An Essay on 'South and West' by Emma Roberts
When I was eighteen and living in New York City, I met a boy. He had an apartment on Gramercy Park, which seemed strange to me because only people with bank accounts had apartments and only adults had keys to Gramercy Park. Seven years have passed since then and I now realize that the boy was definitely not an adult, nor was the apartment his apartment. But that’s besides the point because at the time I felt the most adult I had ever felt in my life. As a girl who grew up in California, New York always felt like the epitome of freedom and maturity.
Because this boy was a writer, he was trying to write—probably about me, I thought. It turns out, he wasn’t. Either way, he wanted me to shut up, and so he handed me a book from his bookshelf. The book was Play It As It Lays. The author was Joan Didion. I had never heard of her before, but because I wanted to come across as sophisticated I said nothing and started reading in the other room.
From that moment, I fell in love with Joan and not in a casual way. You don’t just read Joan Didion. Joan Didion begins to inform your life. She makes you look at places, like California, New York and Hawaii, differently. She changes the way you view grief and loss. She humanizes celebrities like John Wayne and Joan Baez. She forces you to understand that a journalist is not just somebody who reports the news, but rather someone who makes history. She changes the way you keep a journal, even though you know you might be the only person to ever read it. She makes you feel like you might possibly be the reporter of your own life, not just living it. And of late, she has even changed the way we look at a pair of Celine sunglasses.
I’m not the only woman or person who has thought these things about Joan Didion, and I certainly won't be the last. However, there is a part of me, and I think there is a part of every person who reads Joan, that wishes she was all their own.
Joan has said: “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…”
It’s true, the first time I read Joan Didion was because a boy I liked told me to do it. When you're 17 or 18 that's the way things go. You do things to make people see you in a certain way. I've found that's still true at 25 or 26.
I have continued to read Joan because I want to see the world in a certain way. So I guess even though I don't speak to that boy anymore, and even though he suggested the book to shut me up when he was trying to write, I owe him. Because now, in a way, I do have Joan all for myself.
There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.
This is the line I remember most from the novel Joan Didion published in 1970, the same year she took a trip that would become the basis for her most recent book, South And West.
I have spent a large part of the first half of my 20s in New Orleans, a city I quickly grew to love. I think anybody who has spent time in New Orleans can agree, you arrive one person and leave another.
In South And West, Didion describes New Orleans as "The secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy. The psychic center." I feel like New Orleans is a place that finds you and either grabs hold of you or makes you run the other direction.
After being in New Orleans for two seasons of American Horror Story, the third year location was still uncertain, and I was walking around The Garden District, when I felt a sudden urge to pledge my allegiance to this weird little place. Half town, half city, part wild west. New Orleans equals more than a whole. Definitely "colonial" as Joan said. I stopped in the street and whispered "I'll be back. I'll see you soon" to what felt like the actual soul of the city. I felt nuts, but even crazier, I felt heard.
I returned to New Orleans six months later to film.
Until I moved to New Orleans, it was foreign to me that there were who people grew up in one house their whole lives and that they knew their neighbors. I mean, I knew how neighborhoods worked, but as someone who switched schools five times in twelve years and lived in as many houses all within fifteen miles of each other in Los Angeles, I wasn’t aware of what it meant to be a part of where you’re from. I didn’t know that people had standing dinner’s every Wednesday at Clancy's and friends over every other Saturday for drinks on the porch; that their lives hinged on tradition and routine.
Because of all the moving as a child I don't normally hold on tightly to places. Every time we moved, my mom would say "Look Em, say goodbye to the house" as we pulled the car out of the driveway for the last time. I would never look up from my hands in my lap. Now, from my bed in Los Angeles in the temporary house I am renting, when I can’t sleep at night I close my eyes and walk through the French Quarter until I fall asleep.
"In New Orleans they have mastered the art of motionless"
In New Orleans I had to adjust to Southern time, which means everything takes three times as long. Coffee, dinner, good mornings, good evenings. There's no such thing as a "quick catch-up" because it's like people are talking with molasses in their mouths. There's a frozen feeling to the city in general. Whenever I return, everything is just as I left it. Like a dollhouse. I find it comforting to be able to depend on a place to be unchanged upon your return. This also makes it easier to leave.
Joan ends South And West with some notes on the infamous Patti Hearst trial, but it’s really about California; the place where I live and was raised. In reading this book, you might be inclined to think about where, for you, life is easiest. If you want to get technical, as they do in the South, I was born in New York, but my heart, much like Joan’s, remains in the West. “I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.” The magic of Joan Didion is the way she helps you understand your life, your home, yourself and she has done exactly that again in South and West.
When it became clear that Belletrist would be a reality, I had to decide which book I wanted for the launch. I knew in the back of my mind that South And West was going to be published in March 2017 because I had obviously written the publication date down in my calendar. The idea, however, of being able to ask the real Joan Didion questions is something I had folded away in the "fantasy corner" of my mind; the same corner where I keep my lunch with Eleanor Roosevelt and the alternate universe where I get cast as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City. In short, things that will never happen. Impossible.
It's very rare to have things move from your fantasy corner to the working part of your mind. And it is with this rare opportunity that I have been able to bring Belletrist into the world with The Patron Saint Her Majesty Joan Didion. It is my pleasure to share her wisdom with you here and remind you of the endless possibilities that live in the world of books.
Words by Emma Roberts.