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Interview: Alyson Hagy

by: Adam Segal of Whole Beast Rag

I first spoke with Alyson Hagy this past summer while writing a review of her most recent novel, Boleto, for Iowa City’s Little Village magazine. Hagy “spent 15 years trying not to write about cowboys,” but when protagonist Will Testerman suddenly exploded fully-formed into her mind, the writer and University of Wyoming professor answered the call and wrote a novel for the young cowboy to inhabit. Boleto showcases in evocative and often lyrical prose the author’s immense knowledge of the world of ranchers, horse trainers, and the animals they spend their lives with. And young Mr. Testerman, far from being the cardboard cutout cliché Hagy had feared, is his own man: fully realized, complex, and not without faults.

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So when I heard author Junot Díaz make his remarks, which I quote below, about the failures of contemporary male writers to tell stories that accurately and fairly portray female characters, I thought I would give Alyson Hagy a call to hear her views from the other side, as a female author who has quite successfully written “across gender.” What follows my conversation with Alyson Hagy, in which we discuss the difficulties writing across the boundaries that separate us, the worth of art that offends us or “immoral art,” and the question of understanding and getting inside the minds of people who are not ourselves.

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The sci-fi screenwriter/director/producer and geek demigod Joss Whedon famously gave a speech for Equality Now in which he criticized journalists for always asking him why he writes strong female characters. In the speech Whedon performs the act of being asked the same question in order to express his frustration, ultimately proclaiming “I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored, and there are other people doing it.” And while Whedon’s own supposed feminism has been questioned, this notion of successfully writing across gender as being something “not to be remarked upon,” is one of the conclusions Hagy and I fell upon. There are more difficult boundaries to cross. And let us celebrate those who venture to cross them.

WHOLE BEAST RAG: Hello Alyson. I wanted to begin with the statement that started this whole interest of mine, a suggestion made recently by Junot Díaz during a conversation with Carrie Miller at Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes event. He proposed that a group from the audience could pick 20 random movies directed by men from Redbox as well as 20 random novels written by men from the library, and this is a quote from what he said: “We’ll sit there and look at the representation of women and imagine that these books and these movies are the only things that survive from this culture into the future, I think you would be deeply scared of how deformed and how incomplete and how screwed up the representations of women are in the stories that boys tell, whether as directors or as presidents.” At least for the moment ignoring Díaz’s own fiction, do you think there’s truth to what he’s saying? Is the problem so serious as he puts it, and is it so pervasive?

ALYSON HAGY: You know, that is a really great question, I just think it’s tough to generalize. I think we can tease a couple things loose. It’s clear that Hollywood is dominated by male directors and male producers. Now does that a priori mean that there will be no strong female characters in any of those films? No. And print publication even at the 21st century outlook is still dominated by white males, which is actually pretty astonishing to me too. So there’s that. But I don’t know that you can necessarily fold the two things together, Adam. When I think about what Díaz is saying, I hear that as… “I don’t think there has been a history of strong female characters in American letters,” film aside for a second, and I think expressing some anxiety about his own work, which we all do when we answer interview questions.

I think the interesting follow-up question is: does that mean those books are no good?

One of the things that interests me in this conversation that we’re having is that I do think that the words Díaz uses, “deformed” and “screwed-up,”—what I would call imbalances in presentations in characters or all kinds of imbalances in a work of fiction—can sometimes be the source of real power. So I don’t think that art-making is contingent upon a kind of ease in political appeal or ease in gender representation appeal.

WBR: So you’re thinking of it in terms of “if we know it’s a problem, it’s a good jumping-off point for discussion?” And that makes it useful.

AH: Oh, yeah! And I think that—I haven’t done this, it would be an interesting exercise to undertake—for me to go back to my own shelves, or have a friend pull 40 novels off the shelves, or 40 works of fiction, 20 by men and 20 by women, from the 1920s to the 21st century, and see if the women authors have strong and impressive male characters. And see if we can draw any conclusions there.

