Subverting the Western: A Conversation With Hernan Diaz

Subverting the Western: A Conversation With Hernan Diaz

Subverting the Western: A Conversation With Hernan Diaz

The author of In the Distance discusses foreignness, his theory of genre, and what it means to do research for a novel.

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There are some straightforward things you can say about Hernan Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance. It’s a Western—albeit a very strange and estranging one—and also a novel about language and foreignness and distance and violence. The protagonist is a Swedish young man who doesn’t speak English, lost in the great American desert, who suddenly, one day, becomes a giant of a man, an impossible folk hero (or villain), and a gentle, guilt-ridden hermit. It’s an episodic picaresque adventure, but the transitions are so smooth—and the prose is as unbroken as the horizon—that the past fades away like a dream. It’s as if Herman Melville had navigated the American West, instead of the ocean.

At the same time, none of this is quite right. In the Distance is a novel that defies description. In the end, this is a novel about the things that words can’t touch, about the silence and empty space that waits when sound is absorbed into the void and what happens, alone, when the last echoes die off. I spoke with Diaz about the way he theorizes genre, about how he researched for a historical novel (or didn’t), and how his own life informed the writing of a book which, on the surface, doesn’t resemble his life at all.

This interview was conducted over Skype, where Diaz was able to demonstrate how to pronounce his name, and that of his protagonist Håkan Söderström, and over subsequent e-mails.

Aaron Brady: How long did it take for you to write this book?

Hernan Diaz: There are two answers; one is, 20 years, which is how old the idea is. But the actual writing process was about six years.

AB: Has it changed a lot?

HD: Oh, yes. But the kernel was always a desert narrative. I wondered what “foreignness” would mean in the middle of nowhere. Can one be a foreigner if there isn’t really a context? Can one be anything but a foreigner in those conditions? This made me think of translation and genre. I wanted to repurpose the Western, and to translate different genres into each other. For example, as I was writing some of the desert scenes, I thought of the desert as planet Mars in early science-fiction. Back then, it was a planet we knew very little about. But every science-fiction writer agreed on what Mars looked like. It was a red world of adventure, a desert. I was interested in that “Planet Mars,” or the equivalent for the West—the set of expectations with which we walk into a story, rather than the actual geographical conditions.

AB: What drew you to the Western?

HD: You know, the Western is such an oddly marginal genre. You’d expect it to be central to the American literary canon, because it’s so perfect as an ideological tool. It’s the culmination of individualism, it’s an ideological tale of the birth of the nation, it romanticizes genocide.… And yet most people will be hard-pressed to name three Western writers before Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry. And it has been overshadowed by film in such an interesting way. Compared to detective fiction or science-fiction—both of which have had massive impacts on literature—the Western didn’t fulfill its promise or it potential.

AB: It’s funny to hear you talk about genre in this abstract way, because the parts of In the Distance about being thirsty and lost in the desert, and so on, feel very real to me. I mean that as a compliment, but also as a question: How do you get from an eagle-height theorization of genre down to the ground like that?

HD: That was such a source of anxiety for me, because I made a very conscious choice not to rent a car and go to the desert and walk around, and sort of have a domesticated and controlled experience of the protagonist’s ordeals, or even experience the landscape firsthand. But I don’t want to go on a tirade about the word “research” as it applies to literature.

AB: No, please go on a tirade!

HD: Oh, are you sure?! [Laughs] Research presupposes a scientific protocol, a method that I don’t think translates very well into the realm of literature. It also presupposes a hypothesis that you’re setting out to prove. I don’t know if that’s something that I buy into. The insistence on “research” reveals a misplaced anxiety many feel about literature and its relationship to truth—a relationship I think we can understand without subordinating literature to science. But to go back to your question, I was more interested in the stereotypes of genre than the reality they referred to. And geographical inaccuracy is built into the genre. Nobody is interested in accuracy; they are interested in things being Western. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were shot in Spain, for example. The referent is of no importance, because the films work within a self-contained, a very consistent and encapsulated system of allusions. And that’s kind of what I wanted to do with the book. I read a lot of 19th-century travel literature, but the landscapes are imagined through cultural depictions of them. There is no firsthand experience here.

AB: How much imaginative leeway did you give yourself in creating those places?

HD: Full. Obviously, if I’m writing about a salt lake in Utah, that’s something to look into. A little bit. But all my guidelines and references were textual. As I wrote the book, I drew a map of the protagonist’s journey, but I will never show it to anyone, because someone will say something like, Oh, in Arizona the sagebrush looks totally different. The same is true of Sweden. At the beginning, it was a very precise location, but then I made up a lake, so it’s untraceable. Referential quibbles are the worst kind of distraction for a reader. Also, the protagonist not speaking English for a long time, over half of the book, was helpful for creating a more realistic texture, because I didn’t have to deal with parroting “pioneer talk,” which would have been depressing.

