Oscar Hijuelos: “I consider myself a hip kind of guy with old-fashioned values.”
Oscar Hijuelos, winner of the Pulitzer for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), died at age 62 on Saturday.
When I interviewed him in 1995 during his book tour to promote his novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, I found him charming, kind, generous, and intense.
Here is the interview.
It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and Oscar Hijuelos hasn’t had lunch. Passing through town on a tour to promote his novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author skipped lunch to tour the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
“A good friend of mine is the singer Lou Reed,” he says. “I hang out with him every now and then. I just saw a bunch of photos at the rock hall. He looks like such an innocent in his photos.”
Hijuelos, who won the Pulitzer in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, talks nonstop as he pores over a room service menu in his hotel suite.
With Mr. Ives’ Christmas, “I wanted to write a book that was a meditation, partly on the meaning of the holiday through the filter of one character’s consciousness. The very same people that get teary-eyed over A Christmas Carol sometimes have a very cold outlook in the underprivileged of the world. That made me think it would be really nice to do a book about New York here and now at Christmas.”
This quiet novel may surprise those who expect the rapid-fire action of Mambo Kings. Mr. Ives’ Christmas is largely a reflective work, focusing on the hero Edward Ives’ crisis in religious faith.
In the novel, a Catholic printer adopts Ives from a foundling home and he is transformed into a middle-class, all-American boy. He becomes a successful advertising illustrator, and meets his wife, Annie MacGuire, a substitute teacher who loves the books of Dickens and D. H. Lawrence, in a drawing class. After a passionate courtship, they settle down to raise two children.
But when their teenage son Robert is gunned down after choir practice in the streets of New York, Ives suffers a religious crisis. His healing comes about through a meditation on past Christmases and attempts to forgive his son’s murderer.
This novel is a homage to Dickens.
“I really wanted Dickens to be a quiet presence in the book and, in fact, in an earlier version I actually have this apparition of Dickens appearing, but I decided it was a little much.”
He also tried to draw a parallel between Dickens’ London and contemporary New York.
“A lot of people walk around feeling frightened and contemptuous of the poor,” he says. “In fact we are living in Dickens’ London with certain updates–like we’re much more technological, as with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think Dickens would have fainted if he saw that museum.”
The son of Cuban immigrants in Manhattan, Hijuelos grew up a devout Catholic. Although he knows it’s not fashionable to write about religion, he has considered the possibility for several years. He has read extensively about world religions, in part because his mother mixed Afro-Cuban spiritualism with her practice of Catholicism.
Hijuelos explains that to this day his mother practices the laying on of hands when he is sick.
“She does this thing with her hands”–he flutters them up and down–“if I’m not feeling well. It’s like she makes me start to feel better and it’s like a spiritual energy thing. It probably psychologically works because your mother cares about you. So I grew up in a wildly improvisational kind of household in terms of religiosity.”
This improvisational quality of religiosity is reflected in Ives’ visions in the novel: he sees God on Madison Ave., for instance, and dreams of his dead son. Hijuelos thinks that believers like Ives were perhaps more common in the “Ozzie and Harriet” era of the 1950s and ’60s during which much of the novel is set.
“I just wanted to capture an era of devoutness I grew up around and also try to say something about certain questions that are pretty eternal and constant…I somehow got this idea of writing about [religion] directly, which no one really does anymore.”
HIjuelos says he is very different from Ives. Although Hijuelos, like Ives, worked in an advertising agency for eight years, he is single and has no children.
“I consider myself kind of a hip guy with old-fashioned values. I believe in God, but I don’t always believe in the official proclamations of the churches. Ives is nobler than I am, he’s better than I am, but he’s as troubled as I am in many ways. He’s a filter through which I could tap into energies that normally, as Oscar walking down the street, do not have access to.”
Hijuelos has undergone some transformations in recent years. He boldly left his advertising job in 1984 to write on meager grants and fellowships. Since winning the Pulitzer in 1990, he has gone from living on $7,000 a year to a life of financial security and international fame.
It was at the end of a British tour to promote Mambo Kings that he learned he had won the Pulitzer.
“It was like being shot out of a cannon. Suddenly I had more friends than I ever knew I had, but many of them false friends, I might say.”
He wishes that his father, a cook at the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan, had been alive to see him win the prize. His mother, however, is enormously proud: she recently took a bow for him at church when the priest plugged his book at Mass.
Although HIjuelos’ mother tells reporters that he wrote as a child, he says he didn’t start writing until his early 20s. He earned a master’s degree in writing at City College of New York, where he studied with Donald Barthelme and other writers. He wrote his first novel, Our House in the Last World, before and after hours at the advertising firm.
He realizes that the Pulitzer was a definitive moment in his career. It was also “like having a wall of bricks fall on you” in terms of the pressure to achieve, he says.
But friends, family, and religion keep him grounded.
“I don’t do readings for money. I only do them for charity. I always try to do the right thing. You don’t change as much when you win the Pulitzer as people around you change toward you.”