An Interview with Hernan Diaz


“Can you imagine being sure of your writing all the time? What a horrible world that would be.”

How Hernan Diaz writes a great novel:
He sets rules
He does it for the love of the sentence
He trusts the audience—and asks the audience to trust him


An Interview with Hernan Diaz


“Can you imagine being sure of your writing all the time? What a horrible world that would be.”

How Hernan Diaz writes a great novel:
He sets rules
He does it for the love of the sentence
He trusts the audience—and asks the audience to trust him

An Interview with Hernan Diaz

Nick Hilden
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Hernan Diaz leaped into our collective literary consciousness with both feet via his 2017 debut, In the Distance, a revisionist western tale of a gentle Swedish emigrant meandering through the hardships and violence of the American Old West in search of his lost brother. The book was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize, the latter of which Diaz secured for his second novel, Trust. An onion of a book, Trust begins with the story of a 1920s Wall Street tycoon, then progressively peels back narrative layers to expose the voices of those silenced by capital, patriarchy, and power. Born, raised, and educated in Argentina, Sweden, and London before settling in New York, Diaz peppers his work with elements relevant to an unanchored life: Plenty of loneliness and cultural isolation. Diverse perspectives. A longing for home and comfort that never quite manifests. An impulse toward justice, paralleled by pragmatism regarding the all-too-­frequent frustration of it.

This is my second interview with Diaz—both by way of Zoom—and I know from our previous conversation that he grew up viewing the United States from afar, on a basis of “fictional experience,” gleaning his awareness of American culture through cinema, literature, and music. By now, his writing has been woven into that cultural mythos, so far contributing to the exploration of two of the most American of narratives: those of the western wanderer and the consummate capitalist. He turns both these archetypes on their heads, perhaps benefiting from the removed vantage afforded by a cosmopolitan existence. There is a special sort of objectivity that comes with being from a little bit of everywhere and a little bit of nowhere.

Abiding in Diaz’s fiction is an almost academic sense of analytic detachment, though that is not to say it lacks vitality. Quite the opposite. While he writes with a cool, scientific discipline—like an archaeologist patiently digging up, then piecing together the bits of some long-lost people—this investigative framework is fleshed out with ample poetics, occasional humor, and something akin to magnanimity. It is not without good reason that his novels have garnered such acclaim. These are works of a serious and skillful author, artist, and auditor of the human condition.

—Nick Hilden


THE BELIEVER: So I had just finished re-reading In the Distance and written the note “In the Distance feels like Blood Meridian, but the opposite.” Then, ten minutes later, an alert popped up that Cormac McCarthy had died. Was he an influence on you? Were you a fan?

HERNAN DIAZ: Of course I was a fan—well, no, let’s strike that; I hate the word fan. I don’t like that word or the fact that it stems from fanaticism and this unconditional allegiance to something or someone. I dislike it, so let’s start over. Yes, I’ve read a lot of Cormac McCarthy. He really was a massive inspiration in regard to how to approach the western from an angle that was new and wasn’t fully part of the canon. I always both admired and was made a little insane by aspects of his prose. Especially his idiosyncratic punctuation, which sometimes is a source of joy and sometimes is a source of irritation, because I really see punctuation on the page.

But Blood Meridian is probably the most important novel for me of the McCarthy books I’ve read. I remember being overwhelmed by its violence in a way I’ve seldom been. Just the feeling of being hit by the book. It’s almost a Nietzschean western, and it got me thinking a lot. I read it before I put pen to paper on In the Distance, and it’s a massively important book for me.

BLVR: The literature of the American Old West tends to overtly or at least implicitly glorify violence. But your western—although there is violence, it’s almost a reaction against it. When Håkan commits acts of violence, he abhors it. Would you say you were trying consciously to react against these tropes, or did that come naturally as you wrote it?

HD: Once I decided to set the novel in the American West, and in that particular period of time, I knew I would have to delve into the ossified perception we have of that era. That includes the aestheticized and romantic view of violence. Usually this romantic view of violence and of the heroic gunslinger is tied in with a deep-seated suspicion of institutions and the state. It’s this vigilante who is righting wrongs outside an institutional framework, even if that means going against the law and the embodiment of the law—the vigilante against the corrupt sheriff.

