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PEN Center to honor Joan Didion for lifetime achievement

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

What do Harrison Ford and Joan Didion have in common? They'll both be at the PEN Center USA awards dinner in October, where he will present her with the lifetime achievement award. Their connection is personal rather than literary: The actor and author have known each other since 1971, when the not-yet movie star built her beach house.

“He was a carpenter,” she explains by phone from New York. “I was happy with his work – and even happier with his presence in the house because he was a great moral force.”

PEN Center USA creates a bridge between writing as a creative and political act, making the choice of Didion for the award – previously given to Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others – particularly fitting because she has crossed that bridge many times in her work.

She won the National Book Award for the beautifully written, very personal 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Decades earlier, she published the novels “A Book of Common Prayer” and “Democracy” that explored America’s involvement in Central America.

“Not many people were speaking truth to power in the ’80s,” she says. “I had a really good time doing it – I found it gratifying. It was a joy to have an opportunity to say what you believed. It’s challenging to do it in fiction, but I liked writing the novels. I liked writing ‘Democracy’ particularly.”

Didion was one of the pioneers of New Journalism, a term coined by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s to describe true stories told with the flair of fiction. A meticulous prose stylist with a keen eye for melancholy and irony, Didion leapt to the national stage with her 1968 essay collection, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”

PEN has announced that it will award 2013 prizes to writers including newcomer Ramona Ausubel, who wins in the fiction category for her novel “Nobody Is Here Except All of Us.” Seth Rosenfeld takes the research nonfiction prize for “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power”; Joy Harjo, creative nonfiction for “Crazy Brave”; Mark Boal for his screenplay for “Zero Dark Thirty”; and Danny Strong, who wins for his teleplay for HBO’s “Game Change.”

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