Junot Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which won the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, African Voices, Best American Short Stories (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000), in Pushcart Prize XXII and in The O'Henry Prize Stories 2009.
He has received a Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, the 2002 Pen/Malamud Award, the 2003 US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the fiction editor at the Boston Review and the Rudge (1948) and Nancy Allen professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
SoR: What is your writing process like from the development of an idea to putting it on paper?
Diaz: That's quite a large question. It all depends on the project. Sometimes I need to write in a disciplined organized manner. Write every morning, four five hours, sort of like a job. Other projects require me to turn things over in my heads for months at a time, followed by a concentrated burst of writing over a couple of weeks. As for editing I throw away until something good remains. Which means I throw away at least 95% of what I write, often more.
SoR: You were quite the reader when you were young, I hear. What inspired you to read so much and what determined the selections?
Diaz: No idea. I have sense theories but none of them can be proved. Reading was a form of consolation for a Dominican immigrant kid, a way to approach language in the quiet of my own head without people ridiculing me. Reading was something that spoke to a deep part of me. I read and continue to read widely. Spend a lot of time in bookstores and libraries browsing and that's how my books come to me. Through old fashion rummaging.
SoR: How does it feel going from living near “one of the largest landfills in New Jersey,” as you once put it, to winning a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction?
Diaz: Hard to say. My youth, all those hardships, they're still with me. They never go away. But now they have company. It's nicer now that there are more things in my head than just the hard times.
SoR: Explain for us, if you will, the importance of keeping in touch with your roots, as you have certainly remained heavily involved in the Dominican community.
Diaz: I can't imagine life without my 'roots.' Without Santo Domingo, without New Jersey, I simply would not exist and it means everything to me to keep them close to my heart, to spend as much time in communion with these places.
SoR: How do you handle the inevitable criticism of your work?
Diaz: You try to get better. If it's good you listen. If it's just hateration you keep working.
SoR: How much of your work is really based on your real life experiences and how do you make the decisions of when to weave in fiction and where to weave in your past?
Diaz: My first book DROWN was mainly autobiographical. OSCAR WAO was entirely fiction. I don't think I'll be writing anything from my life again so I won't have to make those decisions any more. But in the past it was the story, more than anything, that guided which side of the fence it wanted to be on.
SoR: THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO deals a lot with the The Trujillo Era. However, Rafael Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 and you were born just a hair shy of 1969. What impact did this period have on you and make you want to place your novel in that span of time?
Diaz: Historical traumas know no expiration date. The Trujillato deformed the Dominican nation and continues to deform it. I grew up in that shadow and wanted to wrestle with it.
SoR: Though much of your work delves into the non-fiction of your own life, what makes you choose fiction as your genre of choice?
Diaz: Hard to say why we like chocolate over say mint strawberry. It's just the way it is. In fiction I come closer to the truth than I do in non-fiction. Fiction is about play, non-fiction about fidelity.
SoR: What, if anything did you want your readers to learn from reading THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE?
Diaz: It's a novel. Novels are not about messages or lessons; they’re about an experience, a human experience. I want my readers to encounter other humans in these pages and in that process encounter themselves.
SoR: Why the use of footnotes rather than incorporating into the body of the novel?
Diaz: That has to do with the novel's exploration of storytelling, authority and dictatorship. As literary device footnotes reinforce erudition and authority but in this novel they're after far more interesting game. I wish I could say more but that would take away from the reader's experience. Let's just say it wouldn't have cost me anything to put all that info in the body of the novel proper.
SoR: What were you hoping to convey by using “Spanglish” in the writing of THE BRIEF AND WONDEROUS LIFE?
Diaz: Well, the realities of these characters require English, Spanish, urban English, nerdish and a couple other idioms, without which these lives would feel to me inauthentic. We do not live on a monolingual world and neither do my characters.
SoR: When can we expect the next book?
Diaz: God knows!