Because of this lawless or paralegal justice—even better, “supra-legal” justice—there is a notion of justice that is above the letter of the law. The enforcement of this kind of justice is always done through violence. This is one of the reasons why violence is so important. Another reason is because of the genocidal drive that lies behind the western. Let’s not forget that the push west comes with the extermination of the native peoples who were there. Also of the flora and fauna that were replaced by intensive agriculture. Just think about it: “cowboys”—it’s all about cows, but there were no cows native to the West. That’s an industrial introduction of an animal at the expense of other animals, mostly buffalo. The cowboy is a sign of domestication and of how this space was disciplined. There is a violence against other peoples, there is a violence against fellow human beings in general, and there is a violence against the environment, which is now deemed a source for the extraction of capital for the incipient Industrial Revolution. So, yes, I very much wanted to address this.

But I confess that when I first put pen to paper, I considered dropping the whole project, because I knew that the book relied on that violent scene with Håkan. I knew that scene had to be there, but I didn’t want to write it. The plot from that point on is motivated by that scene, because Håkan goes into exile as a result of it. He’s broken and devastated by the violence he has committed. The book abounds very deliberately in clichés from the genre, and it opens almost immediately with a classic showdown. I told myself, If I can solve this showdown without a single shot being fired, then perhaps I can write the book. That was the test I set for myself. I did indeed write the showdown without a shot being fired, and off I went. The one big violent scene—there are two, I think; the biggest one in which Håkan is involved—I wrote almost in one sitting, feeling really bad about it.

BLVR: You brought up the treatment of Indigenous people and Native Americans. I’ve been reading David Graeber’s last book, in which he discusses the historical infantilization of native peoples and the tendency to portray them as naive creatures living in nature. You show them more as he suggests: as complicated people who have a science of their own, who have a medicine of their own. This old medicine man teaches Håkan important things. I really appreciated that, because of this tendency of the western genre to infantilize different native peoples. When you were writing about Native American culture, were you being imaginative or were you doing research? How did you go about that?

HD: I was doing both those things. I was trying to be responsible and do archival work and read as much as I could. But it’s also a work of the imagination. Both those elements were also amalgamated for the Scandinavian immigrant and for the pioneers in the caravan on the trail. It’s always an alloy of research and imagination, and I am always trying to do it as carefully and mindfully and respectfully as I can. But I think research should always be a means toward imagining things more sharply rather than a way of corseting imagination. When you are depicting a group that is not necessarily yours, you should always ask yourself why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, from what perspective you’re doing it, and be really serious and ethically conscientious.

I should also say that when I finish a project, I leave that world behind for a while. I haven’t really revisited any of the western materials or that world. And now that I’m done with Trust, I haven’t been reading about money, you know, because my mind is elsewhere and I’m trying to find a new thing. It feels weird to be a visitor in a world that for a while was mine.


BLVR: In In the Distance you describe the desert beautifully. Did you spend much time there as a visitor?

HD: I’m almost Oulipian in private, quirky, personal ways that are meaningless to people other than me. I set weird rules for myself. Sometimes I don’t realize they are in place until I’m confronted with them over and over again. With In the Distance, one very overt rule was that I’m not going to go and have an air-conditioned experience of those spaces from, like, a Ford Focus or whatever. [Laughter] It didn’t seem to make any sense at all to me. Elsewhere I’ve written on this notion of “referential fetishism.” It’s something I try to avoid at all costs. I defend the notion of literature as, ultimately, a product of literature itself that, to a large extent, mirrors other literature. Not necessarily as the vehicle for referential accuracy. There are other discourses and genres that do that much better, if that’s what you’re after. Perfect mimesis—that’s not why I read fiction.

With In the Distance I did two things. First, I gave myself all the space I needed to imagine these places. Then the second thing I did was to read a lot about them: mostly primary materials from the time. I read a lot of travel writing like Francis Parkman, who, weirdly, was reviewed by Melville—and destroyed by Melville, actually, when it comes to Parkman’s violently racist depiction of Native Americans. Richard Henry Dana, John Muir, guides to gold mines for prospectors, how-to manuals from the mid-nineteenth century. That’s the stuff I read, and somehow it made that territory more vivid in my mind than being there. Does that make sense?

BLVR: Absolutely. We were talking about Cormac McCarthy earlier, and in Blood Meridian, he describes them as these alien landscapes, and they don’t look like that. His fever dream of it is more interesting than the reality.