WBR: I’m reminded of something I heard in a lecture recently, a science fiction writer speaking about guilty pleasures; one of the things he talked about at the start of his speech was how Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a great anti-colonial critique but it’s also hopelessly racist. And so we ask if the book is still valuable, even though parts of it are abhorrent. And I would say yes.

AH: I think that’s true. You could look at a novel like Passage to India, which doesn’t pass the post-colonial theory Snell-test entirely, but it remains a powerful representation of the missteps people from a dominant culture make when they’re in another culture, right? So in that case I think that there are many examples. Heart of Darkness is an outstanding one.

WBR: I should mention this: that Díaz quote began as a more broad statement of the fact that men speak about women in a way that’s harmful, without much self-critique. I guess when men talk about women when women aren’t around, they say things that they shouldn’t say, and they don’t really question what’s coming out of their mouths. And so I think he was speaking of art as an extension of that.

AH: Okay, you know I can’t… [laughs] I mean, I do a lot of eavesdropping.

What would I say about the flipside? I would say, god, people go on and on about gender and power and how things may or may not be changing.

I think about my own work. I’ve written a lot about men, but in the world I operated in, men had a lot of what I would call public power. I grew up in an extended family, one that was very embedded in the church. And almost all of the real power from day-to-day was in the hands of women. Does that make sense?

WBR: Yeah, it does.

AH: So it’s really hard for me even to overgeneralize. I can say, yes, it would have been virtually impossible, in fact impossible for my mother to be chosen as a judge in the county I grew up in. But it had to have been possible for her to have economic influence and power and social and community influence. It gets complicated. I was thinking about writers—I don’t know if you want to go there or not—I was thinking about writers who I thought did a good job writing both genders. It seems to me that it’s more an issue of temperament. I would also say that great fiction often gets written when there are roots of fever or hatred or grief, which says to me that our own failures or fears about love or heterosexual or homosexual interaction fuel our fiction. That’s what I mean by distortion.

Faulkner is a pretty good example of this. He doesn’t get pilloried as much on the gender or racial subjects, because what he creates are so many complex cross-currents. But what he’s really interested in is how our social structures lead us always always always to tragedy. So he’s an interesting guy to think about in this context. I think that Hemingway gets oversimplified, and his own late years, his shifting of his image gets added to that. If you go back and read Hemingway you can appreciate a more complicated world. I would say that there’s a lot of fear of the power of women, which makes some of that early work really interesting. It doesn’t make him a paragon of virtue, necessarily.

WBR: Do you think, then, that so long as these views—whether or not they’re “wrong” or offensive or problematic—so long as they enter the public sphere in the form of art, they can become useful as a form of dialogue? (So long as they’re not kept within and are presented to the public, so as to be discussed, it’s almost better to do that; to say something offensive in public than it is to just harbor it and not say anything at all.)

AH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I know the makers of art are not always moral. Because we cannot adhere to that standard, I can’t adhere to that standard. So is there immoral art? Yeah, there is. But there also is work that’s fueled by complex and deep passions that create a mysterious response or a confused response; one that’s nevertheless very powerful.

Flannery O’Connor is a great example of this. To do a simple racial read, or a simple gender read on her would be a big mistake. She’s a product of her time, deeply troubling in terms of some issues. But what she really is showing, above all, is the pervasiveness of hypocrisy. And that is why her work remains so original now. So I think that her work is moral, because it makes you peel your own skin back. But I don’t want to limit it by looking through a single lens of gender or race. You definitely shouldn’t analyze it that way. You have to step back and say, This is Flannery O’Connor. She claimed she was writing about the Lord’s Christian Grace, yeah, but there’s a lot more going on. She’s like a whirlwind, I can’t just simplify how I think about her, how I approach her, on any moral or political landscape.

