Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life and Man Booker Prize nominee, sat down with Pride Life for an exclusive interview.
Pride Life: Hanya, with the risk of making you cringe slightly, I just wanted to say that I treasured your book. I found it fiercely perceptive, astonishing, captivating, moving, heart-stoppingly emotional, thought-provoking and clarifying, and that reading it sort of felt like a revelation.
Hanya Yanagihara: No, I feel like I should leave now [laughing] because anything I say now will diminish that. No, that’s really kind. Thank you so much.
PL: How has both the critical and more personal reception to the book been and how has that reception made you feel?
HY: Well, you know, I don’t read reviews and I’m not on twitter, but of course stuff filters through to me anyway. When I wrote this book I wrote it for me and I wrote it for my best friend and what I hoped it would find was an audience of a few dozen people who felt that the book was speaking to them and I thought it might have a chance of doing that; be a book that was very small, that would be very personal to a very small group of people and I would have been really honoured had that happened.
So the fact that it has spoken in different ways to such a diversity of people has been incredibly humbling. You know, it is not something I expected, I’m a little overwhelmed by it. It’s been so unexpected and so lovely and sort of constantly surprising every day. And you know, in a way, when you write a book like this it does feel very, very personal to you, or to me, not because necessarily these characters are based on anybody I know but because that the writing of it was such an intense emotional act and because I lived with it so intensely with just me and my friend and that was it, so when it was finally released first both to my editor and agent and then to the broader reading public what I first felt was this great sense of loss, you know?
Like these characters who had been mine where now being shared by other people, where being interpreted by other people. So what’s helped that is that people have loved them and have really cared for these characters and really surrendered to them in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for.
PL: Can I ask you what you think A Little Life is about?
HY: Fundamentally, to me, when I was working on the story in the early stages, it was always about friendship and specifically about male friendship and I would say that and people would not know what I meant by that, and I wasn’t really even sure myself, but it became a meditation on more generally friendship and what we can do for each other, and what we can’t, and the limits of how much we can help someone.
And also, in a broader sense, how we decide to move on in a life when a life is impossible to live. And I think that when I was writing this book so many of my opinions about these very subjects, and what I assumed that I believed, changed dramatically, and not for the better or the worse necessarily but it really did make me push against so much of what I had thought about friendship and love and family and the meaning of life. I mean, why do we live, why do we feel compelled to live even when it is so hard for us? Do we have an obligation to live, and if so, to whom? And are there circumstances in which death and choosing our own death is the kinder, even inevitable thing?
PL: Big, profound questions…
HY: You know, it doesn’t feel like profundity. It feels like all of the stuff that we live with daily and it’s not stuff that sometimes we have the leisure or the wherewithal or even the inclination to examine. I can say that for myself and it wasn’t really until I got into writing this book that I did start thinking about those topics more intensely and in a more granular way, I suppose.
PL: So, I’d like to talk to you about some of the characters in the novel, starting with the four main friends who meet at college in Massachusetts and then all move to New York. So let’s go through them one by one and you can tell us a little about each of them, starting with Malcolm.
HY: I mean none of these characters are meant to represent any sort of type, but they are all people, although they are not based on real people, I have borrowed elements and characteristics from people I know and from characters I know, I suppose. So Malcolm is someone who has a lot of me in him I suppose. He is an upper class and insecure aspiring architect who has been raised in these very privileged ways, in somewhat of a bubble. His father is black and the managing director at a commercial bank and his mother is white and a literary agent.
And although I’m not trying to make him stand in for anything I think that one of the things that is particular about New York and about London now these days too, is that in certain circles, in certain realms, what matters more than race or religion is money. If Malcolm as a black man went out of this four block radius he lives in, and maybe even within that four block radius, he would be treated as a black man and everything that represents in America.
But his wealth has insulated him and protected him and the thing I love about him is that he is a very consistently kind character and I think he’s very relatable, and someone who is aware of his privilege and he’s sort of guilty about it, but not quite, and a little bit spoiled but sweet.
