After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz was asked how it felt to be the first Dominican writer to nab one of literature’s shiniest trophies. “Feels fine,” he grumbled. “I only wish there were about a thousand others.” Five years later and facing down a new slew of cheers for his first book since Wao — the short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her — Díaz, 43, is no more willing to accept adulation. “I put that stuff away,” he says, “and when I’m 70 and pissing myself, that will keep me fucking warm. But for now …” And here his goddaughter Dalia, a 21-year-old art student ably rocking zebra leggings and a Farrah Fawcett T-shirt, cuts in, to general cacophonous laughter, “You sure it won’t be the piss keeping you warm?”
We’re way uptown in Washington Heights, the Dominican neighborhood that Díaz called home in the mid-2000s and which features prominently in his work. Not as prominently as central New Jersey, where he grew up, or the D.R., where he was born. But it’s very much there. Yunior, the character we’ve now followed from Díaz’s auspicious 1996 debut Drown to Wao to This Is How You Lose Her, lives in the New York City neighborhood with Oscar’s sister after graduating from Rutgers. Years before, Yunior’s father, before eventually abandoning the family, lived there too.
This joint is called Corcho, and it’s a loud little pocket of a wine bar populated by men in baby-blue polos and women in tighttighttight black pants. The slim Díaz, in chinos and Sauconys, walks in, not without swagger, and greets a string of folks with pleasant Spanish chatter. He calls the bartender mi amor, then gently chastises her because no tiene mucho something; then the owner, Beni, claps him on the back and hands him a cigar. (Later, Díaz explains that “They know my cousin, Manny. He’s an actor. He’s always in there being pretty.”)
Dalia and her older sister Camila roll in, and Díaz greets them effusively: “Hola, hola, my little girls” — while waving at the bar — “guys, whatever you want.” He introduces me to the two girls, whose father is Díaz’s compadre from the activist circle he used to run with: “This one’s my artist. This is the one I worry about. That one’s a Wesleyan graduate, gonna go to law school and make much rich.”
What kind of law, I ask?
“Hopefully corporate, but I know her — she’ll do, like, some shit for immigration.” Then, turning to Camila, “Babe, I need money! I need fucking loot!” Now he’s bandying the cigar about: “You guys gonna smoke this with me?” They demur. “Tobacco, so fucking bad for you. Yeah, we can crush it and smoke a joint. But not here. She’s like a Pentecostal. She does not smoke weed.” I think “she” means the bartender, but before I can ask “who?” he’s already onto a story about his buddy Petey, the “craziest Puerto Rican dude in New York City,” and, apparently, the shining star of Chinatown’s hardball circuit.
For most of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior is out of the slums of Santo Domingo of Drown and into the London Terrace apartments of Parlin, New Jersey. He deals with some heavy shit: a complicated bit of secret romance with an older neighborhood lady; his brother Rafa’s cancer; his brother Rafa’s powerfully willful rejection of acknowledgement of that cancer. But nothing in the book is as much a punch in the face as “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” the stunning closing story.
In it, Yunior, now a writer and teacher in Boston — where Díaz himself has lived part-time for nearly a decade, while teaching at M.I.T. — is suffering through a crushing depression set in motion by a breakup spurred by his own manic infidelity and worsened by his remarkably varied physical deterioration. And we get it all in an unflinching second person: “Of course you dream about her. You are in New Zealand or Santo Domingo or, improbably, back in college, in the dorms. You want her to say your name, to touch you, but she doesn’t. She just shakes her head.” This seems like a good time to point out that the name Díaz originally wanted for this collection was Total Fucking Heartbreak.
The phrase “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” was originally — like, 16 years ago — supposed to be the title of a whole book about “the rise and fall of a young cheater.” And that book, he says, will be written, eventually, “if I live long enough.” Then again, unwritten books are kind of a Díaz career trademark.
After Drown, Díaz planned to write a “Black Akira,” his “Psychic Terrorist Kills New York City” novel. After 9/11, those plans were quickly shelved. The next book is supposed to be Monstro, a pre/post-apocalyptic novel that, at least judging by its excerpt in The New Yorker, is going to totally slay. There are coddled rich-kid photographers and gorgeous dream-girl muses and a mysterious world-ending infection that’s breeding giants in Hispaniola. But so far the only part of it that actually exists is that excerpt. Díaz estimates he’s written, and thrown out, 200 pages of Monstro. In “Guide to Love,” he makes an allusion to it: “You finally start work on your eighties apocalypse novel — finally start work means you write a paragraph.”
