blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Panel Discussion
Moderator: Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas. Panelists: Heather Cleary and Chris Fischbach
captured November 6, 2018

On November 6, 2018, Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Venegas interviewed Cabell First Novelist Award winner Hernan Diaz on a panel alongside Chris Fischbach, Diaz’s publisher at Coffee House Press, and Heather Cleary, a writer and translator who initially connected Diaz and Fischbach. Hernan Diaz won the Cabell First Novelist Award for his novel In the Distance, which was published by Coffee House Press in October 2017.

Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: Good evening, everybody. My name, for those who don’t know me, is Lina Maria Ferreira. We’ll leave it at that because it’s a bit longer than that, but it’s not important. So, I teach at VCU, I teach nonfiction, and I have the tremendous honor of moderating today. I’m going to keep an eye on the clock because I know that there will be questions, and I want you to have the chance to ask those questions. I know that a lot of things were competing for your attention today, and I’d like to thank all of you for making art matter by choosing for it to matter to you tonight. So, having said this, I am very excited about this book, I am still excited about this book, so thank you all for coming. I think I’ll start here: Henry James had this great way of thinking about the inception of books. He would think about gestational periods, and he would think about muses, and he would think about ideas. He called it a “germ of an idea,” so I like the idea of thinking of books as a pathology unto themselves. So my question is: can you tell us about the germ? The inception of this, and then maybe, Heather, you could tell us how you took it further from there? From germ to germination, if you are okay with that?

Hernan Diaz: Yeah, I love Henry James so much, and this is a very auspicious beginning to this conversation. Starting there, we’ll be okay. I, yes, I have a picture of Henry James on my desk.

LMFC-V: That was the question, that was really all I wanted to know.

HD: And I also like Nabokov who has another great way of describing the gestation. He says, you know, birds slowly start picking up twigs and pebbles and stray feathers for no particular reason, or without knowing why, and suddenly the bird looks around and there is a nest. And he, Nabokov, said that he worked that way, just collecting random pebbles and twigs, and looked around and it all made some sort of sense. I think that the germ, or the twigs, all of this was very unconscious  . . . it was hopeless, really. I happened to read a bunch of books that took place in deserts, in rapid succession, for no reason, it just happened—fortuitous—and I started thinking about the connection between these different deserts and if we sort of, somewhat irresponsibly, define the desert as a void, can there be different voids? Because they seem to be different, with the Russian desert, and the African desert, and the American, North American, South American, and so forth and so on. And that would answer the question of foreignness, and can one be a foreigner in a totally contested pride situation, like the desert; if there is no context, what does it really mean? So, these rather academic questions, which are totally true by the way, this is how it came down: there were chances to skew his other books.

Heather Cleary: Moving on from the academic questions that have been generated, I’ve known [Hernan Diaz], if not now, for maybe ten or so years (maybe I don’t want to count), but I was studying at Columbia so we’d known each other for a while. At some point he passed me the manuscript of the novel, and I don’t know why he trusted me enough to read it, but I was completely floored by it. And we talked about the book a little bit and, maybe a few weeks later, I had just started working at Coffee House on a translation that came out this July, called Comemadre. So Chris and I had been getting in touch, and I saw that he posted on Facebook a request for recommendations of Westerns. Now, he was not asking for manuscripts, and I knew this, but I sort of very coyly—and I can’t remember if I wrote to him at this point, or perhaps a little bit later—but I wrote to Chris, “Well, I do know this really wonderful book, but you’ll have to read it in Word format because it hasn’t been published yet.” And so Hernan sent me the latest draft, I passed it on, and then Chris said, “Oh, actually this was on submission, I’m interested in this. Do you recommend I take a look?” And I said absolutely, absolutely. And how long did it take? It was like a week, right? I remember it was very quick.

Chris Fischbach: Yeah, it was really quick.

HD: As a testament to Chris’s work ethic, I got—it was Fourth of July weekend, I was barbecuing—and I got an email from Chris Saturday. It was Saturday, he was reading manuscripts, mine, for the holiday.

