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Fiction Night At The New Yorker Festival: Junot Diaz and Annie Proulx

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Friday was the first night of the venerable, and much coveted, annual New Yorker Festival. It's a little bit like a real-life, city-wide, Talk of the Town: a slew of short, smart, accessible events, little windows into the mind of New Yorker contributors, and way to make myself feel better about how I spend my free time.

Friday's event was at a place called the Cedar Lake Dance Studio (maybe I've been liveblogging too much, but I almost expect to see a Presidential candidate show up by mistake, since it's the kind of name you'd expect to find in a town in Iowa) in the far, far, west Chelsea gallery district. Junot Diaz, author of the short story collection "Drown" and the just-released debut novel "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," and Annie Proulx, author of a whole lot, but probably most famous at the moment for her short story "Brokeback Mountain" on which the movie was based (famous for the line, "I wish I could quit you" — which is strangely applicable to my New Yorker subscription, because no matter how high the guilt-inducing pile of unread copies in the corner of my room gets, I won't cancel it). Speaking of authors reading their own work, I'm never fully convinced it's for the best -- I for one am still recovering from the time my university English professor played a recording of TS Eliot reading his own poetry; Prufrock has never been quite the same since. But I was willing to risk it. Some observations from the evening:

Aha - it's pronounced "Juno." Silent "T," like Stephen Colbert. Good to know - apparently I've been butchering it for quite some time. Here's more:

  • Junot is really here for Annie
  • Junot: "Fucking loves Annie."
  • Junot is worried that he doesn't have enough material to fill up fifteen minutes.

From his reading (adult content warning!):

"A Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans."

"Ana on their first date says, 'If you want to you can cum on my face or my tits.' And maybe you missed boy training cause you say, uh...neither." Big applause and laughs. Perhaps like-minded people traded business cards after.

Junot is using a lot of Spanish words during his reading that I suspect are slang because they are getting a lot of laughs from parts of the audience. Unfortunately, I can't confirm this, my lack of Spanish having already been well-documented.

    To Ana after she discovers the main character's cheating ways: "Baby, this is part of my novel."

Now Annie Proulx comes out to big applause. From my vantage point in the very back row it's hard to tell what kind of audience the event has attracted, other than New Yorker readers who knew how to navigate the Ticketmaster website at noon a few Saturdays ago.

Proulx tells us she is working on a book about the red desert in Wyoming, a place she says that is being readily de-constructed in the search for natural gas. A scientist with whom she's been working wanted to know why there weren't any stories on sage brush. Apparently she's taken up the challenge and written one, which we are about to hear: "The Sage Brush Kid."

Or, not so much: this room is not good for sound. I think the front row may be getting better acoustics because they keep laughing at lines I'm missing. New Yorker humor.

The Q&A:

A high school teacher is here on behalf of his students who were apparently very disappointed to discover Junot's writing ("Drown") is fiction. (Wow! what a great compliment!)
Junot: "People tend to like their lies -- even if they're big -- rather well-organized. I took all the crazy shit out cause the stories couldn't hold it."

Junot on how Oscar Wao went from short story to novel: "I wrote a novella that came out at 160pp, too long for the New Yorker , and since I wanted to get paid, I carved it down to 35pp. I knew it was something more but it wasn't cool enough. I wanted my first novel to be cooler and pretentious."

Junot on his use of the word nigger: "People get very hung up on words. I could round up a huge crowd in no time at all to discuss the word "nigger." But try getting people together to discuss a huge humanitarian crisis...no one wants to come to that."

Junot: "If you try to be fully linguistically who you are most people would just run out the door.
Plenty of writers have no faith in readers."

Sorry Annie Proulx fans, Junot kind of ruled the Q&A. It's rare that a writer in person makes me want to read more of the writer, but that's exactly what happened. Junot has that rare talent of being as articulate with the spoken word as he is with the written.