11/01/2012 05:18 pm ET

Junot Diaz Interview: Prize-Winning Author Talks High School, Being A Nerd

By Marisa Spiegel

Marisa is a junior at Hinsdale Central High School. She is a student reporter for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz added another prestigious accolade to his resume this week -- he was named one of 23 fellows awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The award is for individuals who’ve shown exceptional creativity in their field and allows the recipients to follow a creative vision, with no strings attached, to advance their work.

Diaz, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a youth, has written three books and teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During a visit to Chicago on a 30-city tour to promote his newest novel, “This is How You Lose Her,” he gave The Mash some face time to talk about his teenage years, being a nerd and more.

What was the first thing you ever wrote that you were proud of?

Junot Diaz: Wow. That’s a wonderful question because I wrote a bunch of stuff that I’m not very proud of -- which was kind of necessary. It was the first story in my first book -- a story called “Ysrael.” And I remember when I finished it, I was in grad school, I was about 24... and I remember thinking, “OK, this is not a bad start.”

You often describe yourself as a nerd. So, what in the world that's going on right now are you nerding out about?

Well, I’m kind of nutty in the sense that I’m kind of always reading. So listen, everyone’s got their nerd -- some people are into music, some people are into clothes, you know, some people are into whatever. Me? I’m into books... Yeah, I love comic books to death. And I love this comic book by Image called “Prophet.” If you’ve never read it, it’s like, amazing. There’s this big comic book... You don’t have to follow every issue and I think it’s one of the best comic books that’s been out for years. It’s called “King City” about an assassin who uses a cat to kill people. It’s just absolute dynamite.

And then, of course, musi ... There’s this young MC, he’s, like, (an) openly out, queer MC and his name is Le1f... He’s got this jam called “What” and it’s on YouTube. You could download his mixtape called “Dark York” and it’s probably the illest, illest thing I’ve ever heard.

You're often called fearless. Are you determined to step over societal boundaries or do you just want to write what you want and society takes that as is?

If you, like, consciously think about being cool, you’re not cool. If you consciously think about being, like, different or original, you ain’t different or original. The people who are original, the people who are individuals, they can’t help themselves and they’re not thinking about it and they’re usually punished for it... If my writing has any use to anyone, if anyone enjoys it, it’s simply because I’m just a Jersey, Dominican, immigrant, nerd of African descent who sits around the house and writes stuff that he thinks nobody’s going to want to read... And I’m always kind of stunned that anybody reads anything I do. I mean, I’m an artist by nature, no one considers what I do and no one knows who the heck I am, but that anybody does -- it is astonishing.

What was your favorite book, besides 'The Lord Of The Rings," in high school?

That’s easy. I love “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” That was like the only black book we read in high school... Um, again, nerdy, nerdy -- “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, that was awesome... Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Wizard of Earthsea,” like before "Harry Potter" there was "The Wizard of Earthsea."

From your adolescent years, do you have an outstanding memory? A favorite one?

I recall being somewhere around 13 or 14 and there was a young woman in our neighborhood, and again, we didn’t have many people who went to college in my neighborhood at all. There was this young gal, she was probably 18 or 19, and she was an undergraduate at Douglas College... She was this beautiful, super smart, super progressive, super politically active gal and I’ll never forget how she would always take time to come down and to yell at us young knuckleheads; tell us “Go to college, you’ve got to be active, you got to know the news -- what’s going on.” And we were just these dumb around-the-way kids, all we were thinking about was how we could make money, but this girl was trying to get us [to be] socially conscious... And, in fact, I always think the only reason I went to college was because of her in many ways.

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