Most recently Hijuelos has tried his hand at memoir, publishing Thoughts Without Cigarettes—a task about which (publishing a memoir) he was, and still is, conflicted. In it he recounts growing up in an immigrant family, his near-fatal childhood illness, and his efforts to take up the writing life. And, of course, how his internationally acclaimed novel, The Mambo Kings, has affected his life.
What follows is the second conversation I have had with Oscar Hijuelos. We talk about his childhood, his reservations about writing a memoir, Preston Sturges, Moisés Simons, working in advertising, music, Berlin, and living in Cuba or somewhere other than Manhattan.
In his review of Hijuelos’s newest opus, Héctor Tobar opines:
“Thoughts Without Cigarettes is a wonderfully intimate epic as well as an essential document of the evolution of American literature. It tells the story of an American neighborhood and of the young man who was born there, who looked inside himself and found books waiting to be written.One hopes that Hijuelos will find several more.”
Robert Birnbaum: Do you have any misgivings about writing this memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes?
Oscar Hijuelos: In terms of going into details?
RB: Yes. What would have stopped you from writing it? I have a feeling you vacillated about writing it.
OH: I’m really a very private person. So the whole concept of writing it in the first place was self-invasive. I got committed to it because, among among other reasons, [the book]business is kind of rough these days—that’s the practical side. I sold two books at the same time. One was Beautiful Maria of My Soul.
RB: To two different publishers.
OH: Right. That was to Hyperion and this one went to Gotham. There was sort of this sense of impending doom about the business.
OH: So my agent went for it. My original concept for the book was actually to talk about the preposterous nature of whatever fame is. Or whatever happened. My original notion was to pick up [the story] with [winning] the Pulitzer, where the current memoir ends, and then looking back occasionally. I wanted to do a whole thing about—I don’t know—just the literary world, and my experiences with film, and a lot of stuff that happened in the last 20 years.
RB: Well you can still write another memoir.
OH: I think so, but that is the book I originally intended to write. But once I started dealing with Gotham—and they are great, but I soon learned that they wanted a more traditional kind of rags-to-occasional, sometimes-riches story. They wanted something uplifting, and so it took me a while to put that hat on. Then once I did , I got into it. On the other side of the motivation for doing it—reluctantly, I must say. I spent half of my life explaining to people who know my later books, what I am about. So, I thought I would deal with that in this book. I am not an egotist and the last thing I like to do is talk about myself. The weirdest thing about the ‘I’, the eternal ‘I’ in a memoir or whatever the self-references—it feels, I don’t know, it always feels vaguely pretentious to me. But that’s why I work really hard to break down the barriers between the reader and myself. That sounds pretentious.
RB: Do you not believe that your story is an interesting story?
OH: Yeah, I think it’s a pretty interesting story, but I think it’s an old one. In terms of what’s going on in the world and the suffering of others—you hear stuff every day that is far more tragic.
RB: That sounds like your mother, like what your mother would say to you.
OH: Ah, yes, doctor.
RB: That’s what she did say to you somewhere at the end of the book—how lucky you were when you came back from Rome.
OH: I don’t recall that. Maybe you are remembering your mother (both laugh). But I know what you mean. All I am saying is there is an element to it that feels self-indulgent to me. It’s not like I am a Doctors without Borders guy in the midst of a famine or whatever.
RB: Some people think writing and writers are very important.
OH: I think the book has a certain kind of appeal to young folks that are trying to find themselves. They might be in the midst of being hassled by labeling, or feeling that they are not enough of one thing or another. Basically, I started out without any sound grounding in anything.
RB: You were born in New York but you might as well have been born in Cuba.
OH: Well, yeah, I would say so—I mean, my upbringing was largely in an apartment. My first memories were of my mother and father. My mother only spoke Spanish in those days. My father, I think he spoke some English, because he had been working in a hotel since 1943 or ’44—11 or 12 years in that environment—and I don’t remember him speaking English until I was much older. But of course it was also Manhattan. I’m sure I was aware of other things. Like an outtake that never made the book: I recall being on a street corner with my mother and watching a parade go by with Eisenhower in the motorcade, and the sensation of my mother being so incredibly moved by the fact that someone so important whisked by. Today that would be considered rather corny. That’s the kind of thing I remember. So while I lived in that kind of household, I also had my brushes with the outside world.