HD: I could piggyback on that and say I think the western as a genre—also in film—exoticizes America for Americans. If you look at John Ford’s movies, they’re all shot essentially in the same location—what is it, Monument Valley?—over and over again. That’s obviously implausible. Talk about going against referential fetishization, accuracy, mimesis. That’s all out the window from the first exterior shot. These films are about something else. They’re about, to a certain extent, the clichéd and hyper-calcified view we have of these places, which tops any other referential aspiration. Think of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. They’re all shot in Almería, Spain. They just have to convey western-ness. Not even west-ness, but western-ness. I think that is the main thing for that particular genre, where landscape plays such a massive role. The archetype, however hyperbolic, distorted, or even fake it may be, is way more important than the real thing.

BLVR: Upon re-reading In the Distance, one thing that struck me as both heartbreaking and wonderful was the decision to not allow Håkan to reencounter Linus. You have this scene in your mind that maybe the long-lost brothers… but you withhold that satisfaction. Was that a decision you made going in, or did that come out of the process?

HD: I was talking about the Oulipian rules I set for myself. Another such rule was that—and this is actually expressed in a sentence that occurs in some shape in the last quarter of the novel—the protagonist would never be able to retrieve anything he had left behind. He would never be able to go back to a place he had been to before. The only exception to this was when he went back to the mining town.

BLVR: But it’s all changed.

HD: It’s all changed. It’s not even that town anymore. It could well be a different place altogether. The only thing that’s the same is the geographical location. So that was the rule: always forward. It was a hard rule to follow. Many narrative junctures and issues with the mechanics of the plot would have been much more easily solved without that rule, but I stuck with it. Of course, not being able to find his brother is part of that rule. At the end of the day, this is a book about radical loneliness. It’s not a book about communion, reunion, or reconciliation. It’s a novel about a very final form of loneliness. To have that reencounter at the end would have been an utter betrayal of what the book was trying to convey.


BLVR: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that back around the 2008 financial crisis, you’d written a first book that never got published. What was that book like? Was it completed?

HD: Totally finished. It’s a novel that almost got published a bunch of times and never did. It’s a reasonable step in whatever path these books seem to be making. It deals with a lot of the themes that seem to come up over and over again. It’s about loneliness, the United States, immigration, in a weird way. There’s a lot there that is a blueprint for what I did after. And there are so many other texts that never saw the light of day.

BLVR: When you published In the Distance, you didn’t have an agent, and you went straight through a small press, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Then Trust found a very eager audience and ultimately won the Pulitzer. Were you surprised by the receptiveness that both novels received?

HD: Yes, because I had been writing for a really long time in the cold, dark shadow of universal rejection. Nobody would touch my stuff. So of course it was really—and it keeps being—very joyful and very strange. I don’t take anything for granted, being a middle-aged person who has devoted his entire life to reading and writing, for the most part in solitude. So this is… this is great.

BLVR: Was it frustrating before people recognized your work?

HD: Of course. I wish I had that fortitude and extreme devotion and resolution that would lead to not caring at all. I would be writing even if it were with evanescent ink, even if by the end of the page everything was gone, I would still do it. You know? I’m not quite there; I believe in literature as a conversation, and that requires interlocutors. I won’t lie—it really hurt to be told to stop. That was the message I was getting from the world: just please stop. It’s weird because you feel very lonely, but if you love to do this thing, you keep doing it, and that creates a very dangerous, solipsistic kind of state of mind where you feel your opinion is the only thing you have to sustain your work. That’s not a very healthy place. It is maddening. In every possible sense of that word, it is maddening. So those were not happy times. But whatever solace I found, I did find in the joy of inhabiting language, which is why I do this. Doing it for any other reason is insane. There has to be at least some willingness to write with that evanescent ink. There has to be some of that in you.

BLVR: As a writer myself, and in talking to lots of writers, I find there’s this kind of split personality to being a writer where, on one hand, you have to be almost psychotically confident in your writing to expect people to pay you for it. You have to have the confidence to say, I don’t care about rejection, and I will do it again and again and get rejected again and again. But then at the same time, once you finally do start selling, once you finally do get whatever success looks like, there’s this impostor syndrome that sets in. So you go through this crazy cycle of insane confidence followed by impostor syndrome.

