The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of This Is How You Lose Her talks about dying art, the line between fact and fiction, and what scares him most.
On a warm day not long before the release of his latest short story collection, This is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz walked around the High Line, in New York City, with Complex. An excerpt from the conversation appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue; the full Q&A appears below.
If you happen to be in New York today, December 17, Diaz will be reading at the 92nd Street Y at 8 p.m. He'll be joined Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic. Tickets are available here.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Do you enjoy being interviewed?
You don’t have to observe someone in public for very long to know whether they thrive on public attention. So many of my friends love this shit. They love nothing more than being asked a question. I’m cool with it, I know how to behave and hide that I’m bullshitting myself, but I prefer to be locked up somewhere alone, working on verbs.
Art is what matters most, and if you’re not contextualizing for a larger push for the arts, what does it matter?
There are long gaps between your books.
I hide. I like to work. You become a good citizen for your public face, but I do not thrive on attention.
Are photo shoots unnerving?
It’s so fucking bizarre. It’s like you’ve accidentally been dragged into someone’s wedding party. But you discover that you need to be a good sport. Everybody's making an effort, and nobody needs to spend a nickel of time on your ass. You ain’t fucking relevant. You don’t fucking cure shit, you don’t fucking employ people—at least I don’t. And so there’s this sense that people are going out of their way to talk about art, and if that means that you have to sit there with an ice cream pop and hang out....
Because the art’s important.
That’s what matters the most—that’s why you put up with anything. The whole reason to be out in the public sphere is to hawk your fucking book, but it's also a minor civic intervention. Art is what matters most, and if you’re not contextualizing for a larger push for the arts, what does it matter? What’s really relevant, important, and exigent is that all of us are under pressure to spend less time with art, and we’ve got to figure out a way to talk and encourage each other to do the opposite. You don’t have to read anything that I write. I’ll recommend you a book if you don’t like my shit.
While we’re talking about encouragement, what’s up with no Pulitzer Prize last year?
A lot of people were bothered by it. A lot of people were bothered by it in the very fucking Pulitzer committee, the board. It’s one of things where we’re under confidentiality—we’re not allowed to talk about any deliberations, whatsoever. But I can give you the most truthful line of it: I can tell you without question that nobody on the board was happy to leave a prize on the table.
Are you happy to be on the board?
Yeah, in the sense that, since I’ve been on the board, we’ve had the first Puerto Rican woman to get a Pulitzer: Quiara Alegría Hudes. We had Tracy Smith get a Pulitzer for poetry. Manning Marable, you know.
But, again, I’m full of great unhappiness about opportunities lost. That's the most I can say.
Let’s talk about the work. When did you write your first Yunior story?
Yunior first appears in 1991. And it was a miserable story, but it was the story with which I applied to my MFA program. It was the first attempt to make a pass at this character. I didn’t have much of him down, but there was a sense of possibility. So you chip away from the stone, and you’re looking at the stone, and say, “Maybe if I work on this for a couple years, it will come out.” There was this sense that I was leaning toward this very particular kind of complexity that had not yet shown itself. I felt that I had to push his honesty more; I had to push how smart he is, and how he hides it; I had to push his inability to have real intimacy. All of these things were in my head, and they eventually started to come together over the next four years.
Are you still chiseling away at him?
I think I have him locked down in an okay way. My idea, ever since Drown, was to write six or seven books about him that would form one big novel. You connect This is How You Lose Her to Drown to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and you can read this thing.
This Is How You Lose Her feels like a novel.
Thank you. I planned for it to.
It has an arc. And by the time that I got to the last story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," which I had read as a one-off in The New Yorker, it had so much more gravitas, coming at the end of the collection instead of in a magazine.
It’s supposed to be a jolt of information. When you read them together, that’s a very different experience from reading them as pieces.
There’s something going on in the collection about attrition and duration. Especially in that last story—I’ve read break-up stories before, but not one that was so punishing in how far down the line it takes you.
Yunior has got a lot of bills that have to come due. You’ve got to leave this big negative space for the reader to come to the conclusions. One of the big spaces in the stories is why is this guy, unlike most of the dudes that I grew up with, so haunted by his errors? Why can’t he do like Condoleezza Rice says, “Oh, no, we can’t look back”? Everybody says, “I don’t like to look back, I just like to think about the future.” That way we absolve ourselves of any consequences for our actions.