But whether we should not comment, if we see immoral art, what we perceive as immoral, that’s an interesting question. I would say of course you can. Sure, a good critic can pillory Richard Ford or pillory Joyce Carol Oates if he or she thinks they’ve got an argument to make about their presentation of the world. Salman Rushdie would be another one to critique. I would agree with you that having it in public. That’s the beauty of art in a democratic society: We can really see fiction and film as an evocation of who we are and ask ourselves who we want to be.

WBR: I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s essay about John Updike, where he talks about his female friends who completely refuse to take Updike seriously because they’re offended by his views on women. Wallace asks how, even if it does offend, we can ignore his artistic prowess. But I appreciate the other side. If something is really offensive to you, I don’t exactly see the need to waste one’s time reading it and enjoying it and critiquing it.

AH: I think that’s fair. I’ve read a lot of Updike and I think it’s complicated. Some of the work, some of the Rabbit books in particular, I remember really liking. Those was very much a novels of their time. So the fact that the Rabbit sees his life as a limited power-holding creature, it’s dead on, and right. I also think that Updike is such a fine craftsman and just loved image so much that a great deal of story writers can learn from him. But I would never say to a peer or a student, “you must read this book that you find vile.”

But I would still try to hold it up. I want to be really careful, because I think even if you find something vile… Well, I’m not terribly interested in some of the old metafictional masters. I read a fair amount of it in graduate school and I don’t feel the need to go back to it. I think that there’s stuff in there that, if I gave myself the opening, I could learn from, and steal from, and transform. But I think sometimes…boy I’m going to give you a baggy answer, Adam. I’m old enough now that it’s good for me to expose myself to art that I missed early on, just so see if I want to transform or change or find something to react to in that work. But I would never say, Oh everybody’s got to do that.

WBR: That’s interesting, the first column I just wrote is about the question of whether or not we need to force ourselves to read difficult things, particularly if we don’t enjoy them. I didn’t really come to a set conclusion besides that I think we shouldn’t judge others for what they read but that we owe it to ourselves to attempt to read difficult things. To explore outside of our comfort zone.

AH: Yeah, if you come to an MFA program I would hope that MFA program would really prod you in that way. As a graduate instructor I feel like that’s important. But again I wouldn’t go to a café in Minneapolis and excoriate somebody who felt like they didn’t need that in their life.

WBR: That would be a really unpleasant and rude thing to do, I think.

AH: Of course. I am really interested in how young people are going to react to that question. Because they need to be engaged with culture. You guys are going to have to take the reins from us old farts. You need to inspire others to think about serious things, and you’re going to have to do it by looking at film and music and literature and thinking hard about the greater questions.

WBR: Going back to the question of gender. You mentioned authors earlier whose fiction had elements that people found problematic. What about authors that write gender well? Are there authors that have been noted or that you have read and really enjoyed, and felt that they created female characters that were the opposite of what Díaz said: characters who were well-formed and complete and realistic. Are there authors that are able to do that, to write across gender effectively?

AH: Yeah. Let’s start with my own awakening as a reader when I was in college. Actually when I was in high school I was first introduced to George Eliot. A woman who wrote under a man’s pseudonym. She has done a tremendous job. She really invented the English novel, the 19th century novel that looks across class in ways that are much different from Dickens’ approaches to the subject. Thomas Hardy, as a man, is the creator of some of the great heroines of English language literature. And I would separate Eliot from the Brontës. The Brontës had some amazing female characters, but their male characters are good but not always great from book to book. And I would say the same thing about Austen. But just to lay that landscape. I think the greatest, the master of writing across gender is Henry James. I read a lot of Henry James in college. I think one reason I was drawn to him was that I was absolutely amazed at the intricacy with which he could imagine young women. He wrote young women as well or better than Eliot or any other woman I’d come across, and his men were equally as intricate. I remain dazzled by that. Now James has potential weaknesses, maybe. But he’s a great example of the author’s ability to write outside his own gender.