PL: And then JB…
HY: And JB is really the character that I love the most and he gets all the best lines and he is a Haitian-American artist. And to me JB is the character who grows the most over the course of the book. Willem and Malcolm and Jude are essentially who they are to varying degrees over the course of the forty years, but JB is the one who is probably the smartest in the greatest variety of ways and who has to really challenge himself to redefine what it means to be a friend and I thought that was interesting. He is the most, I think, fun of the characters.
Certainly, he was fun to spend time with as a writer and one of my favourite sections in the third part of the book when he is in his studio and he is deciding what to do about his addiction that he doesn’t want to admit to himself and I really, really enjoyed writing him and I think that he is both a recognisable character and also a complicated one.
PL: And Willem, who I happen to be in love with, by the way.
PL: [Laughing] He’s an actor and one of the things my U.S. editor said to me when I turned in this book was “everybody is so kind to each other” and listen, I love a novel in which friends are really mean to one other too, I really do, but it wasn’t the intention of this book and this book is a fantasy in a lot of ways. And Willem is…I don’t think he’s a fantasy, I know people who are this kind and he is probably based a little on my best friend who doesn’t have all of Willem’s generosities of, I mean, he is not as physically demonstrative, but he is someone who is consistently trust-worthy and compassionate and so this really is a tribute to him
PL: And finally Jude, who is the emotional core of the book and of the circle of friends.
HY: And then Jude, yes, who is really the heart of the book. One of the things I wanted with this book was to write a character who never really gets better and I thought that can I sustain narrative tension around a character who just can’t, despite his own hope and he is hopeful right to the very end of his life, but can never really fix himself despite trying and trying and one of the things that I find heart-breaking about Jude is that he is very limited in how he can see himself and how he can conceive of himself and both he and Willem, if they suffer from anything, they suffer from a fundamental lack of imagination.
I mean, Willem in his insistent need to think at everything is going to resolve itself and Jude in his inability to imagine a different existence for himself. And that’s not to blame him, he’s simply incapable and no one has ever taught him. One of the things that I wanted to do with Jude is give him a lot of gifts and a lot of talents and a lot of qualities but then have those qualities and gifts mean nothing ultimately because the things he needs aren’t the things he was taught to have. And he is meant to be a trustworthy character, he’s not an unreliable narrator, but he is perhaps less than reliable about himself. I mean in that sense he was a very easy character to write because he is very consistently himself throughout…unfortunately.
PL: One of the many extraordinary qualities of A Little Life is how beautifully you render the interior consciousness of the characters, their thought processes and rationalisations – you can hear their thoughts and they feel like they are coming from the minds of very real people. How do you go about creating this? Do you hear them in your own mind? How does that work?
HY: Well Jude I knew, sort of from the start and he was someone I had very fully formed and the others came fairly quickly and once I had a sense of who they were…once they became knowable it was easy to know them I guess is the answer. So my friend who I mentioned earlier is my first reader on everything that I do and one of the things that I did check with him was does this make sense of Willem.
Is this what he would say, is that how he would think? They all have slightly different patterns of speech which is not something that I’d expect a reader to notice but Jude, for example, never swears more than a damn throughout the entire book except once, at the very end. And he is the only one who is referred to as ‘he’, the others are all name by name every now and again. So I did want Jude’s sections in particular to feel very claustrophobic. But the others I wanted the reader to be able to know when they are entering another person’s section. I mean, they might not know it right away but I hoped that by the first few paragraphs they would figure it out.
PL: A big theme in the book is self-harm and – however misplaced these feelings may be – self-hatred and self-disgust. Do you think in any way that part of the extraordinary reaction many readers have had to the book is that in reading it there is some level of catharsis for the reader for feelings which many people find difficult to discuss openly?
HY: I hadn’t intended it as a cathartic read and I don’t know if that’s what readers are experiencing. So much of what Jude does and which readers get to witness is private behaviour and what I think that I would hope that one of the things that is both awful and compelling about watching him do this again and again is that you are forced to confront the ugliness of what he has to live with.