CF: I think it’s that we get hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts every year. So I tag them when they come in as “looks interesting,” because I think, well, “I’ll get to it eventually,” but I tag lots of manuscripts as “looks interesting.” So, it was really that extra serendipity that happened. Because I studied literature and the American classics, and I loved the classics in undergrad. And it’s not really something, if you listen—I would never have said before that Coffee House publishes books that are on the American West—that’s not really our thing. It was a personal thing that I have, so this goes all the way down to the original Facebook post.

HC: So, there’s a lot for me to say about Facebook, but it did work out.

LMFC-V: Thank you, I meant to say this earlier, like I am entirely unimportant, you can just face them, you don’t have to crane your neck to look at me when you answer the question. Also, that’s such a magical journey for a book, it’s so unusual, I feel like you’re going to break our MFA students, they’re like, “That’s how you get a book out there, that’s Fourth of July weekend.” So, I have a lot of questions, and I’m going to have to limit myself, but since you brought this up, I was hoping—well, I was reading it, I read a lot of similarities and influences, I thought, “Okay, there’s Castor and Pollux, and Melmoth the Wanderer, and there’s definitely Homeric songs here, and Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter, Vonnegut, Borges for sure. That’s what I was thinking, but I would love to hear more about, like, you were reading a lot of books, but when it came to prose, when it came to putting things together, who were you looking to and how did you negotiate between inspiration and originality?

HD: There are so many . . . there are like nine questions in there. I’ll try and do all of them. The first one is about—and they’re all great—the first one about influences and what I was reading during this. As I said a moment ago, this started with reading, and the reading never stopped during the writing. I know other people stop reading stuff that’s related to that, I totally get that, but this wasn’t the case for me here. I was living for years on a very strict diet of nineteenth century literature. Which is kind of where I go, left to my own devices, so it’s perfectly happy, it’s not always a chore or anything. I read a lot of Victorian literature, and I love Charles Dickens; he’s very important to me. So that was a knee-jerk presence. And then, of course, the nineteenth century American tradition—Melville, who I sort of read, and reread during the writing of this book. Also, the whole tradition of travel writers and naturalists. Conspicuously, John Muir, but also Bartram and Hartman and Richard Henry Dana Jr., and there’s a whole tradition that has been sadly somewhat neglected, because I think they’re fantastic writers. And transcendentalism was very big, as you can probably tell from the last bit I read. There’s a lot of Emerson in there, who was very important to me. But also there are three twentieth century writers that spoke to me—oh, George Eliot, I should also mention, from the nineteenth centuries—but the three twentieth-century writers that spoke to me were very, very important: Samuel Beckett, David Markson, and, weirdly, Theodor Adorno, who is the most claustrophobic writer I know, and I love him, and I read him a lot and thought about him a lot during the writing of this book.

CF: Did we talk about Markson?

HD: Have we talked about Markson?

LMFC-V: Do you want to do it now? This is the moment, if you would like.

HD: Yeah right, because Markson wrote a Western that I don’t like, The Ballad of Dingus Magee, which is kind of like a satire; it’s all in this sort of Western patois, and it’s all jargon, and it’s a weird book. It’s not for me. I like Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Vanishing Point. Those two books are enormous to me. What about you?

CF: No, I’ve read all of it also. I didn’t know if we’d talked about this. I can see Wittgenstein’s Mistress being an inspiration for that—it’s fascinating. And it comes to mind as a Western that’s an outlier, but also I think about how so much of Markson is an accumulation of facts and other stories and other pieces in a way that—not that your novel is really about that, it’s having to travel through the West, but rather to have to piece together, from everything you’ve read . . .

HD: Yeah, yes.

CF: Rather than an overt . . .

LMFC-V: Thank you, I’m going to stack a question again, and I apologize in advance, I just need to keep track of time. So while I was reading In the Distance, I kept thinking of Benjamin’s quote that “all great works of literature either dissolve the genre or invent one” of their own. And I was contemplating how—and I don’t know if while you were writing this in your heart you had dissolution or creation in your heart, I have no idea—but I was struck by the fact that it is simultaneously working within the expectations of a genre and challenging them at every turn. So I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit about that on the macro scale as well as the micro scale, because there were some formatting choices that you made as well, these blank spaces and passages that I ended up calling “even horizonal expanses” because that’s how it happened on the first page, but carry on.