The next project will be a future book. It’s been a pain, another one of these books that will take forever.
Part of the joke of how the stories work together is, it slowly becomes clear that this guy is deeply haunted by his responsibilities, by his participation, by the damage he’s done. And eventually the contradiction between his repetitious acts plus the way that it weighs on him, it's going to break him. That idea was in place from the beginning. From the first line—“Oh, I’m not a bad guy”—I knew that I was going to smash him by the end. The guy who says that line playfully, bullshitting, would be incapable of uttering that line at the end.
He has to get broken.
But he also changes. By the end, if I forced him to say that line, he would never be able to. That's part of the project. That was my dream, part of the reason why it took so fucking long.
There’s a phrase in the first story: “The momentum of the past.” I feel like that's applicable to your whole project in some ways. Oscar Wao is very concerned with looking backward.
I don’t think you’re wrong. Are you familiar with Harold Innis, the Canadian communications theorist? One of the most important people next to Marshall McLuhan. Innis talks about the “tyranny of the present.” One of the deformations of subjectivity under our current capitalist instance is that it collapses the past; very few people have a real sense of history. We’re taught to not look backward, we’re taught to not think about history. In fact, we’re really feeble in that area—our muscles are underworked. And simultaneously—which is why he calls it “the tyranny of the present”—we’ve been terrorized about thinking about the future. The future is atomic war, the future is that you’re going to have a worse job, the future is global warming that eats us up. And therefore, at both ends, the normal range of our imaginary has been cropped.
This is Innis writing in the '60s, talking about how there used to be a healthy subjectivity that would look forward, backward, and also be present. It wasn't like the Janus two-face, it would be like a three-faced subjectivity. I was wigged-the-fuck-out when I was reading this as a kid in college. I was thinking that I want to create, in some ways, an archaic subjectivity. I want Yunior to be one of these people who has eyes to the past, is deeply in the present, and has eyes toward the future. Even if he only thinks of the future as a ruin, he’ll at least look.
It’s only an apocalypse waiting, it seems.
Or the next piece of ass. That very encounter with Innis, which I only learned about from reading John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where he mic-checks him, made me realize that this was a part of how I was going to form Yunior. Not only is the project about how I feel people need this three-way approach, but also there’s no way an immigrant is not going to have a relationship with the past. There’s no way that someone who comes out of the nightmare of slavery, the nightmare of imperialism—even when you don’t think about it, that’s almost as good as thinking about it. The silence is powerful, which is what happens with Oscar, who never thinks about it.
It’s there in the negative space.
Juxtapose him against his family history, and you realize that his non-thinking is intentional. I find Oscar hilarious because he never thinks about the Dominican Republic. That says everything.
The future—that’s the apocalypse novel you’ve been kicking around, right? The excerpt that was in The New Yorker...
That’s a piece of it. Drown and This is How You Lose Her, these are what I would call present books. They look backward, they look a little forward, but they’re basically present. Oscar Wao would be my past book. The next project will be a future book. It’s been a pain, another one of these books that will take forever. If I stay alive, and healthy, I’ll get it done. It’s so important for us to play in the future, to exercise our minds around possible futures.
I was reading a conversation from BOMB between you and Edwidge Danticat, and you were talking about that. You were talking about the outskirts of genre and outsider art. I don’t mean outsider art in that—
No, I know what you mean. Outsider practices, or even just reflections.
Right. And that all feeds into your desire to play with the future.
I hope so. I think something interesting might happen. Something very interesting happened by pursuing Oscar as a character involved with narratives that nobody else is interested in. Oscar, what he really wants to do is write role-playing games. His dream fails. I always found that to be so heartbreaking—people who are into role-playing games and read the book, they get it. They get it because they know what it means to be interested in something that nobody gives a fuck about. And in fact, I always felt that Oscar’s move into fiction writing was a compromise, like the poet who thinks he has to write a novel. I’m hoping by staying in the weird zone of this freakish-but-possible future that something will be generated that I’m not expecting.
Every character you write has certain limitations. You build a character and you know that there are limitations, you know that there are huge holes.
