About The Author
Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City. She was born in LA but had a peripatetic childhood, her father, a doctor, being restless and constantly on the move, first to Hawaii, then New York, Baltimore, California and Texas. She now lives in Manhattan. She worked for several years as editor-at-large of Condé Nast’s Traveller magazine and is currently an editor at the New York Times style magazine T.
Her first novel, published in in 2013, was The People in the Trees, was based on the real-life story of the disgraced Nobel prize winner, Daniel Gajdusek. It was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction 2014.
Her new novel, A Little Life, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, is an intimate study of friendship and different kinds of love and an exploration of the permanent scars caused by childhood trauma. It spans the decades-long relationships across a group of four college graduates who move to New York to pursue their various careers - aspiring actor Willem; struggling architect Malcolm; JB, a painter making his way in the art world; and Jude. Withdrawn, enigmatic, crippled by an accident of which he doesn't speak, Jude is haunted, damaged by a childhood kept hidden from his closest friends. Increasingly successful in his career as a lawyer, yet increasingly broken by a past that comes to define him, Jude's position as the dazzling black hole at the centre of the group will send shockwaves through the characters--and through the reader too.
In poised, spellbinding prose, Yanagihara expertly maps our lives at work, the nuanced relationships between men, and the tyranny of memory in a novel that critics are already raving about. Edmund White has called A Little Life 'wonderfully gripping', and Cathy Rentzenbrink says it 'might be the best book I've ever read.'
Frances Gertler talked to Hanya about the difference between friendship and all other relationships, her desire to marry the fairy tale with the contemporary naturalistic novel, and the need to write from a sense of urgency.
Listen to the interview with Hanya during the event at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on 26th August 2015
Author photo © Sam Levy
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your novel, was it your most compelling character, Jude, or perhaps the city of New York itself?
This book came to me pretty much fully formed, but it took me some time to realize that. I knew who Jude was and would be for years, which only came clear when I began writing. In earlier imaginings of this book, his particulars were different (his job, certain physical characteristics), but who he was--how he thought, how he saw the world and his place in it, his specific kind of logic--remained unchanged, even as the details morphed.
Friendship in the book is often more important than - and sometimes even replaces - familial ties. Is that a function of modern living, especially in the community you write about, where practically everyone is from somewhere else?
I think friendship has always been essential to who we are as humans--it's just that it's a relationship that's never been considered as important as it is. For centuries (and, to a lesser extent, today), friendship was the only relationship that existed outside society's demands; it was the only relationship you chose, rather than had bestowed upon you. When you are a spouse, a parent, an employee, a citizen, you live by certain rules, some of them dictated by law, others by social expectations. But friendship is the one relationship available to us in which the laws and limits are defined only by the participants. It can't be codified, which means it's ever shifting, ever vulnerable, ever electric, and ever demanding. When we choose a friend, and choose the terms of that friendship, we are exercising our rights of freedom and our rights as a human. One of the things two of the characters in this book learn is that their version of what friendship is needn't be anyone else's, and that every friendship is unique in its shape and form, and that how we express friendship is often an expression of what we need most from another person, and are forever searching for, even if we don't know it.
In their thirties the ‘boys’ are accused of co-dependence and a failure to move into adulthood. Do you think relationships, or coupledom, is still privileged over friendship?
Yes, for reasons I discuss above: a coupledom is, of course, as complicated as a friendship. But we think we know it more. That's not true, of course, but we assume that we know one of the things keeping the participants together--sex--even if that's not actually the case. Society depends on coupledom, for all sorts of reasons; it's good for social order and good for the economy. Friendships aren't in the same way.
Jude’s story is heart-breaking. Did you know from the outset to what degree, if any, Jude might recover from his childhood trauma and abuse?
Yes. I always knew that the book would be his slow awakening to the fact that he's just too damaged to recover, that he is, in a fundamental sense, irreparable. I wanted his recognition of this to mirror the reader's: there are points in the book in which the reader knows more than the characters, and points in which the characters know more than the reader. But I wanted the reader to come to this particular realization in tandem with Jude.
[WARNING: SPOILER ALERT]
Why did you resist giving him the happy ending that seemed at least at one point to beckon so strongly? It feels as if some kind of recovery or at least reconciliation was so close, were it not for the intervention of a purely external event.
I don't think Jude's story could've ended any other way. Even without that last death (trying not to be spoilery here!), I think his past would've become so overwhelming that he only had one option available to him. And I think it was the right one, the only one.
[ END OF SPOILER ALERT]
Self-harm plays a central role in the book and may be one of the last taboos to be written about in fiction, at least until quite recently. Is this something you were particularly driven to explore?
No, not really. But it makes sense for Jude: this is someone who was taught, from a very young age, to turn his anger inward, to submerge and submerge and submerge. But you can't do that forever--such rage always finds its way out, often spectacularly.
What do you think of the Atlantic’s assessment of your book as the ‘great gay novel’?
I didn't read the piece, because I don't read anything about the book. But the author, Garth Greenwell, is terrifically smart and a wonderful writer--he has a beautiful novel called What Belongs to You coming out next year--and I'm honoured that he wrote it and honoured that it resonated with him both as a reader and as a gay man. I know a little about the argument he makes in the piece, which I found fascinating, a fascinating way of reading the book (though I think he gives me more credit than I deserve). I've been particularly humbled, in fact, by the number of gay male readers who've read the book and found something in it that they recognize and respond to. They've been terrifically generous and, well, non-territorial. They've taken the book at face value--the ones who reach out to me, at least--and that is a great gift for any writer.
Art, and photography in particular, are intrinsic to the book; can you say more about the connection between images and your words?
Yes. You can see some of the artworks that inspired me -- and ones artists made that were inspired by the book -- on my Instagram feed.
The book is on one hand very much of its time and on the other, avoids all reference to any historical or political events. Can you say more about why you chose to present it this way?
With this book, I wanted to marry two unlikely genres: the fairy tale and the contemporary naturalistic novel. Both are equal partners, so to speak, in this book: it borrows its characters and speech patterns and interiors from one genre and its absences and extremes and tropes from the other. Many of the absences in this book--of mothers, of women, of parents, of time, of a sense of an outside world, of salvation--are ones we know from fairy tales. I wanted Jude's world to feel completely specific and yet recognizable as well, and one of the ways I chose to do that was by not giving the reader any tethers, as it were: there's nothing to really ground you in this book, nothing to divert your attention. You are in Jude's world, with Jude, and there's no escaping it. There should be a sort of out-of-time, out-of-place quality that echoes Jude's childhood in the motel rooms, a sense that the world and its events have no effect, good or ill, on the relentlessness of your daily, present-tense experience.
At 720 pages A Little Life is exceptionally long compared to most novels published today. Did you ever come under pressure from your publishers to reduce its length?
Yes, the American publishers wanted me to cut it by a third. But I knew that was a knee-jerk business reaction (not that business concerns can always be ignored) when my US editor admitted he had no idea how to cut it by a third: I think he just wanted it to be less intimidating and more marketable. (Which it wouldn't've been, anyway.) My UK editor was untroubled by the length. He was troubled by other matters, but the length wasn't one of them.
Malcolm fears the loss of his imagination, worries that he’ll never create anything again. Is this a fear you share?
Ha! Well, I suppose every artist worries about this to some extent, at some time. For me, though, the concern is less about running out of ideas as it is running out of a sense of urgency: I only want to write when I have something urgent to say, something I feel I want to spend months or years with. You can always write--but I think you can also always tell when the author feels she had to say it, versus just deciding to say it.