Last summer, after turning over the last page of my advance galley of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was floored by what I had just read and used any gathering of two or more people to announce to the world that it was my favorite novel of 2007. "You mean, so far?" No, the year. I was going all-in, even with a whole fall season of unread books in front of me.
So you can imagine how over-the-moon happy I was for Diaz last Monday when I heard that he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I asked his editor, Sean McDonald, if he could help us get a few post-Pulitzer questions into Junot's inbox, I didn't expect Diaz would actually have the time to deliver (he'd just won the Pulitzer, after all!). But deliver he did, and along with the answers, he threw us the ultimate surprise--the opening passage (or what he calls "throat clearing") from the seemingly post-apocalyptic new book he's working on. Does this mean there's a Hugo Award in his future? We shall see...
Amazon.com: Junot, first of all, congratulations! You've been on quite a ride since Oscar Wao came out last fall. You were awarded the Sargent First Novel Prize, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, topped countless Best of 2007 lists, and now the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Where were you when you found out you won the Pulitzer?
Diaz: I actually was in my mother's house in NJ. (Which, when you think about it, was where it all started for me, as an immigrant, as a young lover of books, in NJ.) The first call I could barely hear (my two-year-old nephew was having a bang-up time throwing his toys) so I went outside, out by the Hackensack River and called my agent, who hadn't yet gotten the official word. The real confirmation came ten minutes later. I was still on the bridge, freezing, and after a few minutes of stunned silence, just me and the traffic and the cattails, I walked home and gathered my mother and my sister and told them and I don't think I've ever seen them happier for me (though my mother did cry a little). My nephew was the best, he didn't give a damn about no Pulitzer, he just wanted me to chase him.
Amazon.com: I read online that "Diaz is not the first Latino to win the prize, but he is certainly the first cat from the streets to do so." How does that make you feel?
Diaz: I didn't have an easy childhood (who ever does?). I grew up super-poor, welfare, section 8 and food stamps all the way, in a community where us boys worried all the time about getting jumped and where mad people got recruited by the military. My mother was raising five kids on an income that didn't break ten grand a couple of years. She cleaned houses for people a lot better off than us and I still have this image of her on her hands and knees cleaning bathrooms. I'm as nerdy as they come, a deep lover of books, but those long hard years marked me as deeply as that river marked Conrad and maybe that's what the writer means when they say that I'm "from the street." If that's what the writer's getting at then I'll take it, I've no interest in erasing my particular version of the "American Experience." But if this is some hollow ghetto glorification... I didn't think I was so cool when I only had three shirts in high school and had to repeat twice a week. I didn't feel too "street" then. I felt like a goddamn loser.
Amazon.com: And what's it like to share the Pulitzer spotlight with Bob Dylan, who was awarded an honorary special citation?
Diaz: I'm one book, he's a lifetime. It feels great to be in such company. Now if somebody could score my goddaughters some tickets, I'll be the coolest godfather ever.
Amazon.com: Do all the awards make the over-a-decade gap between books worth the wait?
Diaz: The only thing that makes anything worth it is another book that moves people. But hey, in the meantime, the awards certainly keep you warm, psychically! No denying that.
Amazon.com: Hopefully we won't have to wait until 2017 until the next book?
Diaz: If I was the only writer in the world this would be a problem but luckily we have tens of thousands of cool writers to take the weight off. No matter who you're waiting for to publish I recommend a strong course of Samuel R. Delany (start with Dark Reflections and then graduate to his magnum opus Dhalgren) and my favorite crazy woman Natsuo Kirino (Grotesque). Always something on the shelves to keep you busy.
Amazon.com: Can you give us a little tease of what you're working on next?
Diaz: Oh sure, why not, who knows when it will ever see the light of day again. This is some opening throat-clearing from my next novel Dark America.
I'm somewhere in the Zone, traveling on top of an transport. Bound for City.
The only City there is.
What I see. Usually just the f-ckedup hide of the truck. Every now and then I lift my head a little and see the other Travellers sucked onto the metal of the container like remora. See the fresca from the night before, long hair whipping back in thousands of everchanging streams. See: fields of white crosses, an endless proliferation of kudzu, a basketball game between the Junior Klan and the Uncle Muhammed Youth League--a regular five on five with a ref and everything so you know we're in the End Times for real. And sometimes, if I'm not careful, I see my mother and my brother standing by the edge of the road. She has her hand on his shoulder and they still got snow clotting up the spaces between their toes. They're waving. Since the transport is automated it switches its lights on only when it detects another vehicle or when we're in civilization but at night on the interstates it feels like we're rushing through a corridor of whooshing air as unlit as a vein. We pass cities and zonafrancas and fortress towns and overhead roar fighter jets and gunships and every now and then the transport will squash something on the road. A rumble under the tires and then the return to the lullaby of the whoosh as whatever it is gets spat out behind the mud flaps in ruin.
I don't try to look around too much. We are going over a hundred miles an hour and there is a little indio kid on my left who I'm trying to keep from blowing off the top of the transport. About an hour ago his pops lost his grip on him and screamed one of those miserable Noooo's that reaches into even me and before the kid could catch sky I leaned over and pulled him in. You should have heard his little heart, seen his little face. Stupid, attracting attention. A Samaritan I'm not. Believe me. I could just as easily have watched the kid sail and said, Wepa!
At times like these, even hardguys like me, all we should do is hold on. Plenty folks get peeled off the transports, especially kids and the thins, turned into axle grease which is why these rigs are plastered with signs in English, Spanish, Krïol, Cantonese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Russian and Ghanaian: Stay The F-ck Off. Sometimes the local youth--when they're not immbolized on huff or bending each other over--will man the overpasses and drop debris on us, anything from bricks and firecrackers to hot oil and glass, get it all on ractives so they can spin the shit for laughs onto the net. The life of the Traveller, as they say, no es fácil. You should see how tired folks are after only a couple of hours on a transport. Praying for the next reforge, their arms trembling and these are the ones who got lucky and scored a roof spot. The ones who got to cling to the side rigging, muchacho, they're lucky if they're alive by the time we reach a depot.