RB: Other than two or three years in Rome, and a stint in upstate New York, you have basically have lived in Manhattan all of your life.
OH: I travel a lot.
RB: Wouldn’t the thing that most described you be that you are a Manhattanite?
OH: Yeah. Absolutely. When asked how I saw myself I usually said I considered myself a New Yorker of Cuban antecedents.
RB: What’s the emotional coloration you associate with this story [Thoughts Without Cigarettes]? Happy? Sad? Melancholy? Uplifting—forget that, I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting.
OH: I think of it as a very—I see it in two or three ways. I see it as being a very intimate tale. I see it as often funny. The humor in it is pretty dark. I don’t know if sadness is the right description—the narrative relates to the sense of feeling premature tragedies in life. One of those things there was in the book is, of course, my father’s sudden passing. It was something that was unpredictable, but I wouldn’t say sadness, it’s more a wistfulness, in terms of—
OH: Bittersweetness in what sense?
RB: There are things that are positive and moving and there are emotionally trying things—your father’s death, your childhood illness, friends who overdosed —
OH: Of course there is the yin and yang. It was confusing because to me, when I was writing it, I was admiring—well, maybe not admiring, but you pick up a memoir by someone like Gore Vidal, it’s always one tone. It’s very aloof and amused by the world.
RB: There are not many Gore Vidals—he is a real original.
OH: Yeah. I sometimes wonder if I should have striven for a more consistent, upbeat story.
RB: Is your life upbeat?
OH: Right now or back then?
RB: The life you lived.
OH: I think it was hopeful. It’s hard to capture a directionless upbringing. When you are a kid you always have your hopes, anyway, you have your fantasies, and basically my older brother and I, we have to do a double-take because we were really lucky we landed on our feet. I mean, don’t know what the magical formula is for writing something that’s good, and I am not sure how I feel about the memoir. I do know I worked pretty hard to make it as reader-friendly as possible in terms of unmangling the language, and trying to repress my tendencies for flight. Although I think I could have done a little more, given more time in that direction. It’s an original-feeling book, and the story it tells—if I had any worries about it, was: Who is going to relate to it? Is it a Latino thing or is it for the literary reader? Or is it literary enough for the snobs? You know? I go around in this little circle. And then I have to dismiss it—
RB: Yeah, you never know. I just read Sigrid Nunez’s small volume on Susan Sontag. I wondered whom it was for? I mean Sontag is, of course, important, but this book is so inside baseball. but, I thought it was worth reading.
OH: Yeah. I know Sigrid and David Rieff [Sontag’s son]. I remember that time. I wouldn’t begin to claim to know Susan any more than I conveyed in the memoir. I did spend time with her. You know what it is: It’s not about the moment, it’s maybe about legacy, like 20, 30 years from now when there is a Susan Sontag obsession. She’s reconstituted through computer chips.
RB: I wonder, because of the way you describe your feelings upon the success of Mambo Kings and the way you attach them to your feelings about your father—was that your highest high?
OH: The afternoon I describe in the book was accurate. What I didn’t realize at the time, it took me years to figure out, that that book was not always about him—certainly about the atmospheres and his friends and the unseen history provided the energies for that novel. But I was completely sincere in saying that I felt a deep—even more gratitude now than I did back then. I wasn’t entirely aware where my head was at . And also the stuff in Mambo Kings was so distracting, in a way. It takes you out of yourself.
RB: The message or the narrative?
OH: In terms of how novels go—I couldn’t write it now because I am too knowledgeable, too dot-the-I’s, too something. But at the time—I look at it and I see, “Damn, you were in a zone.” If you are a musician and you play something and you are really loving it, and you forget about, and you hear it again 20 years later, you go, ”Damn!” I’m proud of the book, but at the time I had that unexpected success—you know, you go from being a bum in most peoples’ eyes. I remember the same guy who once asked me at a backyard barbeque out at Howard Beach—he actually asked me, “So what do you do for a living?” I said, “Well, I’m a writer. I want to be a writer,” “Oh, so what do you do for work?” Like, “Har har, you art guys have it really have easy.” A couple of years later the same guy approaches me with the utmost reverence and asks me for advice. This sort of thing. It’s a funny world. It’s not like being a movie actor. But you do have your fans. My fans lately, I notice, trend to be older, but it’s generational for some writers.