HD: I don’t think about it that way. Everything I’ve written, I’ve written alone. I finish it and I discuss it with very few people. My wife, in the first place, who is also my first and most excellent reader and a massive influence. But other than that, I don’t share chapters with my agent. I don’t share drafts with my editor. Also, I don’t write drafts. I don’t pitch short stories to magazines. I just write a thing. And the market (to somehow name the sum of those objective forces) is of no consideration. This is in response to what you just said: I’m writing this and you will pay me for it. I’m not trying to be precious or presumptuous about it. I’m telling you truly how it works for me. I write something—a short story, a full novel—and nobody except for, again, a very small group of very close people sees it. And when it’s done, now that I have an agent (a relatively new development), I give it to him. And then, I don’t know, we talk and we see what happens. Is it viable? There is no commercial target I’m trying to hit. There is no buyer for anything I’m writing, ever. Later, of course, I am invested in the whole process because it’s my job and I have a child and a mortgage. It’s not that I’m above all that, but I don’t write toward it. About the impostor syndrome, I think being a bit afraid, uncomfortable, out of your depth is absolutely essential. Can you imagine being sure of your writing all the time? What a horrible world that would be. What I want is lucid doubt.


BLVR: When you write a book like Trust, which takes some pretty big structural, narrative risks, you really have to have a lot of trust in your audience that they’re going to go along with it. You were just saying you don’t really show your work to people. So when you were working on Trust, were you worried that people wouldn’t follow that narrative, or was it something you were confident about?

HD: There were some points I was worried about. And, thank you, you’re the first, weirdly, to mention that Trust, the title, also refers to trust—it could be taken to be a verb in the imperative mood: you, comma, trust me or the book. Which is definitely a semantic layer I was going for. The first thing that worried me is that the second section is written in this very abrasive, macho tone, and it abounds in pseudo-technical financial jargon. It was very important for me to have that voice: it has been screaming at us from history books and newspapers forever. I wanted to re-create that voice and then underpin it. It’s also a major plot point: you have this very loud male voice, and then you find out that it’s actually the creation of this young woman, this writer who made this voice up, who made this monster up. Frankenstein is a big influence for me, always. So that’s why that had to be there. This comes after the first section, which is a whole novel within the novel, written in what I think (hope) is a terse, highly stylized, and polished sort of tone. Maybe I’ve failed, but that’s what I was going for. 

In the second part, however, you can feel the cogwheels of this very clunky, aggressive prose. It was so long, and I thought, I can’t live with this voice for a year, which is what it would have taken to write, like, 150 pages of that. Man, I thought, I can’t subject readers to 150 pages of this. So that’s when I decided to shatter that section, smash it, and have this kind of textual shrapnel, which gave it a formal edge that, to me, made it way more interesting. Each page in that section is typeset with extreme care. My editor was very patient with me, so line breaks and page breaks really fall in very specific places to create certain effects. Many of them are quite humorous, hopefully in a quiet, discreet way. That fragmentation ended up contracting the whole thing in a way I found appealing. But I was still worried. As I said, we come from this very stylized and sort of almost lush prose at times, and then there is this aggressive thing. Like, we build this capital of goodwill with the reader, and then we just burn through it in about five pages. Then the task is to build it again, to start again. That’s where the trust you mentioned, the trust in the reader, comes in.

BLVR: Obviously, Trust is largely about the erasure of women’s narratives. Does a writer have a responsibility to expose lost narratives or ignored narratives or oppressed narratives?

HD: This Sartrean notion of commitment or responsibility feels very alien to me. I don’t believe that literature should be subordinated to anything other than beauty, emotion, fairness, and the ethics of the storytelling itself. I think storytelling is profoundly ethical because it has to do with a certain form of knowledge and how that knowledge is presented and administered. In that regard, it also involves another person—the reader—toward whom I feel I have a responsibility. The reader is someone I don’t want to cheat. I don’t want to pull a fast one on anyone. I also don’t want to be unfair to my characters. That is a very important thing to me, to never be a jerk, even if the characters themselves are jerks. [Laughter]

Of course there is the obligation, to my mind, of writing something moving. If there isn’t that emotional dimension, I’m out. There’s no purpose for me. But also raw emotion, just howling on the page, is not something I personally am interested in. That brings in the third element that I just mentioned, which is a certain sense of formal rigor and control and discipline and elegance that I associate with that elusive quality we call “beauty.” Perhaps literature is the result of the triangulation of these vertices: emotion, formal rigor, and ethical responsibility. I do, of course, feel it is important to recover silenced voices, and I think my work speaks to that. You asked me if this was an imperative of literature as a whole, and that’s where I don’t necessarily… It has been an imperative for me. But there’s so much literature that I love where that doesn’t play a major role, and I still love that literature, and I defend that literature even if it doesn’t do that. I get a little worried when literature is subordinated to something that is extra-literary, because I think that sets it on a path that turns it into yet another instrumental device in a hyper-instrumentalized society.