My main goal was to be truthful in the most discreet way possible. That began with words. Because I didn’t want the prose to sound archaic, or to feel “researched,” I limited my lexical choices to regular words from that period. I’m sure anachronisms slipped through, but I think it creates a cumulative effect over the course of the novel, and readers, hopefully, won’t feel like they’re antique-hunting for old, exotic words. Rather than think about, or detect a certain historical atmosphere, I would prefer it if the readers experienced it, almost despite their own intentions—as we feel the weather on our skin.

AB: Was this always part of the intention for the book?

HD: I remember when it became a conscious choice. I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit, where Dickens compares a certain movement in someone’s throat to the hammers in a harpsichord. The passage stood out because harpsichords don’t have hammers but plectrums. And pianos, which do have hammers, had displaced harpsichords when the novel was written. It made me realize how the reality effect has to be sustained, constantly, throughout the course of a book by every single word choice. It’s not that I’m a stickler—I don’t care about keyboard technicalities, and Dickens’s comparison is beautiful. But that moment made me acutely aware, almost by free association, of what I wanted to achieve.

AB: What are some examples of words you caught and removed?

HD: During the line edit, “goose bumps” caught my attention, and sure enough, that phrase wasn’t yet widely in use. It was changed to “goose skin,” from the 1700s. I also did something similar with italics and quotation marks, which proliferated in early versions. They looked too much like an editorial intervention. I did stick with some archaisms, though. An editor suggested that we change “Sandwich Islands” to “Hawaiian Islands,” which was historically correct, since the name switched around 1840. But I found the former name used in some late-19th-century travel literature, so I insisted we keep it. The story hadn’t caught up with history. It’s a detail that makes the illusion of a present moment of enunciation more believable.

AB: What about the other side of it? There is very little “cowboy” language or frontier talk in this novel.

HD: Before I started writing, I watched dozens of Westerns, amassing a huge collection of phrases I liked, but none of them made the book. In the first draft of the first chapter, I realized they sounded phony. And I was still deleting stuff at the proof stage. At all costs, I wanted to avoid any hint of ethnography. The only way to work with the Western patois is to go the way of David Markson in The Ballad of Dingus Magee: hyperbolic, parodic, absurd. But I dislike oral transcriptions in general, and I’ve been thoroughly defeated by books like Adam Bede and Sons and Lovers. Mark Twain is one of the few exceptions. With oral transcriptions, there is invariably a hierarchy (usually determined by class) when the narrator writes in proper English while the characters are not given a grammatically correct voice.

AB: Was it hard to strike that balance, to write a period novel without period speech?

HD: Well, Håkan’s inability to understand (much less speak) English was instrumental, of course. And you can tell that I had to let go every now and then: the naturalist’s rhapsodic theories, the sheriff’s Old Testament rants, the quack advertising his tonics… They are all, intentionally, somewhat over the top. But none of them is a trapper or a cattleman, so there is no cowboy talk at all. The book takes place before there were cowboys in the West, and that gave me room to imagine whatever I liked.

The end result (I hope!) is a linguistic austerity that matches the desert landscape. I imagined that these people’s speech would have been affected by the void; see, for instance, how—and how little—some of the characters talk. But even if many passages are, indeed, very stern—shorter periods, verb-less clauses, and even blank pages—I also tried, at times, very consciously, to describe the void in a voluptuous way. This dissonance is one of the formal aspects at the core of the book: I tried to write an expansive, nuanced, rich void.

AB: Tell me about Sweden.

HD: I moved to Stockholm when I was two. When the 1976 coup took place in Argentina, my father was very involved politically, so we had to flee. My parents had been there before, in the 1960s (they even met in Stockholm), so it was a natural choice, and Sweden was very generous with refugees. Swedish was my first social tongue; I spoke Spanish at home, but my first language out in the world was Swedish. I think I got English as a result. I lived there for about six or seven years, but my parents missed Argentina too much and moved back. I wasn’t very happy, having left all my friends behind in Sweden. At first, I had an accent in Spanish, which was very weird, and I didn’t fit in very well. As soon as I could, which was college, I moved to London, and then to the States.

AB: Obviously, this novel is not autobiographical in most respects, but…

HD: Oh, it’s hugely autobiographical.

AB: If you had told me that nothing in this novel is autobiographical, I would have said “seems reasonable to me!”

