Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Arizona PBS | Authors Hernan Diaz and Viet Thanh Nguyen in Conversation

What can a novel about wealth in America tell us about America? In this podcast episode, 2023 Fiction winner Hernan Diaz is in conversation with Pulitzer Board member and 2016 Fiction winner Viet Thanh Nguyen in New York City. Together, the authors discuss Diaz’s “Trust” and “In the Distance” (a Fiction finalist in 2018), as well as Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” for Arizona PBS

Listen to the conversation here

Diaz and Nguyen explore some of the key mythologies behind America’s exceptionalism, especially around money and capital, and the mythical idea of the West. As Diaz says, “There is something about this country and its culture that invites fiction, and not all of these fictions are pleasant.”

The authors consider some of the mythmaking about America they encountered as early readers. Both authors left their home countries and landed elsewhere as refugees, Diaz in Sweden and Nguyen in America. The authors talk about how these experiences impacted them and share their personal journeys of discovering books and the power of literature. They discuss the perils of book bans and censorship. With censorship, as Nguyen puts it, “We don’t just lose the power of literature and all that stuff that we like to talk about as writers and readers; we lose the power to address some very fundamental core elements and problems of what make us Americans.”

Both writers share what it’s like to have their novels adapted for the screen. Diaz’s “Trust” is currently in development with director Todd Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine”) with actor/executive producer Kate Winslet slated to portray the character of Mildred Bevel. An HBO miniseries adaptation of Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” co-created by Park Chan-wook (“The Vengeance Trilogy”) and starring Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr., premiered on April 14, 2024.

Read Transcript below

Recorded in New York City.

Nicole Carroll: When you’re arranging for two Pulitzer Prize winning authors to get together and talk about their work, you want to find a special place. That’s how Hernan Diaz, author of Trust, which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize Board member and winning author of The Sympathizer, ended up at the Albertine Bookstore, a charming shop tucked into a Gilded Age mansion that houses the French cultural services of the French Embassy in New York City. The mansion faces Central Park on Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As the authors arrive, the light is fading over the trees. We’re in a wood paneled reading room named after one of France’s most famous authors, encircled by thousands of books. The authors settle in for their talk under a navy blue ceiling painted in the style of a Renaissance fresco with metallic gold stars and planets circling the sun.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hernan it’s such a pleasure to talk to you here at the Marcel Proust Reading Room of the Albertine bookstore in New York City.

Hernan Diaz: What an outsized honor.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So it was very romantic for me to walk through Central Park to get here because I grew up in San Jose, California, in the 70s and 80s and it was full of children’s books, a lot of which were set in Manhattan, and Central Park and places like that. So I had this whole fantasy of the Manhattan lifestyle.

Hernan Diaz: Well, this is the quintessential Manhattan experience isn’t it, walking across the park to this Gilded Age monument to capital we’re sitting in right now.

Nicole Carroll: Sitting in this monument to capital was a purposeful choice. Trust is a novel about money, love, finance and truth told in four narratives about wealthy investor Andrew Bevel and his wife, Mildred, a music lover and philanthropist. The bookstore is part of the Gilded Age mansion originally built in 1909 for William Payne Whitney, a businessman who inherited enormous wealth and grew it through investments in banking, tobacco, railroads, mining and oil. Whitney would have been a contemporary of the fictional Andrew Bevel.

Welcome to Pulitzer on the Road, bringing you closer to Pulitzer winning work through discussions between Pulitzer judges and winners. I’m your guide, Nicole Carroll, a Pulitzer Board member and Professor of Practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Each spring the Board meets in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York to choose the winners. The discussion is rich and insightful. This podcast is designed to bring a similarly thought-provoking experience to you. Hernan, who left Argentina and grew up in Sweden and Viet from Vietnam are both refugees who have reached the pinnacle of their professions writing in English, a language that is not their first, in the United States, the country that became their home. Viet’s novel, The Sympathizer, is now a limited series for HBO starring Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. Hernan’s novel, Trust, will become an HBO series as well, the star and executive producer Kate Winslet as Mildred Bevel. In this episode, Viet and Hernan talk about their work, their journeys, fiction as propaganda, the rise of censorship, and what it’s like to win a Pulitzer Prize. Let’s start there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hey, you know what, you just won the Pulitzer Prize? How does it feel?

