NEW YORK — Why not get right down to it, Calvin Trillin said in introducing Joan Didion at the Royale Theater:
"I think the way to begin an introduction of Joan Didion to a New York literary crowd is obviously to read the letter of recommendation I wrote for her and her family when she was looking for a co-op apartment here."
The capacity audience gathered for this latest in a series of eight celebrations benefitting the writers' group PEN roared. Among the literati, nabbing the perfect New York co-op is a coup on much the same level as bagging a seven-figure advance.
The Didion-Dunne Household
So Trillin explained in his letter that "the male nurse" in residence in the household of Didion and her writer husband John Gregory Dunne had as his primary responsibility the job of accompanying Dunne home after evenings on the town. Quintana, the Dunnes' 16-year-old daughter, made no more noise at home than any other aspiring hard-rock drummer, Trillin wrote, and oh, yes, "the dog that ate the UPS man was hers."
As for Didion, "I don't know if there is anything left to say about her," Trillin said. "You probably know that she is from California."
For that matter, "she's not from California in the sense that we use it here: 'She just flew in from California . . . ' "
No, said Trillin, "she is seriously from California. She is from California for a very long time."
In fact, "her mother's family, I learned after talking to her, settled in the Sacramento Valley sometime in the 15th Century.
"California novelist," Trillin said, "has become part of her name, 'California novelist Joan Didion.' " But "her friends found it rather awkward to say, 'Hello, California novelist Joan Didion,' " prompting Didion to reply, " 'as we used to say when I was growing up in the Sacramento Valley, hello.' "
Lavishly, Trillin praised Didion's skill as a reporter, notably in her books, "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and, more recently, her account of the troubles in Central America in "Salvador."
"Some of it is not cheerful," Trillin said in one of the evening's more colossal understatements. "I say that because some years ago I signed a document saying that if I ever introduced her I would not use the words angst or despair. "
Ritual at the Podium
Characteristically frail, almost bird-like, Didion hunched over the microphone as she took to the stage. First she fiddled with a sheaf of papers, meticulously arranging them and rearranging them. Then she removed her watch and laid it out in front of her. A volume of Didion's, her novel "Democracy," was carefully placed in a corner on the lectern.
This process, it turned out, was also part of the Didion speaking ritual: "The first time I ever taught," she began, "it was at UCLA in 1967. I was afraid to begin talking in the classroom, so three times a week, I would go in and I would look at them, and they would look at me, and I would do all these tricks. I would lay out my watch and arrange my papers, look at a picture of my daughter, and then I would go out and get a Coke."
Apparently Didion's students found this rather mesmerizing. After all, said Didion, "it was probably the only class they had where they got to watch a grown woman drink a Coke."
Eventually, said Didion, one student would summon courage to ask a question. "It was as if they had drawn straws while I was gone," she said, to determine who would speak. The student would say something like, "Miss Didion, that paper . . . "
"And I would say 'Yes,' " Didion said, "and then I had spoken a word."
The student would say, "You said 10 pages. Does that mean double spaced?"
And so then Didion, relieved, could discourse on the comparative virtues of double- and single-spaced writing.
Didion's stage fright is legendary, even if now she clearly has learned to laugh about it. Her discomfort in speaking publicly has earned her a reputation as something of a recluse. But Sunday, surrounded by this theater full of peers and admirers, supporters all of the 48th International PEN Congress to be held in New York in January, Didion seemed almost relaxed, and certainly highly forthcoming.
She began, for example, by borrowing from an early essay, "Why I Write," a "title I stole from George Orwell." Didion picked that title, she said, because "there you had three short, unambiguous words that shared a sound: I, I, I."
"In many ways," she said, "writing is the act of saying I, imposing yourself on other people."
Writing, said Didion, "is an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise the aggressiveness any way you want. But there's no getting around the fact that the act of putting your words on paper is the act of a secret bully."
For Didion, 51, there was almost no choice but to write: "Like many writers, I have only this one area, writing. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual. I do not think in abstracts."