Junot Diaz is no stranger to South Florida, having appeared at the Miami Book Fair International and the Key West Literary Seminar on numerous occasions. But his familiarity with Fort Lauderdale, a place he praises with only a touch of good-natured sarcasm, predates his literary celebrity.
"I have, like, five uncles who live in Fort Lauderdale," Diaz says by phone from Boston, where he teaches writing at MIT. "I've spent a lot of time there."
As Diaz talks, it sounds as if he's outside, walking down the street on a late-summer morning. He frequently laughs during the conversation, teasingly challenging most of the questions.
"Everyone has a criteria for what's beautiful," Diaz says with a laugh. "I'm a poor kid from New Jersey. I like Fort Lauderdale fine."
That "poor kid from New Jersey" – or at least a poor kid from New Jersey – figures large in Diaz's new story collection, "This Is How You Lose Her," his first book since winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his debut novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," in 2008.
In some ways, the new book may be more important than the last, because it will show whether Diaz has been ruined by the praise heaped on "Oscar Wao." He would not be the first. Instead, "This Is How You Lose Her" proves to be the work of a gifted writer as he approaches his mature power.
Although the language in "This Is How You Lose Her" is deceptively straightforward, never self-consciously elevated or literary, the stories have a heft and a force rare in story collections. Individually and together, they convey the narrative weight of a novel.
"I really enjoyed this linked form," says Diaz, who began "This Is How You Lose Her" immediately after completing his first story collection, 1996's "Drown." He sees the new book as a companion piece to the first.
"It's neither a novel, nor yet a short-story collection," he says. "That was definitely part of the plan and why the damned thing took 16 years. I was trying to line these stories up correctly so the reader would feel a circuit completed from beginning to end."
The central character in these stories, though he does not appear in every one, is Yunior de las Casas, the narrator of "Oscar Wao" and also a prominent figure in "Drown," which signaled Diaz as a young writer to watch.
For better or worse, Diaz is closely associated with Yunior, his perceived alter ego. One obvious question, then, is how autobiographical these stories are – especially since the first one, "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," is a confessional account of how Yunior's fiancee dumps him for chronic cheating.
"Wow, no one's ever asked that question before," Diaz says, but his tone is light, and he seems delighted to answer. "The Yunior stories here are way less autobiographical than in 'Drown.' If you use the stories as a road map of my life, you would wind up in a ditch."
Still, Diaz says, the stories feel "deeply personal" to him. "Yunior's battle with intimacy where he can get into a healthy relationship, a lot of men have undergone that," he says.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Diaz came to the United States as a boy to join his father. Feeling rejected by black and Latino peers alike, he took refuge in reading. Since earning a creative writing degree from Cornell University, he has become one of the strongest voices in immigrant fiction.
But Diaz says he is never writing solely for a Latino audience, even though "This Is How You Lose Her" directly engages things such as Latino machismo and exploitation of women, the immigrant struggle to find work, the shadow of housing discrimination.
"One uses the Latino thing to describe the larger human condition," Diaz says. "It's like Shakespeare and Macbeth. No one would argue that a murderous king is representative of the Scottish character. But something about the Scottish character informs the story."
Reaching to Shakespeare again, Diaz explains that "particularity" is what gives a writer and his work the universality that can appeal to readers outside his group, place or even his time.
"Do you think Shakespeare was writing for a French audience?" Diaz asks, a bit of the professor coming out. "He was writing for a very narrow, very specific and tiny English audience. The rub, as all readers will tell you, what makes it possible for Shakespeare to be read now is that he is particular. The universality rises out of the details.
"Because I understand as a reader that I can read 'Dr. Zhivago' or Tolstoy because they were writing narrowly, I can use the Dominican-New Jersey audience to allow others to come in."
Diaz boasts that he did not throw a party for himself when he won the Pulitzer, or "even take an afternoon off." But he readily concedes that the imprimatur of the Prize puts the book "into the hands of people" who would not otherwise have known about him.
"Not to underplay what an enormous honor it is," Diaz says, "But it doesn't matter for your art, which lives or dies on how good it is."
Now 43, well established in American letters, with a comfortable, if not to say distinguished teaching job, Diaz is no longer the angry young man of color festivalgoers in Miami or Key West may remember from a few years ago.
"I think my students would be alarmed by that characterization," Diaz says. "They'd say, 'He's angry?' What ends up happening is if you have a point of view, that gets confused with anger.
"Besides, I don't know if anyone can keep that kind of fire from changing, anymore than you can keep from aging. As an artist, you have to find new themes. And you have to use whatever fire you have left to execute your art."
Diaz turns to fellow Dominican, baseball pitcher Pedro Martinez for a metaphor. "Early on, he threw this incredible fastball, but later he learned out to get people out with guile," Diaz says. "If I can't go to the heat, I have to figure out a way to be smart."
Not the most productive of writers, Diaz laments the pace of his literary output – 11 years to produce a novel, three books since 1996. Some writers – Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates – might publish as much between Easter and Labor Day. Partly, he says, it's the distraction of teaching, and "part of it is I'm just slow."
Diaz says he's looking forward to his long book tour, including the stop in Miami.
"It's a great honor to have readers, and to be an artist," he says. "I love what I do so much primarily because I love to be around and meet readers. That's a beautiful thing."
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22
Where: Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd.
Cost: Free tickets are available at Books and Books bookstores in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour.
Contact: 305-442-4408 or BooksandBooks.com