Hernan Diaz: It feels unreal. I mean, you’ve been there. And one feels reality shifting and one’s place in it also utterly transformed. One shouldn’t be allowed to be this happy. And, you know, it’s also I wasn’t aware of how much work it would be too, sort of the aftermath of it all. All joyous work. But not all of it conducive to writing more fiction, as I’m sure you also must have experienced. But man, when one looks at that list that contains so many heroes and writers who have inspired me for so many years, it feels totally unreal.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Someone asked me recently, is there a downside to winning the Pulitzer Prize? And I have to honestly say, no, no downside, as far as I can tell. I mean, I think maybe more pressure, whether you feel it internally or externally about your next work, but that would be the only…

Hernan Diaz: I agree with you. No downs, no downside. And I also agree with your sort of little corollary there, I do sense a gaze now that I didn’t feel before. But I found, as always with these things, the antidote and the response lies in more books, the ones that one reads, and the one that one is engaged in writing, which I am. I’m fully into the next thing, which is exciting.

Nicole Carroll: The two will talk about Trust and Hernan’s debut novel, In the Distance, an unconventional Western set in the mid 1800s. In the Distance, a 2018 Pulitzer finalist, tells the story of a young Swedish immigrant, penniless and alone in California, whose quest to travel east and find his brother turns him into a legend.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Obviously, I read Trust. That was an impressive accomplishment for different voices dealing with late 19th century, early 20th century American history and finance and modernism, and also a very different book than In the Distance, your first novel, which is also an amazing mid 19th century account of a Swedish immigrant and his entry into a very, I think, demythologized United States, and his own transformation into a myth, which he does not want to have any part of. So I mean, for me, looking at these two books back to back, this is sort of an investigation of core values of the United States. Yeah, because your books deal a lot with economics, capitalism, finance, and so on, but within the narrative framework.

Hernan Diaz: Absolutely. And I think, if I may presume, that this might be a common denominator to some extent between your work and mine: this examination, or re-examination of the many ways in which the United States has told its own story to itself, which is something that I find utterly fascinating. There is something about this country and its culture that invites fiction, which I’m very drawn to, and not all of these fictions are pleasant. Needless to say, many of them are highly ideological. Many of them are manipulative. But the truth remains that there is a fictional core in the United States, and in the view in which it represents itself that I’m very drawn to. My first exposure to the United States was through fiction. We were talking about Lucky Luke, this Belgian comic, utterly racist, that I grew up reading in Sweden, in Stockholm. So it was this Belgian comic translated into Sweden about the American West, written by these two men who had never set foot in the United States. That and Tintin. Those are the first pictures I had in my mind of the United States — this hyperbolic, outrageous, outlandish space, full of action, full of adventure, and also full of violence, and full of racism. All of this shaped me from a very early stage. You put together In the Distance and Trust, and it is true that there is a continuity. Both deal with highly crystallized moments in American history — gold rush, the roaring 20s, and the ensuing great depression with a hinge of the 29 crash in between. But there isn’t a manifesto in a drawer in my apartment or program by which I plan to go in chronological order examining certain American myths. It just happened to come out in that way. Also, because I’m a writer who believes that literature is made out of more literature. And I am interested in these highly ossified moments in American history, because again, to go back full circle, I feel these are the fictions that now remain unquestioned and unchallenged by us. And we think we know what these periods are all about. And the more we think we know, of course, the more urgent and archaeological intervention into these hardened discourses, becomes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think a lot about how maybe the United States is unique among literary traditions, the American literary tradition. In the sense that we have a lot of novels with the word American in them. And I’m trying to think of another country where you could say that like, there’s the British, Russian, French, they don’t, they’re not as obsessed with foregrounding what you just talked about, which is the the place of the United States, specifically, America, that word in the imagination of the world, but in our own self regard, as well. So that as far as I know, we’re also the only country that has something called a Great American novel. I don’t know if there’s a great Russian novel, great French novel, great British novel, I mean, as self consciously referential, in that way.