HD: I could have told you that, yes, nothing in the novel is autobiographical. I wasn’t sent away by my parents, for instance. But in a ciphered way, for myself, in a very intimate way, it is autobiographical. It has to do with my experience with language in three different countries. With uprootedness. The title refers to that very overtly—things taking place just beyond the edge of visibility. This might apply to anyone, but a lot of my own experiences found their way into the book.

AB: The fact that the protagonist doesn’t understand English for much of the novel made me think about how polyglot the West was, historically. You don’t see that in most Westerns, but we get a sense of it here, where lots of people are struggling along across linguistic barriers, and trying to figure out how to speak to each other.

HD: A driving force of the book is foreignness, amplified by isolation, by linguistic distortion. Also: the protagonist’s body, which makes him very distinguishable, which makes him very recognizable as someone different, someone weird. That is something that I feel very strongly about. I mean, I experienced racism firsthand, in Sweden. And here nobody can really pronounce my first name, which is also a recurring theme in the book.

AB: I’ve been calling him “the protagonist” because I was afraid to mispronounce his name.

HD: I know! It was very intentional. It’s unpronounceable if you’re not from Scandinavia, and it has this letter that’s not in the English alphabet, the “a” with the circle.

AB: Could we talk more about why you call that Western “marginal”? I mean, it was such a huge cultural force, in the 30s to the 60s, all those movies…

HD: Of course, Western films are hugely important and influential. But what about Western literature during the period you mention? It’s not that I privilege literature over other media, although I obviously am more invested in it, but the Western preexists film and TV, so it’s fair to consider it in literary terms first. And I’m not making a high-versus-low culture argument; detective fiction was born in magazines and the most daring formal innovations of the genre were found in pulp publications (like Chandler and Hammett in Black Mask). But genres like detective and science-fiction have had a richer trajectory and made a profound impact in other literary genres, changing them not only stylistically but also—if this is not excessive—epistemologically: How do we know what we know and what is knowledge itself? These are questions that have affected all of literature.

AB: And the Western hasn’t?

HD: Try and name a single Western dime novel without the help of Google. There are massively important precursors, for sure (James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, a bit later), but we have to wait for The Virginian in 1902 and then, a few years later, for Zane Grey to codify the genre. Think of all that had happened before 1902: Native Americans had been plundered and murdered, the Western fauna and the land had been despoiled, the great migrations following America’s Manifest Destiny had taken place, new religions had been founded, the transcontinental telegraph had been completed, the Gold Rush had possessed a generation, the Civil War broke out and ended, fences now striated the plains, the railroad cut across the country, extensive cattle farming had been introduced…

Yet these events, which are the Western’s main narrative stuff, didn’t crystalize until the first decades of the 20th century. Not only that: The founding figures of this literary tradition are ignored and mostly out of print. I find this remarkable: that the ideological genre, poised to provide an epic that would aggrandize and whitewash American history, never really took off as a literary form. Then there is a hiatus (which coincides with the golden age of Western films you mentioned), after which, yes, of course, we all can name a few novels we like from the second half of the 20th century. Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Charles Portisor, if one goes a little deeper, Oakley Hall, John Williams, John Hawkes, etc. And most of these authors are said to write “anti-Westerns”! So where is the actual “Western” they’re writing against?

AB: Do you have an answer to that question? Why didn’t the Western novel take off?

HD: Vernacular language might have something to do with it. In an imperial country whose culture has ambitions of universality, the Western was stubbornly provincial and parochial; it was proud of its regionalism. These two projects are at odds. Detective fiction, in contrast, is international and cosmopolitan from its inception. Poe’s trilogy takes place in Paris, the city with most claims to universality in the 19th century. And you would be hard pressed to find a language farther removed, at least in intention, from any kind of regionalist, folkloric tendencies. From their epigraphs (for instance, Novalis in German! Or Seneca in Latin!) to their philosophical tone, these stories aspire to universality. This seems more congruent with the expansive ambitions of the United States.

I don’t know. This conundrum makes the Western productive for me. It’s so ideologically charged and neglected that it’s ripe for subversion. Its scaffolding is there, ready to be hijacked and repurposed. And precisely because it’s a highly ideological narrative of our country (and because it is, to some extent, a failed tradition), I find the idea of taking it over so productive.

AB: Tell me about taking it over, about subverting the genre.

HD: Take the scene on the ship, at the very beginning. Everything is set for a showdown, but instead of shooting, the protagonist claps two logs together, making a booming noise that scares his opponent away. What is expected, the fast draw, the skill and marksmanship, the blood… None of that takes place. Early on, I knew I wanted rusty, misfiring guns and slow, sick horses.

