Junot Diaz on Life After Oscar Wao and All Things Pop

Junot Diaz on Life After Oscar Wao

Warning: The following interview contains profanity.

Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the tale of a Latino fanboy’s quest to find love and overcome a family curse. From beginning to end, the novel was filled with comic book and science fiction references. We talked with Díaz in 2007, when the novel was first published, and since then, it’s gone on to be a worldwide bestseller and one of the most acclaimed books of the past decade.

During a promotional tour, Díaz came through town, and we took the chance to catch up with him, which we then followed up through a more recent conversation. Over the course of our free-flowing dialogue, we heard his thoughts on not just comics, but on many current aspects of popular culture.

In part one of our two-part discussion, Díaz talks about worldwide reactions to the “Nerdish” of Oscar Wao, some of his current favorite comics, the end of Battlestar Galactica and more.

Newsarama Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in the Independent Weekly of Durham, NC.

Newsarama: Junot, you’ve been touring the world promoting the book. How do people respond to it differently in other countries?

Junot Díaz: Lots of different reactions in lots of different places. But generally, folks have been enthusiastic. In Sweden, many readers were really digging all the fanboy nerd references. Sweden has a hardcore Tolkien community, and they quizzed the shit out of me about my Tolkien knowledge. In Germany I had a lot of people who wanted to talk to me about their Dominican vacations-yikes!

But things have gone well overall. In Spain, for example, the novel’s in its fifth edition. The Italians have done really, really well with it – who would have guessed? Not bad for a literary book, but we are definitely not talking Dan Brown numbers.

NRAMA: Are you going to be doing another collection of short stories?

JD: I actually haven’t been able to get any work done lately with all this touring. I know I would have another collection if I finished three more stories. But I don’t know what it is with me – I’m so not interested in writing stories right now. This is probably what slows down my process. I like to give the orders, when what I should do is just obey the work, you know?

NRAMA: When you’re doing readings, what do you usually gauge about people’s reaction to the work?

JD: During the actual readings, I’m sensitive to people’s laughter, to their compassion and to their outrage. Easier to tune into those things, I guess. Most people who come to my readings are surprised that I can be funny ha-ha one second and beyond cruel the next. After the readings, there’s almost always a discussion about how the nerdish, the fanboy talk, is working with this seemingly incongruous black, urban, Dominican argot. In other words, there’s always the nerdish question.

NRAMA: What’s your reaction to, well, peoples’ reaction to the nerdish?

JD: Well, there’s a number of things. One time, I was in a very affluent suburb of New York City. I tell you, these are people who are very well-educated, these are people who are supposedly very open-minded.

And…there is an enormous resistance, I wouldn’t say in everyone, but there was definitely resistance in these people, some of it quite sharp, to the nerdish. What’s interesting is that the nerdish is considered by some to be completely puerile and devoid of meaning and something that can be dismissed, despite the fact that there’s so much of it. In their minds, they’re like, “ah, this is just bells and whistles.”

They’re much more likely to get obsessed with the Spanish stuff. The Spanish, somehow, is there to bedevil them, to thwart them. They get very angry about it. What’s interesting, though, is that the Spanish doesn’t do nearly as much to carry the narrative as the nerdish! The nerd stuff has so much in it that helps guide the reading, but when there’s a reference to comics or science fiction or fantasy, the average civilian person just kind of rolls their eyes or goes, “this doesn’t mean anything.”

NRAMA: I would not have thought of it that way. But, you know, you’ve been active in promoting genre material, such as Monster, Shortcomings and Grand Theft Auto IV in “mainstream” publications such as The Wall Street Journal. Would you say the public is more willing to accept new mediums as, if not a form of literature, at least a vehicle for storytelling?

JD: Look, there’s clearly a population to whom this stuff is normative. There’s no question that comic books and video games are now more mainstream. But it’s sort of like the way the country’s divided. Even if, say, 50 percent of the country believes there is no problem with abortion rights – there’s still 50 percent who is vehemently opposed.

Even though there’s a larger portion of the collective that believes that video games and comic books are legitimate narrative forms, I still think there’s a large blackout of the population that thinks that’s absurd. And I don’t think they think that in an active way. I don’t think people are thinking, “I’m actively against comic books.” It’s just that there’s this passive dismissal. You bring up comic books to a lot of people, and they still roll their eyes.

The best part of it is that those numbers have shrunk. You know, that’s what gives me hope. But…it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a sizeable portion of the population.

NRAMA: Some of the major comic creators of the past two decades are entering the mainstream consciousness, though. Neil Gaiman just won the Newberry Medal and had an acclaimed adaptation of one of his books with Coraline, and he’s still someone very much associated with comics.

JD: Yeah. But while I agree with you that there are new spaces and new opportunities for all things nerdish, I would not say that there is not still a lot of resistance.

NRAMA: One thing I wanted to ask about in light of your Grand Theft Auto review – are there any video games you’ve played in the past year that you found particularly interesting? Some recent releases such as Braid are being acclaimed for having more “literary” narratives.

JD: I haven’t played Braid yet. Of course, Bioshock is a fucking classic. The one that I’m getting ready to play, which is not all that literary, is Left 4 Dead. That’s what I’m looking forward to. That’s the one thing with video games – it’s kind of like music. There’s some shit you love because it’s so deep in narrative, so innovative in design, and some shit you love because it’s goddamn fun.

NRAMA: (laughs) Do you feel pressure to follow up Oscar Wao?