RB: I didn’t think so—but I didn’t think many younger readers wanted to read Roth’s Everyman, a story about an old man dying.
OH: But you see when I came up, probably the same for you, literature was more of a timeless universal entity, right? But now it’s what I call publishing in general. A lot of the books produced are equivalent to what I call—there’s an Indian restaurant in Manhattan called Curry in a Hurry, on Lexington Avenue. I’ve always loved that. There’s a whole category of literature happening now that’s being put out specifically with certain markets in mind. A lot of kids are off in their own cyber world. The more serious kids—I teach at Duke part of the year—I had some very gifted students who are interested in everyone. I’m sorry for digressing.
RB: There may be a resurgence in attention to writers that wrote before 1980 … and the books that the New York Review [of Books] publishes help that.
OH: They do have some inherent intrinsic interest in them, because I ordered some books they wrote gallantly about. I said, “Whoa, New York Review press!” Listen, I know what you are getting at and I am in complete support of it. The question [of] how do you get that literature—I mean, there’s too much stuff out there, and so many different sites and opinions, and everything is equal. I don’t get it. I am not sure how I feel about looking at my books on Amazon.com and finding 42 people liked it and two people hated it, you know?
RB: You mentioned it before—there’s a fear out there. Artists who should be thinking about their art now have to spend time and effort on selling and publicizing themselves. But what’s the problem? Are people going to stop reading? Are books going to disappear?
OH: Check this out. I left my hotel in Philadelphia at 8:15 in the morning and checked into my hotel in Boston, which is not very far, at 1:45.
OH: How did that happen? On my way on the flight here, I was sitting next to this business guy who had a Kindle. It was interesting to watch him—he’d read one title (John Grisham), read a few paragraphs, and backspace it and go to another title. It seemed to me he was aspiring to be a reader, and that this thing was convenient because he could have all kinds of books, but he wasn’t into it. I think what’s going to happen. I am not a big fan—I know you are doing this for a website—generally speaking, I am not happy about the demise of the independent bookstores. Or the fact that people get so much stuff online now. And the outlandish power of some of these voices.
RB: I should interject that I could publish this as a sound file or podcast. I prefer that it be read.
OH: Oh, interesting, interesting. I am not putting that down at all—it seems to me that the internet has made so many options available that there’s…the field is so vast and the quality is so arbitrary. Everybody is a critic now.
RB: We definitely need to modulate this shit stream of information. One can disappear down that rabbit hole.
OH: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.
RB: One problem is the so-called mainstream media—
OH: They don’t cover fiction anymore.
RB: Anyway, you got this great feeling from your first novel—what about the subsequent novels?
OH: Fourteen Sisters [The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien]; in a way it was a reaction to Mambo Kings, the male world. It was about females, mostly. I don’t know what on earth I was thinking, but I was doing a loose takeoff on Preston Sturges films.
OH: The weird thing about—I read somewhere someone said that I was grumpy about the way Latinos are regarded in the media. I dropped so many literary hints in Fourteen Sisters, including having a character that actually meets a character that meets the actor Joel McCrea [the protagonist in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels]. I couldn’t imagine dropping more hints, but reviewers never picked up on that. It was, after all, an immigrant novel. In Europe they did.
RB: What was an immigrant novel—Fourteen Sisters?
OH: Yeah, that was how it was reviewed.
RB: Really? I don’t remember reading it that way. When did you publish Mr. Ives?
OH: In 1995. That was shortlisted for the Pulitzer.
RB: That was a wonderful book.
OH: It’s one of my favorites. Somebody asked me what I want to do next after this. I want to do a follow-up to Mr. Ives—in terms of looking at human value, and religion, and what does it all mean? I can’t believe it’s 15 years later. But as more time goes by and as one pushes off from the shore (laughs), further out in to that lake, and you are only going in one direction. There are some other issues I’d like to talk about and even though I—
(Robin and Cuba [my son and his mother interrupt])
RB: We were talking about Mr. Ives. How much of your novels stick with you?