HD: Well first of all, I can’t believe that you managed to read off two members of the Frankfurt school in your two first questions and were not intending it. If you can work Horkheimer into your next question, that would be great. Oh yes, the genre—where is that quote from?

LMFC-V: I actually wrote it down, then, as I was flicking my pen, there’s ink all over this so I have no idea, but I’m glad that you asked that question. I do know. I will find out for you.

HD: I like commonplaces and topoi and clichés, and I think they’re great. People usually flee from them; I run to them. Because I think they do a lot of work for you if you’re able to wrestle them and do some kind of judo move with them and turn them around; I love it. I believe that literature is written with literature, so in this case I turned to it once I decided it would take place in the American nineteenth century. I thought, “Oh the Western is such a—” and I didn’t know anything about Western novels, and I feel very few people do. We all know Western films, if we think about it, and then we also know what is called “anti-Westerns,” because Westerns have a bad rap. So whenever a Western is interesting as a piece of literature it’s immediately called an “anti-Western,” as if you had to negate the genre for it to be acceptable as, you know? But where are the Westerns that the anti-Westerns are writing against? Who reads those books? Very few people do, but I don’t want go into that, unless you want me to. I try to focus on these commonplaces of the genre, and all of them are extremely politically loaded because they, as all commonplaces do, have these sort of tectonic layers of ideology. They have to do predominantly with gender, race, and the obsession with private property, in Westerns, the systematics of the extractivist relationship to nature, and I thought—oh, and an individual above the institution. Right? Vigilantism, huge thing in Westerns—so I thought by questioning all these tropes perhaps I could say something about American history. Because, you know, if you have a saloon, a band, and a saddle, you already have a lot of things in place right there, in terms of beginning with gender structure. So all of that, all those ready-mades, to me were very interesting. Just from that statement, Francis Parkman, who wrote The Oregon Trail—which is a great book that Herman Melville reviewed and ripped apart—says in a later introduction to some book, Parkman does, that “the Wild West ends with the cowboy.” Which is totally true, because with the cowboy there are cows, and with cows there are fences, and when there’s fences there’s private property, and there’s nothing wild about that. So think of all the Westerns you’ve seen over the years, and they’re all about after when that happened. So my book takes place before all of this, so it’s more like pre-Western, sort of super model.

LMFC-V: Do you want to talk about the even horizonal expanses? Or you can skip that question.

HD: Oh yeah, I was talking to some people at the reception, it seemed a nice thing to try to mimic graphically what’s going on. The first sentence in the book is “The hole, a broken star on the ice, was the only interruption on the white plain, merging into the white sky. No wind, no life, no sound.” So I thought why not make a whole typographical poem on the page surrounded by this whiteness, and then the next short paragraph continues with this swirling, this whiteness. There’s no reference, we don’t know where we are in time or in space, it’s just white, white, white, white, white. And then the last words on the page are—we have this head emerging out of the hole, into this contested part of whiteness, and thenyou turn around, you turn the page around, and context comes rushing in. There’s a schooner, there are these prospectors, and then you’re fully in the nineteenth century. So, there are other moments like that in the book, passages that are repeated, other blanks, and, you know, it’s hard—I didn’t want it to be a gimmick, so I try to be cautious and employ that air of subjectivity.

LMFC-V: Thank you. Would the other panel members, the illustrious panel members, like to address this idea of genre and challenging format and genre? Because I know that many, not just students, but people working on their manuscripts are afraid to take some of those risks because the expectation is “Well this turns publishers off, this is a thing that’s a red flag and people might be afraid of it.”

CF: I think that you [Heather] published another writer named Brian Evenson—I was talking to you earlier about this—I think that, basically, we published his literary horror, but then he has his straight up high horror, one which is with Tor, which is like the Grand House, and then he publishes genre horror, with alien series. These are not very different, actually, you could probably interchange some of them, and it’s really about branding, or how much he is—I shouldn’t say that, they are different—but you can tell that he’s conscious of the genre as he’s writing through the literary horror stuff. And that is where he’s underneath the comment, he’s commenting on it, or he’s trying to stretch it, and I am very interested in people messing with genre. Whether it’s crime, Western, horror, even noir, like those kinds of things. Actually, noir had a sort of heyday of literary writers dipping their toes into that around the turn of the century, like Jonathan Lethem and, a very hot summer, we published a few other writers. I don’t think you should be afraid. First of all you shouldn’t be afraid to do anything, you should do what comes natural. There are some publishers who are going to be turned off by that, but there are going to be other publishers, like Coffee House, who are going to be very interested in that work, that’s very well done, and that’s trying to do something new. That’s a big difference between, to me, genre and literary genre, is trying to do something completely new within that frame. Rather than doing the same thing as every book, basically, within the Western genre.