Hernan Diaz: Absolutely. You put that so beautifully and eloquently. Of course, any country has these myths about themselves, but it’s true. I don’t think Ecuador or Belgium are as invested with their exceptional place. And of course, exceptionalism is a very important term when we are considering all of this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s also redundant, great and America. I mean, they’re the same in the American imagination, but just go back a little bit to the research process and how you didn’t feel like you had to go to the landscapes and everything. Me too. For example, The Sympathizer has four chapters set in the Philippines. I didn’t go to the Philippines, I just read books about it. But also I’ve seen Apocalypse Now, I’ve seen other things. So there’s a way in which for me as a writer, maybe for you too, we do have to do the research, we do have to imagine things, but we can also rely on the readers’ own already existing mythologies and scenarios that they have.

Hernan Diaz: Yeah, I think we live in a moment where it’s too often forgotten that literature is a product of the imagination, right? And I’ve seen so many books researched to death, so many books that are overly reliant on first handedness and personal experience and witnessing. There’s nothing wrong with that. What I’m trying to say is that I think we probably live in an age of let’s call it referential anxiety, where everything needs to be anchored as robustly as possible, in fact, in something contextually verifiable. And boy, what a loss that is for fiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I think all you need is one fact. Versus one thousand facts. So, for example, the end of The Sympathizer is set in a reeducation camp, which I’ve never seen in person. There are almost no photographs of reeducation camps, Vietnamese reeducation camps, because the communist government obviously has a vested interest in not publicizing what happened in these camps. I certainly have read about reeducation camps. But there’s also very little written about them as well. So when I wrote those four chapters that were dealing with the reeducation camp, I deliberately imagined it as a wasteland. When we go to the Western, it’s something that you can evoke, and many people will paint their own Westerns in their minds, because it was a really powerful and popular genre. I grew up watching Westerns as a kid, from the low to the high, the pure entertainment to the, let’s say, more sophisticated stuff like The Searchers by John Ford. But overall, I also feel like the genre, the Western is America’s version of propaganda. You know, watch it, you evoke this In the Distance, as a wagon train, it’s surrounded by Indians, they attack. There’s a different outcome in your novel, but in the movie westerns, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, and dozens and dozens of Indian warriors just get knocked off their horses. And that’s just the way it is. That’s the founding of the country. And I’m saying all this because The Sympathizer is also an investigation of many genres. But one genre is the Vietnam War. In some ways, the relationship to genre is very complicated for writers because everybody thinks they know what a genre is, whether it’s Vietnam War genre, or the Western. So we’re stuck in a situation where sometimes people will say, why do you need another Western? Didn’t we already do it to death? Or why do you need another Vietnam War novel or movie? The internalization of genre is so powerful, that it allows people to fill in all the blanks. In the Distance subverts a lot of that, as I hope The Sympathizer tries to subvert stuff for the Vietnam War genre as well.

Hernan Diaz: Certainly, it certainly does. Your book certainly does that and it was absolutely at the core of my project. With In the Distance it was taking all of these clichés that have an element of propaganda for sure, that are highly political, and turn them upside down. Here we have a genre that is primed to become the foundational myth of the United States. Why? Because of everything you just said. It glamorizes the worst aspects that went into the consolidation of this territory into a nation, which means, of course, first and foremost, the expropriation of the land from its original inhabitants through genocide. It glorifies the systematic destruction of nature, which is reduced to a mere source of extraction of capital. It glorifies machismo and misogyny. Women are private property always, for the most part. It glorifies gun violence. It embodies the extremely American suspicion toward institutions.

Nicole Carroll: Trust, set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, deals with finance, gender and equity and stock market manipulation. Viet notes the similarities between that era and our current times. Hernan says he didn’t set out to make that connection.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There are contemporary conversations politically about whether this era is somehow a repeat or an analogy of late 19th, early 20th century America in the Gilded Age.

