National Book Award Nominee Junot Díaz on Winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, the Joy in Writing, and “This Is How You Lose Her”
Editor's Note: Jeff VanderMeer delivered this interview with Junot Diaz just a day before the author made the short list for the National Book Award, so you may notice there's no mention of his most recent accolade. Read on to see what he has to say about a wide range of topics, including where he finds the joy in writing and what he thinks about winning a MacArthur Genius Grant.
(This interview contains some colorful language.)
Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz had already more than established himself with the success of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has become a modern classic. Now he’s back with This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of related stories centered around the young Yunior, always in love, forever reckless…or is he? The stories are about love and heartbreak, but also about hope and the ability to change. Among many great reviews, The New York Times Book Review wrote of This Is How You Lose Her that “ Junot Díaz writes in an idiom so electrifying and distinct it’s practically an act of aggression, at once enthralling, even erotic in its assertion of sudden intimacy.”
Then, in a wonderful coincidence of timing, Díaz found out he had won a MacArthur Genius grant while promoting This Is How You Lose Her. Amazon.com caught up with Díaz to ask him about winning the grant and about his new book.
Junot Díaz: To repeat Octavia Butler response after winning her MacArthur: I’m no genius. They didn’t ask me to take any kind of IQ test before turning over the letter. Sure I worked my ass off these last 16 years, poured my heart into everything I wrote, took as many risks as I could endure, but fuck, which artist hasn’t more or less done the same? Still, as an artist one is always humbled and gratified when the larger world recognizes the impossible work you’ve put into your art. The loot will definitely be awesome for the work—maybe I’ll be able to teach less, to delve deeper into my next novel than I would ever have imagined, I might be able to buy my own apartment and get all my books out of storage, pull my book self together. A MacArthur buys quite a lot of freedom and hopefully that freedom will allow me to become a better artist. That’s the dream, isn’t it? And at the indirect level I hope the award will bring visibility to U.S. Latino letters and inspire young people from similar backgrounds—Dominican, Latino, Caribbean, African Diasporic, food stamp poor, immigrant, ESL, Speech therapy, no one’s favorite student ever—to realize that you don’t need a lightning bolt on your forehead to be amazing—that you don’t have to come from communities or families of ancestral power to be yourself excellent in your art. As I always tell my young people half of what fools call genius is just showing up and doing the work and that’s something anybody can do if they got the heart. Absolutely anybody.
Amazon.com: How much of writing for you is just thinking about the story, and do you hesitate to commit stuff to paper until you reach some particular point in your thoughts?
Junot Díaz: I definitely wait quite a while before I put anything down. I need things clear in my head before I can even begin to approach the paper. (Part of why I like to do research so much.) Of course working through the stories on paper requires a bunch of other thinking, of problem solving. But I’ve never sat down in front of my computer with nada. I need at least a notebook or two of scribbles before I can begin the first sentence. I guess each version of a chapter I draft is like a compass which will lead me to the next better version, the next compass. So I don’t mind all the throwing away if it gets me to where I want to go in the end. The heartbreak comes when you work on something for years and it doesn’t lead anywhere. That sends me on very long walks. Makes me not fun to be around for a few weeks. This happened a couple of times while I was writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and man that really sucked.
Amazon.com: You talk about autobiographical elements a lot, but presumably they have to be "cooked" properly to work in fiction. Is it just a matter of getting distance in time from certain things before you write about them, or it more complicated than that?
