Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

So who's afraid of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez? Typically, a reporter with an appointment to interview him in his Centro Habana apartment. At the author's insistence, the reporter has paid multiple visits to Gutierrez's exhaustive website and has immersed himself in his prose. Dirty Havana Trilogy, Tropical Animal and The Insatiable Spider Man all feature Gutiérrez's eponymous anti-hero, Pedro Juan, a man who has "train[ed] himself to take nothing seriously" and whose locus operandi is here on the streets of Centro Habana, considered to be the toughest neighbourhood in the city. Gutiérrez's writing – brilliant, brutal and occasionally hilarious – is a good match for the décor, and the more of it the reporter reads, the more the pre-interview trepidation builds.

The reporter needn't have worried. Pedro Juan Gutiérrez appears cool and relaxed, ushering us into the rooftop sanctum where he does most of his writing and painting. He may once have been a boxer (as well as an ice-cream vendor, farm labourer, construction worker, demolitions expert, union leader, radio actor and journalist) but today he's a monk offering to make his visitors a cup of tea. We caught him at a good time.

"I want to stop writing for a while," he announces. "For the moment I want to be calm, take time off, a prolonged sabbatical. From 1994 to today I've written 10 prose books and five books of poetry. I've written too much and now I want to take a break." It's tempting to conclude that, as he approaches his 59th year, Cuba's most notorious living novelist has mellowed. Much of that notoriousness has stemmed from the kind (and amount) of sexual escapades he details in his books, which have been published in more than 20 countries but only sparsely here in Cuba. Perhaps as an indication of the shape of things to come, his most recent book, Corazón Mestizo, was a travelogue about the island.

On the other hand, Gutiérrez has no plans to move to a new neighbourhood, so it's entirely possible he hasn't yet said all he has to say on the subject of life on Centro Habana's mean streets. "When I came here 20 years ago I was astonished by the level of violence but also by the energy of the people who live in Centro Habana," he says. "And the basis of writing, the starting point of literature, is astonishment. You don't normally write about the ordinary and monotonous, you write about what is peculiar, strange, what really astonishes you. And that's what happens to me in this neighbourhood.

"Here in the centre of the city you can go out at 11 in the evening and a lot of things can happen to you. You come home at 2 a.m. and nobody knows what you were doing. You can lead a strange kind of existence, like a street dog who runs around having fun until he dies, or like an alley cat hopping from rooftop to rooftop."

Gutiérrez grew up in Pinar del Rio, coming to study journalism at the University of Havana in 1978 and eventually landing a job at Bohemia. "I came to Centro Habana when I was 37 years old. I started writing Dirty Havana Trilogy when I was 44. It took me five or six years to get the feeling for the neighbourhood. The darkest situations of human beings really interest me. Well-lit places don't interest me and they never have. I'm interested in darkness, in the darkest part of being human. I think the human condition is revealed much more in what we try to hide."

He once told an interviewer that "the real leitmotiv of my books is poverty rather than sex." At the same time, he's not making any apologies: "Sex is very important for the condition of the Cuban people. We're a mix of races, Europeans and Africans, and I think that this mix, along with Cuba's temperate climate, with nobody wearing much clothing, encourages playfulness. We play with language, with gestures, with music, dancing – we're very playful. We're constantly inventing new dance steps. And I think sex forms a part of this playful expressiveness."

Another important factor in Gutiérrez's creative output is idleness. "Dirty Havana Trilogy is a book born from idleness," he explains. "I was a journalist, I was working a lot. Then suddenly the country entered into a very brutal period of economic crisis in 1990-91. The magazine I was working for, Bohemia, was a weekly and it started coming out just once a month. I was only working two days a month and I had 28 days a month with nothing to do. Little by little, without really realizing it, I had begun to write the stories in Dirty Havana Trilogy. I would drink and spend the night with women on the Malecón. The next day I would write down my experiences as a kind of testimonial, a diary. Some people think my work is an anthropological study of Centro Habana. I don't know… Maybe there's a bit of that."