Tucked away in a corner of Brooklyn’s Othmer Library, Hernan Diaz waves his hand over a shelf of 19th-century land records. The author is in his element. This stately room filled with black ash woodwork has long been one of his favorite places to stay, but today it’s back for the first time since the Center for Brooklyn History was closed to the public during the pandemic. The COVID protocol is still in effect – don’t touch the books. He gestures longingly for a stack of old cards.
The library has given Diaz a private visit for an interview about his new novel, To trust† published this week by Riverhead Books. Diaz took the literary scene by storm in 2017 when his first novel, In the distance, made its way from the slush pile at a small press to the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now, for the literary equivalent of his major label debut, he’s written a genre-bending, time-trapping story about New York City’s elite in the roaring 1920s and the Great Depression. Technically, Diaz is an author of historical fiction, insofar as his books are set in the past. However, it might be more accurate to call him a literary myth-buster, a writer who breaks down and re-examines classic American stories. In the distance tackled the Western from eerie new angles, and To trust unfolds the stories we tell ourselves about money, what they capture and what they exclude.
Diaz lives about a mile and 100 years away from the world of his new novel. On a tour of Carroll Gardens, he points out the street where some of his characters live, historic landmarks, and iconic Italian-American bakeries. You might think that living within walking distance of a novel’s setting would influence the project, especially after writing a western set in a distant American wasteland. But for Diaz, years are more important than miles.
“When we think of context, we think of space. So I could definitely go to Nevada or take the subway to Wall Street,” he says. “But there’s one second coordinate that’s usually left out, and that’s time. I was irrevocably removed from New York in the 1930s, and being here in the same place doesn’t bridge that huge gap.” Diaz orientates himself through research. When working on a novel, he only reads material related to the project; the books in the Othmer Library are infinitely more important to his process than site visits.
This relation to place seems to be related to Diaz’s own global background. He was born in Argentina, but his parents fled to Sweden as political refugees when he was two. His mother was a psychoanalyst and his father was a photographer, filmmaker and active member of a Trotskyist political group. Both were devoted leftists, and together they ran a bookstore with texts that would be banned after the right-wing coup of 1976. When the military overthrew Isabel Perón’s government (with the help of Henry Kissinger), friends and family of Diaz’s parents began to disappear. When they got suspicious phone calls of their own, his parents knew it was time to go. They sold everything they could and moved to Stockholm.
As a result, Diaz spent his early years in Sweden in the circle of his family’s political exiles. When the situation in Argentina was safer, his family returned, but Diaz felt an international itch that he needed to scratch. “At some point in my life I made the decision that I wanted to live in English,” he says. He has written fiction only in English and he speaks the language with the extraordinarily accurate vocabulary of multilinguals. After his undergraduate work in Argentina, he moved to London and then, in 1999, to Brooklyn. He lived in a half-derelict old factory in Williamsburg and attended Jacques Derrida graduate seminars at New York University before embarking on an academic career. That led him to Columbia, where he still edits modern spanish magazine, a distinctive magazine.