In 2018, American author Hernan Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Five years later in 2023, he won the prize for his novel Trust. The Pulitzer Prize website describes it as a riveting novel set in a bygone America that explores family, wealth, and ambition through linked narratives rendered in different literary styles, a complex examination of love and power in a country where capitalism is king.

Trust is also the winner of the 2022 Kirkus Prize, was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and was listed as one of The New Yorker’s 12 Essential Reads of the Year. One of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2022, Trust (starring Oscar-winner Kate Winslet) is currently being developed as a limited series for HBO.

At first glance, one might feel that such remarkable success has come to him very early in his writing career but Diaz points out that he has been writing all his life because he “loves language and beautiful sentences” and In the Distance was simply the first novel to be published.

Born in Argentina, Diaz has written extensively on the American dream and materialism. In a conversation organised by the Jaipur Literature Festival, he talked to Scroll about why every country creates its own myths, how fictions become history, and why there is no space for the sacred in literature and art.

Diaz will also discuss his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with writer Katie Kitamura at the festival on February 2. On February 4, he’ll join writers Damon Galgut, Monica Ali, Tim Parks, and Katie Kitamura in a conversation on the craft of writing fine fiction.

Excerpts from the conversation with Scroll:

You were not born in the US. You came to America from Argentina and Sweden. But when I read both of your books, Trust, more recently, I had a feeling that you have come to this understanding that the American dream is largely unattainable. So I want to know that at what point in your life did you realise that the American dream is nothing but a myth and maybe more so for people who were not born in the country?
You know, I think as anyone who was not born in the United States, this is quite apparent. I think if you have a critical mind, if you’re awake, and if you are inquisitive enough, then you quite quickly realise that the American dream is a myth. And let’s also pause on the fact that you have to be asleep to have a dream.

So this notion that just by virtue of your ingenuity and hard work, and individual will you can overcome any kind of obstacle implies to a certain extent that you are not fully awake to your reality. There are many other factors such as privilege, upbringing, not to mention, of course, the different forms of exploitation that have shaped American history throughout time.

I think the American dream is a form of self-mythologising and often of glamorising greed. It’s indisputable that if you ask anyone what the American dream is, I think all of the definitions that come attached to it will be related to the acquisition of wealth and the accumulation of private property. And that’s what it is. Perhaps there is a component of freedom in there, but it’s not collective freedom. It’s your own personal freedom – to accrue more and more wealth. I find it a very questionable notion, but at the same time, it’s not a notion that concerns me too much.

Like I never thought of it for myself. And it seems pretty obvious, both from the outside and inside, now that I’ve spent most of my life in the United States, that it’s just an ideological tale.

Do you think that these myths and histories that you just talked about, affect an immigrant’s experience, even for someone who’s as well positioned as you are?
I don’t want to speak for other people, but I think there’s something very powerful about the myth and the fictions of America in general that keeps attracting people to this country, despite all the hardships that surely they know they will encounter once they get here. But it seems to me that the myth is sometimes stronger and more eloquent than the reality that you see by opening any newspaper and reading the news about the United States. So to that extent, for sure, it has always shaped the migratory currents that came into the United States.

As to my personal day-to-day life, as I said in my previous response, this is not something that I think about too much. I do think about different myths about the United States, and obviously, in my work, this is something that I’m very attuned to and explore in what I write. But this notion of the American dream is a little bit exhausting to me. It’s a little tired. So much has been said about it already. I’m interested in other things.

And both your novels can be situated in very particular times of American history. For example, the Great Depression, of course, then the Gold Rush and the Roaring Twenties. Why the fascination with these periods in history? In particular, the early 20th century.
Well you know, the previous book [In the Distance] solidly takes place in the 19th century. So there is a progression there that was unintentional. I didn’t mean to go in a tidy kind of fashion from one century to the other or move decade by decade – it just happened that way.

But this has to do with your previous two questions, which is that, I am really interested in the way in which this country creates these fictions for itself. And I’m sure that India creates its own fictions for itself. And I know that Sweden creates its own fictions for itself and so does the UK and Argentina. The collection of these fictions is what we come to think of as history.

The ones we choose to believe are what we call the history of a country. So I’m very interested in the nodes in the intersections between fiction and historical records – that kind of intersection is very fruitful to me. Plus, I think highly iconic periods such as the Gold Rush or the Roaring Twenties or the Great Depression present a unique opportunity to think about these intersections between myth and fact. So the time between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression of the Thirties, was also the time when America created much of its wealth, right?

