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A CONVERSATION WITH JOAN JULIET BUCK

7:20 AM Melanie Bowden Simón 0 Comments Category : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



“I’m American, but I feel like a French expatriate. But I’m not enough to be French.” - Joan Juliet Buck

I recently had a fascinating chat for the better part of two hours with American writer, actor and former Paris Vogue Editor in Chief Joan Juliet Buck. She had just wrapped a day of recording the audio version of her memoir, The Price of Illusion, which Oprah named as one of the “20 Best Books To Pick Up” in 2017. The audiobook is out now.



We had an engaging, thoughtful conversation that largely circled around Joan’s approach to writing, her memoir, acting with Meryl Streep, the power of illusions and the complexity of living among dual cultures and languages.

It was the latter part of that conversation that initially compelled me to reach out to Joan for an interview. As the daughter of a film producer, goddaughter to John Huston and a three decades-long journalist for Condé Nast publications Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, Joan delivers a serious dose of glitz and glam in her memoir. 
Clockwise from top left: with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston at Cannes Film Festival; with Peter O'Toole at the premiere of Lord Jim in 1965; Portrait for Talk magazine, 1999; Portrait, 2007. (Photos: Yahoo/Pinterest/The Guardian/In Style)

Clockwise from top left: with Andy Warhol; with Yves Saint Laurent, with Karl Lagerfeld; with Anna Wintour. (Photos: Pinterest/The Cut/Pinterest/The Times)

She also deftly chronicles her fall from the Condé Nast family, following a not-quite-seven-year stint as the only American to ever helm Paris Vogue--- and later, the violent backlash from a 2011 assignment on Syria’s First Lady that nearly ended her career.

Yet, Joan’s observations on cultural identity are what tugged on me most. Born in California and raised in Paris and London, Joan struggled, even at the height of her success, to wriggle comfortably into any one culture.

“For expatriates there is no firm ground,” she writes as the opener to The Price of Illusion. If my Havana-born husband wrote a book, I’m pretty sure he’d lead with something similar.

Here are a few highlights from my conversation with Joan.

Was it difficult for you to write the book?
God, was it difficult, but it had to be done because I had no other way of figuring out what had happened.

The first draft was 1,050 pages. It was like a deposition; there had been so many things in my life that were incomprehensible, that I really needed to just write down, as if answering the questions: “What did you see?” “And then, what happened?”

How did you feel when you wrapped the first draft?
I felt fantastic, and I sent it in to my editor. I remember I stayed with some friends in East Hampton, and I was lying in their pool, just so happy. It was such a feeling of completion. And then I didn’t hear from my editor for about four months.

What did you do?
I was completely freaking out, climbing the curtains, climbing the walls. Shouldn’t he be answering me? I think he was overwhelmed by the size of it.

There are journalists and novelists who know what they’re going to write before they write it; they set themselves the task, and they write it. They know where they are going and where the beats are going to fall. They know what their intention is in writing something.

Mine was really exploration. I get very involved in the lives of my friends and the people I love, so I had to put everything down to sort out what had really been important, and what was just noise.

So, it gave you a lot of clarity?
A little too much. After you put yourself through something like that you don’t fall for – you don’t believe things so easily anymore. (laughs). 

It’s much more difficult to get excited about things. Because you get excited about things if you think they’re going to work out wonderfully (laughs). Or if they carry an illusion for you. If they’re not carrying the illusion for you, then why bother to get excited? Everything gets a bit neutral. You see what I mean?

Are you a trusting person now?
I’m still a little too trusting (laughs). But I see, a little more easily, how things might play out.

You’ve said that you have “lived in too many places to belong anywhere.” How does that tug-and-pull play out today, and do you ever feel truly at home anywhere?
Well, what a great question and it’s really sort of heartbreaking.

I don’t have a place in the city anymore, but I’m staying with a friend. When I left for Paris in ‘94 to go take the job (at Vogue), I gave this friend my living room carpet. So I’m staying in this place that’s not completely familiar, but I feel at home because there’s my carpet on the floor, and the sight of the needlepoint flowers on the black background tells me I’m at home. Objects have really important roles in an expatriate’s life. As an expatriate, you don’t have the familiar surroundings, you don’t have the familiar people, the people you went to school with. You don’t have the context. But the context is in the things you own, the things you bought. The things you were given.

What do you have in your home now?
I have my things, and I want to get rid of my things because I’m not sure where I want to be living and I want to be more mobile.

But what I’ve really been thinking about it -- this is such a good conversation -- I’m made so happy by seeing this rug. And it isn’t like I look at the rug and it makes me happy. No. But it’s just being in this room where I occasionally glimpse at a rug that I lived with for years, that I chose, that I bought that was part of my life. It was there during a very important relationship in my life, when a lot of friends and friendships and things happened in my apartment on 77th street. Yet I don’t really have much of a sense of ownership. I lease my car. I don’t particularly want to own it.

I don’t like the idea of owning a pet. I love that I have wild fox who comes and visits me. I’ve got a groundhog. The fox is insane. I put him on Instagram. He comes right up to my window.

I love having these animals near me, and we have a relationship, but I don’t own them and they don’t owe me anything. And I don’t say “mine.” They’re what the bird seed companies call ‘Outdoor Pets.” I don’t like lending my books, but I’ll give them away. I don’t like lending my clothes, but I’ll give them away.

How does your multiculturalism influence you creatively?
When I’m writing, I’m very grateful for the internet because a lot of my vocabulary comes through in French. I’m not that great a writer in French. I write like somebody who is very good in school, but not that interesting.  

