A charming story: A Pulitzer Prize-winning author is in a car in Miami when a little girl riding with him becomes restless and asks for a story. The writer obliges, weaving a cute tale that entrances the girl and spurs another passenger to take a video and then jot down the bones of the story. She sends the video to the writer’s agent, who urges him to create a book out of it. And he does, fulfilling an earlier promise he made to his goddaughters more than 20 years before to write a story that featured characters they could see themselves
in: Dominican girls growing up in the Bronx.
The story has a happy ending: Islandborn by Juno Diaz will be published by Dial sometime soon with a print run of 150,000.
When my Write Group buddy Carl Selinger passed this story onto me, it warmed my heart and made me smile — not just because Islandborn sounds like an adorable story with juicy, colorful illustrations, but because the story behind the story captures so many inspiring facets of what it means to be a writer.
First and foremost, this story is about conjuring up a new world. As Junot describes his goddaughters’ desire to see themselves in a book: “Behind their request was this longing for books and stories that resonated for them and included them, and opened up a space where they could be protagonists in the world.” Isn’t this exactly what we as writers strive to do: to create a world where readers can see themselves?
Second, Islandborn proved to be a slow cookin’ book: It took more than two decades for the story seed that was planted to bear fruit. Junot Diaz is no stranger to coming up with stories that take time to get down on paper (see Be Kind). In the past 20 years, he’s published just three books: two short story collections and his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He’s freely admitted that he’s a tortoise, not a hare and that during one rough stage of his writing career, he spent some five years working on a 15-page story. Slow goers, let’s take heart!
And third, I love the fact that Junot has jumped genres. He’s switched gears and moved from writing a novel to a children’s book, while still exploring many of the themes that matter to him. As an editor at Dial Books for Young Readers said so well, “A picture book is like a primer on how to be human. For a novelist, it’s perfect, because isn’t that what a lot of novelists are exploring in their work anyway?”
And finally, Islandborn sprang from a little girl’s plea to a tale teller for a tale: “She wanted a story, man,” says Junot. “I had to come up with the goods.” Bravo, Junot! Write on!
I remember meeting Junot Diaz years ago at Key West Literary Festival. He was there with his friend Francisco Goldman, I was there to interview Goldman for an in-flight magazine. They were so young, so friendly, just starting their careers. Diaz’s slow writing pace is legendary. Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens is still one of my favorites–the kind of book you live in while you’re reading it. It helped that I read it one summer in Oaxaca.
Thanks so much for sharing this lovely memory! I met Junot
Diaz, too. What a kind person and so honest about his writing!
I asked him what advice he could give on writing that I could
pass on and he said,”Be kind to yourself. Writing is hard work.”
What better words of wisdom can we have?