Hernan Diaz: The novel begins in the Gilded Age in the 1880s, late 1870s. But the core of it takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a moment ago I was talking about how in the Western you see the extraction of capital from nature. Here we are, then, in the next logical step, which is, after the Industrial Revolution, all these materials are now churning in this machinery of capital that is going full steam. And that’s what we see now, and the emergence of international banking. I am not an allegorical writer. I didn’t set out to write Trust in order to expose what was going on in society today. I just wanted to write about capital, and how I imagined that capital in sufficient quantities would have the ability to warp and distort reality around it very much like a black hole, an event horizon that distorts space time and sucks everything into it. This was the preconception that I had of capital. I love writing about things that I don’t know about. I don’t like to confine my writing to the province of my immediate existence, so I set out to discover this world, and there were two things that immediately caught my eye. The first one, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, there were no women in these grand epics of capital. When I say no women, I mean, zero. We could talk about one or two exceptions, but honestly, it’s a man’s world. Still, it’s a very bro-ey world, the world of Wall Street. So to have women excluded, half of the population excluded, effectively and deliberately, from the world of commerce at the highest order, was something that I felt needed to be addressed. So this book very quickly became a book about voice and who had been denied a voice and who had been given a megaphone, and what the dissonance between these voices might have been. The second thing that I discovered was that money has a fictional quality to it. There is nothing in a $5 bill that materially inherently gives it its purchase power. What makes it work is that we all agree that it works, is the trust we invest in it. And to have discovered that money is this fiction that pervades everything, and that mediates almost every single exchange that we enter into every day of our lives, was gold for me. So that was the starting point. I don’t know how you work, but I work exclusively almost with primary sources. So I was reading press, financial treatises, congressional hearings, and so on from the time. I didn’t set out to find these things. They came to me. The utter deregulation of markets that took place in the 1920s, the drastic tax cuts for the rich, the targeted restriction of immigration, through the immigration quota act in 1924 under Calvin Coolidge, forbidding immigrants from Asia and from Italy specifically to enter into the country. The resonances between the 1920s and the 2020s, and the inequality at the core of it all, and the racism at the core of it all, were mind blowing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The reason why it could have resonance in the present is because things haven’t changed that much. 200 years ago, that you’re you’re dealing with, The Sympathizer was almost 50 years ago, the time period that it’s concerned with, and the country hasn’t changed that much. And so if you address through historical novel, some of the fundamental issues that define this country, whether it’s economics and capitalism, or gender, the ability to speak, or immigration, or war, these things, in fact, have been constants throughout the entirety of American history. And we repeat ourselves because of the fundamental contradictions and inequalities that make the United States the United States, are still there.

Nicole Carroll: Both of these Pulitzer winning writers became refugees at a very young age. Both know what it feels like to be displaced, exiled, and both say they were transformed by the power of literature.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We do share some things in common. I was born in Vietnam, you were born in —

Hernan Diaz: Argentina.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Argentina. Okay. What age did you come to the United States?

Hernan Diaz: Well, my journey was was a little complicated, because I was born in Argentina, but we all left when I was two years old after the coup. So we had to literally flee the country, and we went to Sweden. So I grew up in Stockholm. My first social language was Swedish. We spoke Spanish at home but Swedish out in the world. And then with the return of democracy, we all moved back to Argentina. My first experience of foreignness was my home country, my supposed home country, which felt completely alien to me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: What age were you?

Hernan Diaz: 11ish. And let’s say those wooden clogs didn’t fly in the streets of Buenos Aires. And I fell in love with the English language too, which came to me via Swedish. I moved to London at age 23. And then from London, I came to pursue a PhD here in New York. So I’ve been in New York ever since, for 25 years now. So as a sort of sentient being, I only spent about 12 years in Argentina. Yeah. How about you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was born in Vietnam, and then came to the United States at the age of four, with the end of the war. And my family was on the losing side, so we were definitely refugees. I’m not sure if that’s a term you would use to describe your own experience or your family’s experience?