HC: Okay, I have two different answers to this question. One as a translator and one as the pseudo-agent of this book. What really struck me about this novel was the force that language has—honestly the prose is impeccable. But also because language itself is thematized, it actually becomes an actor in the novel, and that materiality of language works really well with these gestures of working with the spatial layout. And I think that when you have integration of foreign content, in a way . . . I just said foreign content, with embarrassment. When you have integration in that way and it makes sense, then it’s great. If it’s artificial or an ornament, right, and it’s not actually coming from the popular novel itself, then one might be wary, so that would be my two cents.

LMFC-V: Thank you, I have so many more questions, but I want everybody else to have a chance, so, here’s my final question, and then we’ll open it up for the audience. Which is: a friend of mine does this section when she teaches—she teaches in Iowa—she says, “I come to you from the future, I would like you to think of the one thing you did really well, that you’re glad that you did when approaching this book, and one thing you maybe wish you had done differently, or could have facilitated in a different way.” Is that a strange question?

HD: Yes.

LMFC-V: Good. That’s what I was going for, you don’t have to answer it, we can still open it, but I just wanted to give a little bit of time for people to come up with their questions. It’s an unfair question. I recognize that.

HD: It’s bizarre, I worked on this book for a lot of time, and it’s close to what I wanted to do. It has nothing to do with its value, it’s just an analogical statement. My idea for the book and the book are close to one another, that’s all I am saying. I wish Chris would let me edit it again. Can we make that happen? I don’t know, yeah, sorry, this is very unsatisfactory as an answer, isn’t it?

LMFC-V: We know you did well, which is why you are here. It’s okay for you not to recognize, we are very much aware.

HD: I don’t mean this to be narcissistic, or some sort of hubris, you know, this is just: it’s done, it’s done.

LMFC-V: Questions from the audience?

Audience Member: I haven’t heard anything about the Scandinavian influence, especially since, I don’t know whether it’s just coincidence, but the publisher is set in a city that has a Scandinavian tradition.

HD: So your question is about the Scandinavian influence? Yeah, I grew up in Sweden, that’s very straightforward. I moved to Sweden when I was two years old, and Swedish is kind of my first language in the world. So I grew up there and it’s a big part of my life, and the second part is purely coincidental.

CF: Yeah, it has much to do with me liking the book, but I knew someone in that continent.

Audience Member: You do that so gracefully. This is a craft question, so I’m sorry if it seems pedantic, but I’m wondering if you could talk about—I noticed that the book is told from the third person, yet I noticed that, even in the sections you read, there’s a way that the lyricism brings you into this specific experience of one of the characters. So I was wondering if you could talk about the composition process and how that sort of tendency, if it is a tendency, emerged? Or maybe how you think about sonics or lyricism in scene rendering?

HD: Yeah, that’s great, and there are many questions in there that I’m trying to remember. So, point of view and oral, auditive, sonic aspects. Regarding the first question, and this relates to the future question actually, here’s something I would do a little bit differently, which is: yes, it’s third person, and we stick very strictly with Håkan’s point of view. We don’t know anything about the minds of the other characters except for what they show physically; there’s no introspection into their psyches, and I tried to limit our access to Håkan’s mind as much as I possibly could. I don’t like interiority, it’s such an ugly word to begin with, so I use that sparingly. If from the future I could redo something I would, and the work I’m doing now is almost fanatical about that, about the boundary of the body, that there’s no access beyond that, and that’s what I’m interested in now. And about sound, I’m very happy that you brought that up because I am a very sound-oriented person, and I always try to think about how things sound, both in terms of syntactically how the sentence sounded, but also in terms of the scene, what was going on orally in the scene. I’m a failed musician, but I’m really into music, and I listened to a lot of music while writing this, and I think one of my major influences is Morton Feldman. I don’t know if you guys know his music, but it’s something to look up and be awed by. He’s an American modern composer mostly from the ’50s to ’60s, and a friend of John Cage, and also a big influence on lens and voice. So, yeah, thank you, that was a great question.

