Junot Díaz, author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “Drown,” meets me in front of the Harvard Bookstore. It’s 9 a.m. on a Friday, and the early September humidity is just beginning to spike. Díaz is wearing a mottled red t-shirt, dark grey jeans, running shoes, and a Boston Red Sox cap. He kisses me on both cheeks when we meet. Recovering from back surgery, Díaz finds sitting almost impossible so we begin walking down Bow Street towards the Charles River.
Fifteen Minutes: You did an interview with The New York Times recently and talked about many of your favorite books. It’s an impressive list—how do you find time to read all of those authors?
Junot Díaz: You have to understand: It’s what I do. When something is really important to you, I think you’re always looking for an excuse. I find reading more important to me than almost anything, including my writing. I consider myself a reader way more than I consider myself a writer. Perhaps what might have struck anybody about that interview was that this quantity of reading is more emblematic of the way I organize my life than anything.
FM: Did you read anything before we met this morning?
JD: Before I came here I read a chapter of a book on invasive species while I had my damn oatmeal, and I said, “I could have my fucking oatmeal and just chill. Or, I could put in 25 pages.” And so 25 pages are done. The book will be done by this evening because I sort of use these still, interstitial moments to burn through them. My favorite line of the chapter was the last line: “It is unlikely that anyone will ever again enter New Zealand carrying a red deer.”
FM: There’s one line that really struck me from a short story you wrote titled “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” The line was: “The half-life of love is forever.” Can you explain that to me?
JD: I think you discover something—perhaps some of us discover it young, perhaps some of us discover it much older. You can get over a person romantically and never fall out of love with them. As a young person I had no idea that that was possible. I always thought that eventually a relationship would come to end, and your imaginary would find in time surcease. But I think when you really fall in love, there seems to be something permanent that happens to you.
FM: What do you think is that permanent change?
JD: Perhaps whatever insight the story was making is not particularly axiomatic. Perhaps it’s just something idiosyncratic about me. But it certainly feels that way when I stand and look back at all my relationships, beginning to understand that there are a few of them that never seem to diminish, neither in my mind nor my heart. You just manage them.
FM: A powerful idea.
JD: Love reveals us. Profoundly and unnervingly, love reveals us. I think this is something that can often be a source of comfort and dismay. Most of us are not used to being naked. And I can’t speak to the world, but that first time you disrobe—the first time you disrobe before someone you care about—shrinks in comparison to the first time you begin to unveil your internal self. What I think of the stories that I was overwhelmed by growing up, that astonished me growing up, I think they always drew upon that notion of how we are revealed in love.
FM: When did love stories first begin to captivate you?
JD: I was always one of those kids who was aware from an early age that there was a narrative partition along gender lines. I was aware that love stories were supposedly the bailiwick of girls, and adventure stories were supposedly the bailiwick of boys. Now, we know fundamentally that this is a lie. We also know that these kind of hierarchical dichotomies do a lot of oppressive ideological work. So as a kid I was always attracted to stories that I was told were somehow not pertinent to me.
FM: What were some of your favorite love stories growing up?
JD: So of course you know, standard English reader, the towering work of both a fictional bildungsroman, but also one of the great love stories of our language: “Jane Eyre.” There was also something far nerdier, but that came up at the same time. Most people never imagine children’s cartoons to have really good stories about love that are sophisticated and complex. And there was when I was growing up this anime that they were showing on TV. And I was a kid, man. This anime was called “Robotech.”
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A Brief Wondrous Talk with Junot Díaz