BLVR: Recently in the United States there has been a rising tide of bans and opposition to books that portray historically overlooked voices, most notoriously in Florida. Why is power threatened by books?

HD: I think I’ve come to a tentative answer throughout the process of writing Trust and talking about it and explaining the book to myself, which is that power and capital can’t stand on their own. They cannot subsist by sheer force, by sheer force of political power in the form of violence, for example, or by sheer force of economic power, which can also be very violent. (It usually is, actually.) Both these forms of power desperately need a narrative. They need to be propped up, legitimized, by stories. It just doesn’t work without that element. So I have very little patience for people who relegate fiction to some kind of epiphenomenal manifestation of language—to a merely irrelevant symbolic accessory. Fiction, storytelling, narratives in general are what support, in quite a strict sense, political and financial power.

So I don’t think power is oblivious to the importance that books have, because of what I just said and because, ultimately, I think power can be defined, not exclusively, but to some extent, as the ability to leave a dent in history. Power is much more than that, of course. This is just an aspect of it. But this notion of history brings us back again to books and the importance of the printed word and the importance of narratives. So I think there is a very clear connection there, and the desire to control what we read has to do with the desire to control a much, much larger narrative: to try to control the shape of the dent.

V. “Fully in camp fiction”

BLVR: Some people fear writer’s block or writing a bad book or one that nobody wants to read, or one that the government will suppress. Is there some version of that for you?

HD: Yeah, of course. It’s always scary to be in between books. I’m now starting a new novel, and it looks like a mess. I try to remind myself that that is the process, but when you’re in it, you kind of forget that. I write in longhand, so I go and look at my notebooks for previous projects, and they look just as messy. But it’s not reassuring, because each time, the feeling is fresh. Those moments are a little frightening. And then, eventually, you find that it’s growing and you’re kind of accompanying the process that is doing its own thing almost—which is a beautiful feeling.

Of course, the fear to suck is deep-seated, especially if you are concerned with the sentence as a unit, which I very much am. So it’s not just that one hopes the book as a whole won’t suck. I always feel the book is only as good as its worst sentence. I feel the stakes are super high with each clause for me, because that’s the way I write. My fears have more to do with the aesthetic side of things—if it’s going to work as a piece of literature, more than if nobody will ever want to read it, and other more commercial, institutional concerns.

BLVR: It’s interesting how you can have this whole kind of nebulous idea, but then one thing clicks that actually makes it work. For you, that thing that clicks: Is it finding the narrator? Is it a plot moment? Is it understanding where the end is going to come in?

HD: It’s not the ending. I’ve written books without knowing for a really long time how they would end. Like, I’m halfway into it, and I’m not displeased with what I’m doing, but I don’t know how it’s going to end. That is a familiar feeling. So that’s not it. To me, I think it has to do a little bit with what I was talking about, like four questions or so ago, which is when an emotional texture becomes sharper, when an emotion comes into focus and it merges with a diegetic drive—the emotion and the story becoming the same gesture.

It’s very different for each project. For instance, with Trust, what made it all come together—and I had written several thousand words—but what made it all come together was when I knew there was going to be a novel within the novel. I liked that idea. And that the real-life tycoon was going to respond to this novel with his own version of the facts. I also liked that idea. That was something I could work with. But when I discovered that it was going to be this young woman who would write the book for the big man, and the voiceless woman would give the loud man his voice—that’s when everything came together. That’s also when I realized, Oh, wait, this is a book about things I wasn’t aware of. It’s essentially a book about voice and the nature of storytelling. But for months and months and months, I didn’t know it, and I kept writing. I knew it hadn’t coalesced yet, but I didn’t know how it was going to coalesce.

BLVR: So obviously you’ve written two books, you write short stories. Have you ever been interested in venturing into writing in other realms, for the screen or the stage or anything like that?

HD: I’ve written a few screenplays, only one of which was a serious endeavor for real people who had a real shot at making it. And then, in a very Hollywood kind of way, it collapsed and didn’t happen. But it got super close, and I don’t dislike that screenplay. I haven’t read it in forever, but I’d probably stand by it. That is the only thing. And then I’ve done a bunch of academic writing, and my first published book was a book about Borges. So that’s not fiction. But the short answer is no—I am fully in camp fiction. And everything in my life—all the decisions I’m trying to make now are toward remaining there and trying to do only that. That is truly what I want to do. I want to write fiction.

BLVR: Hobbies? Outside artistic endeavors? Anything like that?

HD: No hobbies, no.

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