Junot Díaz: I talk just as often about how my work is NOT autobiographical. What I write is not memoir by any stretch. And how I write what I write (formalistically generically etc) communicates powerfully and strangely with African Diasporic and Caribbean letters, with immigrant literary traditions—raises questions about masculinity and the constitution of masculine identities—that there always seems to me something ridiculous lazy about the autobiographical over-emphasis with which critics approach my work because it seems to allow them to sidestep what’s really going on in the fiction. But to return to the core of your question: I’ve never been able to write directly about things that happen to me: I need to deform them in ways to make them strange to me, I need to change them enough so that I can “play”—invent freely. My art begins when I stop trying to be faithful to my life—if I’m playing the court stenographer then there isn’t going to be room for play and if there is no room for play the work sits on the page lifeless. It’s during the play that I come up with all the weird connections, when my subtle structures come to life, when what’s best about the book starts to unfold. As I tell my students (rather portentously) you can use the flesh of your life to build your Frankenstein books but it is the spark of the imagination that gives it life.
Amazon.com: Your main character in these stories, as you yourself have said, comes to a realization that allows him to see women as human. What have you in your own writing found most difficult in terms of writing characters? In other words, when has it been hard to kind of put yourself in some else's shoes to be able to write about them in a useful way?
Junot Díaz: Oh man. All the received sexist homophobic patriarchal scripts I internalized certainly didn’t help me write good characters and had to be undone or at least confronted before I could begin to write anything at all. I always say: we boy writers tend to stink at writing women and it takes a lot of remediation before most of us can begin to write women that approach the human level. There of course were other challenges. You grow up in the U..S long enough as a poor immigrant of color and you learn very quickly that people of color narratives are not considered universal—but white people stories of course are. You learn that poor people are not as worthy protagonists as non-poor and that immigrant tales are rarely considered as “American” as say a book about non-immigrant Americans. You learn that a book about surviving rape is not considered as “important” as a book about a sensitive young man surviving one of our imbecilic wars. So if you’re a writer outside the mainstream, if you come from communities that are invisible or maligned, you have to break a lot of yokes before you can even begin to find your voice as an artist. You have to break a lot of prohibitions, a lot of received imprimaturs. But that’s OK. The breaking of yokes will stand you in good stead as an artist and as a citizen. By reclaiming your own world against the Silence you reclaim it for others who will follow in your stead. About as close an artist comes to the Lord’s work.
Amazon.com: Do you ever have difficulty knowing where the story lies? In other words, do you often see multiple possibilities and could easily have gone in a different direction, or shown a different part of the whole?
Junot Díaz: Do I have difficulty knowing where the story lies? All the time. All the damn time. Honestly what I get from my unconscious—the bits of words, the flashes of images and scenes, the whiff of mood—the story-code that I then have to crack in order to find my Story with a capital C—requires so much damn work. My unconscious seems to deal strictly in Enigma Code. Every book I write seems to require me to build an entire Bletchley Park in my head before I can locate the heart of the story. I run through a lot of possible versions of the book too. What can I tell you? If I’m lucky I get a Turing level blast of insight and the book eventually gets finished. If I’m not lucky the pages all sits there as useful as turds and eventually I have to close the shop down and find myself another book.
Amazon.com: Where's the joy for you in writing?
Junot Díaz: In giving communities like mine, erased, undervalued and often maligned, a vision of themselves that is both critical and beautiful. By giving communities like mine the kind of art they deserve—art that is troubling, inspirational, and above all else profoundly human, art that hands them back to themselves in all the right order (to badly quote Morrison), art that opens up a place of deliberation in a nation where we never had one. And by writing the kind of kick-ass books that when they work can turn a non-reader into a reader.
Amazon.com: Are these stories finished to you, and are you finished with Yunior, or is he still on your mind?
Junot Díaz: I think Yunior still has more to say though for the moment I’m straight with him, I think. I want to get my Monstro novel off the ground—and God knows how long that will take. In the future I do want to write my Cornell novel. I was a grad student at Cornell in the mid-90s when a big wave of Latino activism hit the campus, an outburst that involved racist vandalism of a piece of public art and a student terrorist group and a ton of other madness. It was completely nuts and seeing Yunior as a first time poor immigrant grad student, facing all the challenges of a first time poor immigrant grad student, would be kind of nuts and kind of fun. But first things first: I need to eat the world.