Happy birthday, Joan Didion! Today marks the 78th birthday of the legendary essayist (and very important writer), and to celebrate, we thought we’d aid everyone in their quest to become a little bit more like her by rounding up a few things she love — or at least the things we know she loves from essays and interviews. And you may be surprised — Didion loves specific books and characters, sure, but also water systems and Alcatraz Island — sensible choices for a woman who is always surprising us. After the jump, a few of Joan Didion’s favorite things. We wish her all these and more on her birthday.
“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later.” — From “Goodbye to All That”
“Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone stops that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons. As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirds and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale.” — From “Holy Water”
Victory, by Joseph Conrad
“I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world… The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel — I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel — I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing.” — From a 2006 interview in The Paris Review
The Third Man
“The Third Man is one of my favorite films – it works at every level in a very clean economical way. Anyone writing for the screen could learn a lot from the penicillin montage – it gives you the plot in a very short amount of screen time, yet when you actually analyze it, there are no details. Just images.” — From a 2006 interview with Barnes & Noble.
The characters in her books
“Sometimes I’ll be fifty, sixty pages into something and I’ll still be calling a character ‘X.’ I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking. Then I start to love them. By the time I finish the book, I love them so much that I want to stay with them. I don’t want to leave them ever.” — From a 1978 interview in The Paris Review
“As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.
I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined for ever the shape of certain of our dreams.” — From “John Wayne: A Love Song”
An hour alone before dinner
“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.” — From a 1978 interview in The Paris Review
Reading her own work (sometimes)
“Well, it’s just a deep pleasure to read something you’ve written yourself — if and when you like it. Just as it’s not a deep pleasure if you don’t like it.” — From an interview in The Believer
Rivers and horizons
Q: “What had you been missing about California? What were you not getting in New York?”
A: “Rivers. I was living on the East Side, and on the weekend I’d walk over to the Hudson and then I’d walk back to the East River. I kept thinking, All right, they are rivers, but they aren’t California rivers. I really missed California rivers. Also the sun going down in the West. That’s one of the big advantages to Columbia-Presbyterian hospital — you can see the sunset. There’s always something missing about late afternoon to me on the East Coast. Late afternoon on the West Coast ends with the sky doing all its brilliant stuff. Here it just gets dark.
The other thing I missed was horizons. I missed that on the West Coast, too, if we weren’t living at the beach, but I noticed at some point that practically every painting or lithograph I bought had a horizon in it. Because it’s very soothing.” — From a 2006 interview in The Paris Review
“But the fact of it was that I liked it out there, a ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather where a woman plays an organ to stop the wind’s whining and an old man plays ball with a dog named Duke. I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.” — From “Rock of Ages”