Hernan Diaz: For sure. In Sweden, yes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because I think being a refugee is different than being an immigrant, you know, especially with this sense of being displaced because of political forces beyond your control, especially if you’re on the losing side, or you’ve been exiled. It sounds like in the case of your family, to Sweden. And then I think our paths diverge, because then you move back and forth, and you had this sort of cosmopolitan element of your life. Whereas I came as a refugee, and then I stayed here, and never left. I like to say that I’m not just an American, I’m a Californian, because I’ve spent most of my life in California. And there’s this tension for me between being a refugee and being a citizen being an outsider and being an American, which is a very productive tension. Because it does allow me to both imagine myself as an American writer, and as a not American writer, as a minority writer, an American writer, but also a writer, period. And these different shifting registers are crucial, because I do want to situate my work relative to the American literary tradition, but also outside of it, as well. And then there’s also the relationship to language, you know, just sort of being raised in a Vietnamese speaking household, I think has impacted my relationship to the English language. I think all writers have a special relationship to language. But if you have a different other language that you’re surrounded by and influenced by, I feel that it’s helped me to see the rhythms of the English language from the outside. We were refugees, we didn’t even have a Bible, and they were devout Catholics. We had no books in house. So the public library was my cosmopolitan doorway to the world in which there were no boundaries and there were no borders.

Hernan Diaz: For me after moving around and being in different countries as a child, I think of myself as an American by choice. And I take it seriously. And it’s a meaningful choice to me also, because circling back to the beginning of our conversation, it’s not by sheer coincidence that I ended up here. I ended up here because I love this literary tradition. I love the music of the United States as well, and informed me as a person, I wouldn’t be the person I am without that archive.

Nicole Carroll: Viet says most of his books cannot be published in Vietnamese in Vietnam for political reasons. Both authors worry about book bans and censorship.

Hernan Diaz: I had a very strange situation, not too long ago. I went to do a reading and they had excised a whole section of the book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Which book?

Hernan Diaz: In the Distance.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, but who is they?

Hernan Diaz: I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. Let’s say it was a school, was a school. And it was shocking. It was very sad.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, that does remind me I was at a state that I won’t mention, and a high school teacher came up to me and said, yes, my high school was we were going to teach your book The Refugees. But somebody objected because there’s one story in there — it’s a Christian High School or Catholic High School — one story in there about someone who’s dealing with their homosexuality for the first time. So there’s like hard censorship where we know there are lists and when it was happening, then there’s soft censorship, where there things happening behind the scenes that we may never find out about.

Hernan Diaz: The scary thing about your story, which is very similar to mine, you know, it was this teacher in a very Christian part of part of the state and she said I wanted to play it safe. So that was chilling to me, the fact that this internal repression becomes sort of an objective suppression. When this climate of censorship becomes part of someone’s super ego and they feel they have to preempt it, then we know we’re in trouble.

Nicole Carroll: In 2023, individuals or groups attempted to ban 4,240 unique book titles in schools and libraries, the highest level ever documented by the American Library Association That’s a 65% increase from 2022 when 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The battles are being played out not with authors only, but now with librarians or mostly with librarians. And they don’t have the insulation that authors do. At least we have the ability to have other authors rally around us and take up our cause, but your average librarian is on their own, in a hostile town or in front of a hostile school board.

Hernan Diaz: And of course, you know, that these lists are produced by a handful of individuals. It’s disproportionate the impact that these people have on society at large. There’s something profoundly broken, in that regard. And just like you with your personal history, I feel that censorship and free speech has shaped my — or lack thereof — has shaped who I am in a very profound way. That’s one of the reasons why we left Argentina to begin with. So I take this immensely seriously. And I try to be as involved as I can, in this regard. I, in general, have very little patience for the argument that fiction is innocuous, that it’s a mere pastime. It can be that and that’s fantastic, too. But as I was trying to say before, I think fiction, and storytelling, has the ability, not only to depict reality, but also to shape reality. And one could argue that reality itself, what we agree to call reality, is a collection of stories, right? So of course, who controls the stories or who silences certain stories is also in control of the particular shape that that reality will take. And that’s why I think storytelling is fundamental. And that’s why every story matters.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I agree with all of that. And I’ll add that I had the benefit of going to the public library without my parents, who would just drop me off every Saturday morning. And I would get a backpack full of books, and I would read them. And because my parents were busy working, and they didn’t read English, they had no idea what I was reading. Thank God, because if they knew, these devout Catholics, what I was reading, they would be shocked.

