Got Questions? Junot Diaz Has Answers

Photo of Junot Díaz by George Vaysgant.

And now for one of our favorite pieces of writing advice in recent memory:

“You don’t become a good writer by only working on the pieces that smell good from the beginning.”

That gem comes from the wondrous Junot Díaz himself. You asked him about his writing process, how he creates complex characters, and for his thoughts on throwing around the occasional curse word. Check out his answers to those probing questions and more, sure to inspire you whether you’re working on a sweet-smelling tulip of a story or a particularly funky, malodorous tale.

Yunior is so likable despite being a sucio. How did you do that?! (@Sophie Maison)

AND

How do you develop complex characters?  (@Izsy Daniels)

These questions are connected so I’ll answer them together.  Yunior IS a difficult person. He is pretty even balanced between positive and negative characteristics, though that depends on whether you’re being victimized by the latter, does it not? He’s smart (way smarter than me), he’s got a gift with words, he’s not much of a come-mierda and he hates bullies and injustice and impunity and he has an enormous amount of compassion. On the other hand, Yunior, who can imagine real intimacy and the possibility of cross-gender affinity, is also tragically a player to the 1000th power. It’s this very contradictory suite of traits that makes Yunior compelling (if he’s compelling at all). Given the world that raised him, a brutal urban Dominican world, Yunior has many strong qualities, but he also has the very perfect weakness which keeps him from realizing his greatest dream—to love, Lola specifically. They always say that to build realistic characters they must be comprised of both flaws and virtues but the reality is that the character’s flaws and virtues must be the perfect ones that bring that character most to life. In the novel you can imagine and condemn the patriarchy that destroys Oscar’s family—he just can’t stop himself from practicing. How awful and ultimately human is that?

Figuring out how to mold your characters from their positive and negative clays, from that which is mundane about them and that which is extreme, deciding what is their greatest blind spot and how does this interact with the story you’re writing—all of these things go into making complex characters. It’s also essential to begin to look honestly upon yourself and upon other people around you. You need to have a strong sense of how the average person carries their contradictions—for that is what all of us humans have and what often defines our characters—their contradictions. You need to study the contradictions of people around you and think about how certain kind of contradictions could lead certain kinds of characters into certain kinds of trouble. All of this will help in creating nuanced characters.  Just always remember the Golden Rule is not that you want characters that you can like or dislike—but characters who we get to understand, a process that allows us to understand parts of ourselves.

What do you think your job would be if you weren’t an author? (@Diarmuid Carroll)

This is a tough one. I guess I’d probably be a history teacher. I love history and if there’s anything harder than getting people to like reading it’s getting them to like history and I guess I would be up in the trenches, in some school in NJ or NYC doing that very work. Teaching is incredibly hard work.  Drains the life out of many people but I’m pretty dedicated to young people and so I’m hoping I’d be able to hold on for quite a while.

What does cursing add to a story? Has anyone ever told you to watch your language? (@Jenna Markham)

What does any language add to any story? In my view I don’t think you can tell a story set in the parts of the world my characters inhabit without some cursing. Of course people are always trying to get me to cut my language down. Some people don’t like the cursing, some people don’t like the Spanish, some people don’t like me sounding too smart, some people don’t like me telling the truth.  In the end people are ALWAYS trying to control other people’s language. Usually because our culture of respectability demands it but let me tell you—the culture of respectability, of being polite is a way to silence people.  There are some things that can’t be said politely, that can’t be said without being crude, without being honest and without cursing.  I’d rather speak of those things than be bothered by people trying to silence my language.

What is your writing space like? What should every writer consider when setting up their writing spaces? (@Kamren Curiel)

I’ve hurt my back recently so I can’t even sit at a desk. Really all I need is my laptop and my bed to write. I also like to have a lot of pads around in case I need to scribble. But I don’t do my best work unless I’m surrounded by my books.  I always have to draw on my books for inspiration and for models. Without them I feel like I’m not using half my brain. Wait—one last thing, I always have my dictionary on hand.  I like to flip through the pages but some people just look it up online. Whatever works for you but use one.