OH: Mr. Ives I liked because I recall the kind of mystical atmosphere it had. Fourteen Sisters I hardly ever think about, except when I do look at it, I am very impressed by my real effort to use softer language, feminine language. And feminine imagery. I came across a passage once, in which I was talking about a purse, and the soft insides of a purse, and what that was really about, etc., etc. That kind of thing. I was in a different kind of zone for that book. Subsequent books—I liked Simple Habana Melody a lot because I felt that—
RB: Was that based on a true story?
OH: I based it on the life of Moisés Simons, a guy who wrote The Peanut Vendor, very famous in the ’20s and ’30s. I am always on top of the commercial—I think I operated under the assumption that I was a Boom writer out of Latin America, writing in 1968 or something.
OH: It appealed to a very rarified audience. Writing a book about a Cuban musician who ends up in a concentration camp, based on various facts about Moisés Simon, and it was a very unique book—although the review in the New York Times basically destroyed the book for Europe, because Europeans look at the Times for foreign sales. I have had a lot of foreign sales, but not as many as some other books. Basically the review said, this a completely contrived novel and who ever heard of Cubans going to concentration camps?
RB: So what? That’s why it’s a novel, not a history book.
OH: I understand that. Anyway, because of that it was overlooked in some circles. I am proud of that book because it was pretty hard to pull off. And I was so deep into the history of Cuban music and politics back in the ’30s and ’40s. I did lot of research, and I look at it now and it’s pretty—the thing is, I become this whole other person once I finish a book. Occasionally I get a chance to look back and be detached about myself. I am not sure how I am going to feel about this memoir, though.
RB: What about the sequel to Mambo Kings?
OH: Beautiful Maria? I got a kick out of that book. I mean, I put myself into it. I also juggled the worlds. I think it was a very cunning novel in a way, because it reneges or backtracks in history. I appear as an unspoken character, so it’s a lot of fun. One of my big disappointments—a scene I based on the truth, where Beautiful Maria is sitting with this guy named Hijuelos in this restaurant in Coral Gables and the MC of the [TV] show Sábado Gigante walks in, and I based it on a true incident when I was sitting in a restaurant with some people and this guy who runs this big hammy show on Univision put on an impromptu cabaret performance. It was like walking in and Ed Sullivan is standing around and singing in the bar. I put that in there, and I am proud of taking things that happened and putting them in that novel. There was a lot of crossover from fantasy to reality and back and forth like that.
RB: Why did you revisit the Mambo Kings story? Did you always have that intention?
OH: Yeah, part of it came from a version of Mambo Kings that was [made into] a musical, which I worked on for too long. It ended up being a disappointment. It’s a long story—it ran in San Francisco for three months, and it was going to open on Broadway and I spent almost three years on that. That’s why there’s a lapse in my book between 2003 and 2008. Basically I was thinking about all these things that I had in Mambo Kings that nobody knew about. So for the musical I conceived this notion of—I went back to my original notion for the novel and wanted to regenerate it in the musical. But it didn’t quite work out. It stayed in my mind, so a few years later—it started as a theatrical idea and I just ran with it. I always knew what happened to Maria, even though I don’t state it in the first novel. It would have made it too long and unwieldy.
RB: None of your other novels have been close to being made into movies?
OH: Mr. Ives was almost made with Jimmy Smits. I nixed a script, which was really stupid. It was about to be shot and Smits was starring. Then another version came up and he was still going to do it. But then he pulled out because he had another movie. He was getting scale for Mr. Ives—the other movie was Star Wars.
OH: Then it was almost made a third time. I can’t remember that circumstance. But, you know, people get really interested. They are desperate for stories and then the interest dies out. Fourteen Sisters was almost made into a TV miniseries. Sheldon Leonard wanted to produce it. And I nixed that because. … Oh yeah, the third time with Mr. Ives, Armand Assante wanted to do it. I really regret that.
