Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz likes to take his sweet time. In fact, it could be another ten years before we read another thing from him. (The good news is that he’s already started working on it—a fantasy-type novel for young readers). Díaz, a proud Dominican American, took exactly 11 years to finish his modern fiction masterpiece, 2007’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Stuck in what he calls a “No-Writing Twilight Zone” for years, he finally got the courage to finish what he started. And thank goodness, because it is, to use a favorite Junot word, swell.
Currently a creative writing professor at MIT (um, where do we sign up?!), Díaz is constantly inspired by his students and prides himself in not only turning them into writers, but more importantly, readers. “That, for me, is the greatest of all achievements,” he says, “to help bring someone into the world of books, of the mind.”
We recently caught up with the super fly ghetto nerd to talk about whom he’d cast in the motion picture version of Oscar Wao, the best piece of advice his mama never gave him, and his surprising skill that has nothing to do with writing!
Is the plan still to take Oscar Wao to the big screen? Whom would you cast?
Well, the producer has it. Whether it will ever be made is still up in the air. The only casting advice I have is Oscar de la Renta for the dictator Rafael Trujillo. It would be perfect.
What’s your absolute favorite word right now?
What makes you smile instantly?
Any human being under the age of 6 who is not crying. Someone on the train falling asleep while they're trying to read.
What’s something totally surprising about you?
I shoot firearms very well. My father used to take me and my brother to the Englishtown Rifle Range when we were kids. I picked it up again very recently, after a long hiatus, and amazingly enough I had some of the old skills. I still don't like firearms though, and don't think I ever will.
How have you dealt/still deal with fear of failure and harsh criticism?
You always fail. That's the artistic condition. I know what it's like to feel that pain/fear—for years I didn't write because of it—but it's something you have to eventually learn to overcome. As for criticism…it's part of the game. You can't be an artist without someone saying something about what you've done. But as an artist you have to learn to sift real criticism—the kind that can improve you—from junk criticism that's only there to demoralize and demotivate you. My advice to my students is always: seek real criticism and ignore junk criticism and learn to tell the difference.
What do you still want to do in life that has nothing to do with writing?
I want to have a family.
What's a solid piece of advice your mama gave you growing up? And have you followed it?
My mother never told me that working hard was important. She just showed me that it was important with every twitch of muscle on her body. Because of her I work as hard as I do, which still isn't 1/10th as hard as she does.
Where on earth are you the most relaxed, content and stripped-down version of yourself?
Inside of a book. Or in my friend Tony Capellan's apartment in Santo Domingo.
What are you reading these days?
What do you need to get the day started?
What I used to need was a five mile run, but ever since I hurt my back that's not happening any more. So now I just try to take long walks. Not the same, but until I'm reincarnated it's all I got.
Where do you keep your Pulitzer and do you ever stare at it?
I think my prize is in storage somewhere. Or at my mom's crib. In either case, I never look at it. Whenever anybody mentions it I say to myself: "Hope I can write something else."
Find more by Junot Díaz at Amazon.com.