James Baldwin

James Baldwin

This interview was conducted in the two places dearest to James Baldwin’s struggle as a writer. We met first in Paris, where he spent the first nine years of a burgeoning career and wrote his first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. It was in Paris, he says, that he was first able to come to grips with his explosive relationship with himself and America. Our second talks were held at Baldwin’s poutres-and-stone villa in St. Paul de Vence, where he has made his home for the past ten years. We lunched on an August weekend, together with seasonal guests and his secretary. Saturday, a storm raged amid intolerable heat and humidity, causing Baldwin’s minor case of arthritis to pain his writing hand (left) and wrist. Erratic power shortages caused by the storm interrupted the tape machine by our side. During the blackouts we would discuss subjects at random or wait in silence while sipping our drinks.

Returning Sunday at Baldwin’s invitation, the sun was shining and we were able to lunch outdoors at a picnic table, shaded by a bower that opened onto property dotted with fruit trees and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean littoral. Baldwin’s mood had brightened considerably since the previous day, and we entered the office and study he refers to as his “torture chamber.”

Baldwin writes in longhand (“you achieve shorter declarative sentences”) on the standard legal pad, although a large, old Adler electric sits on one end of his desk—a rectangular oak plank with rattan chairs on either side. It is piled with writing utensils and drafts of several works-in-progress: a novel, a play, a scenario, essays on the Atlanta child murders, these last compiled in The Evidence of Things Not Seen. His most recent work includes The Devil Finds Work, an attack on racial bias and fear in the film industry, and a novel, Just Above My Head, which draws on his experiences as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s.


Would you tell us how you came to leave the States?


I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge….. (The Paris Review Interviews, II)

The James Baldwin Reading List

from “Shipping Out” by D. F. Wallace

from “Shipping Out” by D. F. Wallace published in Folio

The Four Color Brochure, Part I

I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line….

About D. F. Wallace (from Rolling Stone)

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, it was clear he had been profoundly depressed. But the first major biography of the writer, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, out on August 30th, reveals an even more troubled mind than anyone realized. From the time he was in college, the brilliant author of Infinite Jest was in and out of institutions as he struggled with depression and addictions to alcohol and marijuana. But the book is also full of all kinds of other strange surprises, painting the most complete, and warmest, portrait of Wallace yet.

He wasn’t as good at tennis as he claimed. Wallace described himself as “near great” at his favorite sport, but in reality he was just the 11th-best teenage player in central Illinois – not exactly a tennis hotbed. Still, he was good enough to beat Jay McInerney when they were both at the artist colony Yaddo.

He once plotted murder. Obsessed with the writer Mary Karr, Wallace planned to shoot her husband with a gun he tried to buy from a guy he met in recovery. She found out about the scheme, but believed him when he blamed it on his buddy. Wallace and Karr eventually became a couple.

He voted for Reagan. And supported Ross Perot! But his loathing of George W. Bush turned Wallace into a liberal.

He had hygiene issues. Wallace was so embarrassed by his tendency to sweat that he carried a tennis racket in high school, hoping people would think he had just left the court. He was also serious about dental hygiene, keeping a toothbrush in his sock for emergencies.

One of his best short stories is about Elizabeth Wurtzel. After being rejected by the Prozac Nation author, Wallace wrote the 1998 story “The Depressed Person,” basing the title character – the most unpleasant person on Earth – on her.

He was a ladies’ man. Wallace hooked up with everyone from friends’ girlfriends to countless young fans. He once asked his friend Jonathan Franzen if his only purpose on Earth is “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.”

About Eckleburg



from “After Life” by Joan Didion

“After Life” by Joan Didion was originally published in The New York Times.


Life changes fast. 
Life changes in the instant. 
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. 
The question of self-pity.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact….

About Joan Didion

Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

In 2002, Didion received the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.

Didion has received a great deal of recognition for The Year of Magical Thinking, which was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. Documenting the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her husband, the book has been said to be a “masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism.”

In 2007, Didion received the National Book Foundation’s annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. From the citation: “An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists.” This same year, Didion also won the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writers Guild of America.

In 2009, Didion was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard University. Yale Universityconferred another honorary Doctor of Letters degree on the writer in 2011. On July 3, 2013 the White Houseannounced Didion as one of the recipients of the National Medals of Arts and Humanities, to be presented by President Barack Obama. In 2010 Didion had complained that under Obama the U.S. had become “an irony-free zone”.


The New York Times Magazine.