Now, more contemporary, we can talk about Reynolds Price. His novel Kate Vaiden was a pretty big deal. Price was around for a long time, he just died about two years ago, and he wrote in all genres. But when Kate Vaiden was published—and it was not his first novel—people were just in amazement, particularly people who had been looking at southern literature, that he could cross the gender barrier.

He gave an interview in which he suggested that it shouldn’t be that hard, and this would be great to counter Díaz.

WBR: I actually have a quote from that interview right here. He said, “I made sure that my fictional character was born around the same time that I was, so I could relate to her. Kate Vaiden was born in 1927, I was born in 1933. Like most of my characters, she lived in the upper South, the region where I was born and know. I felt that I could write in her voice. I was given birth by a woman and I was reared by women. A writer can function outside of the narrow mental and physical confines of a particular gender.”

What interests me about that quote is that he juxtaposes it with the fact that Kate Vaiden, in all other things besides his gender, is very similar to him. He’s writing what he knows, and the only real leap he’s making here is that he’s writing from a female perspective. But what he’s saying is that’s really not so big of a deal.

AH: It wasn’t for him. You’re making a really shrewd point there, he’s not making Kate Vaiden black in the 1940s south that he knows, although I think that he does have some black characters in his different works. And he’s not making her come from a different socioeconomic class. So he also, in that same essay, mentions that Mary Shelly wrote the novel Frankenstein, which is so amazing in so many different ways, and that should have ended the conversation about leaping gender in 1818. One of the things I wonder is why do we continue to be so fascinated? Why do we think that deep down writing gender should be difficult for someone who’s empathetic and someone who has imagination?

WBR: Yes, and that quote brought me to another question, which is: Is writing across gender somehow more difficult than writing across other boundaries like class and religious background and race and profession—and that list could go on forever, there are so many little things that separate us—which raises the question, why am I even asking you these things? Why is gender something that we talk about? And finally, is it more difficult or is it particularly difficult?

AH: The best answer I can give you personally is that I find that less difficult—personally—than some other boundaries. My guess is that that has to do with the world in which I was raised. Where brothers and a dad and working men were very accessible. And that’s just happenstance. So that’s the best answer I can give you.

I have tried to write about—I remember when I was a very young writer, writing about older people—I tried to write about somebody who was in her 60s, early 70s, and that, I thought, was way riskier than gender. And then I tried some racial and ethnic crossings, I’m a little more cautious there, but I think that we have to have the courage of our imaginations and make leaps that are necessary for our art. James really thought that a true writer could imagine any other life, across any boundary, with authority. Is he right?

WBR: I don’t know.

AH: [Laughs] But I’ll go back, and I don’t have a simple answer because it’s not a simple question to me. For me, I want to try things that are risky, I want to try things that are hard. I recognize that failure is going to be part of the life of trying new things. But if we don’t have some dose of passion or fear or anger or great love or something within ourselves, if we’re not going after the things that really get under our own skins, we’ll never be able to make that fictional world come alive for people.

WBR: Sure. And that calls into question whether or not—and I guess Price would say he didn’t—that calls into question whether or not what Price did was really all that groundbreaking. Because he admits, “I wrote basically what I know.” The reviews attest to that, a lot of the things he clings to are still the clichés and motifs of Southern gothic literature, except that it’s done from this viewpoint that feels real, fully realized, and that’s what he did well. But if we’re asking the question of, “did he do something groundbreaking by writing as a woman,” it seems like his answer is no.

AH: That would be my guess. Can we think of any books that are more contemporary than Kate Vaiden? That have come under your eyes in the past few years, where the question would seem more burning?

WBR: Well let’s talk about your novel, Boleto. You mentioned that because you grew up in this world of men, where it doesn’t seem foreign to you, because it was a part of your life, so that writing it wasn’t so hard. But specifically, were there any things about writing Will’s character that were troubling to you?

