Conversation between Joan Didion and Meghan Daum
12 December 2004
Thirty years ago, Joan Didion penned her bittersweet postcard to New York, “Goodbye to All That”, now regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest essays. The legendary author talks about identity, geography, and her early days at Vogue with Meghan Daum, leading light of a new generation of American essayists
Forty years after coming to national attention with her first novel, Run River, Joan Didion’s spare, unblinkered prose continues to shock and awe new generations of readers. Though her essay collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album remain her most celebrated works, her nuanced political analyses for The New York Review of Books continue to provide a cold blast of reality in these politically dishonest times. Her latest book, Where I Was From, investigates the complex mythology of California, as well as her own conflicted relationship to her home state, all the while resisting the confessional quality that marked her earlier work.
Like Didion’s essays on the ’60s, Meghan Daum’s candescent essay collection, My Misspent Youth, explores the way we live now through the prism of personal experience: the title essay—a rage against the betrayal of dreams—captures the sense of disillusion that has long been a Didion staple. Now living in Los Angeles, Daum is also the author of The Quality of Life Report, published by Viking.
BB: Both of you have written about falling out of love with New York—Joan in “Goodbye to All That”, and Meghan in “My Misspent Youth.” Were you writing about New York or yourselves?
JD: I think certainly in Meghan’s case, but in my case too, falling out of love with New York is a situation of not having enough money [laughs]. I think that’s why people fall out of love with New York at a certain point. If you have enough money, it gets better and better.
MD: One of Joan’s most memorable lines, for me, in “Goodbye to All That” was that New York was a city for the very rich and the very young.
JD: Well, we moved from here to Los Angeles in 1964, and it was totally amazing to me, the sense of luxury. We rented a house on the ocean, we had 40 acres of oceanfront, we had three bedrooms and three bathrooms and rose gardens and artichoke gardens, and all of this was taken care of, and we were paying $400 a month. We were going to go out there for six months, and then we kept staying on, but it was so much easier to live on less.
MD: That’s astonishing to me. Was there something about the economics of that city at the time? It seems remarkable.
JD: It was remarkable, but to get from Beverley Hills to our house you had to get on the San Diego freeway, go past all the refineries, and then all the way out to the ocean. So it was a hard house to rent, because it was so far from town. They were asking $800 a month and I said we couldn’t possibly afford $800 a month, but maybe we could afford $400, and they took us.
BB: Your feelings about New York—the sense of feeling very, very young here. Is it more of an idea than a reality? Was it something you started seeing through?
MD: I had a real anger that I couldn’t make it work—I think a lot of my work comes out of an anger, and that’s where the urgency to write the piece comes from.
JD: Who were you working for?
MD: I worked at Allure, which is part of Conde Nast, and I guess we’re all naïve about our notions of New York, or anywhere when we’re growing up, and I had this set of cultural icons that I associated with New York. But after being there for a while and seeing that I was doing everything I could, and actually making pretty decent money and still not able to make it, I was furious, and angry—particularly during the ’90s and the whole boom that occurred—that I had been left out of it, but more that New York was a prohibitively expensive place for the people who had made it what it was: the creative people and the intellectuals and the artists.
JD: For me there was some kind of cognitive dissonance between the way I lived and the place I was working. I was working for Vogue, and people there really did not have a clear understanding of what it was to be making $45 or $50 a week, which is what I started at. I can remember asking if someone could get me a discount on a polo coat, because I needed a winter coat, and she said, “Oh sweetie, a polo coat is all wrong for you, put yourself in Hattie Carnegie’s hands, she does wonderful things for small people.” Put yourself in Hattie Carnegie’s hands! So I kept feeling poorer even than I was.
MD: I was mistaken for a messenger one time, walking into 350 Madison because I was so bedraggled and poorly-dressed. They stopped me at the desk and told me to take the freight elevator, and I said, “I’m an assistant.”
I’m really curious to talk to you about this, because that was ’92, and it was the closest I felt I could come to a literary, glamorous job. I knew nothing about fashion. I had no interest in it—I pronounced Versace as Versayce—but it’s interesting how the fashion world is intrinsically linked to being a writer for women.
JD: Yeah, in a certain way it was a way in. Vogue, at least, had a features department, so we had all these semiliterary projects going.
MD: I wondered about that. Was that your very first job?
JD: I got the Prix de Paris, so I got a job out of college, but I wasn’t immediately put in the feature department—basically, all I did for a about a year was read back issues, and then I started working in the promotional department, and in order to get into the feature department I actually had to quit, and then they said they would move me to the feature department.
