Beginning at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Motorco Music Hall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz will be reading from This Is How You Lose Her, his collection of short stories released earlier this month. The book centers on interwoven stories of love and heartbreak and revisits characters from his previous works Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. As with all of his works, Diaz writes in the context of the Dominican-American experience. Recess Arts Editor Katie Zaborsky spoke on the phone with Diaz about his evolving view on love, inspirational movies, and MIT.
R: In many of the stories in This Is How You Lose Her, the most heartbreaking moments seem to come in those fleeting details that feel too real to be purely fictional. How much of the material in the collection is autobiographical?
JD: Oh my god, listen to you! Just starting with the heaviness! How old are you?
R: I’m 21.
JD: Yeah man, you’re a little too ferocious. The truth of it is that I don’t know how to give a percentage. I think that a lot of it is fictional— I know that seems impossible, given your claim— but I feel like paradoxically it’s very deeply private. Even the stuff that I’m making up I almost sometimes feel like it’s coming from a life I almost lived. So it’s personal, I won’t lie. But if I had to give you a percentage—I know this is not useful—a friend said to me, “Hey not bad! You only lied in 2/3 of the book!”
R: You mentioned in a previous interview that audiences tend to have a stronger reaction to novels as opposed to short story collections. Do you see them as different vehicles of storytelling with different purposes?
JD: Certainly, I think there’s no question. Historically, that’s been the case, and part of why I’m attracted to the short story collection is that the length of a short story collection affords various, and what I think are interesting, questions. I think in a group of linked short stories, you get more heartbreak for your buck. And in a book about heartbreak, it’s just where the form matches content. I mean, I believe that a novel can devastate you at the level of heartbreak, but I think that a book of short stories can devastate you in an entirely uniquely human way. When you’re my age, when you’re in your 40s, and you look back at the heartbreaks, it feels like a chain reaction of heartbreaks. And a short story collection is a really awesome way to communicate that to people.
R: You are currently a creative writing professor at MIT, which is largely devoted to the hard sciences and technology. How does that atmosphere shape your creative output?
JD: Oh, I don’t think it shapes it at all. I mean, you got to remember, as an artist, at least the way I work, I’m wrestling with things and with books and with ideas that, in some cases, are often 20 years old. I think MIT is great for me as a person, and I love all the nerds, I love being with all these energetic, brilliant young people and faculty members who are doing fascinating work across the sciences and engineering and computing. And that’s wonderful, but I guess when I think about the source of my art, that river starts way earlier than MIT. I think I love MIT as a person, but I don’t know if directly it has had an enormous impact on my writing. It’s made me a better teacher and certainly a smarter person. I guess you can say those things affect the writing. I don’t know, a part of me feels like I’m wrestling with a shadow from the past in a way that has nothing do to with MIT.
R: So you’d be the exact same writer if you had taught at another school because you write about what’s behind you?
JD: I wonder. I don’t know if I can say that. When you put it that way, it makes my answer look stupid. But I wonder. I guess in a way, I don’t know. My answer would be I don’t know. Man, good question. Damn you, young person!
R: A lot of people ask you about your literary influences, but has there been a movie or album that has influenced your writing to the same extent that other books have?
JD: Oh yeah. I would say the movie Central Station, a Brazilian movie, had an enormous impact on my art. It’s a wondrous movie. Just something that was very inspirational. And I love a movie called Raising Victor Vargas, another movie that I think taught me a lot about how one writes about family. As far as albums are concerned, absolutely no question, I think almost all the music of Los Hermanos Rosario.
R: An excerpt from your upcoming sci-fi novel Monstro recently appeared in The New Yorker. How will it be different from your previous works?
JD: It’s this alien virus…it’s going to be like giant monsters eating the island, so I think when you have giant monsters eating whole cities, definitely, if I can finish it, it’s going to be a striking departure from what I’m working on now.
R: Most of your fiction deals with characters that are in unsatisfying relationships, either with others or with themselves. After writing so extensively about these characters and their mistakes, how has your view of love changed?
JD: It’s a wonderful question. It’s certainly made me far more aware of how precious and how vulnerable love is. I mean, there’s nothing like constantly writing about heartbreak that gives you this enormous sense of appreciation about love. You know, I used to think of love as much more durable but now I realize it is a very precious and vulnerable commodity.
R: Okay, so this last question is to temper all of the heaviness. How do you like your eggs in the morning?
JD: I am a scrambled eggs man with hot sauce.