As he tells it, getting this done isn’t about focus, but about courage. “You can have all the determination you want,” Díaz says, “and write a book that doesn’t go as deep as it needs to go. The book I sketched in my mind for Monstro isn’t gonna live or die about how awesome a writer I am. To face the fucking themes that I have put down on the plan don’t require genius — they require me to be less of a fuckin’ wuss, yo.”
You mean calling people out? Taking some shots?
He scoffs. “Calling people out is the easiest thing. Nobody has any problems denouncing shit. That’s the opposite of courage. I wanna fucking talk about an invasion, and I wanna talk about rape, and to be able to say anything useful about that, you’ve gotta think about shit that you don’t wanna think about. Every time I try to enter it, I get fucking scared. My family says, you gotta have your ovaries in the right place to do this work.” He estimates his chance of failure at 80 percent. If he doesn’t sack up, “The book is gonna be weak.” He’s joking. I think. And then all of a sudden a live band bashes in; a long-haired fellow is crooning into a wholly unnecessary microphone about a segunda veeeez — and Junot says, “We have to move.”
Now the four of us are down the street at Mamajuana, watching a Flamenco dancer in a bright-red, boob-friendly dress, do her damn thing. The restaurant is nearly empty but this woman doesn’t notice, or care; at a fervor she leaps off the low-slung stage and, with some serious scrunched-up mean face, furiously stamps her way all over floor. With a violent jerk of her hand she signals her summation, and we few applaud heartily. “Music of the colonizers,” Díaz says. “See why we’re so aggressive?” And then: “She’s incredibly beautiful. This is the reason Latino guys have problems.”
This, Dalia has to take issue with. “No. Not ’cause of the women. It’s ’cause of yourselves.”
“I know. I was just trying to duck. Let me duck.”
Then he nudges my attention to a fellow at the bar, who’d just told the bartender, “If my wife calls, I’m not here.” “My man here is putting in work,” Junot cracks.
Díaz used to live around the corner, and remembers when this place was run by a couple of Irish guys who “got bopped for being like junior cartel.” What were they moving, I ask? “What do you think they were moving?” I don’t really know, but I don’t ask again. Then he breaks down the Washington Heights social scene.
“This place on the weekends is the absolute linchpin. You gotta run up in here and complain about it. It’s like a national pastime. And this is a typical Latin thing: hipsterness doesn’t work. I would argue we’re the least age-segregated culture in New York. So you have viejitos straight-up there falling out of their chairs, and you have young heads like these guys” — he waves at his goddaughters — “taking Instagram photos of them falling out of their chairs.”
At one point Camila turns to me. “So … you write for ESPN?” I start to explain and Junot jumps in, “You were trying to figure it out, right? I used to play in the NFL! I used to be a quarterback!” He pretends to drop back in the pocket, pretends to throw a spiral.
Earlier this week, at a reading in New York, Junot Díaz nearly caused a very polite lit riot. The bookstore couldn’t seat everyone who showed up; there was an overflow of hundreds. Reports on the scene said, “As some tried to make their way up the escalator, NYPD officers stopped them.” So it’s fair to say that Díaz didn’t need to worry about his audience abandoning him while he was away. But surely some, while they were patiently waiting, were wondering: Bro, what’s taking so long?
“What can I do?” Díaz asks, smiling, his palms turned up and out. “What can I do? You wanna fuckin’ work faster. No matter what you say, there’s a part of you that thinks you’re doing something wrong, that says, “It really shouldn’t take this long.” I live under so much inside pressure — it’s like being hit by an 80-foot wave, repeatedly.”
He tells me about a dream he had about Monstro. “I had this incredibly strong feeling that I would be able to finish this book in a year. And then I woke up and realized that wasn’t happening. Yo, I, like, cried for two days straight. I’m not kidding. I literally bawled my eyes out. Because it seemed so promising. It seemed so real that I would finish it fast. And then it just faded.”
So, yes, Junot Díaz writes slow: “You work and you throw out and you look and you hunt and you try to find a sentence. You spend a lot of time staring at a screen.” Yes, it’s tortured him that he writes slow. “I would go years with these girls,” he says, “where we’d go to a movie and the entire time I’m thinking, Boy, I suck.” And yeah, maybe he didn’t envision it quite like this: “Motherfucker, I thought this shit was going to be easy. I really thought I’d have 20 books by now! If somebody saw what I do to be a writer, if they opened up my brain [to switch with me], they’d be like, ‘no — give me Michael Chabon.'”