RB: It’s old stuff, but I was put off by Celia Cruz singing in English in Mambo Kings. It was reminiscent of a minstrel show.
OH: I have a DVD of outtakes of her in which she sang the songs in Spanish. The film was also sold to the Spanish market. I think they were thinking market-specific, not so much with the ethnological thing. I show this some times when I am asked to talk about Mambo Kings—different scenes of her [Cruz] improvising songs in Spanish and doing some [in] English—a very in-your-face recording. I am very proud of that connection—she put me in her memoir. So I felt really good about that.
RB: She was great—I saw her perform a few times.
OH: Yeah, she started out very young. She was a star in Cuba by the time she was 16 or 17 years old.
RB: Can you speculate at all about what might have been had Mambo Kings not been successful?
OH: Good question. I probably would have ended up … (long pause) There is so much built up in my mind after a certain point—it’s kind of a buzzy thing. I would probably have gone to school to become a schoolteacher, or maybe tried to get a teaching job. A couple novels are credential enough; a lot of creative writing teachers today haven’t published much more than that. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have always been laid back, or used to be so laid back. I liked to hang out with my musician friends, or just be a regular guy, so if it had flopped I maybe would have kept on working. Who knows what else might have happened? I might have written something else besides Fourteen Sisters.
RB: Can you imagine having worked at Young and Rubicam [ad agency]?
OH: Yeah. “You can taste it with your eyes,” man.
OH: “Cigarettes taste good like cigarettes should.” Um, yeah. I could have. It’s a slightly different world. I hung out with this copywriter who was into marketing and he would ask, “Why did you buy that bread, as opposed to …?” I could never do that.
RB: You could sit around a create slogans like “Blank tastes good like a cigarette should”?
OH: The thing is, that whole world is its own art form, and it has its own rewards.
RB: And its own nostalgia, a la Mad Men.
OH: To me that’s over-the-top glamourized. I guess I worked with the tail end of that generation as a young kid in the office. I don’t know if it was as glamorous as they make it out to be. You could make pretty good money back in the ’80s as a top copywriter. That was never my thing.
RB: What about a career in music?
OH: I was never that gifted.
RB: Is that what stopped you? You clearly have a love for music. You don’t seem to lose an opportunity to jam.
OH: I do love music. Musicians love me; I’m a good idea man and often have good chops. Or I used to have good chops … (long pause) I don’t know—the level of virtuosity, particularly in the form I am most interested in, jazz, was beyond me. I was a jammer as opposed to a real old-school chart-reader. I didn’t have the technical expertise.
RB: You hung around with [jazz guitarist] Kenny Burrell at his apartment. You listened to him practice.
OH: Yeah. Remember the group called the Cadillacs? They used to live on Morningside Drive. They rehearsed in an apartment right next to a brothel.
RB: Where do you live now?
OH: I keep a studio on 106th Street, Duke Ellington Boulevard. The one uptown is where people put cigarette butts out in the walls. And then I have a place down on 73rd and Riverside Drive. I like river and sky and all that. The neighborhood is getting a little too bougie for me, so I‘d like to go back uptown.
RB: Do envision living somewhere other than Manhattan?
OH: Another country?
RB: Anywhere else other than New York.
OH: Yeah, I think about it. I think about it more wishing I had that hat on 10 or 15 years ago, when I had much more opportunity and mobility. I went to Berlin a few years ago. I absolutely loved it. A very young-feeling city. It’s very dynamic. Have you been?
OH: You should go.
RB: I have read about it and that many visitors love it.
OH: More parks than any city in the world and everybody is laid back. I thought there would be this sinister residue from WWII—that’s what we grew up with, right? And it was the opposite of that. I would like to spend more time in Latin America. I am working on that now but I always have enough commitments to mess up the next few years.
RB: I have heard that Uruguay is a wonderful place.
OH: Martin Amis spends time down there.
RB: He did. He has moved to NYC.
OH: He’s in New York?
RB: His wife [Isabel Fonseca] is Uruguayan. You must be published in Latin America?
RB: In English or Spanish?
OH: Spanish. It’s a relative term. I had someone come to my apartment once, a journalist, with an edition of Mambo Kings I had never seen before from Buenos Aires. (both laugh) I said, “Oh really, I didn’t know I was being published in Argentina.” It was a pirated version.
