Is Boston right for writers?

Three authors take on the city’s literary culture
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 5, 2013


Boston, the birthplace of American literature, boasts three MFA programs, an independent creative-writing center, and more than a dozen colleges offering creative-writing classes. There are plenty of writing students here, as well as plenty of writers to teach them. But unlike Emerson or Thoreau, all must contend with the cost of living, consistently among the highest in the country.

How do fiction writers hack it? What's it like to live and write in the world's biggest, most expensive college town? I spoke with three of them — Junot Diaz, Askold Melnyczuk, and Carissa Halston — about their experiences here.


Junot Diaz — MacArthur genius, Pulitzer Prize winner, New Yorker favorite — lives in Boston during the school year. When the Dominican-American New Jersey native moved to Cambridge to teach writing at MIT, he was thrilled to find Rodney's in Central Square, a rambling, chaotic, remainder-heavy bookstore that occasionally hosts stand-up comedy nights. "I can find some of the strangest shit there," Diaz says.

For Diaz, bookstores are Boston's most salient feature, especially because readers hang out there. "Readers are my first nation," Diaz says. "I come from writing from a reader's perspective, and . . . one thing that Boston has in abundance is reading culture: there are a ton of readers here. As someone whose writing identity is predicated on the reader, this is a great place to live."

But not entirely — Diaz finds Boston "incredibly" white. "If you're the kind of person of color I am, Boston presents challenges," he says. "There's a general perception, true or not, that Boston isn't exactly a place where people of color want to be." Anyone who has read either of his short-story collections or his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — books that draw heavily on the immigrant experience — can see how this might present a problem for him.

"Sources of inspiration are far sparer for me here," he says. "I am someone who is profoundly inspired by urban immigrant space, by the kind of circuits you find in world cities. Boston doesn't exactly have those things."

It's also very difficult to find takeout after midnight. "The very fact that the train stops running at midnight makes it cut down on the kind of insanity that a writer like me is interested in," he says.

But the same qualities that sap his imagination give Diaz the space to write. "As an author, writer, and artist, you have to drop into a more human rhythm," he says. "[Larger] cities aren't exactly a human rhythm, and Boston's size is more amenable to that."

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