And that is what we see in Trust as well.

One of the protagonists, Andrew Bevel, reaches unimaginable levels of wealth, but towards the end of his life, or even in the middle of his life, he is extremely lonely. He’s losing his wife. He’s losing his family as he knows it. So how do you see this juxtaposition of intense personal lack against a collective excess, you know, be it money or be it fashion?
That’s a really good question. During the inception of the book, I was actually thinking about dissonant coupling and that is what initially made me want to write Trust, which then became about many other things in addition to that.

But I imagined because I have never been a tycoon, so I don’t know, but I imagined that having that kind of money – not just enough to ensure you are okay – but being stratospherically rich surely must come with complete access to other people, experiences, and all kinds of goods. The world fully opens up if you are that rich. So that’s on the one hand, but on the other hand, I imagine also, you must also be assailed with a sense of paranoia, self-seclusion, and self-isolation. This binary, to me, was very interesting. The juxtaposition or the friction between these two diametrically opposed possibilities.

One is full openness and full access and the other one is isolation and self-confinement. So your deduction is right. This is front and centre in the book and I suppose everything I write has to do to some extent with loneliness. So I ended up there, you know.

Like you said, Andrew Bevel was stratospherically rich but then there’s [his personal secretary] Ida’s father who goes so far as to say that money is fiction. And she worries that if her father gets to know that she’s working for a billionaire, then a rift might appear between her and her father. You’ve never been a tycoon and all of us who are in the creative profession know that there will always be a lack between wanting wealth and making the money we make in reality. How do you understand this relationship as a writer?
I think that’s the experience of most of us in the world if we don’t belong to that 0.1 per cent bracket that owns most of the wealth on the planet. We sadly live in this culture. Though I have never been to India and I don’t have a sense of how capital and wealth are experienced there, I have a feeling it’s probably a very uneven, unequal society, just like in the United States. Or in most of Latin America. We live in a time where money itself has become a fetish.

There was a time when money could buy what we coveted. People could want whatever – an ostentatious house, a fancy car, you name it. But I feel that now money itself has become a thing. And that to me is a very curious phenomenon. We have developed a fetish for something that is a mere vehicle at the end of the day but we have started to covet money for money’s own sake. And this is something that I wanted to think a little bit about.

While In the Distance is a straightforward novel, in Trust you use a memoir, a journal, and a novella within a novel to tell the story. Does employing multiple styles or multiple formats free you up as a storyteller?
I don’t think I’m freer because I have all these different registers, genres, or voices in the book. In fact, it felt like a very strict formal constraint for me. I don’t know if I felt liberated or freed in any way. I did feel, however, that such a formal experiment was necessary for this book. The book is about, among other things, why we show immediate confidence in some voices, and why we are more reluctant to believe other voices. Why are we more prone to listen to somebody? And why are we so dismissive of others? What is it in a certain genre or in a certain tone that predisposes us to trust the text right off the bat? What terms and conditions do we tacitly agree to when we start reading any text? All of these questions were very interesting to me, but because in the end, the answer to them has to do with what is the relationship between narrative and truth, right?

So I thought it would be more interesting and more fun for the reader to experience these voices rather than having a third-person narrator lecturing on these distinctions. This is why the text has this particular structure, it was also in the service of what was being said.

You just said right now that sometimes we tend to trust something implicitly. Right off the bat. So this is interesting because your novel is titled Trust and there is the willingness to be led by the writer, right? I’ll go wherever you take me. I will ingest the text. So I wanted to know, do you feel that the relationship between a writer and the reader is sacred? And at what point in your creative process does the writer come into the picture? Do you think about the reader when you start writing your novel?
I dislike the word sacred because I’m a profound atheist and I’m very much militantly against the intrusion of the sacred in literature and art. I think art is a secular space. I think art is a space of pleasure, of enjoyment, of a very strange way of learning about the world and experiencing who we are on this planet. It’s a space of doubt. The sacred has this ring of absolute certainty to it that I can’t get behind. I’m not trying to be a quibbler or anything, it’s just a word that raises all sorts of red flags for me. Sacred. I’m a profoundly profane writer. And person.

