Hernan Diaz writes in longhand, covering every square inch of every page in his notebooks. "I prefer to write with this pen," he said, "because if one can feel love for objects, I feel love for this pen. There is the sensual experience of writing longhand. There is something about the murmur of the pen on the paper. There is nothing like it for me."
He showed "Sunday Morning" the handwritten manuscript of the novel that just won him the Pulitzer Prize, "Trust." But he's uncomfortable, even a little bit superstitious, about letting a camera capture something so intimate and personal.
An international bestseller, published in 35 languages, "Trust" is about how money is made, the kaleidoscopic telling of the same story in four different voices – one novel comprised of four books.
He described the process at an event at the Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, the home of Edith Wharton. "I think the most pleasurable book to write was the first one, because I came up with a conceit that allowed me to write in this obsolete, beautiful tone, and I was so happy!"
Think Wharton's novels about wealth and class during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. "She's a major influence in my writing, in my way of thinking about prose and the English language and the novel as a form," Diaz said.
Wharton, author of "The Age of Innocence" and "The House of Mirth," was part of the privileged class of Old New York Society. Her father did not work; his family money came from his grandfather, who'd made it in shipping. Her mother's family dated back to the Mayflower.
It was a monied world where money isn't mentioned, but it does speak … in other words, exactly the kind of world that Andrew Bevel, the stratospherically rich, fictional tycoon in "Trust," comes from.
One point Bevel makes in the acquisition of his fortune is shocking:
"My job is about being right. Always. If I'm ever wrong, I must make use of all my means and resources to bend and align reality according to my mistake so that it ceases to be a mistake."
In the style of the "great man" memoir, he pontificates about manipulating markets during the crazy, booming 1920s, and then again when Wall Street crashes in 1929, his fortune growing exponentially while other people are ruined.
Then, Diaz twists the kaleidoscope so readers see the man's wife through her diary. "As I started reading about American finance and the history of money-making in America, it became absolutely apparent that this was a male world, an utterly womanless world," he said. "And it was crushing also doing my research and going through the papers of the wives of real American tycoons to see how suffocating and claustrophobic most of their lives were."
Diaz researches like the Ph.D. scholar he is, and then sets about myth-busting, taking tropes of the American story and picking them apart.
Along the promenade in Brooklyn, he indicated the river that divided the worlds of Manhattan's financial district and the Italian enclave where one of his characters lived. "The book is very much interested in this dissonance, in this contrast of these two realities on either side of the East River," he said.
"I am the son of Italian immigrants," he said. "They went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, but they could just as well have ended up here in Brooklyn, and I don't think you can write about New York City without writing about immigration. This is a city of immigrants, all of us."
Fifty now, Diaz moved to Sweden at the age of two, his parents forced to flee Argentina after a military coup. "We spoke Spanish at home, but I spoke Swedish out in the world, and I went to grade school there. And then, with the return of democracy we all moved back to Argentina.
"I can't say I was happy at the time. It was very hard for me. And I think the decision to move at age 23, 24, first to London, where I lived for a couple of years, and then to Brooklyn, here, where I've been for over 25 years now, had to do, you know, with choosing my own linguistic home, and that was English. I love the sound of English, the music of English. I love the things my face has to do to speak English. It feels good."
Diaz also loves libraries, "It was a lifesaver, you know, a true refuge," he said of his favorite spot, at the Center for Brooklyn History, near his home. "Most of the things that I've written since I moved to this neighborhood, which was in 2010, I've written in this room."
He wrote for years, without recognition. He said, "It was a sad, dark, long stretch of my life, you know, under the cold shadow of rejection that went on for a really, really, really long time. And I kept writing just out of sheer love of language and sentences."
Until, at last, a miracle of validation: he sent a book he'd written in those red notebooks to a small publisher in Minneapolis, Coffee House Press. "They have one day a year where they accept unsolicited submissions," he said.
It was his lucky day: "They took it on without any kind of questions," he said. And his reaction? "There were a lot of tears."
His novel, "In the Distance," an eerie, genre-bending Western, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. And then, this year he won for "Trust."
"Over the course of five years, these massive things happened," Diaz said. "It's a lot to take in, really. But my goals have not changed. My goal is always that the sentence that I'm writing is as beautiful as it can be."
Like this one, at the end of "Trust":
Words peeling off from things
In and out of sleep. Like a needle coming out from under a black cloth and then vanishing again. Unthreaded.
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "Trust" by Hernan Diaz (Riverhead Books), in Hardcover, Large Print Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
- The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts
- Center for Brooklyn History
Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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