Sam Anderson spoke to Junot Díaz for this article in the The new York Times Magazine. Follow the link below for the original report and a gallery of photos.
Every writer is cursed or blessed with a unique creative metabolism: the distinctive speed and efficiency with which he or she converts the raw fuel of life into the mystical, dancing blue smoke of art. Junot Díaz’s metabolism is notoriously slow. His fuel just sits there, and sits there, and maybe every once in a while gives off a tiny ribbon of damp smoke, until you start to worry that it all got rained on and ruined — and then, 5 or 10 years later, it suddenly explodes into one of the most mesmerizing fires anyone can remember.
Díaz’s new story collection, “This Is How You Lose Her,” is his first book in five years and only his third book over all. It is, like the other two, excellent.
In hopes of peeking into his artistic boiler room, I asked Díaz if he would mind bringing along to our interview a few artifacts of writerly inspiration — a lucky pencil, maybe, or some druid crystals — whatever he keeps handy to defeat all the little hobgoblins that try to drive him crazy every time he sits down to write. Díaz arrived walking stiffly — he had major back surgery just a few weeks before — and carrying a fat folder of material pinned under one arm. This turned out to contain a wide variety of documents. There was a small black-and-white photo of his father in a fascist uniform, the discovery of which, Díaz said, inspired “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” There was a bleak photo of the New Jersey steel mill at which Díaz worked during college, a job about which he has tried, but failed, many times to write. There was a photo of his parents posing proudly next to a giant bull. There were newspaper clippings about the “dirty war” in Argentina, a subject that has haunted Díaz since childhood. There were folded-up pieces of scrap paper from his back pocket that he had used to capture ideas as he walked down the street. There were notebooks from the writing of “Oscar Wao,” filled with very tall handwriting leaning hard to the right.
As Díaz pulled out one document after another, I got the sense that, if only he could have carried a big-enough folder — maybe one the size of a couple of continents — he would have packed in just about everything he has ever seen or heard or (especially) read: libraries of fan fiction, rusty knives, third-world crowds, petroglyphs, secret police. His work is defined by this kind of radical inclusiveness — the language of drug dealers and Tolkien dorks; the problems of destitute Dominican women and their more privileged American sons. This receptivity to all the possible sources of inspiration is what makes Díaz’s work both so distinctively rich and, it seems to me, so difficult for him to write. It’s like trying to distill the ocean down to a glass of water.
“This Is How You Lose Her” is a catalog of wrecked love affairs, multilingual violence, unsatisfying labor and stranded children. It takes place in a floating world between the Dominican Republic and the Eastern Seaboard, between Spanish and English, between the novel and the short story. After much confusion and struggle, the book ends with a moment of inspiration: the narrator, after years of blockage, begins to write a book that he thinks of as (to quote the final story’s title) “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” It’s a book that promises to be almost exactly like “This Is How You Lose Her.” And so Díaz’s process becomes the product itself.
A few weeks before the book’s publication, Díaz and I stood at a Midtown bar for a couple of hours — his back made it hard for him to sit — and talked about writing well, writing badly and the mysterious (but always, he insisted, clear) difference between the two. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity and with all of Díaz’s frequent swearwords removed.
What was your plan for this new collection? I wanted to capture this sort of cheater’s progress, where this guy eventually discovers for the first time the beginning of an ethical imagination. Which of course involves the ability to imagine women as human.
So you had your conceptual framework. How did the writing go? Miserable. Miserable. The stories just wouldn’t come.
How many stories did you generate in total? I’ll tell you what, I can name the stories for “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” before “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” came. There’s a story called “Primo” that was supposed to be at the end of the book — that was a miserable botch. I spent six months on that, and it never came together. There was a story called “Santo Domingo Confidential” that was trying to be the final story, that I spent a year on. I must have written a hundred pages. It was another farrago of nonsense. I wrote a summer story where the kid gets sent to the Dominican Republic while his brother is dying of cancer; he gets sent because his mom can’t take care of him. It was a story I called “Confessions of a Teenage Sanky-Panky,” which was even worse than all the other ones put together. And that was another 50-page botch.
That must be tough. That’s why I never want to do this again. It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche.
