GREAT ARTISTS STEAL: In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Distance takes place during the second half of the nineteenth century in what was known, at the time, as the unorganized territories—vast expanses not yet part of the Union. To achieve a reality effect, more than westerns, I read travel narratives and essays by naturalists. I steered away from archaisms, colloquialisms, and technical terms, knowing that fetishizing certain words would make the narrator sound like a tourist or an anthropologist. In fact, I did not want the novel to feel researched at all. My main goal was to be inconspicuously accurate.

All this was in the service of conveying a feeling of vastness and desolation (in the novel, the major events that shaped our country during those years take place just beyond the horizon), of being utterly lost in a monotonous, indifferent landscape. And for this, my references were not always from the nineteenth century.

These were some of my sources of inspiration:

  1. The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary

I tried to restrict the novel’s lexicon to ordinary words that had been widely in use by 1850, hoping that over the course of the book this would create a certain historical atmosphere that the reader would simply (and involuntarily) feel. Even though I am sure many anachronisms slipped through, with its millions of dated quotations, the unabridged OED was an invaluable resource.

  1. The writings of John Muir

One of the greatest rewards of writing this book was reading most of Muir’s work. The moral beauty of his prose, the vividness with which his humanity comes forth in every sentence, and the fervent humility with which he communes with nature rival the grandeur of the Californian mountains or the Alaskan glaciers he depicts in his texts. Together with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Muir was a major inspiration for John Lorimer, the naturalist in my novel.

  1. Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Many nature and travel writers informed my novel, but there is something special about Dana’s book that has little to do with landscape writing. Dana sailed from Boston (where he studied, briefly, under Emerson) to California in 1834 and provides a rare account of this territory at a time where there were “no streets or fences.” He returned to the West Coast 24 years later, after the Gold Rush, and added an appendix to his book, describing how this new California was “in strong contrast with the solitudes of 1935-36.”

  1. The music of Morton Feldman

Feldman was key in shaping the way I wanted the desert­—and the protagonist’s disorientation—to feel. Because it questions the idea of development, Feldman’s work amplifies the present; it creates an extended now that I strove to convey in prose. His music can be so slow and repetitious that sometimes we do not perceive any movement at all—we just notice, at some point, that everything has changed, that we are elsewhere. This is what I was hoping the protagonist’s journey would feel like.

Hernan Diaz is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012) and the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University. He lives in New York.

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