The question of whether or not my writing could be interesting to anyone else besides my friends and family never occurred to me until recently. At 22, I have written two unpublished novels, and am currently working on a third. The only publication to my credit besides articles in a university newspaper is a short story in an online literary magazine. A story that probably less than 100 people have read -- but does that mean at my relatively youthful age, and extremely young age in terms of writer years, that my writing could not possibly interest the general public?
With copies of each of Junot Diaz's books (Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), I excitingly walked toward the Friday night reading that he had at Cleveland State University on October 11. This being my first reading, and of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author at that, I had no idea what proper etiquette entailed. Should I bring just one of his books? Should I not bring any and buy them at the reading? Would he even sign any books? Luckily, since it was at a university, backpacks were expected, and I concealed my copies of his books with slight embarrassment.
Mr. Diaz was almost exactly how I imagined him to be: intelligent, funny, and entertaining. He read a brief passage from his prize-winning novel, and took almost a dozen questions from the audience that consisted of a couple of hundred people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities. There were some intriguing responses. To one about whether he reads while he is working on a piece of writing, he responded that if a writer says that they do not read while writing, then they simply do not read. He answered another question claiming that he only writes because of his excessive love for reading, and if he had to define himself as something, writer would not even enter the top five, while reader would be number two. All of these and more made his reading and commentary an already fulfilling experience. To my delight, a young female asked if he would sign her book after the reading and Q and A, to which Mr. Diaz, with a humble smile, agreed. I would in fact get at least a book signed by one of my favorite authors. Actually, he signed all three.
He did not stand behind a table. He did not rush people through the line. He did not look the least bit agitated, despite the fact that it was around dinner time on a Friday night, and he had spent all day at the university already. Fans took pictures with him, talked with him for periods ranging from a minute to a quarter of an hour. The fame, literary notoriety, and the grant proclaiming him as a "genius" seemed to have no affect on the man. He was just another person in the room, who also happened to be a successful writer.
Then I was standing at the front of the line, with his three books clenched in my slightly sweaty left palm. I nervously approached him, reached out my hand and met Junot Diaz. He laughingly denied my question about whether I should pick one book to sign, and only asked me to get each one ready for him as he dashed his name across the title page of Drown with a black pen. To my surprise, he asked me what I did, to which I told him that I recently graduated, and as he was smiling and congratulating me, I finished the sentence by telling him that my degree was in creative writing. His expression changed, the tone of his voice shifting from polite friendliness to one that was reserved for being concerned about a friend.
That's when Junot Diaz started to give me advice, but not the kind that I expected from a writer who has overcame daunting odds and become a worldwide sensation when no one would have thought it to be even remotely possible.
He told me that I was making a mistake thinking about getting an MFA next year, and that he was the only one who would tell me that. He talked of not having enough life experiences, mentioned that I should go teach in China or Japan, then make the decision to go spend two or three years writing when I had something to write about. His suggestions were valid up to that point, as there are countless sources claiming that a writer should not go straight from undergrad to an MFA program, that he or she should spend time living, making an honest living before fully pursuing the dream of being a full time writer. I appreciated that he cared enough to give his honest opinion -- one that I respected, as it was coming from Junot Diaz.
Then he asked me a question: "What could you possibly write that would interest people?" This being a reference to my age, and possibly my closed-off suburban background. I know that it was not meant as an insult, but at the same time, how would he know if my writing could interest people just by looking at me?
So the question is: Are young writers interesting?
There have been many debut novels by authors in their early to mid-twenties that have proved to be of "interest" to people. To list just a few of the young talents:
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Published in 1920, when Fitzgerald was only 24. The author was interesting enough for the first-print run to sell out in three days. Almost 50,000 copies were sold before the end of 1921.
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote - Prior to its publication, the novel gained attention for Capote's controversial author photo as well as being optioned for the movies without having been read first. It stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks, selling 26,000 in that brief span of time. Capote was just 23.
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis - Published in 1985 when Ellis was 21 and still in college. It's minimalist style, glorification of young people making poor choices, and raw language made Ellis known in the literary world. His original voice proved to be powerful, and of lasting interest, even if some that interest is derived from controversy.
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace - He will forever be known for the behemoth Infinite Jest, but the genius can be traced back to this 1987 novel. Written when he was just 24, with echoes of Pynchon by his side, it garnered a large amount of interest from critics not for being a truly great novel, but for showing that this 24-year-old MFA student was going to write something as brilliant as himself someday.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon - This Pulitzer Prize winner's debut, published when he was just 24, was originally his MFA thesis before it became a best-seller in 1988. A coming-of-age story for college graduates just like Catcher is for adolescents, Chabon showed remarkable talent and a voice that was clearly destined for literary success.
There are sure to be many more authors who wrote important books in their beginnings of adulthood. These are just a few that have stuck with me as a source of inspiration. Junot Diaz himself published his collection of short stories, Drown, at the relatively young age of 28. His first novel, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published when he was 39.
Maybe some writers aren't capable of writing an interesting novel in their twenties. Diaz certainly wrote remarkable short fiction at a young age, but it took him a decade to write a novel that he thought was good enough to be shown to the world. I go back to his question to me, "What could you possibly write that would interest people?" And the only way I can answer it is by saying that some writers produce great novel-length works earlier than others. Fitzgerald, Capote, and Wallace struck brilliance at a young age, but they also died young. Who is to say that a young writer can't interest people? I'm not saying that my writing will interest people, but can I really say that with any assurance? It doesn't matter if you're a Pulitzer Prize winner or an every dayguy, judging a book by its cover is the same as judging a writer by his age.