Junot Diaz On Truth, Memoir, Fiction and How James Frey Cheated

Junot Diaz, whose long-awaited first novel The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is the best book we've read in a long-ass time, was probably the most entertaining speaker at any of the butt-numbing events of the New Yorker Festival. New Yorker editor and faux musical lyricist Ben Greenman, who introduced Junot, admitted as much: "Of all the fiction events, you've picked the best one." The audience congratulated themselves in a low, respectful murmur.

Actually the audience was sort of generally unresponsive, or maybe reverent? Maybe a lot of them were there to see Annie Proulx, who read a long story about, literally, sagebrush. The only rise Junot got out of the crowd was when he introduced a story about cheating on one's girlfriend like so: "As long as you all keep cheating on each other, I'll keep writing this shit!" (Cue little "he-said-shit!" gasps all around.)

The cheating story was, like a lot of Junot's stories, so vividly detailed and so evocative of a specific place and time and culture (central New Jersey, late 80's/early 90's, second-generation Dominican immigrants) that it was hard to believe it wasn't just a diary entry. Obviously, there are a lot of autobio elements in his work, but he's emphatically not a memoirist. What's up with that?, asked a professor during the Q&A: "My students were really shocked to learn that your work was nonfiction. How do you go about making your life into fiction?"

"People tend to like their lies, even if they're big, rather well-organized. If I were writing a memoir, I'd probably be able to get away with exaggerating more," Junot said. "Like, if you say,'this is memoir,' you can then say 'this is the specific number of teeth I had pulled without anesthetic.' But in order to make events from my life believable as as fiction, I had to take so much crazy shit out. It felt like the stories could only hold so much. When I was younger, I didn't have the tools at my disposal to create nine speaking, active characters, which was what was going on in my family! So I was just just responding to the conventions of short fiction. The form requires you to make all sorts of compromises and changes."