Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz

Dylan Davidson

Junot Diaz’s writing is not an ordinary kind of beautiful. 

Harsh, vulgar and devastatingly sincere, his work explores the complex, difficult lives of characters trapped in a rarefied space between two worlds. With one foot in the United States and the other in the Dominican Republic, Diaz’s characters provide a glimpse into an existence where belonging is always just out of reach; an existence that closely resembles the author’s own experiences as an immigrant. 

Diaz is the author of  “Drown” (1996), “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (2007), and last year’s collection “This Is How You Lose Her” (2012). 

The Daily Texan: Your writing has a really distinctive voice. How did you develop that?

Junot Diaz: Part of it is strategic, I mean, I guess I should begin with, part of it’s practical. You’re looking for something that feels organic, something that comes closely out of your own sense of the world. So, you know, I kind of wanted something a little forceful, a little intimate. And then part of it is strategic. I needed a voice that could cover up some of my high-level interests. So I’m often thinking and writing about things which I want embedded in the text, but obscured. So it’s kind of, you know, this energetic, personable voice helps me to do that.

DT: What’s your writing process like? Are you a morning or an evening writer? Do you drink?

JD: Yeah, no, I don’t drink. What I do is I get up early in the morning, usually as early as I can get it, and I sort of have some strange, like, some strange sort of restriction. As soon as I have spoken to someone, I cannot write. So I have to write in the first silences of the morning.

DT: How do you get inspired to write something?

JD: Well, usually it’s a question that has tumbled around in my head for quite a while. I think that what happens is, on top of that, what I read often provides me with an enormous amount of inspiration. A story or a book will summon up inside of me a challenge to write something that speaks to that story or that book. But also, my neighborhoods in both Cambridge and New York City also bring a lot to the table. Often I just walk around my neighborhood and see and hear and feel and experience and smell things that set off a spark in me, of creativity.

DT: Is there an aspect of your writing that you wish people would focus on less?

JD: Well, I think that as a writer, what ends up happening is that you’re not — well, we’re in a culture these days where people spend lots of time talking about and writing about actual writing, and they’d rather spend time talking about and writing about the writers. It’s not any aspect of my writing, I just wish that, you know, that folks would pay more attention to the books themselves. I promise you, you can go on radio, or go for an interview, and the conversation will almost invariably be about you and less about the book.

DT: As a professor of creative writing, are there any tips you have for students who are interested in writing?

JD: Well, I mean, it’s funny, because nothing has changed in dozens of years. The most basic rules still apply. The most basic rule is, you have to live your life in the world, and you have to read.

DT: Is there a book that you think every college student should read?

JD: No, but I do think that every college student should read. I mean, I have personal favorites. I think every college student should be conversing with Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” but, you know, there are more college students than my taste can begin to describe. I think the idea is less that every college student read “Beloved” and more that every college student should have a book in their own head that they think every college student should read.

DT: Are there any writers today that you think should be getting more attention?

JD: Oh, so many. I think Samuel R. Delaney, I definitely think that’s a writer that not enough people pay attention to. I think the writer Coco Fusco, there’s another one who, again, who, in a better world, would be more well known.

DT: What do you think that teachers of writing should do more of with their students?

JD: I mean, I know what I wish I could do less of. I think I should teach less writing and teach more reading.

DT: What are you reading right now?

JD: I’m reading Roger Crowley’s biography of the city of Venice called “The City of Fortune.” That book has been kind of a study companion with me for the last couple of days. I’m reading Hilton Als’s “White Girls.” Those are the two books I’ve been reading.

DT: Do you have a favorite book?

JD: Oh, no, I mean, that’s too much, you know?

DT: Are you working on anything right now?

JD: I’m not, actually.

DT: What can we expect during your visit to UT on Monday?

JD: God, if I could tell you! I mean one of the reasons I do this kind of traveling, beyond just the obvious pumping up the book, is to have conversations about art, and the role of art in society. I think if anything there will certainly be some of that.