MD: This was in the ’50s?
JD: I went there in the fall of ’56 and I stayed there until late ’63.
MD: I’m really curious about what allowed for it to be a time in which a women’s magazine or fashion magazine had more intellectual merit.
JD: Well, Harper’s Bazaar was one of the big fiction outlets, and Mademoiselle was, too.
MD: Right, Sylvia Plath wrote for Mademoiselle.
JD: Yes, and Margarita Smith, who was Carson McCullers sister, was the fiction editor
MD: So when did the change happen? When did the publications lose their intellectual credibility, so to speak?
JD: Well, I think there are still things in these magazines, but it’s harder to find them because of the layout—the deliberate mingling of advertising with editorial makes it very difficult to present material in a way that you take seriously. At that time, you’d pick up a copy of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, and there were X-pages of advertising—many, many pages—but they were all discrete: You had an advertising section, then an introductory page, and then you went into the well and didn’t see advertising again until you got to the end of the book.
It was much more like a family than you would have thought it would be. The personnel director of Conde Nast would stop me in the hall to ask me if I’d called my mother, and if I said, “Not since last Tuesday,” she’d say, “Come into my office right now and call her.” And they had a nurse, Miss K, who every morning would line up little paper cups of phenobarbitol for you if you came in nervous.
MD: Oh I wish they hadn’t done away with that.
JD: You could take naps in Miss K’s office.
MD: It’s so interesting because it ties in to this idea I had a long time ago that Seven Sisters College embodied a sensibility that was a direct parallel to the culture of Conde Nast and that somehow, throughout time, both cultures had been perverted by various cultural forces.
JD: Yeah, the people in charge of Conde Nast saw themselves in loco parentis, really. They had all these young children who came to work for them, and they took care of them in a sense.
BB: What would you attribute to the change in that culture?
MD: Maybe cocaine [Both laugh]
JD: At the time I began working at Vogue, there was a very clear understanding that it was not a magazine for very many people. It had 250 to 350,000 subscribers, and then a large pass-along readership, but it was specifically designed as a magazine for not very many people. Once the Newhouses had bought it and settled in, that was no longer the way that the magazine was conceived. It had to build circulation all the time. If you’re building circulation all the time you’re going to have a different sort of magazine.
BB: Isn’t that where we are now, with big conglomerates owning the titles, focused on—
MD: —well, just reaching the middlebrow and erroneously believing that people want something less intelligent and just stupider and more offensive and less interesting than they could take if something else was given to them. There’s a Hollywood culture that’s about, “Well, we would love to do it this way, but we can’t because we’ve got to appeal to people in Lincoln, Nebraska.” Well, I’ve lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I think they would love to read something else.
JD: It’s like everybody telling us that out there, in the middle of the country, the places we don’t understand were all for the war. Well, they weren’t.
BB: It seems that the question of what it means to be American is greater than ever.
JD: Well, I think the question of what it means to be an American was unformed in the back of my mind when I was doing this last book. I kept calling it a book about California, but it wasn’t really a book about California; it was a book about how the emptiness and lack of attachments in the western migration in some way doomed that settlement, which is a story of America.
MD: When you came to New York from California, did you feel like New York was the ultimate place, the place where you would stay?
JD: It had to be here, yes, it had to. During my junior and senior years in college, I came as a Mademoiselle guest editor—you can see how crazy I was to get out of California that I entered a contest—and the first time I came to New York it was so thrilling to me that I just thought I had to get back here, so I threw myself into the Vogue contest and got back here. I never thought I would leave—I couldn’t imagine it that time.
MD: And what was the experience like, of being a writer in California? Because there are such specific ideas behind being a writer in New York.
JD: It was great, because nobody knew what you were doing, so there was not a lot of pressure on you. That was one of the things that was driving me nuts in New York. Everybody was talking about—
MD: —blurbs. It’s horrible.
JD: And what their new book was, and any idea you had, had already been sold by someone else. In California, you’re totally free of that. Was that kind of pressure one of the reasons you left?
MD: No, you know what it was, really, is that I felt very provincial. This is really hard to describe and sounds very New Age-y, which is the opposite of what I mean, if anything, but I just felt there was a piece of myself that was utterly undeveloped.
JD: You hadn’t found a role.
MD: I didn’t know how to drive, really—for me, New York was infantalizing, and I didn’t want to be that person.
JD: That’s interesting, because it is in a lot of ways. I have never driven in New York—I would be afraid to drive in New York.
