Hernan Diaz: A Q&A with the VCU Cabell First Novelist award winner

Portrait of Hernan Diaz by Jason Fulford

Katie Bashista, Spectrum Editor

Hernán Díaz, winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for his work, “In the Distance,” will speak at VCU Nov. 6.

His novel recounts the story of two Swedish brothers who leave their country for New York in the 1850s. The brothers are separated and the younger of the two, Håkan, ends up on a ship bound for California. He finds himself alone in the desert traveling on foot to the East Coast. As he crosses paths with those migrating West, he overcomes a complete disorientation, evolving into a heroic legend.

Díaz spoke with The Commonwealth Times about the unconventional nature of the novel and his unique creative process.

How did you come up with the plot for “In the Distance?”

I was living in London at the time and just by sheer coincidence I happened to read a bunch of books that take place in the desert. They were all from different canons. There was one Russian novel, there was an Italian novel, there was an American novel and maybe an Argentinian novel in there. So I started thinking, if we usually define the desert as a void, can there be different kinds of voids?

Also, since I’ve been a foreigner in one way or another my entire life, the desert seemed very productive in that regard. Can one be a foreigner in a totally context-deprived situation such as the desert. You know? So these were all very productive questions for me.

Then I decided to set the book in the United States around the 1850s and then that was also a very productive way just to talk about the American literary canon and that moment of American history that I think is all important and defining of even our present.


A portion of the book is written from the point of view of the character, and you use this kind of broken language effect to drive home the point that he is disoriented and foreign to the area. Why did you decide to do that?

I’m a real stickler when it comes to point of view and I take great issue when authors break away from it just to create some kind of narrative effect, I feel cheated. It seems almost immoral to do that, to manipulate the reader. So I stuck with it and the more I got to know Håkan, the hero, the more I realized that the story would gain a lot by my adhering to his perception of the world in the strictest way possible.


What are some takeaways you hope readers get from your novel?

I’m a little weary of reducing a 260 page long thing to a couple of sentences. I don’t want to boil it down or precondition anyone who is reading it. I can tell you what interested me about the project which was this idea of absolute foreignness and absolute loneliness and absolute disorientation. Those are the three things … the triangulation that interested me, but I would be weary to explain a couple of highlights or takeaways through this book.


Díaz will read from “In the Distance,” followed by a panel discussion at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6 at Cabell Library, Room 303. The reading and discussion will be followed by a reception, book sale and signing. The event is free, but registration is required.


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