2012 National Book Award Finalist,

Junot Díaz

This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot DiazThis Is How You Lose Her

Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Junot Diaz, photo by, Junot by Nina Subin

Interview by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane: Congratulations on This Is How You Lose Her being named a Fiction Finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I know this must be a busy time for you, so many thanks in advance for doing this. How did you learn you’d been named a Finalist and what was your first response?

Junot Díaz: I was of course in a bookstore buying books—which seems to be where I always am—in Kinokuniya to be precise—when Harold Augenbraum rang me up on my cell. I first thought he was going to hit me up again to be on a jury and then he told me the good news and I have to say I was frankly floored. I put my back against Naruto and just breathed a while.

MBK: Of the five Finalists this year, This Is How You Lose Her is the only collection of short stories. What, in your opinion, is the state of the short story today?

JD: Yup, the only short story collection amongst all these wonderful heavy-hitting novels—let's just say it leaves one feeling a little like the Red Shirts in an old Star Trek episode. But anyway, as for the short story itself I believe the form is having a golden age. Sure, some publishers and some readers are biased against it but right now the form has so many extraordinary practitioners, from Pam Houston to Edward P. Jones, from Chris Lee to Jennine Capo Crucet, from Thomas Glave to Tania James to Maureen F. McHugh—if you love to read short stories like I do you can read a perfect tale nearly every day and never be without.

MBK: Yunior, the narrator of these stories, was featured in almost every story in your first collection, Drown, and was the narrator of your novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. At the moment when you first wrote Yunior—presumably for one of the stories in Drown—did you know you’d be returning to him several books down the road? And will your readers be learning more about him in the future?

JD: I always knew I'd be with Yunior for a long time. After all both Drown and This Is How You Lose Her were conceived as chapters in a larger book about Yunior's life. If you put these books together you begin to see that they're not so much linked story collections as fragments in a sprawling fractured novel. In Drown we never hear anything about Yunior's brother's cancer or his brother's subsequent death. The brother just disappears from the narrative, a disappearance which This Is How You Lose Her explains. Given this type of structure I definitely had to have some of this sketched out beforehand. A lot sketched out beforehand. I'd like to write two or three more books about Yunior which would allow me to finish the larger meta-novel about his life. That's my dream—whether I got enough gas in the tank to make it happen only time will tell.

MBK: Part of what makes these stories come alive is Yunior’s language, which feels authentic and true at every step. Can you describe how your emphasis on the colloquial helped shape these stories?

JD: Yeah except in my opinion nothing is faker and more artificial than Yunior's language. After all Gauguin says, "We must practice and practice in order to give the illusion of spontaneity." So behind that naturalist authenticity lies a lot of work, a lot of gamesmanship. So why the colloquial? I guess I needed something to hide my formalistic operations—something to keep the reader distracted/engaged while I went about my deeper narrative work. Yunior's smart and seductive and while he doesn't work for everybody, for some people he sounds a lot like the world they grew up in and that effect helps give the work the illusion of the real which is something I'm always looking for.

MBK: How much of a story do you know before you begin?

JD: I try to have a lot prepped before I hit the page. And then upon hitting the page I find myself almost always having to throw all that prep work out and start from the beginning. I have to write to solve the riddles at the heart of my story but I can't even begin to get close to those riddles unless I've reflected on them a long time beforehand. 

MBK: How much consideration do you give to audience when you write?

JD: A whole damn lot. I work with audience as much as I work with words. If I didn't have an idea, a theory of how certain kinds of people read, I doubt I would be able to write at all. I'm always trying to gauge how much you can challenge your audience before they turn away, how much madness they'll tolerate, how cryptic you can be and still leave a reader feeling like they've read a full tale. I don't want my audience to like my work—that's too simplistic—I want them to be troubled or moved or transported into a space that allows for conversation—with themselves and with others. That's way better than being liked. Way better.

MBK: What, in your opinion, is the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility when writing a novel or short story?

JD: Everyone has their own project, their own writerly ethos, their own artistic covenant. Some writers have stated they write for themselves and themselves only. Me, I write to try to break silences (sounds ridiculous when you come out and say it which is why it's always better just to do it.) I try to create art so that readers who grew up like me, never encountering themselves or their lives in books, might in my pages meet themselves and feel less forsaken. We all need art—for our humanity—for the challenge and the growth and transformation art demands of us. I grew up in a world where there was not much art about me at all, that came out of my world, my experience. I guess I'd like to change that absence, that drought, with my words, with my books, plant seedlings in the wastes and who knows, if all of us work together, what Eden might yet bloom? (Ok, how ridiculous does that sound? I'm reading Moby Dick again and Melville's locutions are getting to me.)

MBK: Have any previous National Book Award Winners or Finalists been an influence on your work?

My god of course. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man helped make me a writer. Pnin didn't win but it's a book I adore. Lolita didn't win either and that's a novel that helped me shape Yunior's voice. And then there's The Color Purple, a Winner which had a profound impact on me as an artist. Ditto Charles Johnson's Middle Passage. Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love didn't win but that was a novel I kept close to me while I was writing my own first novel. Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! and Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, both Finalists, shone their power and courage upon me. Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban helped give my first novel its structure. Anyway the list goes on and on. And so do the debts.

Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the forthcoming novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.

Photo credit: Nina Subin