AH: Yeah, yeah, there were a couple of things. I’ve written about older men, I’ve written a little bit about younger men but Will Testerman, the protagonist, is probably the youngest. And he’s in the 21st century so I can’t get by with putting him back in a veiled south that people would be familiar with.

I wanted him to feel like an emotional being without making him sentimental in any way. That was hard, particularly since—him being a young cowboy—I was trying to avoid cliché. His emotional life, and definitely in this case, I’m thinking about what the itinerant sexual life of a 23 year old is going to be like in the 21st century. My protagonists in my previous novel Snow, Ashes were in their 60s and early 70s. Most of the novel is past their hot sexual lives. So I have to think about that. I’m not afraid of writing the sex scenes but I wanted to figure out what Will’s life would be like. If he’d been a female I would have had the same problem. So I think you try to make that interior life not predictable, not totally cliché, somehow real. So I wanted to have the mother-son stuff not be too mushy, and the girlfriend stuff be believable but also not painted over in any way.

WBR: I wanted to mention… and I wrote about this for the review of Boleto, in my initial copy—I mentioned that the scene that ends Act 1, when he visits the old girlfriend and there’s this incredibly touching scene in which she’s basically performing fellatio. And I wrote in the review originally that it was probably the most beautifully written scene involving fellatio that I had ever come across. The editor insisted that I had to get rid of it because most of the staff was male, and we didn’t want to give the impression that the magazine was produced by just a bunch of guys joking about sex.

AH: That’s my one chance for critical props! [Laughs]

WBR: So sex is an interesting thing, and I wanted to ask, is there something particularly difficult about writing sex from the perspective of another gender? Did you have a problem with it? You just said the big problem was an age difference, and not the fact that he was a male.

AH: No. The actual act? No. Because it doesn’t seem that hard to imagine what it would be like to be in a man’s mind during an act like that. It may just be temperament and my own age too. I just didn’t want him to be too much of a Sir Galahad figure. The celibate lover of mother. I wanted him to be messier, made of flesh and blood. It’s very important to me that my characters be flesh and blood.

And Lacey is by far the woman he’s the most invested in. He’s not invested in Angela, nor certainly in the girl in Nevada, and in Texas. And that to me is important, to build his character. That’s not a gender issue; that was more about, if you’re gonna have human beings, you have to show the different levels of what’s at stake for them.

WBR: Sure. I feel as if you’re hinting at the issue of age difference being probably the hardest bridge to cross. Do you feel that way? That we’re able to associate with people across all demographics, unless they’re of a different age? You mentioned that when you were young it was different, it was hard to write an older character. You’re saying now that the difficult thing was writing someone younger. Do you think that age is a big divide?

AH: I think it’s an important one, I don’t know if it’s a big divide. Again when I was younger, older people were in my life. My dad’s a family doctor, and he has said really over the past 50 years—so, the course of my life—the very old are no longer kept in people’s homes. They don’t live with the families. They don’t come to churches or to schools the way maybe they once did. So the very old are more invisible than they’ve ever been. So as writers we just have to be observant. Alice Munro has been doing an amazing job. She was writing well about older characters before she became old, but now she’s a genius at it. And a genius at writing about single moms.

I think it’s observation. She’s just one of the great observers we have in our literature. And by the way, nobody ever talks about gender with her. Because she seems so thorough and even-handed in all ways.

You know, I can say that with each book there are usually two or three challenges, some of them are explicit, some of them just rise up. I think with Boleto it was trying to do a contemporary younger male character in the west while avoiding lots of clichés. Showing this life, bringing this life up, making it feel very real. With Snow, Ashes, it was trying to imagine war veterans. And that was really, really hard. Because I had to do enough research to imagine what their interior lives might be like. I don’t think I was wholly successful but I sure worked hard at it.

In my first novel, I was writing someone who was a sort of doppelgänger to me mentally. I think that’s not a bad thing to do, it helps make some things easier in the novel.

