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Writing Is a Monstrous Act: A Conversation with Hernan Diaz

By

At Work

Novelist Hernan Diaz. Photograph by Pascal Perich.

Money talks—so goes the truism—but rarely is it the subject of fiction. “Class? Sure. Exploitation? Absolutely. Money? Not so much,” Hernan Diaz observed during a conversation in early spring about the impetus behind his latest novel, Trust. Taking the mechanics of capital as its inspiration, Trust seeks to fill this gap. The novel features a New York financier and his wife, moving between genres (a novel, a memoir, a diary) and time periods (the Gilded Age, the roaring twenties, the Great Depression, the eighties) while exploring the fabular nature of capitalism. As one character declares halfway through, “Money is at the core of it all. An illusion we’ve all agreed to support.”

Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance, published in 2017, also reimagines America’s particular illusions. The novel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, follows a Swedish immigrant during the California Gold Rush. Born in Argentina, raised in Sweden, and now living in Brooklyn, Diaz is erudite and energetic both on the screen—our conversation began as a Zoom call when Diaz was on a fellowship in Italy—and on the page, in the email back-and-forth that followed. As he would go on to explain toward the end of that initial call, “Writing, to me, is an attempt at becoming someone else.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Trust, the title of the book, is a financial term and a legal relationship, but it’s quite literally an experience. What do you think is the role of trust between the reader and the writer?

DIAZ

Reading is always an act of trust. Whenever we read anything, from a novel to the label on a prescription bottle, trust is involved. That trust is based on tacit contracts whose clauses I wanted to encourage the reader to reconsider. As you read Trust and move forward from one section to the next, it becomes clear that the book is asking you to question the assumptions with which you walk into a text. Genres are a great example of trust in literature—we feel a great sense of betrayal when conventions are violated for no good reason. Point of view is another clear example of trust in fiction—I foam at the mouth whenever a narrator suddenly becomes omniscient just to present us with some cheap reveal. Memoirs and historical documents offer yet another example of trust—and my novel aims to defamiliarize a certain tone we’ve come to trust and take for the unmediated truth in those documents.

INTERVIEWER

Both of your novels explore iconic moments in American history that are formative to the national identity. What draws you to these sorts of American mythologies?

DIAZ

Although they’re immensely different novels—formally, thematically, in tone, in scope—In the Distance and Trust have some things in common. This wasn’t intentional or planned, but if In the Distance is, in part, about the consolidation of a territory into a nation, Trust is about the consolidation of that nation into a financial empire. In the Distance shows the cogwheels of capital slowly starting to churn; Trust shows a perfectly oiled machine. Both books do deal with American mythologies, as you say. In its modern meaning, myth is a term that describes how narratives can saturate and eventually hijack reality. I think this is the right word to refer to how we perceive certain moments of our past—how naturalized some fictions have become. These two specific moments (the Gold Rush and the years around the 1929 crash) are beyond iconic. They have become petrified, fossilized. And I love working with clichés and precipitated historical narratives, hardened over time. They call for geological exploration.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find you have to expunge the cliché of something, or do you think that there is something relevant in the cliché itself?

DIAZ

There’s always something relevant in clichés. If you think about it, every literary genre is a collection of clichés and commonplaces. It’s a system of expectations. The way events unfold in a fairy tale would be unacceptable in a noir novel or a science fiction story. Causal links are, to a great extent, predictable in each one of these genres. They are supposed to be predictable—even in their surprises. This is how we come to accept the reality of these worlds. And it’s so much fun to subvert those assumptions and clichés rather than to simply dismiss them, writing with one’s back turned to tradition. I should also say that these conventions usually have a heavy political load. Whenever something has calcified into a commonplace—as is the case with New York around the years of the boom and the crash—I think there is fascinating work to be done. Additionally, when I looked at the fossilized narratives from that period, I was surprised to find a void at their center: money. Even though, for obvious reasons, money is at the core of the American literature from that period, it remains a taboo—largely unquestioned and unexplored. I was unable to find many novels that talked about wealth and power in ways that were interesting to me. Class? Sure. Exploitation? Absolutely. Money? Not so much. And how bizarre is it that even though money has an almost transcendental quality in our culture it remains comparatively invisible in our literature? There are exceptions, of course—Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, and John Gaddis, for example, come to mind—but it’s easy to see a disproportion between the outsized role money plays in the American imagination and the marginal presence it has in our canon. Moreover, the novels that brush the issue without fully engaging it tend to reproduce the dynamics of the world they supposedly set out to denounce. Most of those books end up bedazzled by the excess they meant to critique, and they also perpetuate a series of exclusions that have always defined the epic of capital, beginning with the exclusion of women, who have often been erased from narratives of accumulation.