But the thing is, he’s 43 — he’s been doing it this way for a while now. When I move to ask if he’s ever actually tried to recalibrate, to hurry himself, he cuts me off, “No. We’re folded in certain ways. We have creases in us. Everybody has a circadian rhythm. And mine just happens to be the way it is.”
Now the flamenco-lady hurricane is approaching the stage again, and her clomping is about to drown out our voices, and so we bolt.
We walk down to 789 Bar, a serious bachata hot spot on the weekends but sleepy on this Tuesday. On the walk, Camila and Dalia talk about their Bronx neighborhood: Technically they live in the slice, but it’s really all the blocks around their own that are messed up? Then they point out the patacón place across the street. It’s delicious and open till 5 a.m. “They get mad fuckin’ people coming in at two in the morning,” Dalia explains, “and there’s always vomit on the floor.”
We run into Eric, an old friend of Junot’s, who’s with a comely young lady. Eric asks him how he’s doing and Junot responds, “I’m out with Amos. You’re out with her. Someone is doing something right.” Then, flitting in and out of Spanish, Díaz has us rolling over an old story about a reckless small-plane flight: “Him and my best friend Pedro, who is un monstro, are in the front where you can take the controls and Pedro starts going up and down to terrorize me. I got out and I’m like, ‘you n—-s don’t talk to me. I don’t like you guys … ‘”
Back at the bar, Junot says, “Eric is cracking me up, yo. Tuesday night is when motherfuckers think they can creep. And then I come in like, What’s up, motherfucka?!”
“My brother’s cancer was so different than what I described. But I know what it’s like. If you’ve ever had somebody punch you in the head really fucking hard — once you have that feeling you can extrapolate all kinds of shit. There’s certain authorities from people who have gotten their asses beat.”
Díaz is explaining his philosophy about using his own life as fodder. His brother, one of his five siblings, survived cancer. But it wasn’t, Junot says, Rafa’s cancer. And besides, “With all this shit these motherfuckers” — as in, his family — “put me through? They can begrudge me a couple of motherfucking books.”
For Díaz, the paramount responsibility for the writer is to be living. “My friends always point out, ‘Junot never writes shit down. Junot never walks around with a pen.’ But if I looked at these kids as material, that’s a problematic relationship. They treat me normal. It’s good to be normal, bro.” His advice to young writers? “Don’t write a thing until you’re 29. Spend from now until 29 fully engaged with the world.”
For Díaz, in practice, “engaged with the world” often means one specific element of it over others: women. His characters obsess over their ladies — they pine and swoon; they detail their bodies in electrically vivid detail. Slate just named Díaz “our finest describer of hot chicas — America’s poet laureate of pulchritude.” Plus, there’s my friend Nitasha, who for a minute now has been talking about pitching a startup idea: HaveJunotDiazPersonallyDescribeMyBody.com.
I share Nitasha’s brilliant plan with Díaz, and it’s the only time all night he seems genuinely honored. He explains why: “Any guy gets the full dose of misogyny of your culture. A blind spot in the imagination vis-à-vis women. And I really believe this in my heart: What made it possible for me to be a writer was wrestling with that blind spot. My ability to see women with any clarity is the linchpin of my art.”
That struggle to see the world is what he’s worried is missing in young writers. MFA students nowadays, he says, are writing with an eye toward agents and advances; they’re looking at the work as a tool for acclamation, which means they don’t want to make mistakes. But writing isn’t the same as building a violin. The errors shouldn’t be considered misfires. “I could feel myself when I was working, trying to do something because I wanted somebody to give me a hug. As soon as I felt that I moved as far away as possible.”
But after the work is done, and then you’re getting all these hugs — isn’t that kind of nice? Motivating, even?
“I come from a shitty background with parents who fucking were difficult,” Díaz says. “And a dad who was a fucking asshole who fucking loathed me. My dad loathed me the way you would loathe the worst thing in the world. I’m barely holding it together as a grown adult — my mind doesn’t speak that language. Maybe if I had less injuries I would find that shit intelligible. But there seems to be holes burned through me that guarantee that I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”
So it’s just the work, then?
“That’s it. If anything else is gratifying I’d lose my mind.” Pause. “Yeah, no, but I’m losing my mind for other reasons.” Pause. “It’s OK. We’ll all be at the lost-our-mind thing.”