Hernan Diaz: They didn’t read English, you said?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They didn’t read English, and they didn’t read literature. So, on the one hand, there is this platitudinous side about celebrating literature that says, oh, it elevates us and teaches us empathy, and gives us appreciation for the arts and so on. That’s great. It also entertains us and provokes us. That’s great. But my experience was also that if something is so powerful, that it can move you deeply, and that it can save you, as many people have said, it can also destroy you, as well. If you granted literature the power to save, that power cannot be contained. And I think all writers know that. I hope all writers know that. And obviously, the people who are banning books know that too, in their own way, that there is great power in the writing. I mean, if we just look at the numbers in the United States, the two most banned categories of books are books by Black writers or dealing with the history of Black people in this country. And the broad swath of LGBTQIA literature, anything dealing with queer sexualities. And these things are completely actually connected. You know this, you talked about capital being central to the United States. I mean, capital is central, but it’s completely tied to racism and slavery and all these other things, and to patriarchy, and to the regulation of sexuality and gender roles. So it’s not an accident that book banning is in fact targeted in certain ways. And so what do we lose? We don’t just lose the power of literature and all that stuff that we’d like to talk about as writers and readers, we lose the power to address some very fundamental core elements and problems of what make us Americans.

Nicole Carroll: Both Hernan’s Trust and Viet’s The Sympathizer will be reaching more audiences than ever, with each being released on HBO as a limited series. The Sympathizer premiered April 14. Hernan’s Trust is in development.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I have to say that the hardest part was probably for me, just doing all the meetings that were required to drum up enough interest and to get the TV series made. The really hard part was making the TV series, but I had very little to do with that. But we’re very lucky that it has a great team involved. Park Chan-Wook is the director, and he’s a world famous Korean director whose work actually deeply influenced me and The Sympathizer. And we have a great cast of mostly Vietnamese actors of various national origins, which is very important to me. So we’ll see Hoa Xuande one day hopefully become a star because he plays the Captain. But most people have heard about the TV series because it involves Robert Downey Jr. playing four white male characters in the novel, which was Park Chan-Wook’s idea. So he’s drawing eyes to the TV series, which is good. But in the end, I hope people also will take away that this is a TV series that is mostly about Vietnamese people.

Hernan Diaz: Also, Trust is being made by HBO. Todd Haynes directing, who is one of my living heroes in any kind of discipline. It was always, who do you think should do this? I was, like, Todd Haynes. And Kate Winslet is playing incarnations of Mildred Bevel. And I’m actually flying out to Portland in a couple of weeks to be with Todd and the screenwriter. And it’s very firm, and it’s moving full steam ahead.

Nicole Carroll: I asked them both. Is that a surreal experience seeing your words played out on the screen?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, because as a novelist, you know, you spend all — you’re sitting in a room most of the time by yourself wherever it is, and imagining these vast worlds and all these characters, and then to see, in the case of The Sympathizer, four hundred people involved in the making of it. And a budget, enormous, enormous budget, like, it’s almost impossible to wrap my head around. And then to go on set and to see the sets and to see people wearing the costumes and maybe doing a cameo as I did for mine. I did, one second, one second, but I get one line out of that. I play a photographer in a restaurant setting, and I have to photograph all, everybody gathered. And I think I get to say, can you turn on that mirror ball? That’s the one line and talk about —

Hernan Diaz: Like a disco ball?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so the head writer said they didn’t call them disco balls in 1976, or 1975. They called them mirror balls. So here’s —

Hernan Diaz: I need to look into it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Here’s the humbling aspect of working with collaborators, they get you on your own mistakes. So for example, there’s a key moment where the characters are eating Petit Ecolier biscuits which I grew up eating in the 1980s. And then head writer said they didn’t exist in 1975. So we had to, we had to introduce a different product, by that same company instead. That wasn’t the worst thing. But that was one thing.

Hernan Diaz: The ones I find very scary and this consumes so much time during the writing process is just lexical anachronisms, especially in these two books, In the Distanceand Trust, which are also told in voices from the time. I’m sure there are a number of anachronisms, like the cookies that I’m unaware of. But I need if there is a word that has a whiff of perhaps being introduced too late. So I use the unabridged Oxford Dictionary, which of course, you get a record of the first written occurrence of the word to the best of their knowledge. So I have to comb the text with a very, very fine comb. Which means looking up hundreds of thousands of words to make sure they weren’t coined after the fact. I found massage once and I almost died. Massage! I had used massage, and it’s like what are, what were you thinking?

