Jeff Glor talks to Oscar Hijuleous about "Thoughts Without Cigarettes."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Oscar Hijuelos: About four years ago, when Trump was putting up his Riverside Blvd. apartment buildings on the West Side of Manhattan and the incredibly loud construction noises were driving me (and everyone in the neighborhood) crazy, though I had given up smoking, my first impulse was to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes (which, after a few months of that exasperating nonsense, I eventually did). In any event, both the construction/noises/pollution/backed-up traffic -- all starting at about 7 a.m. -- lasted for several years. Somewhere along the line, I came to the brilliant conclusion that I tended, during periods of extended anxiety in my life, to take up smoking again; and since I'd had my first cigarettes as a kid growing up in Manhattan, and yet could remember quite calm periods in my life, when I never smoked at all, I began to write about them, the title "Thoughts Without Cigarettes" coming into my head.
Having said this, my original narrative -- a diatribe against the powers that be -- eventually turned to more inward, character forming events in my life -- and, without realizing it at first, I found myself writing about how I had come up in an immigrant working class household and, somehow, drifted into the very unpractical profession of writing fiction. Structure wise, the book is loosely organized around periods of anxiety (smoking) and of tranquility (not smoking) -- at least those were my first notions.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
OH: The difficulty of remembering the stuff I had never bothered to write down. For example, I talk about a long sojourn I had spent in Rome after publishing my first novel: if I'd turned to that narrative in 1990, a few years after I'd returned, it would have been filled with far more acutely remembered details: the thing is, as with dreams, matters of memory, which you think you will always recall, eventually turn to air with the passing of time. So for me, just conjuring up certain old events required a lot of reflection -- during which time I kicked myself for not having been the sort to keep a journal -- though I did write some things down on occasion.
Also, when it came to matters of family research -- about lineage and events that happened in Cuba decades ago, before my folks came to this country, I found that such information varied depending on who I asked.
Without going to much about the process, I will say that I was also surprised by how I became rather blunt about certain events, and in a manner that I would have never attempted in fiction: because memoirs are ( despite whatever emotions they contain) objectively, hopefully factual narratives, while novels, for example, the same kinds of things can be told much more subjectively. (Though that habit still comes through with the memoir, especially in those places where the prose really sings.)
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
OH: For some reason, I used to joke that I'd always wanted to be an Admiral in the British Navy.
But more truthfully, having been quite sick as a child, I had always thought that becoming a medical doctor would have been something I could do -- though my wife tells me that I am the least scientific person in the world.
Having said that, I probably would have done something creative: as a teenager, and in my twenties, while beginning to write, I had always wanted to be a cartoonist or childrens' book illustrator (another practical occupation).
JG: What else are you reading right now?
OH: Well, while in a library I happened to pick up a book about Hannibal, not the cannibal, but the carthaginian warrior-- and that sent me off on a spate of digging up more books about him. Now, I'm onto reading histories of medicine-- I just follow some trails and stay with them until I move onto something else.
JG: What awaits you?
OH: Probably the looney bin, because no sooner do I finish one book, than I start thinking about another.
For more on "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," visit the Penguin Group website.