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One On 1: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Remembers His Roots

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Oscar Hijuelos, a Cuban-American author and previous recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, has written about the struggles of his parents' generation in the past and recently wrote a memoir of his own life and hardships. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos will write notes to himself at any time on anything.

“Writing on the back of a notebook page, I mean, I guess I was pretty desperate,” says Hijuelos. “I'll write on anything."

Hijuelos is known for writing fiction. “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” the 1989 bestseller that earned him the Pulitzer Prize, was later made into a movie.

It is the story of two Cuban brothers. They are musicians who emigrate to New York in the 1950s.

In his latest work, Hijuelos has written his own story, a memoir called "Thoughts Without Cigarettes."

“When I pick up a memoir and it’s overly sensitive and too delicately written, I feel like throwing up,” says Hijuelos. “So one of my rules is that I try to be as straightforward as possible."

This is the first time that Hijuelos has written at length about the early episodes that shaped his life.

He says his background has long inspired his fictional writing. Hijuelos is the son of Cuban immigrants who came to New York in the early 1950s.

"To be a good American, you have to look forward” says Hijuelos. “I think to a certain extent, I have tended to look back quite a bit, and I think it's out of some kind of loyalty, reverence for my roots."

Hijuelos says he is not what he calls a "typical Latino."

The first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Hijuelos says he has an Irish great-great-grandfather.

"I've had my feelings hurt on occasion,” says Hijuelos. “I've had Cuban's come up to me and say you are the least Cuban Cuban I've ever met. On the other hand, I've been made very happy by someone coming along and saying 'paisano, welcome, that was beautiful.’"

Hijuelos says he has two major problems when he writes.

"One is self-confidence, and the second thing is maintaining focus and concentration," he says.

He connects those problems to one of the most important and painful episodes of his childhood.

Hijuelos was only four years old when he contracted a severe kidney disease on a family trip back to Cuba.

It led to a year's stay in a hospital in Connecticut, separating Hijuelos from his family and the Spanish spoken at home in Morningside Heights.

Hijuelos calls the year "the black hole of my childhood."

"I guess because of my childhood circumstance of being alienated from my family and torn asunder, as it was at a very delicate age from normalcy, I've tended to always look around internally,” says Hijuelos.

After earning a master's degree in creative writing at City College, he wrote his first book at night while working at an advertising agency during the day.

He remembers the time fondly, though he says some of his advertising colleagues thought he was strange and didn't quite comprehend the writing process.

"They knew my book came out, some of them would buy it, but mostly people were just aware of it,” says Hijuelos. "They saw me coming back from the library with two or three books and they said ‘oh are those the new ones you wrote?’ They thought it was something you could do in two weeks or something."

The first book, "Our House in The Last World" earned Hijuelos the 1985 Rome Prize, giving him the freedom to move to Italy and write as a fellow of the American Academy.

Ironically, his time in the Italian capital helped him understand a different time: the time of his parents' plight in New York in the early 1950s.

The result would become his most famous work.

"Just coping and learning new things about a system, like waiting in line at a bank to cash a check for like four hours, put me into a state of mind in which I became aware of what my parents must have felt like,” says Hijuelos. “That translated in to what I had the Mambo Kings going through, which is trying to adapt and learn about a new culture."

Hijuelos experienced the success of the book in a very public way.

"When that book won a Pulitzer and I traveled around the country, people were just freaking happy,” says Hijuelos. “I wouldn't say it’s like when Joe Louis finally knocked out Max Schmeling, but you know, it meant a lot to the community."

He also heard accolades from one of his literary heroes, the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"I was kind thrilled to meet the master and have the master say 'not bad, kid,'” says Hijuelos. “He said that 'that's a book I wish I had written.'"

Hijuelos also felt the success in an intensely personal way. It helped his mother overcome her doubts about her son's career choice.

"She used to stop her friends on the streets and say my son's a writer and he can write a poem for you for whatever, as if I was a hire out service," says Hijuelos.

It helped Hijuelos connect to his father, who he lost at the age of 18.

"I just wasn't experiencing this pleasure of doing something good for my father's memory in a way, but it occurred to me how much of an influence he had in the creation of my characters in that book,” says Hijuelos.

In "Thoughts without Cigarettes," Hijuelos writes that he never intended to represent himself as a spokesman for anybody but himself.

But he says he felt lucky that his first book was published at a time when hardly any publishing houses in New York were publishing Latino writers, an interest that increased with the success of Mambo Kings.

"Now I look back, I feel more like a pioneer, and yet if I were interviewing me in those days, I don't know if I would be as open-minded as I seem to be right now,” says Hijuelos. “I remember being kind of pissed at the system back when."

Hijuelos is also an accomplished musician.

He says music gets him out of what he calls "this writer thing." He also enjoys traveling.

"You want to forget about being Mr. Pulitzer Prize,” says Hijuelos. “Go travel Tibet for a month or two and deal with that."

At the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife, writer Lori Marie Carlson, souvenirs line the bookshelves.

But it is the more personal artifacts -- the emotional and psychological vestiges of his family's journey from Cuba to New York -- that have left the biggest imprint on his writing and his life.

"I find this notion of my ethnic roots as very heartwarming," says Hijuelos. “I've never forgotten the struggles that my parent’s generation went through to make something of themselves and set up a life here."

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