It would complete your three-headed figure.
It closes a circuit that I’ve been dreaming of closing for a long time.
And then what happens?
God, if I can finish this—it's like, have you ever had a partner who says they’re going to whoop your ass? They say, “I’m so mad at you that I’m coming there to get you.”
To have a partner say, “I’m so mad at you, I’m coming to talk to you.” I feel like that. This book has got me so scared about whether it’s going to fail that I can’t even think about tomorrow.
This novel has had a number of forms, and each fucking iteration fucking dies.
Where does it die? Hundreds of pages in?
In three instances, hundreds of pages in. It just doesn’t come together.
The footnotes from Oscar Wao that aren't present in your other work, would they be present in the future novel?
It seems like you would want to play with form there.
Definitely. With This Is How You Lose Her, this is Yunior at his scabrous, unthinking best. Every character you write has certain limitations. You build a character and you know that there are limitations, you know that there are huge holes. Yunior’s limitation is that, while he’s awesome at looking outward, he's terrible at looking inward. So part of what happens is, if I distract myself with something like a footnote, I lose what little of Yunior’s authentic heart appears. I tried a couple of times but it was so stupid. It distracted the reader from a dude who can barely face himself.
You get to the end of the book, and you have Yunior sitting down to write. Oscar Wao concludes with talk about writing again. And it’s like writing is the most hopeful thing that can happen in the world.
That’s no accident. In my heart of hearts, I really believe that the writer is just a more explicit form of who we are. It's our ontological vocation to narrativize. What happens when somebody commits suicide is, they can no longer generate a narrative. The narrative suddenly becomes a terminus: a thing that ends. It's our endlessly regenerative ability to narrativize that keeps us going in this random universe. Having a character write makes that more explicit, gives it a concrete form.
It’s so hard to say, “Well, now I’m going to keep going.” Okay, whatever. But when a guy starts writing, at least you can say, “I know what he means. He's going to keep going even if he sucks.” Getting up off the ground after somebody whoops your ass, really, is just you saying, “I am going to strike my narrative in a new direction.”
I know what it means to be moved by a book in my body so much that I go looking for its analog in the real world.
But with This Is How You Lose Her, the end just brings you back to the start. It feels a little hopeless.
I mean, you’re the reader. But when I wrote it, I thought that the joke of the book is that you suddenly realize, at the end, you've read the book Yunior wrote.
You’re back where you started.
But the question is: Having read the whole book, and having gone through his feelings and having seen how Yunior lays himself out, do you believe that he's capable of doing better?
Changing for the better?
Just capable of doing better. That’s the game of the book—the game asks each reader, "This is him saying who he was. Now, based on that, do you believe he can be better?" And for a lot of people, the answer is "no." I’ve got mad friends of mine who were like, “Nope. He’s an asshole, he fucks it all up.” Others say, “As a man, I wish I had gone as far as he did.”
Yunior is a nickname of yours, right?
By using that name, you open yourself up to people trying to read these stories autobiographically.
But they will anyway. So the approach is never to distance. The move is never to distance. It's that Philip Roth move. If you distance yourself from the reader, it ends up backfiring. But to try to play with people’s expectations—not play in a manipulative way, though you are manipulating, but to productively engage in someone's expectations about this as biography. The only reasons people are going to think this is biography is: A) If they read it; and, B) If they’re moved by it. And some people, sure, they’ll dismiss it, saying, “This motherfucker can’t write. This is just regurgitated memoir.”
He has no imagination.
Regurgitated memoir and no imagination. But other motherfuckers will say, “If I tried to write my life, I could not fucking write it as this structural game." And so depending on who you are, there’s room for you to accept or reject. I enjoy that as a reader. I know what it means to be moved by a book in my body so much that I go looking for its analog in the real world. I felt shit for this book in my body; it is real to my body. Therefore, my mind is like, “There’s got to be an analog, this had to have happened.” Because it really happened to me! As a reader, it did happen to you, and so, you don’t want it to be like a ghost.
It’s a problem if there’s not a real-world analog, if you can’t find it?