And when we all look at the people in our own lives and despite how well we know them there is a side to them that we never get to see and so in this character you do get to see him at his most desperate and his darkest and his most infected, in a sense. I think there is a quality to that sort of intimacy and that sort of depth of access to someone that is both repulsive and also strangely hypnotic.
PL: One observation is how much the book is concerned with pain: Jude’s injuries, his cutting, and the intensity of emotional suffering; it’s both a torment and an escape. Where you intending to draw attention to how uncomfortable America as a society is with dealing with pain and the pain of others?
HY: When I was growing up I was very sick for a long time and my mother lives in a lot of pain herself and pain is a very difficult thing to put into words. People hate hearing about it, it is very boring to hear about. The language around pain is limited and unsatisfying and the feeling is very difficult to put into words. So one of the things, certainly literarily that I wanted to do was to talk a little bit about the language of pain and Jude experiences so many different kinds of it and lives with so many different kinds of it and it isn’t something that we hear about a great deal, not only in fiction but in other sorts of writing as well, so that was certainly something that I wanted to explore.
But the other thing is and one of the things that I find very sad about Jude’s life is that, in the end, all he really has between him and the world is that bag [of razors] and it is both such a flimsy defence and also an addiction like anything else and I wanted to show the tools of addiction and what it really means to be an addict in this sense.
PL: There are numerous queer characters in the book, gay men, lesbians and bisexuals – both as central and more peripheral figures. And a sense of sexual fluidity beyond the confines of binary labels. Do you enjoy writing gay characters? And do you think living in New York has informed the sense polysexual ubiquitousness in the novel?
HY: It’s interesting, the culture shifted between when I started writing this novel and now and that’s been like a three year period and even within those three years the idea of being polysexual, the idea of gender fluidity had developed very quickly in a very short amount of time. When I turned this book into my agent she said “everyone in this book is gay” which is not really true but I do think that if you have gone to a certain school, if you run in a certain circle in New York and if you have a certain profession you are going to be around people who span the gamut of sexuality. You know, I’m forty and for my friends who are forty and who are all along that range it is still a fairly black-and-white defined range.
But when you look at kids who are even that half-generation younger than we are they are really comfortable being anywhere on that spectrum. My friend who is about forty-five and is a gay man says any gay man who is over forty is really into drag queens, and anyone under forty is into transgender people. Which is sort of true. It is very perplexing for all of us of any sexuality over forty so see how fluid kids are these days.
Women have always been so more than men, but men definitely are and certainly in the group I run with they are, even though all of us are middle-aged, perhaps more polysexual than most and that was definitely something that I wanted to nod at in the book and it made sense for these characters that it would be something that they would be comfortable with but comfortable with within a fairly conservative way. I mean they are not sexual outlaws, they are simply people who recognise it as part of the human experience although Jude and Willem get very hung-up on trying to name what their relationship ought to be.
PL: And in terms of this sense of polymorphous sexuality and issues around identity politics that we encounter in A Little Life do you feel that the book reflects a shift in how people in are thinking about their desires in much more fluid terms?
HY: Not really. One of the things that I wanted to convey about Jude and Willem’s relationship is that Willem is someone who says he’s not gay and I don’t think he is and I don’t believe Jude is either. To me it was more about what is the space that lies between friendship and a romantic relationship? And why are we so obsessed in trying to define it?
When you look at any romantic comedy, so many books, it is if there is somehow this invisible line and you go over and become something else but in reality it is much, much blurrier. So I think that they spend a lot of time as a couple thinking we have to express a greater depth of feeling by having sex. In Willem’s case I think it’s because he genuinely has desire for Jude and in Jude’s case it is not.
But I think that there is a lot of people who feel like they have to follow a certain road map when it comes to expressing love, or when it comes to being in a relationship, or when it comes to defining how they want to live and how they want to be with someone and really, you don’t have to. But it is very hard to go it alone and it’s very hard to matter your sexual orientation to feel that you are alone and that there is no one else in the club with you, and so it is easier, in a way, even if it is imperfect, to follow these sorts of “well, I’m gay, I’m bisexual, I’m straight” and that’s it, you know? But I think it is very tough and I don’t think that a lot of people don’t fall into any of those categories.
