Reality Is Something to Be Read: A Conversation with Hernan Diaz

May 10, 2022   •   By Brian Castleberry

I AM PARTIAL TO, and personally invested in, a kind of fiction that looks at history the same way we look at ideas — not simply as a setting for characters to inhabit but as a series of concepts we’re all trying to understand, the author included. Where Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads (2021) can be said to be set in the 1970s, Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors (2020) is a work that is about history itself — about the fissures in our agreed-upon narratives, about power and guilt and individuality in the sweep of time, and about (however obliquely) the present day. It is a machine that helps us see our now with greater clarity.

Trust, the new novel by Hernan Diaz, Pulitzer Prize finalist for In the Distance (2017), is one of the finest examples of this type of work, and one that could hardly be timelier. Told through multiple texts that revise and break down its story, Trust unfolds its various parts to reveal a greater, more complex whole, taking an almost cubist view of early 20th-century business tycoon Andrew Bevel and his wife Mildred, two characters eternally wrestling with the public and private narratives that have defined them. Illuminating in its examination of power and economic history, it is also deeply human — and written with such precision and poetry that even its surprises appear etched in fine marble.

We spoke in early March via Zoom. Diaz, in a comfortable-looking gray sweatshirt, sat before an impressive library that runs to the high ceiling of his family’s Brooklyn apartment, a pair of William Gaddis novels looming just over his right ear. We spent a few minutes catching up on the COVID years and sharing our worries about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which had only begun a few days before. Then we settled in to talk about his work.

Author photo by Pascal Perich.


BRIAN CASTLEBERRY: Trust is a significant departure from your first novel, In the Distance. Here we follow multiple characters at different time periods, their stories delivered to us using divergent methods. Did the concept come to you fully formed or did you have to experiment a while to find its shape and approach?

HERNAN DIAZ: All I knew at first was that I wanted to write about extreme wealth and capital. My initial challenge was the fact that a great fortune is made of infinite mediations — the labor of the multitudes that produced it. This is why it didn’t seem right to narrate this story from one single perspective. To do its subject justice, the novel would have to be highly mediated as well. Hence all the layers in Trust. And when I became interested in how wealth distorts the reality around it, it only seemed reasonable to pitch these stories against one another and destabilize them. This structure seemed necessary to tell this story. Just as the slightly claustrophobic tone, the general sense of disorientation, and the extreme focus on one single consciousness seemed necessary for In the Distance.

In the Distance tapped into fundamental American myths about the frontier, and this new book centers on money and power. What about these latter themes drew you to the early half of the 20th century?

I think the narratives about capital are an even more fundamental myth in America than those about the frontier — even if in our canon there are so few novels that deal directly with finance. Perhaps this is what drew me to this project to begin with. Ever since the pilgrims set foot on this continent, wealth has had an almost transcendental dimension here. And the purpose of plundering the West was to fuel the machinery of capital. There is, then, a certain continuity between my previous book and this one. Come to think of it, during the 1920s there is a sort of financial Manifest Destiny. Honestly, though, my first motivation for setting this novel in the early 20th century was that I didn’t want characters sitting at computers or sending text messages. But also, very much like the push west, the 1920s and ’30s are such an emblematic moment in our history. I love to work with highly fossilized narratives — and then subvert them. In this case, I was upset at the glamorous picture of the ’20s we have come to accept. I was also disturbed by the fact that most novels that present themselves as a critique of privilege end up fetishizing the world they set out to denounce — they end up bedazzled by luxury and status. And as soon as I started reading for this project, it seemed clear that addressing all this was a great way to deal with our present in a somewhat oblique way.

I’m especially interested in that. How did you see past and present connecting up here?

The parallels with the Trump administration, during which this book was written, were startling: think, for example, of Harding’s and Coolidge’s exceptionalism and isolationism, the rather incompetent businessmen they appointed to cabinet positions, the drastic tax cuts for the rich, the protectionist tariffs, the racist restrictions on immigration from very specific countries, the emphasis on small government, the loopholes and lack of regulation of financial practices leading to speculation, grotesque excess, and inequality … All of this was both in my archival research and in the news every day.

Still, the character of Andrew Bevel is so perfectly a part of that time. Can you tell us a little more about him?

The main thing about Andrew Bevel, a colossally wealthy New York financier, is that he is willing — and to a great extent able — to align reality according to his vision of it. This is something that I found very powerful about wealth: how its gravitational pull warps everything around it. This could be why Bevel may speak to our present time: it’s so clear today that reality has been commodified. It is, effectively, for sale. And the measure of someone’s power can be established to the extent that they can impose this manufactured reality on others.

How did you go about researching Bevel’s world?

I read a great deal on the history of finance in America to come up with his voice and philosophy — for the most part, primary materials from the period. I also plodded through memoirs by the “great men” of finance and politics from those decades to find his entitled tone. But as I read these documents (from financial articles to academic treatises), I was also looking at more contemporary texts. There is a straight line (not merely a parallel) that goes from the Republican administrations before the New Deal to the present — and let’s not forget, halfway through this century-long tradition, free market fundamentalists like Milton Friedman (whom I read a lot for this project) and the whole Reagan era. It was fascinating to see how fiscal conservatism has been so ideologically consistent over the course of at least a century — and this unbending consistency shows how impervious this doctrine is to reality. I suppose that’s why it’s called conservatism.

You also do such an incredible job creating voices for these characters. Bevel in particular has a way of veiling and aggrandizing at the same time.

