I am really getting lucky with the author events around here lately. First Dennis Lehane, now Junot Diaz. Honestly, the last time I saw an author talk in person was in middle school, when Caroline B. Cooney came to talk with my class. It was cool, but I was definitely too young to appreciate it. Apparently I had to wait 16 years for my next chance!
When I found out Diaz was coming to the area, I was psyched. You've probably heared of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. I read it a few years ago, and it really is great. Unique format, memorable characters, and a captivating blend of contemporary fiction with historical fiction.
He has been making the rounds at the book festivals lately with his new short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, and I was sad that I missed his appearance at the Brooklyn Book Festival a few weeks ago. But, lo and behold, he arrives in Albany for an appearance with the New York State Writer's Institute. The event was hosted at the University at Albany, and free to the public.
The reading was supposed to be held in a small assembly hall, but when I arrived 20 minutes early, no one was there. Mystified, I waited a few minutes, until someone told me it had been moved to the ballroom down the hall. The place was PACKED! I'd say about 50/50 split between people who came from off campus, and faculty/staff/students of the university. It was especially wonderful to see all the students (especially Dominican students) there to support Diaz and get inspired in their own writing. At one point, he mentioned that there were no Dominican speakers that ever came to campus when he was a student at Rutgers, and he was hopeful that the Dominican students in the audience would be the future Dominican speakers at college campuses around the country.
Diaz started by taking some audience questions. He is such an engaging speaker! First of all, he's very genuine. If you go to a Diaz event, be ready for a lot of f-bombs...but he doesn't speak that way to get a rise out of you. You can tell he's just being himself up there. At one point, he said that at a past event, a woman came up to him furious about the language he had used. And that made him think about the fact that "most of us spend our lives learning to wear masks...we all wear dozens at any one time." But "it's hard to speak through masks...and this is as close as I come to being who the hell I am in front of 200 strangers."
On writing about personal life events:
"I do my best work when I'm ice cold...I need 20 years distance from something before I can write it."
"I like to write consequences...the fire doesn't interest me--but how does the fire change you?"
On self-doubt regarding his writing career:
"The only certainty about art is doubt. This is the greatest faith-based initiative on the earth...you need to keep your faith in a future you will never meet."
"If you want your audience to make your art, you are doomed. When no one cares, that's when you can play."
"In a culture that wants you to dance, it takes courage to stand still."
On advice for aspiring writers:
"Writers hold out the dream that there's some shortcut to being successful...that's why there's thousands of books about it. But they are message of consolation."
"The answer to 'how do I become X' is, you f***in' do it." (I loved this quote!)
While talking about This Is How You Lose Her:
"The pain suddenly stopped, and then I knew it was done." (It took him 16 years to complete it!)
"My definition of a full life is, do you put more love back into the world than what you take out?"
After the Q+A, Diaz moved on to the reading. He read the chapter entitled "Alma", from This Is How You Lose Her. By the end, I wanted to pay him to come home and read me the rest of the book. His narration of his writing is that spectacular. It was a short chapter, but I (and the rest of the audience) spent most of it laughing.
Afterwards, he did a very informal book signing (essentially stood next to the stage while everyone with a book flooded him for signatures). He had announced earlier that he was in a huge hurry and unfortunately had to leave quickly after the event; however, while he did sign the books fast, he was also extremely gracious, giving many of the attendees hugs and handshakes before they left. I got my copy of Oscar Wao signed...woohoo!
Overall, fantastic evening! I am even more eager to read Diaz's new book now, after hearing him speak.
Has anyone else been to a Junot Diaz event lately? I know he's been all over the place promoting this book.