RB: You don’t write in Spanish—it’s translated. Do you have any contact with the translators?
OH: No. Just with Spain. They are coming with Beautiful Maria. They jumped on that so fast. The Finns jumped on it, the Dutch. People are interested in certain aspects of my work, still. My biggest pride was in Spain—there was an auction there, three or four houses were competing. An unexpected boost to my ego.
RB: Is there a different publisher in every Latin American country?
OH: You are asking me about stuff that I only know a little bit about.
RB: That’s good, since I know almost nothing.
OH: Companies in Spain have subsidiaries in Latin America, sort of like HarperCollins, and there is one translation. A lot of people go to Spain and pick up books. In this internet age, communication—20 years ago it was different story. I have never seen a copy, but I know a pirated edition of Mambo Kings was in Cuba for a while.
RB: I don’t remember seeing a bookstore in Cuba. Books were being sold on the street in Old Havana. What is your sense about spending time in Cuba? You must have relatives there.
OH: I do. I have a lot of cousins. My aunt passed away about five years ago. I had gone to visit her and I am glad I did, she was 96 or 97. So I have relatives there—what am I going to do, go hang out and live with my relatives and get an apartment in Havana? I’m not sure what I would do. It’s not like going to Europe, where you know for a fact that most people are OK. I would like to go and visit my father’s home town.
OH: That was my mother’s. My father was from Jiguaní a little town in eastern Cuba. When you asked me originally if I had any misgiving about the book [Thoughts Without Cigarettes], what were you getting at?
RB: Well, I don’t read many reviews, but it seems obligatory in reviews about memoirs that the writer has to mention how there are so many, and that the boomer generation has published more memoirs than all in previous history. That’s one thing. And, of course, the matter of revealing personal and family stories. Was your mother alive when you wrote this?
OH: No, she passed away five years ago.
RB: Could you have written this book if you knew she would read it?
OH: Uh, I think it would have been very interesting. I don’t think I am that hard on her.
RB: She was upset at Our House in the Last World.
OH: It was weird. I did a reading in NYC the other night, and the same day I do the reading I get a letter from my ex-wife—my first wife from 35 years ago. And she picked up the book somehow, in Chicago or wherever she was living, I forget where. She was pretty nice about it. She said I got her parents right—that was a blast from the past. And in the crowd this guy keeps nodding at me, and he looks vaguely familiar. It was some guy I used to work for TDI [Transportation Displays Inc.], and when I worked for him the guy was a tyrant and a despot and mean, always angry. A control freak. I guess being a heavy bad guy pays off—20 years later he is smiling. He came to my reading. I found that very, very touching. He said he almost cried. I happened to read a passage about TDI. And then a widow of a friend who helped print up the ads for my first novel—she was there. She was crying. And some other things like that, it was strange. With a novel you get a certain type of response, but with a memoir it’s taken as, “This is the official truth.” If I have any misgivings about it—it’s my interpretation of what happened. I don’t think anything is written in stone. It’s certainly not written in stone in memory. What I had hoped to do was capture the general atmosphere of my own anxieties and my own whatever, joys and sadness. I don’t know how to feel—it’s hard to write about yourself.
RB: Sure—and you have the possibility of writing about the next phase.
OH: If I live that long.
RB: One last question: I don’t want to seem stupid, but I can’t figure out the title.
OH: Thoughts Without Cigarettes? Well the original subtitle was going to be With Apologies to Italo Svevo, who wrote Confessions of Zeno, which was about a guy trying to quite smoking. Who the hell is going to relate to that?
OH: The original version of the book had to do with smoking versus not smoking as a barometer of how I felt, from time to time in life. And then it evolved in to a different kind of narrative. But I though the title was pretty interesting. When people ask me I almost feel like saying, “It seemed like a good thing.”
RB: It does seem to stand on its own—it’s your story. Well, thank you.
OH: Thank you.
1 Oscar Hujielos talks about writing Thoughts without Cigaretttes
2 Oscar Hijuelos reads from Thoughts without Cigaretttes