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.