Even though the tape recorder is humming smoothly at Joan Didion's elbow, she can't help noticing how ominous it is.
"Is that still going?" she says sweetly. "I always worry about my own, that sense of dread when you look down and the little thing isn't moving anymore and you realize you don't know how long it has not been moving."
Didion's exquisite sense of the dank underbelly of things has earned her a place on the dais of the country's most important writers. A fifth generation Californian, she is widely viewed as the grande dame of the Golden State. "Joan Didion is the quintessential California writer," says Michael Levin, who teaches fiction writing at UCLA.
Didion's work has spawned a generation of writers romantically addicted to her sense of peril in the everyday.
Even her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne was the stuff of a Didion piece. She happened to buy her wedding dress the day of JFK's assassination (several years later, Roman Polanski spilled red wine on it at a Bel-Air party for Sharon Tate). She kept her sunglasses on and cried through the ceremony.
But the sunglasses have come off. And on a recent San Francisco afternoon, the frail-looking Didion, 61, had graduated to Armani, the jacket of her houndstooth suit tossed casually behind her on a chair in the Hotel Nikko lobby.
As it turned out, the tearful wedding inaugurated an Energizer bunny of a marriage, which after 32 years has evolved into one of the most celebrated literary couplings in recent memory. Indeed, if Didion has seen into the apocalypse, she's certainly smiling through it.
"I think of myself as a realistic, cheerful person," she says. "Everybody has moments when they are filled with dread, and at certain points in my life I have expressed those moments. But they weren't the only moments necessarily. I get tired of being called the 'empress of angst' and things like that. It's a big joke in our family."
Even now, with the publication of her first novel in 12 years, "The Last Thing He Wanted" (Knopf), Didion's worldview still gets on some prominent nerves. Despite mostly glowing reviews, the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani tartly dismissed her as paranoid.
The book, written in her signature taut prose, is a political thriller about running guns to the Nicaraguan contras. A doomed love story as well, it underscores Didion's identity as a romantic. "Only when I write fiction, that's the only time I let that come into play," she says.
The story centers on Elena McMahon, a prototypically alienated Didion heroine. McMahon walks away from her life as a wealthy California wife and, later, a political reporter for the Washington Post, to help out her gun-running father, who is felled by fever in a Florida hospital. She goes in his place to do one last deal, accompany an arms shipment to Costa Rica and come back with the cash.
Didion says she didn't even attempt writing it until 1990, six years after her last novel, "Democracy" (Simon & Schuster, 1984). "I didn't have a very good time with 'Democracy.' I never had the conviction it was going to finish. I really wasn't ready to enter a prolonged period of being in a bad mood."
If New York's literary establishment can be thorny when it comes to Didion, the sometimes reclusive writer often squirms under its scrutiny. And when she lived in Los Angeles from the mid '60s to the late '80s, she reveled in the void.
"You were totally invisible, which I actually like," says Didion, who will discuss her new book at 7 tonight at a Writers Guild Theatre event sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Writers Bloc. "It kind of frees you up. You can be doing whatever you want, nobody is watching you do it. It's a terrific place to work for a writer."
Los Angeles is better for writers than New York? Joan Didion is actually cheerful?
If she seems to enjoy confounding expectations, there are also truisms about her. Such as her tongue-tying unease in the presence of strangers. Didion famously immortalized the dissonance between her written and spoken self with the preface to "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968), which established her as an essayist. In it she described herself as "neurotically inarticulate," and at the Hotel Nikko lo these many years later, she's still apologizing for it, although she's no longer deriding herself as neurotic.
In fact, her words come out painfully slowly after considerable thought and, as she speaks, her hands flutter about like bony birds. Much of what she says is punctuated with laughter.
In the Foyer of the Apocalypse
Sure, Joan Didion gets tired of being labeled the queen of doom and gloom. But that doesn't mean this quintessential California writer is quite ready to give up her hefty sense of dread.
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