In the Distance is a Western in the sense that it takes several of the genre’s topoi—beginning with Manifest Destiny—and it reverses them. Most of the action takes place before the Civil War, but most Westerns are postbellum. Only at the end of the book does the protagonist see fences. If there are no fences, then there are no cows, so there are no cowboys. It’s a pre-Western world, in a way. Eventually, history catches up: He sees a railroad, a telegraph line; he sees the decimation of the American Indians, and some Civil War soldiers.

AB: For much of the novel, I wasn’t sure what age he was. But I also wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know.

HD: Well, he doesn’t know what age he is. I mean, I have ideas I could share with you, but it would only make things more boring. If you do the math, he leaves Sweden around the time of the Gold Rush, and the book ends a few years after the Alaska purchase. But it was important to me that both the protagonist and the reader be lost both in space and in time.

AB: What did you read in order to write this novel?

HD: I was reading a mixture of 19th-century travel literature, like Narcissa Whitman, Francis Parkman, Richard Henry Dana, William Bartram, or John Muir (whom I fell in love with, and who I think is underappreciated as a writer). Mark Twain’s Roughing It was probably one of the first books I read for this project. Ezra Meeker. Some Mormon writers. The list goes on and on. But also: all of Dickens. The Brontë sisters. George Eliot. And Melville, I went through most of Melville writing this book. The first class I ever took at college, in Argentina, was in North American literature and the first author we read was Melville. I was hooked. Is there anyone who explores the dissonance between confinement and vastness better than Melville?

AB: What did that do for the novel?

HD: It was helpful for little things, props, like domestic contraptions and situations that I would never have thought of. And it’s helpful to be steeped in the language. But to be honest, when left alone, I tend to drift toward the 19th century, if I don’t have to read anything for work. Of course, there were important 20th-century writers, too. Beckett was hovering over this book all the time, especially the trilogy and some of his late stories. And David Markson, who is a great writer of isolation.

AB: You have an academic book about Borges. Is there Borges in this novel?

HD: Well, the playfulness with genre is very Borges. I was also influenced by Borges’s singular view of the United States—he focused on the violent, barbaric side of the US, rather than the instrumental, mercantile aspects most Latin American writers denounced. And Borges always insisted, when he wrote his stories about gauchos and the pampas, that for something to become credible as local and authentic, it should be as unremarkable as possible. That was a guiding principle for me. In a famous essay, riffing on Edward Gibbon, Borges says that the absence of camels in the Koran is a detail that makes the book authentically Arabic—camels are unremarkable to a local, whereas a dazzled outsider would have scattered camels on every page for some “local color”…  So I was very careful not to have any camels in my book, if you understand what I mean.

AB: What about violence?

HD: That was a very tough thing for me. Remember that first scene, on the boat?… Well, I have a 7-year-old daughter, and I started writing the book around the time she was born. And I was suddenly disgusted by the proliferation of guns, specifically guns, honestly, and by the impossibility of narrating a story without a gun. At some point a gun needs to come into it! I found that abhorrent and appalling and sad and gross. So that’s how that scene on the ship came about. How can I solve this scene without any shots being fired? However, as the novel went on, I realized that for the story to work within this genre, an act of violence would fatally need to take place. But once it happens, he is crushed… he is devastated. “Guilty” sounds too frivolous for what I was going for.

AB: It destroys him.

HD: It destroys him, utterly. It was a very intense and moving thing to write, and to coexist with for a very long time. It’s the whole second half of the book, with him shattered.

AB: How does it feel to have a book coming out about immigration right now? Does Trump’s election change the context the book is written into?

HD: Before this book, I had written another novel, which never got published, also about an immigrant, but set today, in New York. Both books have a different resonance now. You know, I hesitate to talk about it, because I haven’t really articulated it to myself. But In the Distance was written throughout a large portion of the Obama administration. I became an American citizen during that time. And my appreciation and love for certain aspects of this country’s history only grew writing this book and reading all of the things that I read. I hope that made it into the novel, despite it also being extremely critical of the complacent way in which our history has been narrated. It was written in that context.

And then this monstrosity happened, and I still haven’t recovered from it, and I don’t fully understand it, yet. But in a weird way, it has brought the book even closer to my experience as a child, in Sweden, which is a country I love, as I said before, but which was, at the time, very xenophobic and racist. I was beaten up for not being blond. Now, bizarrely, the novel is coming out in a country where a kid could get beaten up for being a foreigner, or denounced for it, or raided, or deported.

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