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Old friends Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman talk shop

Authors Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman chat with each other and Miwa Messer at The Barnes and Noble review.

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One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became "The Ordinary Seaman." I'd done a ton of research for "The Divine Husband," but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.

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"Say Her Name" was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.

 So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began "Oscar Wao?" How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?

Junot Díaz: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.

But I totally agree with you – my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of "Oscar Wao," I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie-esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me – I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a god**** continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished "Oscar Wao" in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.

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