There’s a classic bit of creative-writing-class advice that tells us we need to learn to turn off our internal editors. I’ve never understood how to unbraid the critical and the creative. How do you manage that? You’ve raised one of the thorniest dialectics of working, which is that you need your critical self: without it you can’t write, but in fact the critical self is what’s got both feet on the brakes of your process. My thing is, I’m just way too harsh. It’s an enormous impediment, and that’s just the truth of it. It doesn’t make me any better, make me any worse, it certainly isn’t more valorous. I have a character defect, man.
So turn on your harsh paternalistic, militaristic critic — It’s my dad.
O.K., invite your dad in: I want to hear his review of Junot Díaz the bad writer. What is wrong with that stuff? What are the mistakes you make? First of all, nonsense characterization. The dullest, wet-noodle characteristics and behaviors and thoughts and interests are ascribed to the characters. These 80-year-old, left-in-the-sun newspaper-brittle conflicts — where the conflicts are so ridiculously subatomic that you have to summon all the key members of CERN to detect where the conflict in this piece is. It just goes on, man. You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work. What’s interesting about my work, for me — not for anyone else; God knows, I can’t speak for that — what’s interesting in my work is the way that when I am playing full out, when I am just feeling relaxed and I’m playing, and all my faculties are firing, but only just to play. Not to get a date, not because I want someone to hug me, not because I want anyone to read it. Just to play.
So you’re a slow writer. Are you a fast reader? My one superpower. I read a book a week, man. And I don’t have a great memory, but I have a good memory about what I read.
How do you balance the reading and the writing? I’m old enough and experienced enough to know when I’m reading to avoid. And then you gotta get back to work. And I also know — you get old enough, you know when you’re forcing the writing, so you need to go hit the books.
How strategic are you in picking what you’re going to read at any given moment? Some of it is strategic: O.K., I’m writing about a family, so I’ll go read this because I know there’s some family stuff. But there’s always gotta be room for stuff to flow in. It’s like “The Ice Storm,” by Rick Moody. I was writing “Oscar Wao,” a book about Dominicans and craziness, I was reading these history books and ethnic-studies books — but “The Ice Storm” kind of fell on my lap and gave me the idea for the deep structure of the book, which was to pattern the characters on the Fantastic Four. It fell on my lap. I wasn’t looking for “The Ice Storm,” dude.
Are there short-story collections that you consider touchstones? No question. There’s the given, the monumental “Jesus’ Son.” If you could go back in time to the way people dropped the ball on certain books, “Jesus’ Son” was a book that should have been like Pulitzer-everything. There’s a book called “Family Installments,” by Edward Rivera. It’s a memoir in 13 stories. Michael Martone wrote a series of short-story collections, and no one reads them anymore. “Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List” is one of the great all-time American short-story collections. Hilarious.
Were there any books that were particularly important in putting the new collection together? Sure. [Díaz picks up my copy of his book and looks at the table of contents.] Take “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” It was always the “go on vacation” story — the disaster vacation. Matt Klam is a great short-story writer, and he had a wonderful story about a couple going on vacation. In my mind, “Sam the Cat,” by Matt Klam, was always connected to this.
I gotta tell you, the person who does working people the best, working Latinos, is Dagoberto Gilb. His collection, “The Magic of Blood,” had all these amazing stories about recent immigrants, Mexicans, trying to keep it together with these crazy jobs.
What is your book-storage situation? Are you overrun with books? I have three storage units, and that’s no lie. Three storage units. All books.
So “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” was the hardest story to write. There’s no question, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” was the beast. This thing almost killed me.
Did any of the stories come easily? “Miss Lora” was the absolute easiest. I tried to write the first page maybe a dozen times in the last decade, and I would never get past that, so I never wrestled with it too much. And then one day it just hit, beginning to end.
That must have been a good day. It was the only good day I had in this whole book. The thing is, you try your best, and what else you got? You try your best, really, that’s all you can do. And for me, my best happens really so rarely. I was so always heartened by people like Michael Chabon who write so well and seem to write so fast. Edwidge Danticat writes really well and really fast. I was always heartened by them. I keep thinking one day it’ll happen. It might.