“my mother explained the ’60s & ’70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s essays”

It was 13 degrees outside. The winter light was piercing on the western side of Park Avenue. I had on two sweaters under my wool coat, a pair of leggings under my jeans, and winter boots with fur trim up to my knees. An ill-fitting knit hat scratched at my forehead and my sunglasses sat cold on my nose. I had just stepped out of an office where a doctor had told me about my inverted cervical spine, the herniated disc in my thoracic spine, and the pain I would need to accept.

At a previous appointment, another doctor had pressed on my back and said, “You know the old ladies you see up here on the East side that are all stooped over? This is the beginning of that.” I had always imagined that it was the weight of decades of city living that had made those women curve in on themselves. When I thought about it this way it did not seem inconceivable that at the age of 23, and after three years of living here, my own spine would begin to buckle. For four months I had visited this office three times a week for physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor suggested six additional months of the same. He and I both knew that I would not be coming back.

The sidewalk was nearly deserted as I started walking north. There was only one other figure in sight: a small woman with striking white hair, very pale skin, and large dark eyes. She had a cane and was picking her way slowly across 57th Street in my direction. Her tiny frame was draped in a thin coat more suited to 60 degrees than 13. She wore white slipper shoes, thin white chinos, and her ankles were bare to the icy wind.

My first thought was of the doctor’s words, “this is the beginning of that,” but this woman’s spine was straight. This was a woman I had never met, but thought of everyday. Between doctor’s appointments, I had been reading and re-reading my way through her work. This was Joan Didion. I recognized her immediately. She was looking at my boots and then she peered up at my face as we crossed paths. Startled perhaps by my look of recognition, she quickly looked down at her feet and kept walking. I stood there and watched her go.

When I was a teenager my mother explained the ‘60s and ‘70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s collected essays. Haight-Ashbury was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Howard Hughes was “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” I knew “John Wayne: a Love Song” before I had any idea who John Wayne was. My mother read these titles off to me with a deep reverence and it sounded like a different language. This was before I knew writers to have distinct styles. I would not understand the full meaning of many of the cultural references in Didion’s work until later re-readings in college, but I learned to associate the eras of my parents’ youth with the severe rhythm of a Didion sentence. I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born. I thought it was as much an indication of time passing as the yellow of the pages. My mother was captivated by Didion’s California and it became the California of my imagination. I would read “Los Angeles Notebook” and get the words mixed up with my mother’s voice.

But my mother’s personal geography never included New York. When I was run down and sought to think of New York City as a force responsible for the bend in my spine, it was Joan Didion’s words that I wanted to hear.

At a dinner party that same night, in an apartment overlooking the Natural History Museum, I tried to relay my afternoon encounter to the group—all writers of varying ages. It was the younger writers who could most appreciate the excitement of the sighting—the ones who still read “Goodbye to All That” repeatedly, who were still unsure of New York City themselves. We had all worked together over the past few months and Didion’s work had been a frequent point of conversation. What did I think of the cane, they wanted to know. Was it temporary? Did she look sad? Why was she dressed so strangely? Our hostess, a contemporary of Didion’s, begged us to change the subject. She hadn’t been able to get through The Year of Magical Thinking, which she thought portrayed an idealized version of Didion and John Dunne’s marriage. There were friends of friends in common, she had heard some stories. The professor among us, a successful essayist in his own right, told me that he would never see her on a pedestal. She was, to him, just another successful writer who had done some very good early work. He could not read the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” and find in them messages on how a life can be lived.

“You should have offered her your boots,” one friend said. “She was cold.”

—from V. L. Hartmann, "Joan Didion Crosses the Street." The Morning News, November 18, 2009.


Read the rest
here.

Advertisements

“holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books”—james ellroy’s road to writing


ellroy.jpg image by tomasutpen

Portrait of the artist as a young dipshit.

INTERVIEWER


Is that when you started writing—after your father died?


ELLROY


The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.


The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.


INTERVIEWER


Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.


ELLROY


I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.


INTERVIEWER


Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.


ELLROY


But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.


But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels.


—from “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.” Interviewed by Nathaniel Rich. The Paris Review. Issue 190, Fall 2009