WBR: I think it comes down to the question of what sort of people are we willing to look at and imagine how their lives would be if we weren’t around. For me, if we’re still speaking about age, the most interaction I have with elderly people is with my grandparents. And in that mode, I don’t really think of my grandparents except so far as I interact with them. If you asked me right now, “what’s going on in your grandparents’ minds?” I probably couldn’t tell you very well. So much of my life spent with them has been them taking care of me and spending time with me. But there are other people in your life who really interest you, and you just want to know, “what are they doing when I’m not around, and what are they doing inside, where I can’t access them?”

AH: As a writer would you be willing to even try in your journal? To answer that question?

WBR: To figure out what’s going on inside my grandparents’ heads?

AH: Right.

WBR: I guess I would be able to. I’d be curious to try. I don’t think I’d do it well. I also think about that with my parents, too. They existed for so long before I did, and I don’t know what they were like. I have more access to my mom’s stories than my dad’s; my dad is a mystery. And that troubles me sometimes, that the people I’m closest to, I don’t spend enough time thinking about them as their own people. For so long they’ve been “mom” and “dad.”

AH: Yeah, I hear you. I hear you. I sometimes think that it’s the blessing-curse of trying to write literature, that you occasionally get in someone’s head, whether it’s a fictional person or somebody else. You can do it really well, but you also miss big stuff. So I feel like this weirdly distorted creature. Sometimes I understand peoples’ motives and I’m right, and I understand their complexities. But sometimes I could not be more off the mark. As a student of human nature, you’d think I would be good at a lot. But maybe I’m not. It’s weird!

So the age thing is really interesting. And I often say… this goes back to me personally. The question of race and ethnicity is complicated for me by growing up in the South during the era I did, where in truth there were very many people visible. And many were African American. We didn’t have a Hispanic population, or an Asian population, or a Jewish population, or a Catholic population, or a Mormon population in my town when we were growing up. So we were pretty restricted in that way. There are a lot of things I don’t know. I just read a novel by a friend of mine: she imagines the spiritual lives of a group of people from two or three different faith backgrounds. And that seems as tough a method as anything you could do in fiction. I’ve been cautious, but I think writers have just gotta do all kinds of work. I would never say, “no, Alyson, I can only write about white women.” I don’t think you can easily make art that way.

But I am aware of at least some of my weaknesses. I try to be careful. My first novel had a major character who was a black man, a horse trainer. It was a first-person novel, so there was a lot I didn’t have to know about him. I know how he worked in the barn. But if you said to me, Alyson, you’ve got to give me Reno’s entire life. Then—15 years ago—I wouldn’t even have tried it. Maybe now I’d try. And fail. But I’d try.

WBR: That leads me back to one of the last questions I wanted to ask. In the interview, Price quoted Hemingway as saying that anyone could write a novel in first person. I guess suggesting that it’s extremely easy to do. But it seems to me that it’s only easy if you’re writing a character that’s surprisingly similar to yourself. Granted, I don’t have enough experience with this. But it seems like if you were trying to accurately write in first person as someone who was different from you, that you would have to work to get inside their head. And when you’re writing in third person or you’re writing secondary characters that are different from you, you have to act on observation. But… am I right in guessing that first person requires a whole lot more understanding?

AH: That’s a great question—you know the only time I’ve done it, I wrote about character who is a sort of doppelgänger for me. But that’s in my experience. And I probably only write in first person… I don’t know, 20-30% of the time. It’s not the natural default of me. When we think about Henry James and all the others I mentioned, they are not first-person writers. So who are some great first-person writers we can think of? Twain… did Twain ever cross the gender barrier in any significant way?

WBR: No, I don’t think so.

AH: I’m thinking about Hemingway. Never Faulkner.

WBR: I was thinking about Moby-Dick, actually. It’s one of my favorite books of all time but there is an easily-explainable but also surprising lack of female presence in that book. It’s in first person and it has a lot of introspection into the minds of other characters besides the protagonist, but—.

