As a native Californian, did you find this book difficult to write?
Joan Didion: I started doing it in the '70s, and it was impossible for me to write it then. So I put it aside. After that, I did a couple of long pieces for the New Yorker, and it raised so many questions about the subject in my mind. Another one for the New Yorker raised still other questions. But it wasn't until my mother was dying that I went on to write and complete it.
PW: Did you write this book with the hope that it would improve conditions and create changes in California?
JD: No. I was really just trying to investigate for myself why California's idea of itself was so different from the reality.
PW: When did you first become fascinated by your past and the colorful family tree you present in the book?
JD: It was always a heavy thing hanging over me, all the different stories. I took for granted that they were important to me, but they meant something different from what I had been told. I admired the women, but they weren't role models. Yet I see myself in them, sometimes [laughs] their least attractive aspects.
PW: You mention that California is a "wearying enigma." Have you found, as you put it, the "point" of California?
JD: I've made a start, by breaking through the romanticized illusions we have about its settlement, about its "crossing."
PW: Do you feel California offers "spiritual renewal"?
JD: Absolutely. It's all over. It's hard to look at that landscape without feeling a spiritual sense. Without feeling not up to it. It's a greater thing than oneself.
PW: How would you like the world to respond to this book?
JD: Ideally, you want people to read something and feel deep identification with it, or be stimulated to think about the stories they grew up on. But you can never tell if they will or not.
PW: Did you have a mentor, a person who inspired you politically and on social issues?
JD: Not really, though of course there were writers I liked: Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser. There's something moving about the sheer strength of Dreiser. He's overwhelming. Then there's Hemingway. I taught myself to type by typing out Hemingway stories. He had sentences to die over. I learned how to make sentences doing that. I cared less about how sentences worked in Where I Was From. It's a looser book than my others, much more direct.
PW: What was the turning point in your career?
JD:Play It As It Lays. That book put me in a different place than I'd been before and allowed me to make a living.
PW: With the work and completion of this new book, do you find writing easier than it used to be?
JD: Finding the right subject has become harder. Once you discover what you want to write about—as I did here—you move along quickly. By the second week, you know exactly where you are and where you're going.
PW: Now, from an overall perspective, how do you think California stacks up against the other states in this country?
JD: It created a larger expectation. We should have been able to create a perfect society in California. But it didn't happen. It's probably not possible.
PW: Yet Californians do retain that sense of optimism. As a native Californian, do you believe in what you refer to as "good luck and fresh starts"?
JD: Of course I do. That was the core story. I'm stuck with it. I've had a truly hard time believing that there isn't a way out, that there isn't a way west.