No. But people long for it. You know, I don't think there is one. But [wanting it] helps us turn away from what fiction does best; fiction makes you have the most lucid dream that you can never get rid of and think that it wasn't real. So every time someone says, “This had to be real,” what I’m hearing is the magic of reading. At that moment, I know that reading is still alive. As long as there is someone out there who makes that kind of solipsistic jump to “This is fucking autobiographical,” I know that we've got it. We’ve still got the magic. Because the day that magic dies, there’s no reading: Fiction is done. We will read for information. We will not read for contact with our human selves.
We remember childhood because childhood is about narratives living in us so powerfully. When you'd hear a story as a kid, when you'd hear a rumor, when you'd imagine something, your imagination was so powerful in childhood that you didn’t need an interlocutor. What happens after a certain age is that a story requires an interlocutor. Without this, we become something else. It's like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. He pieces himself back together, but he’s not human. And what happens when you piece yourself back together with no ability to believe in the magic of story, is you look like a human, you act like a human, but you ain’t fucking human! I fear that more than anything.
Everybody says mainstream writers are revitalizing genre. They’re not. They’re using genre to revitalize their bottom line.
Look how bad we are as humans. I don’t even want to think about what humans are going to be like when I'm gone. When you spend as much time as I do writing, you allow yourself to think about this shit. Instead of being on deadline, you’re like, “Let me reflect.” I also think—to respond to your earlier comment—I think that we’re so unused to feeling pain.
We think that if we feel a character’s pain, that means that shit is wrong, or that shit is going to go bad. No, feeling someone’s pain means you're mourning. You’re getting better. I feel the same way about this book; this book was a long act of mourning. In my mind, I’m like, “Wow, Yunior at least just cried. He’ll get better.”
When I said "hopeless" before, I didn’t mean that the experience of the book had failed me.
Oh, I know you didn’t mean it that way. No, no, I’m being didactic with my response. I wasn’t responding to the content of your question, more the opportunity it provided.
Who are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of motherfuckers. They’re driving me crazy. I’ve been obsessed with Aracelis Girmay, the poet. Dude, get her fucking books. Get Kingdom Animalia. It'll give you a power up for your work. It’s like an extra life. It really is.
What do you look for in new novels? This is a conversation I’ve had with some of my friends—we all feel bogged down reading things that aren't going to matter in 10 years.
Yes, of course. Jesus. When I read, I want to read something that's going to become part of my family. I don’t want one-night stands. We’ve got so many people that write one night stands, and that’s okay, they’ve got their role. But I hunt so hard. I spend as much time reading and looking for books as I do writing. You’ve got to be on a non-stop search, because otherwise you won’t find these grand slams.
The last writer where I really felt that was Bolaño. When Bolaño came into my life, it was over.
But have you read Natsuo Kirino?
The woman who wrote Out? The woman who wrote Grotesque and Real World? Read her. And read Yoko Ogawa, the woman who wrote The Housekeeper and the Professor. Do not fuck around now. And I don’t normally read police procedurals, but Karin Fossum has a novel called The Indian Bride. Slam dunk. It’s good to see shit happening in genre, especially when you’re not expecting anything.
I get disappointed with some people who try genre and turn it into a big publicity stunt, like, “Hey, I’m writing genre now.”
Everybody says mainstream writers are revitalizing genre. They’re not. They’re using genre to revitalize their bottom line. As a writer, everything you publish gives you privilege; it’s what you do with yours that matters. Mainstream writers have an abiding disrespect for, and appropriation of, genre that is beyond troubling. You can sell a million books writing genre but you’ll never get a fellowship from the NEA.
Is that weighing on you as you write this future novel, since you know you’re that dude that people look to?
I cannot wait to get into the conversation. Honestly, I can't wait. Because I want to talk about privilege. No one else does. It’s like someone saying, “I’m down with black folk, I’m down with poor folk.” Okay, I believe you. You could be. But it doesn’t change our fucking privilege, vis-a-vis, the people we’re talking about. And what fascinates me, ultimately, is how erased the people actually doing this work in the trenches are. But we’ll see how it plays out. First I have to finish the damn thing.
Who are some genre writers you champion?
Nalo Hopkinson is amazing. Kristin Cashore, who wrote Graceling, is awesome. Philip Reeve writes a series called Hungry City Chronicles—so good. Steph Swainston, she wrote The Year of Our War—super ridiculous.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)