MD: But you’re not going to die, you’re just going to bang up your car, and in Los Angeles you could die any time.
JD: There are so many rules that are totally followed in Los Angeles. Everybody knows how to merge, for example. But here would be like driving in Cairo.
MD: Well, there is a Third World quality to it. I considered moving to Los Angeles when I left New York, but I felt it wouldn’t be different enough, I wasn’t going to accomplish what I needed to accomplish somehow, by doing that. I needed to go into America, because New York is not the United States, it’s its own entity. Los Angeles is certainly more American than New York, but it’s still—
BB: In “My Misspent Youth,” you talk about authenticity in New York—and in The Quality of Life Report, your character goes to the Midwest trying to customize her life. Did you find authenticity there, or were you just customizing it again around your ideas of what it should be like?
MD: I grew up primarily in New Jersey, because my father wanted to make his career in New York. But, for various reasons, in my mind any way, our family seemed very other to the people in the community and the town, so in some ways I feel I’m not really from anywhere, and what I now know is that I’ll never be from anywhere.
JD: I’m from California, I definitely know that—I still have a California driver’s license for example—but it has less power over me than it had. In fact, when I finished Where I Was From, for the first time it occurred to me that next time I renewed my license, I would probably have to get a New York license just because my mother had died in the meantime and I don’t spend as much time in California.
BB: Was that symbolic for you?
JD: It was a big thing for me. I would never change my driver’s license, but I think I might now.
MD: Even though you don’t drive here.
JD: Even though I don’t drive here.
MD: Isn’t that funny—it’s like your birth certificate.
BB: Does this increasingly atomized society, with people moving around more freely than ever, lead to a reduced sense of who we are?
JD: Well, I don’t know. Even in our experience with everybody moving from place to place and having less sense of being from a national entity, we’re seeing this surge of nationalism, so I don’t know.
MD: But so rooted in sentimentality, and maybe it’s compensating for transience.
JD: For the absence of the real thing.
MD: I really want to get into this question of sentimentality, because when people ask why you are influential to someone like me and a lot of writers—particularly women of my generation—I think it does have to do with your completely unsentimental path in terms of tone. We’re so overwhelmed by cheap, oozing sentiment and kitschy emotional content that I wondered if you had ever, in your career, felt burdened by having to have the unpopular take on things, if people would accuse you of being mean—
JD: —cynical is what they always say.
MD: Well I just get accused of being mean, and I find that my work has been very polarizing to readers, and it’s funny but in retrospect when “My Misspent Youth” was in The New Yorker it made a lot of people very angry.
JD: What was the root of it?
MD: Well people had a literal read of it, and they thought I was complaining about money. I remember doing a call-in show on [local NPR station] WNYC about the piece, and this caller said, “I’m tired of this whining. Why doesn’t she just take a walk in the park, that’s free.” It’s like this inability of American readers to walk and chew gum at the same time. In my mind the piece was an answer to [Edith Wharton’s] The House of Mirth, about the demise that can occur when fantasies go awry in a city like New York. So I guess I’m just curious about how you coped with that? Your piece on the women’s movement, for instance.
JD: Which a lot of people didn’t get.
MD: I know I seem confessional, which is also a word I find problematic, but people think I’m being very revealing and strident and harsh in the work, but in real life I have such a need to please, and I find it just awful when someone really thinks that I’m a mean person. It’s been coming up with my novel more and more, because I think it’s reaching a wider audience.
JD: No one knows how to read novels any more.
MD: I think many people don’t know how to read anything.
JD: I was starting a column for Life, and we happened to be in Hawaii, and I had to write my first column introducing myself, and right then the My Lai stuff broke, so I called my editor at Life and said I wanted to go out to Vietnam, but he said, “No, some of the guys are going out—you just introduce yourself”, and I was so angry that I introduced myself in a very un-Life-like way. Life at that time had 11 million readers, and I got an awful lot of feedback, a lot of it negative, a lot of it more responsive than I could deal with.
MD: Do you remember what the column was saying?
JD: It’s in the White Album.
MD: I remember. Deciding whether or not to get divorced? Oh wow.
JD: Then Play It As It Lays came out shortly after, which was read as autobiographical, although it wasn’t, and so between Play It as it Lays, and that column, I was getting a lot of that. It was kind of a burden, and I was relieved when my whole range started moving towards the political.
MD: Was it conscious?