We’re built up in layers. So, there’s the baby layer, and then there’s the infancy, and my layers between three and nine and then all the way through school until I was 18 are French, so the vocabulary, the emotionally reactive words and the emphatic words are French.

So, I do have this vocabulary overload from being between two languages, between two worlds. And that’s just the way it is. I feel much more relaxed when I’m speaking French with people.

How is your French today?
I’m not really going back to France that much, so the people I speak French with are other expatriates. And so, we’re just talking in French. We’re not reflecting the current context. I think that expatriates to some degree always live in the past. Because that’s the home they knew. I’m American, but feel like a French expatriate. But not French enough to be French. I’m very grateful that the Albertine bookstore now exists in the French cultural place on 5th avenue; it’s beautiful to look at, and it’s crammed with French books. 

In previous interviews, you've said that you are always homesick for France, but also that it was easy to summon the character as the 'horrible head of the head of the Cordon Bleu,' in the film “Julie & Julia” because you were around that sort of disapproval all of your life. 
Well, they are very disapproving. But there’s the French of poetry and novels, the French that’s very private, the French of love songs. All of these words that get under your skin, give you your shape.

It’d be like your Leonard Cohen language. It’s not the language of people doing business. It’s a secret, lost language, the language in which you read the poetry that makes you cry. 


Meryl Streep and Joan in Julie & Julia

Do you think you’ll stay in New York?
I don’t know where I want to live.

Where else would you consider living?
I truly don’t know. When I lived in Rome I was very jealous of the people who lived around where I lived in Rome because I would think, “They know where they belong.”

So, there’s not really a place that feels like home? At least not yet.
No, there isn’t. It’s like stars in the sky. You know all those stars in the sky – they have names. XEW337. They don’t have names. We just give them names. So, it’s what you choose to call home. It’s funny, it’s such a cliché - what do I call home? I call home the place where I can write, a place where I can forget everything around me.

What now? Are you going to keep writing books or whatever comes your way?
Everything except movie scripts. There’s too much hope and too much waste of time with movie scripts. I’ve written five scripts, and it’s ridiculous. Not a good idea.

What about your book?
We shall see. There’s movement.

How do you approach writing?
I don’t come into a story with an attitude about it. The only question I ever asked an interview subject was always, “You were born?”

And then they would start. I never put labels on things. That’s the way I write; it’s the way I am.  I don’t have an attitude about what I’m writing, nor do I have an agenda. It makes me very much not an investigative journalist.

Nor am I writing from a motivational thing where, “Do what I do, you’ll have all kinds of great things happening.” 

My attitude is always, alas, “Gosh, what was that?”

Why do you love acting?
The reason I love acting is that everyone is equal. Again, this is probably an idealization, but when you’re acting with people everyone is on the same level. Even acting with Meryl Streep. There’s no hierarchy.

Did that scare you?
Noooo.

She’s wonderful?
Yes. And very, very generous. That’s the great thing. It’s the reason I really love acting. It’s not about status. It’s not about the person who knows everything. It’s about really going in there with an open heart and full energy and kind of blind. And that’s how I write. I love that, and I love it because it’s the same process as writing, except I’m not alone.

Writing can be so isolating, and you have to make sure to keep yourself at certain point of boredom so that you’ll actually do the work. So, if you’re fucking around on your phone, that’s no good.

I bet you’re very disciplined, aren’t you?
Well, I am and I’m not. I turn my cell phone to grayscale, to make it less compelling, less exciting to look . I’m such a sucker for color, those bright primaries draw me in.

You write about color in the book. Tell me about the effect it has on you.
In the book, it’s the bit when I’m in school in London, and while my school friends were discovering marijuana and alcohol, I was getting drunk on color. It has a real effect on me. It’s an actual thing, it’s an actual presence.

At Vogue, you got rid of black.
We couldn’t only show all that black. It was just too boring, but the fashion editors were not very happy about that (laughs).

And I love that you did an issue on Quantum physics.
I wanted to know more about it, and I also thought Vogue could probably express the uncertainty principle in a rather interesting way.

It was interesting, but it also looked like some dreadful, snot-nose who’s showing off. I can totally see that view too. But I was indulging my curiosity. Which is, unfortunately, what I’ve always indulged, and the results are not always happy.

I think I’m old enough to really stop trying to be the best kid in class, especially as I wasn’t that good in class.
Joan's Paris Vogue covers 

You’re in the middle of recording your book. How does that feel?
Well, it’s weird. I’ve the spent last year promoting the book. I’ve done a lot of reading from the book, but what I hadn’t done was to actually go through the book from beginning to end. And I thought, “Oh, my God, do I have to?”

Is it easier to read now with perspective?
I had to read Ricki Huston’s (wife to John Huston and surrogate mother to Joan) death yesterday, and it was so horribly sad that my chest hurt. My poet friends say that a poem isn’t a poem until you read it aloud.

My first draft was 1,050 pages, and I’m the one who cut out 600 pages. I didn’t go, “Oh, to hell with that section.” I just made certain stories much shorter. But there are moments in the last several days when I’ve gone, “This is so choppy.” It’s choppy because I chopped the shit out of it.

Why are illusions so powerful?
If you’re predisposed to illusions, it makes life kind of difficult (laughs). I’m sure it’s like addicts, when they go off whatever substance they’re addicted to. If I can’t turn something into a fabulous illusion, what am I going to do with it?  

Order the audiobook, hardcover or paperback of The Price of Illusion here. Follow Joan on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and give her a write-up on Goodreads.

Photo: Harper's Bazaar
Joan with Isaac Mizrahi at her book launch. Photo: Women's Wear Daily.

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