Writing About Writers

Bob Thompson in The American Scholar:

PBDJODI_CS002_H2-269x300 When I first encountered Joan Didion, I was on a bus heading back to my apartment in the middle of the night. This was in Cambridge, Mass., in 1975, and I had picked up a paperback copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first nonfiction collection. The opening piece, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” begins with a description of the San Bernardino Valley, east of Los Angeles, and of “the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.” Three pages later, with an October Santa Ana bearing witness, a dentist’s wife named Lucille Miller watches her husband burn to death in the family Volkswagen. By the time I emerged from this sinister dreamscape, I had overshot my bus stop by a mile.

Three decades later, as I could not possibly have imagined in 1975, I found myself in Didion’s Manhattan living room, interviewing her for The Washington Post.

I was an aging rookie on the Post’s book beat, which I’d recently been asked to take over. I was also quietly terrified, as I would be many times when talking with writers I admired. Fear isn’t a bad thing for a reporter. It forces you to prepare and keeps you alert. But in retrospect, I put this interview in a category of its own.

That’s because preparing to talk with Didion — though I was scarcely conscious of this at the time — taught me how to think about my job.

Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child.

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