JD: I think there’s definitely some, but it’s eclipsed by…my baseline is tremendous self-pressure. So while there’s pressure coming from the actual work and publisher, it cannot equal the amount of pressure I generate within myself. They literally have to get in line, you know?

For most writers, fiction is not all that difficult – everyone has their formula, their own way of doing it. But the rest of us have to wrestle to get anything on the page. I find the first pass very, very difficult.

NRAMA: Do you find teaching creative writing makes you more active as a fiction writer?

JD: Whew! I do not. I love teaching; it does a lot for me as a human being. It keeps me spry and mentally active. But teaching does not add to my writing. For me, I need a lot of time thinking about myself and the work and focusing on that. Anything that takes me out of my head slows down the process.

NRAMA: Something I’ve found more and more writers saying is that a lot of the really vital work is being done in the children’s and young adult mediums of literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, what are some examples of books you’ve enjoyed?

JD: I’ve read a bunch of stuff in young adult. I read this fantasy novel called Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, that was quite good. Of course I’ve read Coraline. I think that in children’s fiction, people just play at a higher level when the constraints of adult expectations are off of them.

The quote-unquote “Adult Literary Novel” is so full of expectations, and so larded with serious bits that it’s really hard to play. I think that the young adult and the children’s literature is expected to be fun and whimsical, even though it is clearly also high-quality. But I think that kind of writing allows creators to relax, to get in there and play and be creative, you know?

NRAMA: What are some general things you’re digging in popular culture at the moment?

JD: Oh! I feel like I’ve been so fucking cut off that it’s made me want to weep, you know? But I have been really getting into stuff. I adore Lost. I adore Battlestar Galactica. I adore that Richard Sala miniseries Delphine that he’s putting out through Fantagraphics. I am still deep into Fables.

NRAMA: They’ve been talking about doing Fables as a TV series…

JD: Yeah, and that would work so well. That would never work as a movie. It needs that more expansive narrative.

NRAMA: It’s interesting about how many television shows have been doing this long-form narrative similar to comics, though you have more creators in the mix, and in some cases many very spontaneous plot points that have to be tied up abruptly. Based on the serialized shows that have wrapped up in the last year or so, how do you feel this style of TV might influence storytelling among different mediums?

JD: Well, I think it’s excellent that a whole generation of viewers have been trained in serial narrative, in these plots that work themselves out. But I do think that – after the mess that is Heroes – that the “throw it out there and we’ll make it make sense later” mentality often backfires.

What I’m hoping is that this is a sort of learning stage in the medium, and that eventually we’ll get a balance between the long-term planning of a show like Babylon 5, but with the quirky, as you say, spontaneity of a show like Battlestar Galactica.

NRAMA: Actually, I wanted to ask: What did you think of the Battlestar ending?

JD: This is a tough one. I thought it was seriously underwhelming. The fan speculation before the last episodes was better than what Moore and Co. actually came up with. So that was what it was all about? Kind of lame. I was expecting a Big Reveal ala Babylon 5 -- something to send the fanboy in me over the moon. But this was a show that so good it could survive a bleh conclusion.

NRAMA: It’s interesting that with shows like Battlestar and Lost, they admit they have certain plot points they just threw out while they were structuring the initial episodes, and then they had to go back and construct an overarching plot around those points.

JD: Yeah. I think Battlestar is a tighter show overall. Lost – they were just throwing everything in there!

NRAMA: Getting into more comic-specific material – you mentioned Delphine and Fables. Are there any other current books you’re enjoying?

JD: Well, some of the material’s not coming out. I was really enjoying a book called Gutsville. That shit was fascinating! But it seems to have stopped . . . I was enjoying the miniseries The Killer from Archaia Press. That was just incredible. But again it doesn’t appear with any regularity.

I’m following that disturbing Garth Ennis comic Crossed. All I can say is: Ennis, you are one disturbing talented fuck. And I can’t remember whether it was you or my pal Adam McGovern that got me hooked on that webcomic turned graphic novel Far Arden. That’s one amazing slice of storytelling magic. And I’m finally going to get a chance to read that John Cassaday drawn I Am Legion, which DC dropped the ball on.

I read a lot of manga too. The Naoki Urasawa stuff, he’s the one who does Monster and 20th Century Boys and Pluto. He’s a huge favorite of mine.

It’s funny, but for a while I haven’t been reading the Big Two. I don’t know what happened. I just can’t read another iteration of the X-Men or another take on Superman. I’m taking a break, I think.

NRAMA: I’m disappointed to hear that, because I wanted to ask what you thought of Final Crisis

JD: The funny thing about that is, I read All Star Superman, and everybody was loving that, and I actually found it to be kind of lazy, man! I know, I know: I suck.

NRAMA: Okay, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on All Star Superman. (laughs). But what didn’t you like about it?

JD: Well, it all kind of comes down to the same thing. In the end, we all know – because these are corporate flagship characters – the range of narrative is just limited. In the end, we all know that Superman can’t die, even if he dies in the short term. And that sort of kills the thrill of the narrative for me. The artist, though, Frank Quitely – man, that fucking guy is so goddamn talented! I enjoyed We3 a lot, too.

I have to admit that part of it is that I’m kind of on a downturn on superhero comics right now. I’m sure I’ll return to it, you know? I’ve always not been able to shed the fever completely. But right now I’m kind of bearish on it.

Next: Díaz on the Watchmen film, his comic book sacred cows, and the direction of the comics industry.

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