Eleven long years since Junot Díaz first burst onto the scene with his critically acclaimed story collection, Drown, he’s back with the magnificently funny, moving, sci-fi-laden, slang-filled novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The stunning story follows a Dominican ghetto nerd growing up fat and lonely in Patterson, N.J. (Díaz’ own hometown), struggling to beat the generations-long curse that has plagued his doomed family. Karen Valby spoke with Díaz, 38, on the morning his new novel received a glorious rave from notoriously harsh New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The reviews are in. You must be flying high right about now.
JUNOT DÍAZ: Dude, I feel like I been smoking crack! I’m just saying ”Holy f—ing s—.” I come from one of those immigrant families that believes if good stuff happens you’re doomed. So I’m definitely flipping.
When you turned the book in, did you feel fairly confident that you’d made something great?
No, no. This sounds really stupid and self-serving but I honestly had no idea what I’d done. It had been such a f—ing labor. But I knew that I had worked as hard as I possibly could have worked and I couldn’t do anything else.
It’s been 11 years since we last heard from you. Did you work in spurts? Trash a lot of copy? What was your writing routine like for all that time?
I sort of had this ridiculous work ethic where I would write in the mornings and then throw it all away and spend the rest of the day self-loathing, just sitting around thinking, Damn, why can’t I get hit by a truck? The whole problem was equilibrium. Trying to figure out how to get the history in without overpowering the family, how to get the family without losing the history, how to make the voice of the footnotes smart without losing the fact that it’s really just a f— you.
When something has taken that long, how do you finally decide when you’re finished?
I was 31 when I started writing and now I’m 38. What I learned was that to write a book you have to first become the person you need to be to write that book. I had to, like, literally change. I had to become a new person. I had to grow the f— up. There’s a certain amount of compassion that I lacked. Nothing like constantly coming up short to make you realize that you need to grow. And for me I realized that the book was done when I suddenly felt like a part of me had grown up. This book taught me how to be a certain kind of human being that I hadn’t been before.
How are you going to celebrate the book’s release?
My friends and family all say the same thing. They’re like, ”You don’t know how to celebrate yourself. If you could learn that, you might live a lot longer.” But I need to just go and write something else. In the end, there’s this weird thing. My dream has always been — it’s like when Gnarls Barkley put out that album, what he’s saying is it always looked like so much fun to just put your life out on a limb as an artist. To me it’s probably the only thing I’m good at. It’s the only time when I don’t feel entirely absurd. When I’m working, when I’m writing and researching, I feel at the moment the least absurd.
But seriously, not even a night off? A pat on the back?
My editor is waiting to get me drunk. And then I’m probably going to go and do my laundry. It’s terrible. I don’t have enough experience on how to do this. I come from a family where you weren’t supposed to celebrate yourself in this way. But I’m going to learn. I’m going to learn.
NEXT PAGE: Meet Brit Jenny Downham, writer of the young-adult weepie Before I Die