INTERVIEWER

Trust is composed of four different books, and in each, the language is very different. The first, for instance, reads a bit like Edith Wharton—were you intentionally trying to mimic the prose of the nineteenth and early twentieth century?

DIAZ

Absolutely. In Wharton and in James, we see the formal precepts of realism taken to their absolute limit—the breaking point before modernism. The traditional nineteenth-century novel aspired, for the most part, to reflect the world objectively. Stendhal famously wrote that the novel is a mirror carried along a road, which sums it all up. But toward the end of the nineteenth century, I think many novelists were turning that mirror away from the road and toward its bearer. Who is looking at the world and how is this observer, too, part of the picture? Eventually, the mirror shattered and the novel found itself looking at the scattered reflections on the shards. As literature no longer was required to reflect a cohesive, unified world, the gaze also began turning inwards. I’m abusing Stendhal’s simile and presenting all this in a rather schematic, linear fashion. But I think that toward the end of this trajectory, where I would place James and Wharton, the novel is trying to do things that were unimaginable a few decades earlier. More than accurately depicting objective reality, the emphasis was on conveying certain forms of experience. More than capturing social “types” (Balzac hoped to portray a mere two or three thousand of them), the novel became increasingly invested in selfhood and difference—not in archetypes but in what is untransferable about each individual experience. This, of course, came with immense formal shifts. I don’t think the syntactical opacity in James’s late work, for example, is irrelevant in this context—it enacts the difficulties of seeing and knowing life only through language; it shows us how hard it is to reach the world. But I don’t feel he ever fully broke with the novel as a form. He was, rather, making it do things for which it wasn’t designed at that point. And this is so beautiful to me. We may hear something similar, also, in certain Romantic music that holds on to a Classical vocabulary to express what can’t be conveyed through it. We may see it in painters who, while still being figurative, teetered on the edge of abstraction—because figurative accuracy was no longer accurate enough. I’m very interested in those transitional moments in art. It’s not by coincidence that the last section of the novel is so invested, both formally and in its subject matter, in the avant-garde and high modernism.

INTERVIEWER

Mildred, in her diary at the end, feels a bit more modern.

DIAZ

That was my hope. She has a very modern sensibility. Before I even started writing it, I thought her section would be a modernist cabinet of curiosities of sorts. The way I described it to myself was that it should sound as if Virginia Woolf had written the Philosophical Investigations. In the end, it doesn’t really sound like that (how could it ever!), but this was the impossible tone I had in mind. There is something in the journal as a form that lends itself to this treatment, and I learned a lot about this genre while reading for this project. I tried to focus on diarists more or less contemporary with my author, such as Dawn Powell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Denton Welch, Alma Mahler, Iris Origo, and, of course, Woolf. I also read several personal journals written by the wives of some real-life American tycoons. The experience of going through these files was intense, mostly because in many cases they had never been opened since being archived decades or even a century before.

INTERVIEWER

There’s so much, also, about money and the relationship between the artist and capital. At one point, Ida’s father, an Italian anarchist who works as a typesetter, gives a speech in which he calls money a fiction, going on to say, “History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army … Reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget.” Were you trying to probe this relationship between art and commerce?

DIAZ

There’s a widespread tendency to think of art as some sort of ideological frosting on real power structures. Commerce, we usually believe, dictates the direction of aesthetic currents. Patronage, in overt or covert forms, and the market condition artistic production. Obviously, this is true. But it’s important to remember that the reverse is also true: power relies heavily on narratives to perpetuate itself. Political and financial supremacy is simply not possible without a collection of myths to prop it up. This is why I think fiction can teach us a lot about history and politics. One of the premises of Trust is that the relationship between power and art is not as linear as many so-called engaged novels would like us to believe. I’ve always found the idea of engaged or committed literature suspicious, because it subordinates literature to some higher truth. If anything, I’d like to invert the terms in the discussion around mimesis and representation: rather than asking how literature can accurately imitate life, I’m interested in how reality can be shaped by fiction.

INTERVIEWER

In the third section of the book, there’s an emphasis on another very American experience, that of immigration—Ida, the section’s narrator, is the child of an Italian immigrant and was raised in an Italian immigrant enclave in Brooklyn. What were you considering when you wrote that section?