Nicole Carroll: One of our favorite questions to ask the winners is, how did you learn you won the Pulitzer Prize? The answers are always touching. The same was true with Hernan’s story. The author who spent the last few years immersed in the world of the extraordinary wealthy in New York City, now being interviewed in a monument to Capitol facing Central Park, celebrated his award sitting on a curb in Greenville, South Carolina.

Hernan Diaz: I was on the road, it took me many flights to get there. I was exhausted. And I knew the announcement was on that day. I wish I could tell you that I was cool enough not to care or not check, but I totally watched it on on my phone. I found a restaurant I thought I would have chicken and waffles because I was in the South. So I did that. And my order came, the announcement also came and I completely I lost it. So I left all my stuff on the table. I went and I sat on the curb to quietly weep, I hope quietly. I was wearing a baseball hat, because I’m bald, and and these three charming ladies come my way. And they must have thought I was younger. I was also hunched over. And they go, Oh, sweetheart, are you are you okay? And I looked up and I told them what had happened and we all hugged. Those were the first people I ever told. And one of them came to an event at the Chicago Public Library a year later, and gave me a picture of the three of them. She she had followed the whole thing. And it was great to hear the story from their perspective like we were coming, well then we saw this man sitting and crying. We thought somebody had died. You know, it was great.

Nicole Carroll: So what makes a work worthy of a Pulitzer Prize? In describing the selection of Trust, the Pulitzer jury called it a “riveting” novel. The jury noted how “Diaz masters the many different literary styles as he unspools the story of Andrew Bevel, an early 20th century financier and his wife, Mildred.” The judges were “deeply impressed by the richness of the emotional landscapes Diaz built in Trust, and by his ability to evoke the real historical milieu of Wall Street and New York City society.” This was a novel, they stated, “of great precision and literary flair.”

Thank you for joining Pulitzer on the Road. We’re honored to bring more attention to Pulitzer winning work and the creators behind it. This series is a production of the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University in collaboration with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation. All episodes are edited for length and clarity. In future episodes, we’ll hear from journalist Caitlin Dickerson, and author Barbara Kingsolver. Be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and tell your friends to listen in. To see this work and the work of all the 2023 winners, please go to Pulitzer on the Road is produced by Central Sound at Arizona PBS. Our producers are Anna Williams and Alex Kosiorek with Arizona PBS and me. Audio engineering by Robert Anderson, Alex Kosiorek and Joe Miller. Editing, promotion, and other support by Edward Kliment, Pamela Casey, and Sean Murphy. Fact checking by Jessica Quesada. Pulitzer Administrator Marjorie Miller is our executive producer. I’ve been your guide, Nicole Carroll.

To hear other episodes and learn more about the Pulitzer on the Road Podcast, click here.

Learn more about our guests in this episode:

Hernan Diaz is the author of two novels translated into more than twenty languages.
His first novel, “In the Distance,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner
Award. He has also written a book of essays, and his work has appeared in “The Paris
Review,” “Granta,” “Playboy,” “The Yale Review,” “McSweeney’s,” and elsewhere. He has
received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the William Saroyan International
Prize for Writing, and a fellowship from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for
Scholars and Writers. Diaz is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute for Latin
American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, and serves as the managing
editor of the Spanish-language journal “Revista Hispánica Moderna.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” is a “New York Times” best seller and won
the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Andrew Carnegie
Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel
Prize from the Center for Fiction, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from
the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association, among many others. His other books
are “The Committed,” a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the
Memory of War” (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National
Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and “Race and Resistance: Literature
and Politics in Asian America,” as well as the bestselling short story collection, “The
Refugees.” He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a Professor of English, American
Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern
California. Most recently he has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim
and MacArthur Foundations, and le Prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book in
France), for “The Sympathizer.” He is the editor of “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on
Refugee Lives” and the Library of America volume for Maxine Hong Kingston. He
co-authored “Chicken of the Sea,” a children’s book, with his then six-year-old son,
Ellison, and his most recent book is a memoir, “A Man of Two Faces.” An HBO miniseries 
adaptation of “The Sympathizer,” co-created by Park Chan-wook (“The Vengeance 
Trilogy”) and starring Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr., premiered on April 14, 2024.


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