Most writers would probably describe a year in which they publish a best-selling novel, enjoy a swift rise to worldwide literary fame, and win a Pulitzer Prize as "a pretty good year." But Junot Díaz describes 2008 in slightly different terms.
"It just fucking sucked, dude," he says. "I wouldn't recommend it. I don't like to think about 2008 that much."
The success of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the Pulitzer — all of that was OK, Díaz says. But the rest of the year? Not so much. "I was fucking up my life, and I was going through a lot of serious problems with my then fiancée," he says. "It had to do with what a fucking jerk I was. When that relationship went south, when I lost it, it really fucking hit. It was a blow."
It's no surprise then, to learn that Yunior, the fictional narrator from Díaz's first short story collection Drown and from Oscar Wao, has been hitting some hard times lately, too. In This is How You Lose Her, published this month, Díaz continues to follow Yunior, a character whose life has always mirrored his own in many ways (Yunior is also Díaz's nickname among family and friends). In the new collection of interconnected short stories, Yunior faces his unmaking as he comes to terms with his own infidelity.
"I realized that I'm writing this larger book about Yunior's life, and all the books that I've written so far are 'chapters' in that book," explains Díaz. "Very early in my career as a published writer, as I was finishing Drown, I realized I wanted to write a second book with the same kind of structure in the same kind of pattern about how a Dominican immigrant Jersey boy is unmade."
Like Yunior, Díaz grew up in a poor immigrant household in New Jersey, refers to himself as a geek, had an absentee father, and an older brother who faced serious illness. "I always imagine him as a 'what could have been' under different circumstances," says Díaz of the on-going parallels between Yunior's life and his own. "He's almost like another sibling. I dress Yunior in my clothes. I put him in the settings from my life. I give him a lot of the same difficulties and challenges and sources of inspiration, but I have him respond differently. But I think people who have enjoyed the stories would be startled to hear, I'm far more haunted than Yunior. Despite how damaged he might seem, I'm far more fucked up."
Díaz is renowned for his forceful, swaggering prose, the unabashedly masculine voice of Yunior that pops off the page, and there's plenty of it in the new book. But midway through there's also a quiet, more timid female narrator who appears in one of the book's strongest stories "Otravida, Otravez," in which Díaz lets Yunior's father's mistress tell her story in her own voice. "Without question, most men write terrible women," Díaz says of taking on the challenge of writing from a woman's perspective. "The average woman writer writes a pretty passable guy. But the average dude writes women that don't sound anything like women. It takes me an enormous amount of work just to get even close."
Creating women isn't the only thing Díaz finds difficult. All writing is an ongoing challenge for him, he says. He first started writing the stories in This is How You Lose Her 17 years ago. "I just happen to be the slowest writer I know," he says. "I'm a writer who finds the work I'm good at very difficult. That's a strange situation to be in. It's like discovering you're awesome at something you also suck at. But I'm kind of a stubborn fool."
Stubbornness is probably a good quality for Díaz to have at the moment. The past few years, he's been dealing with the painful condition spinal stenosis (perhaps unsurprisingly, Yunior also develops back problems in the new book), which doctors link to the 10 years Díaz spent delivering pool tables as a young man. "The vertebrae sink in to protect the spine but what happens is that they begin to squeeze the spine and cause enormous pain," he says. "It was excruciating. It's another 'you're getting old' pain in the ass. I had to get fucking surgery for it that laid me up for a month and a half. I still walk around half the time like someone has set me on fire. I've gotten pretty much used to it, but I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
In spite of the pain and the fact that he loathes airports, Díaz says he's looking forward to his upcoming monthlong book tour, which brings him to Atlanta's Carter Center on September 21. A tour provides him with the opportunity to do what he loves best: spend hour after hour in bookstores and meet readers. "For nerds like me, I'm in paradise," he says. "Whether I'm sitting still or I'm running around, it's the same pain so I'm like 'Fuck it.' It's a small price to pay to be with one's tribe."
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