DIAZ

Immigration is a central concern for me because I am an immigrant. I also happen to be half Italian. My maternal great-grandparents went from Campania to Buenos Aires, but they could just as easily have ended up in New York. Not by chance, the Italian immigration wave that started in the 1880s coincided with one of the greatest periods of economic expansion in US history. On one side of the East River, there was a world of incalculable wealth and skyscrapers. On the other side, immigrants were living in utterly pre-modern conditions and completely segregated. In fact, the parallels between that reality and ours were shocking and devastating. I wrote most of the novel during the Trump presidency. While I was reading about the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred most Italians and Asians from entering the country, Trump was proposing mass deportations, enacting travel bans, and separating children from their families at the border. This is just one of the many ways in which the Republican policies of the 1920s mirror those of the 2020s. Calvin Coolidge’s appalling record is usually forgotten in favor of fizzier legends from the jazz age.

INTERVIEWER

How did you conceive of Ida? How did you see her in relation to these histories of exclusive immigration policy and rampant capitalism?

DIAZ

Ida, the daughter of an Italian anarchist, starts working on Wall Street as a secretary. A central concern of Trust is how women have been, for the most part, suppressed from all the narratives spun around capital. If given any role at all, it has been either that of wife or secretary—or victim. Trust takes these stereotypical roles, subverts them, and moves them from the periphery to the center of the narrative. Ida follows a new path toward economic independence that opened to women in the twenties and thirties, when they joined the white-collar labor force. This was a major revolution that transformed the workspace and destabilized gender roles in society at large. In her section of the novel, Ida looks back on her youth in the thirties from the vantage point of 1985, after a long and successful career as a writer. Finding Ida’s tone was quite challenging. It’s the section that was most heavily edited because she and I are very different writers, and I had to learn to inhabit her voice. I created strict style guides for every section, but that part of the book was very demanding. Among other things, I read a lot of New Journalism while trying to teach myself Ida’s syntax and punctuation.

INTERVIEWER

How did you approach your research?

DIAZ

There’s always the danger of fetishizing one’s research, becoming obsessed with a little archival gewgaw one has found, and then starting to write just to create a display case for it. I dislike novels that feel like show-and-tell. And although I don’t want to make egregious mistakes and am terrified of anachronisms and inconsistencies, I’m not obsessed with referential accuracy. That’s absolutely not a primary concern for me. To me, archival work has to be in the service of imagination. Instead of becoming a factual straightjacket, research has to open up your vista and let you imagine things that were unimaginable before.

INTERVIEWER

Both of your novels have so far been historical. Can you see yourself writing a novel set in contemporary times?

DIAZ

I find the term historical novel abysmally depressing. To begin with, proposing that such a thing exists would also imply the existence of an ahistorical novel, and I’ve yet to come across one of those. But in addition to being rather useless, this category is actually disrespectful to fiction. Because this notion implies a hierarchy: there is history, which is supposed to stand in a closer relationship to truth, to be verifiable, to be fact-based, and then there is fiction, which is a mere fancy totally divorced from truth. Yet haven’t we been taught, over and again, how much of history is fabricated? Haven’t historians repeatedly shown us that many of the accounts taken to be true for decades or centuries can be debunked as ideological narratives? And conversely, isn’t there a robust body of fictional texts that throughout millennia have shown us at least a hint of truth (however mutable this term may be) about what it means to be human? In short, I’m not into “historical fiction” and refuse to accept it on the ground of the use of “period” props or costumes. I would even say that Trust aims, to an enormous extent, to question the boundaries between history and fiction.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a line that Mildred writes towards the end of the book, in her diary, “A diarist is a monster: the writing hand and the reading eye are sourced from different bodies.” Do you think that’s true for the novelist as well?

DIAZ

I love this question. I never thought about it but think this may be true for me. Writing is a monstrous act because it implies a metamorphosis. Writing, to me, is an attempt at becoming someone else. Every novel is a long way of tracing an x, of crossing myself out. I don’t want to be on the page. I want someone else to be there—someone else to “happen.” Still, despite my best efforts, I always remain, deformed and disfigured. The final paradox, of course, is that I am the one striking myself out. And isn’t this duality also quite monstrous?

 

Hernan Diaz is the author of two novels translated into more than twenty languages. His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Playboy, The Yale Review, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.