Hernán Diaz, born in Argentina and raised in Sweden, upends the old-school western in his Pulitzer Prize–finalist In the Distance.
This book is an immigrant story, a historical novel sort of removed from time and place, and a fascinating deconstruction of the western. What about these elements intrigued you?
I found the kernel for this novel many years ago, when I first moved to London. By chance, I read several books about solitary characters in deserted settings. Perhaps because I was so utterly aware of my own foreignness, I started asking myself if there was anything specific about those different wastelands. What distinguishes one void from another? I found interesting contradictions. The larger the desert, for instance, the more intense the feeling of claustrophobia. Once I decided to set my story in America, I intentionally exacerbated these paradoxes—my character travels east during the great push west; the story is a Western without cowboys. I thought it was important to quite literally alienate the genre in order to question the ossified political assumptions at its core.
During much of the novel, Håkan is alone in remote parts of the West. Having a character by himself can be very difficult to pull off. How did you make these scenes so compelling?
This was one of the greatest challenges of the book. I adhered fanatically to Håkan’s point of view but didn’t allow myself to pry too much into his mind. Rather than focusing on his “interiority,” I was concerned with his body—how it met the world through its senses, how it was dwarfed by its surroundings, how it inhabited time. Sometimes I even thought of Håkan as a gentle animal.
What was the most difficult part of the book to write?
For ideological reasons, I found the few bursts of violence in the book very hard to write, and this is why they are so short. Then, late in the book, Håkan flees the world and is swallowed by the earth—he digs a burrow and spends years in a network of tunnels. This was always the gravitational center of the novel to me, a drain sucking in everything, from his sense of selfhood to time itself. It was very difficult to write this black hole.