With his first collection of short stories, “Drown,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Díaz won enthusiastic fans. Díaz spoke about his new collection, “This Is How You Lose Her,” in a conversation that touched on his job teaching writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his appearance in the September issue of Vogue. (Annie Leibovitz photographed Díaz along with fellow writers Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer in period attire on Edith Wharton's estate, The Mount.) Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: The stories in "This is How You Lose Her" are intricately linked together and feature a common character, Yunior. Did you write individual stories or start with a concept?
A: I wanted to write the story of the rise and fall of a cheater, the rise and fall of Yunior as cheater. Once I developed in my head what the outline of the collection would be came the hard work of writing all the stories and fitting them in all the right places. It took 16 years to more or less develop the material and shape it correctly.
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Q: Your readers have read about Yunior before — both in "Drown" and "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." At what point did you think he was a character who would connect your work?
A: I knew after I wrote "Drown" that there were a few more books about Yunior that, if I could write them, would interest me. He's problematic, troubled and, for me, an endlessly fascinating bonehead. He does stay with me.
He's a long-term project.
Q: A long-term relationship!
A: Certainly, a slightly abusive one!
Q: Your fiction appeals to both men and women. How much do think about gender?
A: How can you not? I spend a lot of time thinking about how different genders might react, because in the end, gender is not determinative. Just because you're a man or woman doesn't mean that you'll read in a certain way, but there are tendencies, and I enjoy thinking about them. I enjoy pitching what I'm writing toward those tendencies, provoking them, and I enjoy addressing them.
Q: As a character, Yunior helps you address this issue. He has such trouble seeing women as fully human. They're mothers on a pedestal ...
A: … Or he usually just sexualizes them. Yunior is in good company. The good part of dudes have problems with misogynistic myopia. He's not an easy character to encounter, yet he's a more common character than we give him credit for.
Q: Of the women in "This is How You Lose Her," do you have a favorite?
A: They all have their things, but I've always loved Lola. Lola is the unnamed girlfriend in "Miss Lola" (a chapter in the collection). Anyone who has read "Oscar" will recognize her instantly. Lola is the ghost of a beloved ex-girlfriend from college. I feel like I do her character well. I give her great lines and I care for her. She stays with me.
Q: In the collection's last story, "The Cheaters Guide to Love," the woman never actually appears, and yet she is fully present for the reader. How does one write about a character who is alive but absent?
A: There are a couple of strategies for writing about an absence or writing about a loss. One can create the person that was lost, develop the character of the fiancee. There's another strategy that one can employ, maybe riskier: ... Make the reader suffer the loss of the character in a more literal way. That's the strategy that I pursued. Nothing will communicate the loss and absence of the person than if I make the loss and absence really brutal. Keep her off the page so that the only character we get access to is Yunior and his longing and loss for the character.
Q: What's your own sense of place? How do you juggle your spots on the Northeast corridor and the Dominican Republic?
A: I have a very powerful sense of place, but I have a very powerful sense of being a migrant, so it's both. It seems like I'm always leaving my home. That's part of the formula. I love the Dominican Republic. I go back all the time. I love New Jersey. Go back all the time. But ... when I close my eyes and see home, it's both the Dominican Republic and New York City. Boston feels like a place I work, even though I have wonderful friends there.
But when I'm in New York or Santa Domingo, I feel like, this is where my ashes will end.
Q: What's it like to teach literature amid the science geniuses at MIT?
A: It's like being an artist in America in general. You're the last person picked for the kickball team.
You fight the good fight. I'm still in the corner saying, "Art is important, art is essential. It is art that shows us our humanity. It is art that makes our civilization possible, and I don't care if I am the last person picked on the kickball team, I am going to show that I can kick that ball farther than anybody."
Q: Assuming you're not playing kickball, what are you reading these days?
A: I'm rereading something that I loved. Right now, I'm rereading "Moby-Dick." And here's the last sentence I read: "A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."
Q: Speaking of New England, what about Edith Wharton?
A: She's not on deck.
Q: You didn't read her for your photo shoot at The Mount, Wharton's estate?
A: Oh, that crazy Vogue thing!
Everybody who works in the business says, "Dude, you are the worst promoter!" That was sort of like getting invited to the Playboy Mansion. No matter what your politics are, you're going to take a peek just for the experience of it.
I couldn't resist. I was like, "I don't care if I have to be dressed like a clown. I want to see what a Vogue shoot looks like." I needed to see Annie Leibovitz work!
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times