MIT professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz kindly agreed to speak with me by phone earlier this week about his new collection of stories This is How You Lose Her. Diaz writes raw, visceral prose that bursts from the page with a gritty intensity. The stories revolve around Yunior, a young smug Dominican as he navigates love in New Jersey. My review here. He’s currently on a 30 city nationwide tour and will appear at Brookline Booksmith on September 19, Harvard Bookstore on September 26 and Concord Festival of Authors on November 3. For other area dates, see Diaz’s website.
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing short stories?
Junot Diaz: There’s something about their fragmentation. There’s something about their awesome intensity that really just does it for me.
Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories vs. writing novels?
Junot Diaz: When it comes down to it, they’re two entirely different forms. The novel is a marathon in many ways. At least what I’ve written is more of a marathon. The short stories, in my mind, require an entirely different calibration. The short story’s so much about silence and the novel’s so much about how much you put into your world.
Amy Steele: It seems that not many authors can do both short stories and novels well. And many choose to do one or the other.
Junot Diaz: I’m not sure, myself, if I’ll write anymore short stories. I think I’ve burned myself out for a while.
Amy Steele: Do you think writing short stories is a more difficult format?
Junot Diaz: I don’t know. It’s just time for me to go back to the novel. To spend more time in that longitudinal form, in that more expansive form.
Amy Steele: Did you set out to write thematically based stories for This is How You Lose Her or did it end up that way?
Junot Diaz: I started it from the beginning. A book like this does not come together by accident. You set yourself up right from the start. You try to get all the stories to work together, to get all the basic scenes in play and have the arc intact. I had the idea for the overarching story first and then I had to fit the other stories in.
Amy Steele: Why did you think it would work better as stories than as a novel?
Junot Diaz: I just think they’re totally different forms. It’s a different game. It’s like asking why kickball vs. hopscotch? In our minds we think of these forms as directly related but it’s not so clear when you’re creating them how connected they are. there was something very useful and constructive about all the silences between the stories. There is a way that a reader reads this collection that the reader is going to ask important questions. They’re going to provide a lot of answers themselves. In a novel, there’s a lot less fragmentation. A novel is less a game. A book like this is more of a game that asks a person’s help to participate in the assemblage.
Stories have a way at the end of reminding us of how short our lives our but also just how irrevocable some of the moments in our lives are. You can’t regain them. Stories have a lot of finality in them. Where novels save all of its finality until the end.
Amy Steele: When I read your stories or novels, I become immediately immersed in the culture, which I suppose is the point but I find it so impressive and not easily done. How did you develop such a contemporary structure that seems simultaneously simple and complex?
Junot Diaz: There’s a part of me that knows the interface and what lies behind it and there’s this voice, conversation, vernacular—that’s just interface. That’s what the reader connects with. If someone’s interested in narrative, in the way a story works, they look behind the mask. My approach is always to hide the complexity. To do everything possible to distract, to misdirect that this is an artifact. That it’s highly provisional, highly contingent. And there’s a part of me that’s just nerdy. I love puzzles.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Yunior?
Junot Diaz: He’s incredibly complex. I wrestled with him because he’s so difficult. He has a suite of charms. But in other ways he’s sort of brutal. There’s a sensitivity and an intelligence and a cowardice and a self-obsessiveness that works for me.
Amy Steele: How did you develop him as a character?
Junot Diaz: He’s been with me for a long time. I’ve always liked the idea of a character who would allow me to talk about the way that masculinity and the way that race and the way that culture and the way that American-ness works from the inside. He’s so smart and so honest. He’s a wonderful observer. He has kinda cool judgments. But all those credits means there’s gotta be a lot of hurt and a lot of damage.
Amy Steele: What makes a good story?
Junot Diaz: A whole combination of traits for me. What matters most is a believable human character by which we mean contradictory and conflicted.