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.
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.