Junot Diaz finds writing very difficult. Indeed, the revered author has published only one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and two story collections since 1996, the most recent of which was nominated for the National Book Award. That collection, “This Is How You Lose Her,” is newly in paperback and will soon be released as a deluxe edition illustrated by alternative comics hero and “Love and Rockets” creator Jamie Hernandez.
Diaz teaches writing at MIT. In the summers, he returns to his native New York City. We caught up with him in his office, shortly after his return to Cambridge.
DANCING ON HIS OWN: Boston is far quieter and far more contemplative [than New York]. I always think it’s the difference between dancing on a really crowded floor and dancing when you’re alone. [But] I write so slow and I write so little, it’s hard to tell where I write least. There’s no question I read more in Boston, though.
DISCOURAGING WORDS: I’m trying to write a novel, but I don’t know how to start it. Five years into it, and I still don’t have a first chapter. This one is taking a lot longer and is a lot worse than the other one. It’s not heartening.
HARE, MEET TORTOISE: My problem is not [balancing] work and life. My problem is I find writing difficult. I shouldn’t say I have a problem; there are people who try to be artists and never find their way through to it, [and] there’s a whole range of people who suffer immensely and they don’t seem to generate anything that makes them happy. But I don’t find it helpful to compare myself to most people on the earth. So I think of myself as having a kind of a very, very slow, but in some ways, at least productive range as an artist.
NO FUN: There are easier ways to get pleasure [than to write]. I’m not sure the libidinal component [of writing] is too big for me. I think it might be for other people. I get an immense amount of satisfaction in solving a puzzle, but that’s always weird. I think it might sound ridiculous, ostentatious, and prepotente[arrogant]…but I seem to be good at something I find very difficult.
A READER’S WRITER: Writing is just an excuse for me to be a professional reader. I’m always thinking from a reader’s perspective. In the end, I cede control of my book entirely to readers . . . I think collaboration is more exciting than executive control. If there’s any power in my work, part of that power comes from the collaboration that I request of my readers. That means I have to strategize and theorize how to actively engage the reader in every step of the game. I think that’s part of what takes a long time.
It’s extraordinary how many strategies you have to deploy to convince a reader that you’re being sincere, and what you’re representing has something to do with the world, and that the people who exist in your pages could possibly be real. Part of what happens with my reading is I’m always looking for cues, inspiration, and actual strategies. Even those of us who’ve published a few books know that this is such a difficult labor that any assistance we can get is welcome.
FAILURE: I wake up and generate pages that I will throw away a little later. It’s the old story — it takes me a long time to get anything down, and then I throw it away . . . I print stuff out, and it only strikes me how flawed something is when it’s on paper. I don’t find that to be as tragic as some might. I just think that anything I’ve ever written well has come out of an enormous amount of failure.
SUCCESS: [A success] is something that’s done.