Of course, I think of the reader but not in a marketing kind of sense – like, oh, this person is a reader, they are somewhere between 25 and 55 years of age, belongs in this socioeconomic segment, and is of this or that gender. It’s a very faceless kind of reader and I think of the reader as someone who is infinitely more intelligent than I am. I always think of the reader with enormous respect and I want to give them something that is stimulating, challenging, hopefully beautiful, and hopefully full of emotions. I think of the reader as someone who will be intellectually tickled by what I’m saying but also emotionally satisfied. So this is the reader in my head – a faceless person. I don’t know what this person looks like but I’m writing for their intellect and emotions.

Going back to your text, I might be wrong here, but in the 1920s, you wouldn’t think that a man of great repute such as Benjamin Rask would be so considerate of his wife’s opinions or feelings. I think men who are extremely important or rich tend to be a bit dismissive towards women, correct? However, in the section “Bonds”, we see how devoted the husband is to his wife. Is there any reason why it was important for you that Mr Rask be portrayed as a loving husband?
That’s a great question. It was very important that he be portrayed as a loving husband. And I can tell you exactly why. It’s the key aspect of that character because it was crucial to me to endow that character with a sense of humanity, a personhood, an interiority as far as we can see through his perspective. I was very wary of turning the character into a caricature of a tycoon – as some sort of a piñata or a straw man or a parody that is there just to be beaten up with a stick. That would have been very easy and it was kind of tempting to have him be sort of like a top-hatted, cigar-chomping man but I thought that the point where he would become a person for whom we could feel a modicum perhaps of empathy would be in his private tragedy of being profoundly, almost mystically in love with his wife but his wife simply doesn’t love him back. I think they have a very respectful relationship, which is true of many marriages especially those that are of social convenience. She’s not dismissive of him. She’s not cruel to him in any way, but it’s also very clear that she is unable to love him and he knows that.

It was important for me to give him that secretly tragic side. To make him a really real character.

In the Distance was a finalist and Trust won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So does it, does it make you nervous about the fate of your next novel? Or do you try to not take these laurels too seriously?
It’s hard not to take them seriously. I wish I could be cool and tell you, Oh, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. The work is the work. And I do believe all of that. I do believe that the work is the work. But I also believe that it’s a massive honour, but it’s also a lot of attention and that’s kind of hard.

It can get hard to write with that amount of attention, to find the quiet and the sense of emptiness that I need to work with, but I’m getting there.

Is there a way to stay rooted when success comes so early in your publishing career?
It’s not early in my career. I just turned 50 and I’ve been writing all of my life and nobody would publish me. Everything I submitted to agents, publishers, editors, magazines, everything was rejected, everything. And, you know, I have other books that remain unpublished because nobody has shown any interest. In the Distance is not my first novel at all it’s just my first published novel because nobody wanted to touch my books with a 10-foot pole! And it was only six years ago that In the Distance came out whereas I’ve been writing since I was a child.

I’ve been doing it because I love language and I love beautiful sentences and not because I was hoping that all of this would ever happen to me. And I’m very happy and grateful but it wasn’t the plan.

Hernan Diaz accepts the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction at the Columbia University. (Image by Diane Bondareff/The Pulitzer Prizes)

Hernan Diaz will be speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival at the following dates:

February 2, 2024
Hernan Diaz in conversation with Katie Kitamura: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hernan Diaz’s recent work, Trust, is a riveting tale that challenges the myths shrouding wealth, and the fictions that often pass for history. Following the different versions of the story of a Wall Street businessman and his wife in the years leading up to the Great Depression, the novel strikingly captures the human weakness for self deception. Winning the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction the novel will also soon be adapted into a TV series. In conversation with art critic and writer Katie Kitamura, Diaz reflects on the concept of trust as both a moral quality and a financial arrangement, as though virtue and money were synonymous.

February 4, 2024
Damon Galgut, Hernan Diaz, Monica Ali, Tim Parks and Katie Kitamura in conversation with Nandini Nair: Where does fiction come from? What is the process of its creation? How do you make up characters and situations that are believable? And why should the reader care? Five of the world’s acclaimed novelists, Damon Galgut, Hernan Diaz, Tim Parks, Monical Ali and Katie Kitamura, share their insights on the art of creating a novel in conversation with Nandini Nair.