Hernan Diaz's Path to Winning The Pulitzer
Hernan Diaz, winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Trust,” began his conversation at the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff, N.Y. on Tuesday, May 16 with a story about his upbringing. As a child, before he had the faculty to write, he’d drawn doodles which he would bring to his mother and say, “Look at what I’ve written, Mom!” Driven toward storytelling from that young age, Diaz’s path to the Pulitzer was one he described, with moving honesty, as frequently lonely.
Diaz was in conversation with Bill Clegg, his agent at the Clegg Agency and author of “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” among others. The two had a familiar and charming relationship. Clegg, a resident of Sharon, Conn., recounted the story of how he and Diaz had first met, when Diaz sent in his first unpublished manuscript. Clegg characterized that first book as “full of this blinding prose,” but decided not to take it on. Clegg sent out what Diaz called, “the nicest rejection letter I ever got.”
The next Clegg heard of Diaz was when the author’s first published novel (the second he had written), “In the Distance,” was put out by Coffee House Press in 2017. The book would go on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Once Clegg read it, he called Diaz to congratulate him and comment on how genuinely stunning he’d found it. “I was so completely blown away,” Clegg said, which promoted Diaz’s response — “That’s so kind, when I sent it to you and didn’t hear back I assumed…” Clegg, still on the call (“I could actually hear his furious typing”), then frantically searched through his inbox, and found the unopened email with a submission of the manuscript from Diaz. It had come during a time when Clegg was changing agencies. “Hernan has since very graciously forgiven me.”
Responding in part to broader commentary around his seemingly meteoric rise in the literary world, Diaz spoke about the decades of his writing career that preceded success as often full of the “cold, dark” reality of rejection. Emphasizing that he is not unaffected by his circumstances, Diaz takes joy in the ways his writing life has changed, while also acknowledging the difficulty that came before.
“Being rejected for such a long time hurt. It made me feel crazy. Like I was still making those doodles.”
Through it all, Diaz is a writer genuinely in love with the process of writing. Coming from a “many-placed” upbringing — first in Argentina, then Sweden, then the United States — he described himself as a lover of the English language and syntax, proclaiming the sentence to be “the greatest technology humans ever produced.” Both in reading and writing, however, what Diaz seeks is the dissolution and melding of the self into something wider. “Sometimes when I write, I forget myself. What a wonderful thing that is.”
“Trust” is a novel Diaz characterized as polyphonic, and is composed of four separate, standalone “books” written in distinct styles, and from the perspective of intertwined characters. Its preoccupying theme is stratospheric wealth — but Clegg also framed the novel as a fundamentally feminist text, with Diaz stating that there are essentially “zero women in the history of the literature of wealth.” The Pulitzer Prize committee describes the book as, “At once an immersive story and a brilliant literary puzzle, ‘Trust’ engages the reader in a quest for the truth while confronting the deceptions that often live at the heart of personal relationships, the reality-warping force of capital, and the ease with which power can manipulate facts.”