Thursday, February 18, 2010

Junot Diaz: Interview Transcript

Junot Diaz's book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is probably my favorite of the last decade. For those that have read it, you will understand some of the references in my interview, including the references to “Watchmen” and the questions about the ultra-long, ultra-loaded footnotes that accompany the main text.
For those that have not read it, all you need to know is that Diaz's book touches on themes that noted American literature has not spent enough time on, namely ghetto, geek, and Dominican culture. Everything is there in Diaz's bent universe.

What did you think of the “Watchmen” movie?
Besides (that fact) that it's terrible, I didn't think much about it. It was one of those movies that you walk out of the theater and you never think about again, which is always a bad sign.

This book took 9 years to complete?
About that.

What was the lion's share of that work? Character composition? Story line? Can you explain to me where your main energies were focused?
Most of the energies were focused on invisible structures of the book, in that no one's going to pay much attention to but which add to the unconscious enjoyment and unconscious imagery of the text. One of the examples, and a simple example, but just to give you the sense of how some stuff does really show itself, (is that) I organized the book in one way, on one pattern, along the lines of the Fantastic Four. I plotted that because I thought it would help readers who perceived the pattern to read the book in a different way.
The family, of course, is organized like the Fantastic Four. You have Oscar being this big, hideous, in his mind monstrous Thing. You have Belicia. described throughout her chapter as simultaneously being invisible or having these incredibly powerful force fields. You have Lola always described as being on fire, and you have Ablalard, who was the doctor, considered the smartest man in the Dominican Republic, and kind of described as the rubber man, constantly flexible bending this way and that way. And so you have this kind of Fantastic Four frame. And that will invite the reader to ask who the hell (is) Junior?
If they're into the Fantastic Four, well what character is Junior sort of an archetype for? If you answer that question, based on the prose and text of Junior, you have a very kind of specific reading of the book, and it gives you a lot of information about the book that could be useful. So that's one example of the novel's inner architecture that I kind of wasted a lot of time on.
This was just part ot it. I think that there's a lot of mysteries in this book. They're sort of proven when one starts reading the book against the book, which is that, Junior, the narrator, wants you to read the book in a very specific way. But there are clues throughout the book that there are many ways to read this, and that disobeying Junior and disobeying where Junior points his finger to look and looking elsewhere can be very productive for the reader. There was less that I was trying to map out stories with the family and the Fanstastic Four, and more to use the Fantastic Four in a very important text that would lend information if you kind of viewed it as something relevent, valid.

Was the story meant as an oral history of the Dominican Republic?
The book is really not an oral history. The book is so much about writing and the power that writing has, both over individuals and in may ways over nations. I didn't see the book as, in any way, about the political, cultural history of the Dominican Republic. I thought that there was a lot of poloticial and cultural history of the Dominican Republic in the book, but essentially in my mind, there were darker and deeper things that I was interested in.

What did the publishers say about the footnotes?
I think that some of the people who saw it sort of got a sense of where I was at, and some people didn't get it at all. But in the end, you gotta go with your instincts. You got to go with what you think is right, and I went with what I thought was right. With the help of my current editor, I fought to have the foot notes and the foot notes stayed in and I think it was a very smart move on my part.

Out of all the characters, who was your favorite to write? Who did you fall in love with?
It's not a lie, I cant' imagine this family as pieces. This family was always one unit. That's really important. I think that I love the family as a whole. I couldn't imagine them as separate. They don't make sense as individuals. I would argue either the family or the mongoose. I'm a big fan of the mongoose.

Your collection of short stories, "Drown," got a lot of attention.
It is what it is. To be honest, I don't think I spent too much time thinking about those things. One of those things I know is when my novel came out, there were a lot of people who loved the first book and basically thought my novel was a failure. And there were a lot of people who fell in love with the novel and went back and read the short stories and did not like the short stories. In the end, a piece of work is a very unique thing. You never know how people are going to fall in love with it. You never do.

Any current projects.
Right now, I'm not really working on much. I'm trying to do the best I can to try and figure something new out. To be really honest with you, it has not been an easy haul. I'm trying to figure out something new. The best way to describe it is just trying to see what I can come up with.

Is it difficult trying to match expectations?
Not really. I think it's just trying to basically, in my mind, I'm trying to find something that's going to hold my attention for any length of time. That to me is more important than any of this. You just really trying something to hold your attention.

Maybe you could try to rewrite the screenplay for “Watchmen?”
I don't think I'd be that bored.

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