By June 1970, Joan Didion was a literary sensation in need of fresh material. Her essays about California counterculture, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published two years before, had animated the drug-soaked deadbeats in Los Angeles and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in a prose style that was muscular, pithy and effortlessly cool. And if her prose was hip, so was she: in a series of now-famous portraits, she is captured with cigarette in hand, leaning against her yellow Corvette Stingray. But she could not write about California forever. So, with a new column in Life magazine needing to be filled, and hoping to find the germ for another non-fiction collection, she left Hollywood for a month in the American South.
For Didion, a native Californian who had made her name in New York, this was alien territory. She felt the South was “what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center”. If this sounds like balls, at least it sounds like promising balls.