Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Junot Díaz likes to play games with his readers. "Not games of manipulation," he assured CultureMap during a phone conversation in anticipation of his current book tour, which includes a stop at Book People Tuesday night.
Instead, the Dominican-American author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao likes to create games in the sense that writer and reader play together to assemble the book.
Case in point: When reading his latest work, This Is How You Lose Her, the reader might wonder how to categorize the book. Is it a collection of short stories linked by the same narrator, Yunior de Las Casas, who has appeared in all three of Díaz's books? Or is it a novel loosely woven together by connected scenes from Yunior's life?
Díaz calls the book somewhat of a "hybrid," but asks readers to decide for themselves.
Instead, the Dominican-American author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, likes to create games in the sense that writer and reader play together to assemble the book.
"Many readers will read both my first book [Drown] and this book as something far closer to a unified book than many novels . . . Other people will read it and see something completely different. I think a part of me just relishes the chance to give my readers the opportunity to be the ones to name a genre," he explained.
And how do those first and third books connect to the acclaimed Oscar Wao, his second book and first novel, which is also narrated by Yunior? Díaz thinks of all three works as "chapters in the life of this crazy, conflicted, smart but infuriating, protagonist, Yunior de Las Casas." And here again, the author asks the reader to play with him in the creation of Yunior’s world.
"A reader who actually reads all three books begins to assemble them in their heads in interesting ways. I always thought that I was writing a larger novel and each of these books was a chapter in it," Díaz said.
In This is How You Lose Her, Yunior, a Dominican Jersey boy and budding writer, records the many losses in his life from childhood into his late twenties — the majority of which are racked up in games of love, familial or romantic. Many of the short stories have been previously published in The New Yorker, but Díaz said that each was written with its placement in the book's "superstructure" already in mind.
"I conceptualized the beginning of the book from the get. I had this idea that this would be the rise and fall of a cheater. I had certain points that I knew I wanted to hit. I had a certain structure that I was really interested in. And then I had to go out and find the material that would fit it," Díaz said of his process.
Coming towards the end of the first half of the book, the story "Otravida, Otravez" seems to break that structure Díaz has set up, with the introduction of Yasmin, another first person and female narrator. The story stands on its own as a different perspective on cheating: Yasmin is the other woman in a relationship with Dominican immigrant Ramón, who has left his wife and children back home to work in the U.S.
Readers familiar with Díaz's previous two books might remember that Ramón is the name of Yunior's father and that Yunior is a writer, and will perhaps begin to wonder who is telling this story — Yasmin or Yunior?
"My heart goes out to those of us who are somewhat broken. I'm drawn to that. I know it's kind of weird. Other people like brand new shit; I love ruins," Díaz admitted.
To unravel this layering of writer, narrator and second narrator, Díaz explained, "For Yunior, a character who suffers profoundly from an inability to imagine women, I think one of the great tests for him in a journey like this is his ability to imagine a woman who he would never have any sympathy for, the woman who stole his father from the family . . . For the average reader, they're just going to think this is a completely disconnected story and that's cool. I don't mind, but for someone who's really invested in the work and has that investigative impulse, the story suddenly slides perfectly into place."
Díaz compares this kind of game with the reader who knows his writing well to Easter eggs in video games and DVDs. "I don't mind those games," he said. "As a writer you've got to take some risks. It doesn't work for everyone but sometimes you take these kind of risks because you're like: Hey, this is fucking interesting complexity."
In the past, Díaz has described the brash and broken Yunior as a bit of a dumb-ass. When questioned about the allure in creating such a character, Díaz turned introspective.
"I enjoy people who are human, which means they are flawed and imperfect and they struggle with themselves. They fail other people at the same time as they're failing themselves. I'm so attracted to those people because I've never felt perfect. I've made so many mistakes in my life. I've not done half what all I could have done if I had courage," he admitted.
"My heart goes out to those of us who are somewhat broken. I'm drawn to that. I know it's kind of weird. Other people like brand new shit; I love ruins."
And as to the question of whether Yunior will remain a ruin, Díaz leaves it up to the readers to participate and to decide for themselves. "Do you believe what Yunior is going to write next is going to transform him? Do you believe that it's possible for us to write a new future for ourselves?"
Of all the new and strange futures Díaz has written for his own life, perhaps the oddest is a model. As we finished our discussion, I had to ask how he came to play diplomat Walter Van Rensselaer Berry in an Edith Wharton garden party reenactment, featured in the August issue of Vogue. Blaming his participation on "writerly curiosity," he jokingly comparing the experience to the time he interviewed "a bunch of old torturers from the Trujillo regime."
Enticed to do "this fucking ridiculous dress up" and getting to meet famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, Díaz reasoned, "[If] I did this more than once, it would be suspect. But as someone who's curious and tries to write both high and low, I couldn't fucking resist. I said, I will wear a clown outfit so that I can see the inside of a Vogue shoot, which not many people have, and I think they’d be surprised by my point of view on it, to be honest."
Readers wanting to glimpse that point of view and come play some games in Yunior's fictive world can meet Junot Díaz at Book People on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.