A brief wondrous conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
Author Junot Diaz has got a new book out. This isn’t quite a once-in-a-lifetime event but, put it this way, when he started the short-story collection that would become This is How You Lose Her, Bill Clinton was campaigning for his presidential re-election bid and Atlanta was hosting the Olympics.
In the meantime, it should be noted, Diaz — a 43-year-old Dominican-American who lives between New York and Boston — did bust out the vivid, wildly original, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007. But he takes his time and no modern author makes writing look so effortless and yet so hard
ESQUIRE: So it’s true you worked on this book for 16 years?
JUNOT DIAZ: Oh yeah, that’s definitely true. I had this idea I wanted to write a book about cheaters and it took forever to complete that. I did a bunch of interviews with this totally disparate group of dudes and I told them straight-the-fuck-up: “I’m writing a book about infidelity, I want to hear what you got to tell me.” At first, the conversations were, well, generalised and not very personal, but you build a relationship and I began to hear about how much male infidelity is a part of a standard package for certain guys.
ESQ: What is it you like about short stories?
JD: The short story as a form gets closer to how ephemeral our lives and our experiences can be. Those moments that only happen once and disappear. Those people who are in our lives for a short period of time and then go. Those choices and mistakes we make that have sharp, never-to-be-recovered consequences. There’s something in us that knows shit ends and that’s fucking hard and that once it ends, that’s it. The short story does a very good job of reminding us and communicating that aspect of the human experience.
ESQ: Was there a commercial expectation to follow Oscar Wao with another novel?
JD: Oh my God, well certainly. Where can I pin that down? It’s like if you belong to a family where there’s normal expectations for you to come out straight. Nobody in my family had a banner saying: “Be straight”, but there were these normative expectations. You can feel them. Now I cannot say there was anyone specifically who said, “Motherfucker, write us a novel!” But did I feel the weight of expectation? Fuck yeah, man! But, you know, you can only write what you can write. This thing’s been long brewing.
ESQ: You make writing sound tiring, sometimes excruciating. Did you always know it was the right thing for you?
JD: Luckily, it dawned on me very young — by young, I mean early twenties — that I was good at something I found very difficult. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a lot of people out there who are good at something they find very difficult but who get discouraged from pursuing it. What tends to happen if you find something difficult is that people tell you that you suck at it.
ESQ: It sounds like a curse…
JD: Really? Last time I checked I came out of a family of third-world farmers and the idea that anything worth doing wasn’t going to be hard was beyond their imagination. I certainly acquired that. The curse for me would’ve been to have no calling. I’m like: “Woo-hoo! Fucking win.”
This is How You Lose Her (Faber and Faber) is out now