Audience Member: Thank you so much. This book was such a captivating experience. I feel like I’m going to be carrying the visceral aspect of it with me for the rest of my life, so thank you for that, and the great news is I’m here with my book club, so we’re going to have an opportunity to do that and extend this beyond, beyond for the book club. And I think the thing that I’m most curious about—that last passage that you read has to be one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever heard. The reverence that you expressed for nature and the spirituality of the oneness of us all—I have to ask, I know you were pulling from Emmerson and transcendentalists, but I’m wondering, is that also a personal experience for you?

HD: It is in a very, for the most part, intellectual way, because I’m a city kid and I’ve always lived in cities my entire life, basically always. So maybe by contrast I do have a heightened experience of nature when I’m lucky enough to be in it. I am—this sounds very poorly—but I am genuinely moved by it, it’s the closest I can get to religion, I suppose. So, I guess I’m sort of a Godless head case or something like that.

Audience Member: Thank you, hi. So I just wanted to second that emotion, I think that In the Distance was a really great book, captivating from the very beginning to the very end. I have to thank my instructor for putting it on the syllabus. The ending of the book, Håkan on the cliff—is there going to be an In the Distance II? So interesting, and it was so intriguing. I was really expecting more, I wanted to see how it all turned out for Håkan. Could you comment on that?

HD: Yeah, I, there will not be a sequel. But, yeah, the ending to me was a good moment when I came up with that. Sorry, can’t really talk about this, but there was a minor twist, it’s not like oh it wasn’t about . . . there’s a minor little thing there that we can talk about there if you like. But, no, I’m sorry this is going to be it. I know it’s disappointing in a way because it is about loneliness, so that’s why it ends the way it ends.

CF: Maybe you could just do fan fiction.

Audience Member: I had actually two questions, and you sort of addressed one already. I was very interested in Lorimer’s philosophy, and when I was reading it it sort of reminded me of Lucretius and the void, and atoms and nothing at all, and I was wondering where that philosophy came from that you attributed to Lorimer. And then I just wanted to get a quick response: the Americanization of the central characters kept coming up in a number of different places, and I wanted you to sort of comment on that as well.

HD: About Lorimer’s influences, the main one is Ralph Waldo Emerson without question. The second one is John Muir, and the third one, especially in this passage—because Lorimer has a big part in the book, he’s not there for a long time, but when he’s there he’s very very present, and has a very, very strong voice. The third influence was actually Adorno’s enemy, Martin Heidegger. I was thinking about Heidegger for this passage and his idea of being as something that unveils itself and comes forth toward us, and the more we try to domesticate it and subjugate it to, let’s call it instrumental reason, and where it deceives and goes away from us, and how unattainable it becomes. So that is Heidegger essentially, but also it’s made up, it’s a philosophical system that draws from all these sources, but it’s just made up. Oh I’m sorry, the name. I knew that I wanted, because people have trouble here and in Sweden with my name, pronouncing it, I don’t care, but it happens to me every day, having a little moment, so I thought that was good for the book. I thought the name would be hard to pronounce. I actually kind of wanted to name the novel Håkan just to be annoying. I also like the fact that he has the circle over the a, so sort of graphic use of, is that a control-F4? How do you do that on a Mac? You know, I like that, and then it was just a stroke of pure luck that I discovered it could be broken up in this way that it could be “The Hawk,” it was Håkan first, you know, early on in the book, and then “Oh, I can do this thing with his name.” And also, lastly, I thought of this character a lot as an animal throughout, with that relationship to time, to consciousness, to surroundings, and his slave name “The Hawk” is animalizing. So that was a nice thing, that all of these things came together. Not all of this is planned, it’s just fortunate.

LMFC-V: Thank you so much for being here with us.

HD: Thank you.  

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas is the author of Don’t Come Back (Mad River Books, 2017) and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Heather Cleary is the literary translator of Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre (Coffee House Press, 2018) and a founding editor of Buenos Aires Review.

Chris Fischbach is Hernan Diaz’s publisher at Coffee House Press.

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