Oscar Hijuelos, the Pulitzer-prize winner of “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” has just released his first memoir “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” which chronicles his life growing up in New York City and identifying with his Cuban heritage. Here, in a phone interview, the professor of writing at Duke University discusses the kinship between him and his father, transitioning from fiction to nonfiction writing, and keeping your day job while you pursue your passion.
What was your biggest challenge in writing nonfiction for the first time?
Nonfiction requires that you prioritize in a different way. When you write fiction you can sort of invent more but also pack it with emotions that are very pertinent to you. Whereas with nonfiction, you have to be as factual as possible but also hopefully – also bring…emotional relevance to the piece.
In my case, because a lot of the things I’ve written about happened so long ago, I actually looked in my novel- my first novel [Our House In The Last World] , which is pretty autobiographical to double check some facts, you know? And even if - I didn’t rely on it, but I found interestingly enough that a scene that might be replicated in the memoir in the novel is more jazzed up in terms of spookier language and divier imagery, you know? So you can take more poetic license with novels. But I find that the hardest thing is you know: [First of all], the memory business, [and second of all] is that you have to really figure it out how to render scenes meaningfully without you know, letting them go flat, and that’s where the language thing, I think with nonfiction that I like, is common to both worlds, both fiction and nonfiction.
When you were researching, were you surprised by experiences that you thought occurred in one manner, but turned out to be completely different?
There’s one central story in the memoir about my uncle who was thrown off of a horse in Cuba, and then killed that way. When I tried to imagine him in the novel, he was someone who, the last thing he wanted to do was go to America, like his brother. And in fact it just so happened that he was riding across a field in Cuba when lightning struck and he was thrown from his horse. I found out subsequently that in fact he was riding back from this provincial capital of Santiago in southeastern Cuba and on his way back from getting a Visa to head to the States. And, ironically enough if he’d actually been someone who was not interested in that kind of thing, chances are he would never have been killed and therefore impacted my father’s life the way he did – his death did. And so what I’m saying is that, when I wrote my novel - my first novel (always autobiographical, I guess, in most cases), I had thought that it was the character based on my father’s sadness that, you know, over just the plain loss, but not a guilt thing.
You were in advertising for nine years before you decided to be a writer full time. Did you know writing would take over?
No, even though I had a lot of encouragement in university at City College, I always thought that I should have a day job, so to speak. And so, I wrote my first novel while I was working full time, you know at night and on the weekends, and even after it had been published and it got pretty good notices, I still stayed.... So I stayed at my full time job --at my job in transit advertising – [I was one of those] Ralph Kramden guys, you know – until I actually came home one day from work and I received notice from the American Institute of Arts and Letters, that I had received something called the Rome Prize in Literature, [and] would I accept it. Are you kidding me? So that changed my life. But I never had any arrogance or ego about writing. I always thought I was just barely getting by in terms of getting my notions down and not that I was very lucky to publish a novel.
You say in your memoir that you feel you never got to know your father, but in your writing it is evident that he still has an echo in your life. So, what do you feel you inherit from your father?
My father was – well he had a work ethic and a half. Contrary to popular stereotypes, most Latinos I knew growing up had very strong work ethics. He was also a very kindly man, and…gentle, very soft-spoken. And I think to a certain extent, very shy. And I think I inherited that from him, which has made the fact that I have to get out every now and then, and actually be somebody in front of people without getting terrible stage fright, which I used to get all the time. You know it took me a long time to get over that hump.
And, just to gauge your opinion, how do you feel about 25-year-olds penning memoirs?
I don’t know – I mean, I guess it’s the publishers are catering to what they perceive as, you know, a younger audience out there, college kids and you know, twenty somethings and… I teach at Duke, and I have students who are all of twenty who want to write memoirs, and you know it’s all pretty interesting stuff, but a lot of them lack gravitas, you know. So I think that comes with time and age and experience, so I’m not – you know, I can’t pass judgment, but I do think that – I like memoirs more by people who’ve been around the block a few times. On the other hand, a dear friend of mine, Lucy Greely, who wrote a memoir called “Autobiography of a Face,” you know she had a congenital deformity and you know…that was very, very moving and I think sometimes when a young person who is very close to that which formed them owns up to it and faces it honestly, I think that’s very beautiful and moving. So I think, you know, that it depends on what it’s about, I guess.
The best thing about being in your 20s is you have time -- and use it well, that’s all I can say.