A writer’s raw materials

Cover of Joan Didion's "South and West: From a Notebook"
Cover of Joan Didion's "South and West: From a Notebook" Submitted

“South and West: From a Notebook”

By Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, $21)

Joan Didion has always mastered small details, and an ability to immerse herself in a subject but remain an outside observer. Her 1967 article about Haight-Ashbury, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” does not rely on extensive interviews to explain the meaning (if any) of the counterculture. The small details — excerpts of conversations, signs, scenes — give us the sense of things falling apart (to paraphrase part of the W.B. Yeats poem from which the article takes its name).

A new collection from Alfred A. Knopf, “South and West: From a Notebook,” offers readers another look at how Didion’s writing process works. The notebook excerpts are drawn from a trip that Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne took through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970 for a prospective magazine piece. The “West” referred to in the title is digested in the chapter “California Notes,” made up of notes Didion took while covering the trial of Patricia Hearst in 1976. Didion did not write either the Hearst or the Southern travel pieces.

Some readers may dismiss notebook excerpts out of hand because they lack “narrative arc” (which life does not have). Didion’s longtime readers will appreciate her notebooks as word pictures and as a time capsule from the 1970s. Didion briefly touches on her method in a chapter about Oxford, Mississippi. She writes that “all the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. ... I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.”

Didion’s Southern odyssey has a Durham connection. Born in California, Didion’s first visit to the region happened in 1942-1943, when her father was stationed in Durham at Duke University, which “had been taken over by the military.” Didion recalls one poignant incident, whose meaning she would understand better as she grew older. She, her brother and mother would take a bus once a week to visit their father at Duke. The driver, Didion writes, “would not start because we were sitting in the back of the bus.”

Her descriptions suggest how life has changed and stayed the same in this region. In her notes about a trip from Meridian, Mississippi, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Didion recalls “Dixie Gas stations, all over, with Confederate flags and grillwork.” At dinner with friends in Grenada, Mississippi, Didion recalls bringing liquor to a restaurant “because there was no liquor served, only setups.... The legality or illegality of liquor in the South seems a complication to outsiders, but is scarcely considered by the residents.”

She offers a bittersweet comment on Southern houses, which were once built with “space and windows and deep porches.” This housing “was perhaps the most beautiful and comfortable ordinary architecture in the United States, but it is no longer built, because of air-conditioning.”

Didion spent time with broadcaster Stan Torgerson, who bought radio statoion WQIC in Meridian, Mississippi, a station that played soul and rhythm and blues, serving a largely African-American audience. (An interesting comment from Torgerson about his audience: Sometimes the station plays “blue-eyed” soul singers like Dusty Springfield, but “We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane.”)

Torgerson’s interview is striking for its optimism. He encourages more industry for the South. Torgerson also praises the minimum wage and government assistance programs like food stamps, which “added millions of dollars to our economy.” About relationships between whites and African-Americans, Torgerson says “We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”

Readers familiar with Didion’s nonfiction work and her novels will revel in this collection, a glimpse into the raw materials of one writer’s mind.