AH: Yeah I was going to mention Melville as one of those great examples. No, he doesn’t have great female characters, but it doesn’t make me think less of him as a writer. And if we look at his contemporary Hawthorn, we do see not first person portrayals but we do see strong female characters.

But for me, regarding that Hemingway quote, I think I agree with you. The ease comes from channeling some significant part of yourself.

WBR: Maybe that’s ultimately what he was saying. Anyone can write a first person novel about a character based on themselves. But there’s an implication that it takes a real talented artist to go beyond that.

AH: [Laughs] let me ask you a question—Díaz, is all of his work in first person?

WBR: No, This is How You Lose Her, some of it is in second person, oddly enough. A lot of it is first person, though. I’m reading through the collection right now and the first bunch of stories are all from the same perspective, Yunior, who bears resemblance to Junot Díaz himself. There’s one story right in the middle, though, that’s about an immigrant woman who is a supervisor at a hospital laundry shift. It’s in first person. She deals with all the young women who come in as immigrants looking for work, and she is the lover of a man who is also an immigrant and he’s struggling to get himself to buy a house. The story deals with the difficulties of being an immigrant and having families back home. After that quote I was very ready to question him, I was ready to look in his books and discover all sorts of inconsistencies, but reading that story convinced me that he knows, at least to some extent, what it is he’s talking about.

AH: Okay, good.

WBR: An amount of understanding and sympathy for those who have problems beyond what he has. And ultimately it does: it goes beyond gender, it’s everything wrapped up, it’s privilege, racial privilege, it’s how we treat immigrants, it’s about class differences.

So I think we were right to veer off topic and question why we’re questioning gender.

AH: It says a lot about us as a culture, because this is the question I get the most from the floor when I’m reading, “Surely it has to be hard,” and I think to myself, well, you know, I have two brothers, I’ve been married 26 years, and I have a son. [Laughs] My own personal laboratory is filled with men. But my own personal laboratory is not filled with immigrants women working with laundry. So Díaz deserves credit.

I think I need to read the whole book. The stories in The New Yorker, involving the Yunior character, the emotionally damaged, making love out to be a series of sexual peccadillos. I’m less patient with that character than I was when he was the narrator of Drown. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with where I am in my life. I’m not interested in that kind of early middle-age angst. And I have to say to myself as I’m reading, “don’t conflate this with Díaz himself.” But he’s such a visible, public presence. For me, it’s always better to take a step back. Same with Richard Ford. Just try to focus on what’s happening on the page.

WBR: And not on who the author is as a person, yeah.

AH: I think Hemingway gets slammed too easily. But there are a lot of interesting questions in there about his own insecurities, and the making of art from those. You can say that about Díaz. And I think it’s interesting to put Díaz next to somebody like Colson Whitehead, who’s doing very different things. And by the way the protagonist of his first novel is a woman. But he understands where she’s coming from racially. That’s how he stays close to the character. Whitehead has very different fears and concerns as a writer.

WBR: Let me just ask this one last question. Maybe asking it means I’ve stupidly ignored half of what we’ve said. But is there a degree to which we should congratulate a writer, male or female, for crossing boundaries beyond what they know? Should we say, “oh wow, look at you, you wrote a brilliant female protagonist?” Or “oh! Look at you, you managed to write across class and understand the way other people live.” Is that somehow better and more challenging…

AH: I don’t know about more challenging. I’m in a mood now where I just think we have to celebrate imagination. And the truths that are created by imagination. So I would say yes. Because what literature does is allow readers to develop empathy with people outside of themselves. It plays a huge cultural role. Sometimes when you see a writer, a David Mitchel or a Colson Whitehead or an Alice Munro or a Margaret Atwood. People who can imagine far beyond their own skin, in terms of gender, race, and class. We should make note of that. Even if you stay close to your own bones, like Munro often does or like Richard Ford often does, you can still create some amazing, amazing art.