JD: No. I’d gotten interested while I was doing A Book of Common Prayer; then I had started actually following the Vietnam War, which I had ignored for a long time, and then I started writing Democracy. So it was all during that period. It started, really, I think, with the Kennedy assassination, but it didn’t surface until—
MD: —see that’s so interesting, because I’m very self-conscious about how I have not yet found a significant area of inquiry.
JD: I didn’t feel that I could. I didn’t feel that I had the authority, or the right in some way.
MD: I just feel that I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t feel I have the historical perspective. I suspect I was in a coma all through college.
JD: I definitely was in a coma. I could quote a lot of English poetry—that’s what I did in college—and I could give you the house and garden imagery of a lot of English novels. You could have asked me what the Boer War was and I couldn’t have told you.
BB: Isn’t the best fiction a kind of social history any way?
JD: Well there’s an interesting thing. All that great English fiction was social history, but I came to feel that it was impossible to write social history in America because it didn’t have a unified audience. There wasn’t a universally accepted social norm, so it was much harder to write—you couldn’t write as the omniscient narrator.
MD: I want to ask you about that, too. I realized about half-way through writing my first novel that the first person is so limiting, and if there had been a software program to go back and change all the “I”s to “she’s” I would have done it. You do a thing like [Philip] Roth often does with Zuckerman—you have a close observer. But, then, how do you get away with them knowing so much? You have to limit yourself.
JD: No, quite early on you say, “Some of what I know, I know from the past, the rest I believe to be true,” or some variation on that paragraph.
MD: Really? People will buy that?
JD: It came up for the first time with me in The Book of Common Prayer, which has a narrator. Charlotte is the main character, but Grace is the narrator.
BB: Has the written word been devalued since you began your career?
JD: I think specifically novels because people don’t understand unreliable narrators, for example; they believe that anything the narrator of a novel tells them is supposed to be the truth. They read a novel as if they were reading nonfiction. They literally do not seem to grasp the difference. And even if they know that one is fiction and one is not, they don’t know it at a level where it allows them to not trust a character—they will turn against that character rather than simply think, “This is an interesting, untrustworthy character.”
MD: I also think that many people don’t make any distinction between an essay and a memoir or confession, and I always want to be really clear with people that for me an essay is an outward inquiry, it’s trying to figure out a problem, and I would never ever sit down to write an essay unless it was going to transcend my own experience.
JD: Right, but it is built on personal reference points because an essay has an “I” in it.
MD: Yeah, but it’s not memoir. Memoir is allowed to stop at the end of the specific experience, and I think the essay demands transcendence and a thesis. I don’t see it as confessional, because I think you should know everything about the narrator but nothing about the author, which I always felt you pulled off beautifully. As readers, we’re very much at arm’s length the whole time.
JD: Very few people realized that.
BB: So it doesn’t feel ever that you are exposing yourselves to other peoples’ scrutiny.
JD: I didn’t feel that way, no. As I said, there came a point where so many people thought that I was exposed to their scrutiny that I was unable to respond adequately to the emotional weight that they were laying on it.
MD: Can you remember any specifics?
JD: There was just a lot of mail that I was unable to answer. I couldn’t deal with everybody’s baggage in a way.
BB: You said in one of your essays collected in The White Album, ‘If I believed that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest, I would go to that barricade, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen on such a happy ending.” You wrote that in 1970. Do you still feel the barricades are ineffective?
JD: I don’t think that they are effective, but I think that sometimes you have to go to them, but in full knowledge that it’s futile. The huge demonstrations here and in Europe before the Iraq war did not delay the course of that war, and I always thought that with Vietnam it was less the demonstrations than the fact that it was brought home to large numbers of voters that this was a no-win and people were getting killed and money was being spent and it wasn’t getting anywhere.
MD: It was all before my time, but I always wondered how much of the anti-war hippie movement was really an aesthetic manifestation.
JD: A lot of that was aesthetic.
MD: But would you characterize the counterculture as an upper middle class thing?
JD: No, as a middle class phenomenon. There was a huge new middle class created by World War II and the G.I. bill.
BB: Why do you write?
JD: To figure out what I’m thinking. I really just don’t go around most days with a lot of clearly-formed thoughts in my head, or even reactions to things. So in order, at least, to stay sentient I have to write.
MD: I find that, too. I don’t literally know what I’m thinking until I start writing, but sometimes I feel that once I do arrive at the thing it then feels separate, and it’s almost like a conceit, and it doesn’t seem authentic in some ways, but you have to go with it.
JD: Which is what’s so scary about it.