Reading those memoirs by “great men,” it was shocking to see how almost all of them had this unwavering conviction that the stories of their flawless lives deserved to be heard. When it came to the rhetoric of finance, though, one of the main things I was interested in was how intentionally abstruse these texts on economics were. I’m not dismissing the mathematical, sociological, and even behavioral complexities of economics, which are very much real. But I’m suspicious of the esoteric nature of the prose. It’s designed to expel the reader from it — obviously, to give the impression of how recondite and inaccessible finance is to the layperson. And this arcane language contributes to create a mystical halo around money. This rhetorical powerplay is an important component of the novel.

Yes. He talks like a man used to people being in awe of him. What about the other characters here? How did you keep their voices straight?

The book is narrated in four “documents,” each one with a different author. It was immediately apparent to me that the novel wouldn’t work if each voice wasn’t clearly defined and distinct — and the book is, to a large extent, about the meaning of “having a voice.” So, the specificity of each “document” had to go well beyond subject matter and a collection of verbal tics. I composed four strict style guides for each part, outlining the punctuation idiosyncrasies, syntactical quirks, and lexical preferences of each “author.” The idea was to create a specific grammatical atmosphere for each section.

Two women offer narratives that run against the grain of those created by Bevel and Vanner. Without giving too much away, can you speak to their roles in the novel?

Women have been almost completely excluded from the narratives of power and capital — both in fiction and in historical accounts. Their main roles in these stories have been reduced, for the most part, to those of wife, secretary, and victim. And they are almost always voiceless. A crucial question writing this novel was who had been gagged and who had been given a megaphone. This is why the notion of “voice” is so formally decisive in this book. It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but of course, these two women you mention are the absolute protagonists of Trust.

These separate voices also mean competing narratives, parallel versions of the story. It strikes me that we’re looking at a struggle over the “official story” of these powerful characters.

Writing the competing narratives was the most engaging part of the process to me. Since you bring up the notion of an “official story,” I should say that it was precisely this sort of unquestioned account the novel wanted to examine. Who gets to tell these official stories? Who gets silenced so that these sanctioned voices can be heard? History is a permanent negotiation with the past, a contractual relationship with truth that needs to be constantly renewed. By writing all these different versions of the story, I wanted to draw attention to the contracts we tacitly sign each time we read.

That gets us to the social role of fiction writers. Harold Vanner uses his work to challenge the powerful. Do writers have the kind of responsibility he takes on?

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the notion of the “engaged writer,” mainly because it subordinates literature to some other (greater, deeper) truth. And I believe, somewhat stubbornly, that literature has its own relationship to truth — and that rather than being tasked with imitating life, literature can show us how fiction has a decisive role in shaping our perception of reality.

Vanner is such a compelling figure in the book. Did you have any particular authors in mind as you built his character?

Harold Vanner is one of the central characters in the book, but he never appears in it. I fell in love with this premise and fought every temptation to bring him into the novel. To make things a bit clearer, Vanner is the author of the novel-within-the-novel that opens the book and triggers everything that happens in it: several people in “the real world” react to Vanner’s book, thus setting the whole plot in motion. He has a very particular style, and I found inspiration in writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Constance Fenimore Woolson for his voice. But he’s also a writer that comes a generation or two after them, and I was interested in retaining this outdated quality of his tone. Another great inspiration was Truman Capote, not necessarily in terms of style but more for his relationship with New York socialites and what his fascination with this world did to his writing career and his life.

Speaking of authors, who inspired your approach? I thought variously of Luiselli and Bolaño, but also of James and Mann and Cather, as I considered the novel’s forebears. Were any of these authors on your mind? Were there others?

Definitely James, yes: for tone (in the novel-within-the-novel), for some of his notions of class, for his fictional writers, and for the infinite layers of mediation that go into his personal relationships. And also for his deep interest in the relationship between literature and experience, which I think is at the heart of his fiction. About Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924) and Doctor Faustus (1947) are always somewhere in my mind. I didn’t reread them for this, but a Swiss clinic plays a great role in the novel, and music is very present in Trust (Adorno, who was so instrumental in Faustus, even has a tiny cameo!). Since you mentioned James, I should also say that Henry’s sister Alice was one of the crucial inspirations for the book. She wrote precious little, but her letters and diary were very important to me. Diaries were one of my greatest sources of inspiration, together with memoirs — a genre I had unjustly neglected before this project. Writers as disparate as Iris Origo, Mary McCarthy, Vernon Lee, Jean Rhys, Gillian Rose, Joan Didion, Natalia Ginzburg, and Penelope Mortimer were very present as I wrote this book.

One last thing. At one point, a character in Trust tells us, “I was not just a reader; I was a detective.” As a reader of this book, I often, too, felt like a detective. It is a very immersive experience, like we’re partners with the author. Was that something that you were aiming for as you wrote?

I’m so glad that was your reading experience! Yes, there are many clues planted throughout the four sections of the book, and the reader is enlisted as a textual sleuth. Also, the third section of Trust can be considered, in part, a reflection on detective fiction — on its conventions and heavily gendered nature: the transformation of a secretary into a detective is one of the main plot lines in this part of the novel. But in a wider sense, I think detective fiction is important in this context because it shows that reality is never a given but something to be constructed. It shows us that reality is something to be read. This is yet another way in which I think fiction can inform (rather than copy) reality. I’m very interested in questioning that specular, mimetic relationship that is expected between literature and life.


Brian Castleberry’s debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and an Indie Next selection and was long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His shorter work has been published in NarrativeDay OneLitHubThe Southern Review, and elsewhere.