Do you classify your novel as Ethnic Literature? I’m currently enrolled in an Ethnic Literature class, and we’re going to read your novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao near the end of the quarter.  (@Miguel Camargo)

Yes I do but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a thousand other things. My work belongs to ethnic literature, American literature, Caribbean literature, US Latino literature, Hemispheric literature, African Diasporic literature, NJ literature, post-colonial literature, literature of the fantastic, immigrant literature, the dictatorship novel—and many more. I don’t mind being described by a category if we understand that this not the defining category, that this category does not preclude my work’s ability to belong to countless other categories. If the category is exclusive then no, I do not wish to classify myself as ethnic literature. If the category allows me to be an endless serious of other things—well, then, I’m in.

What’s your weakness? (Mine is sweets!) (@Sheska)

I’m way too hard on myself. It stops me from writing as much as I could. I’m always jumping out of a piece of work because I’ll decide (often too early) that this story doesn’t have any potential. I’m really too quick to throw things away. It’s a stupid habit. You don’t become a good writer by only working on the pieces that smell good from the beginning. You get good at writing by sticking with even the stories that don’t look like they have a lot of potential. Sometimes we discover our best working by sticking around and to throw away things too early you’re really going to make life a lot harder for yourself. This is what they call in the business “tolerating the lameness.”  An important skill as an artist. Now of course there are some works that should be dumped on sight but usually we veto stories way too early and we should watch out for that.  If you’re too quick to vote a story off the island you’re probably too judgmental and that’s never going to help you become an artist.  Patience and tolerance will win the race always.

I teach 8th grade English in a small town on the Arkansas border with Oklahoma. My students are a mix of Hispanic (many are from Mexico or El Salvador), Hmong, Cherokee, and white. Nearly all are from families who are barely hanging on.
My students LOVE books. They love to write stories, especially fantasy. Fridays students come to my room for lunch to read what they have written. At the beginning of the year, I talked to them about books and writers I really enjoy, so they know about Oscar Wao and your background. So with these things in mind I have one question for them that I think would be good for my kids to hear and one from them. Why should art matter to an 8th grade kid in Arkansas? What did it mean to you at their age, especially as someone not from a wealthy family? Why should kids keep writing, keep reading during difficult times? (@Kien DeMent)

Everything about our world is trying to rank you, to classify you, to make you compete and to exist in a hierarchy, which if you grew up poor like me, means you’ll be at the absolute bottom of the ladder. This is a world that wants you to feel like crap because you’re poor or different or an immigrant.

Art on the other hand isn’t trying to make you feel crap about yourself—it isn’t telling you to compete or to put some one else down or grab all the money you can. Art at its best is trying to remind us that we are beautiful and worthy and extraordinary–not because we look good or have money or are prosperous—but simply because we are. The world outside of money and competition and politics tries to take you apart but art when it does its job will give us back to ourselves in the best way possible.  In art we find refuge from that world outside that wants to eat us, in art we find the strength we need to keep going as people, as students, to hold onto our true human virtues and to reject those that companies and our politicians are trying to push on you. When we engage profoundly in art, it puts us in contact with other human souls in struggle, frail and confused but hoping and striving; art reminds us that we are not alone and, most important of all, art, when it works best, give us hope that we can break all the chains which bind us, we can become the person we’ve always dreamed of becoming. Not easily, not without great trials and hardships, but it is possible and art can inspire such audacity, such courage. This is precisely why an 8th grader in Arkansas is going to need art. Precisely why I needed it. I grew up in a family of five siblings, my mom raising us alone on welfare, food stamps, and housing subsidies. I doubt I would have ever found the strength or the courage to get to college if it hadn’t been for my reading and writing. I doubt I would have avoided all the million pitfalls that await a poor immigrant brownboy in a neighborhood like mine. In my case, my love of reading, of literature, my love of this precious art, was the very thing that saved me. Even if I’d never decided to become a writer, books would have given me the extra hope I needed to face what I have to face.  For a poor immigrant kid this can be a terrible world but without the company of art it would have been, to me at least, impossible.

For more from Junot Díaz, check out his thoughts on crafting a killer narrative voice, and if you haven’t already entered our narrative voice contest, to be judged by the master author himself—get going! You have until November 30 to submit.

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