PL: There is domestic violence and emotional torture depicted in an adult relationship in the book – these scenes are bruising and difficult to read. Did you do any research about this topic?
HY: Not really any…none actually.
PL: And do you feel at all, with people like me asking that sort of question, that there would be any expectation for you to have looked into that more forensically?
HY: No, I mean, there is a lot of research that I did do for this book but it was only about careers and I did some research about the adoptions process in the U.S. and one of the most chilling details which is actually real are these adoption fairs that Jude goes to as a boy. They are so brutal. They are held in different States and you literally go to a large ballroom in a hotel and there is just all these kids standing around waiting to be adopted. I mean, they must do more good than harm or they wouldn’t do them, I know kids actually get adopted out of them, but it just sounds so terrifically brutal in a lot of ways.
PL: I’d like to talk a little about some of the darker themes and more terrifying characters in the novel, such as Brother Luke and Dr. Taylor. These days, and indeed many before them, you can’t look at a British newspaper without seeing headlines about paedophile rings and child abuse. Why did you want to write about the trauma of child sexual abuse and how did it affect you doing so?
HY: It has been very interesting coming to the UK because I think here, although of course there has been institutional sexual abuse in the States, here it is on a much bigger scale, I suppose. I just came from Ireland and obviously it was at the hands of the institution that governed the country for so long and so perhaps it was a greater shock perhaps to the psyche then than in the States where things are most defused and you have many different religions and many different institutions of power. I suppose I am interested in the subject because it destroys people.
I mean, I don’t think that it destroys everyone in the same way and I think that some people function very well but it is the ultimate abuse of power, it is the ultimate violation of power. I once read this very quick interview with John Waters actually and he was being asked…it was right around when all the Catholic Church abuse scandals were breaking in Boston in the U.S. and he was talking about how really people should be held more accountable with the church, not simply the individual paedophiles, and he says you know no one asks to be a paedophile and the church knew and they didn’t do anything. But he said it very well, he said paedophiles ruin children’s dreams, they destroy their dreams and I really think that on a very basic level that is true.
PL: You know I actually interviewed John for Pride Life no so very long ago.
HY: Oh, you did? I assume the subject didn’t come up? [Laughing]
PL: Um, well a lot of other interesting stuff did.
HY: I’m sure it did, he is very smart.
PL: In addition to making me cry and cry there are some gut-wrenching scenes involving self-harm and suicide. It is a challenge know where to draw the line with how graphically you render these images in the mind of the reader?
HY: No. I mean that was one of the things I did fight a lot about with my U.S. editor and he said that he didn’t think that the reader could handle it. My feelings are that the reader can handle anything as long as they know it is genuinely, sincerely delivered. I think that a reader always knows when you are pulling back because you don’t trust them to take something and to me as a reader I would rather have the author trust me and have the author feel that I’m under strong authorial guidance and that the author has the book in hand and that really is leading the way, and then I’m ready to follow the author anywhere. I don’t think there is a cut-off point and readers can’t take past x-amount of violence. I think that’s an (a) silly and, (b) impossible way to think about this.
PL: How long did this big 720 page book take to write and what was your writing practice like?
HY: So, are you a writer yourself?
PL: I do, but it’s a bit of a complicated issue for me; I’m a writer that’s sort of dislocated from practice.
HY: [Laughing] That’s a good way of putting it.
PL: It’s the long way of saying I’m lazy and fearful. [laughing]
HY: It’s really hard. The first book took a really long time because I was lazy. This one because I really had the wind in my sails, I wrote it in eighteen months. It was very, very fast and it probably wasn’t healthy, it was a real sprint. During that period everything fell by the wayside. I do have a full time office job and so it was great to go into the office so that I didn’t have to think about the book, but of course I always wanted to get back to it at night.
So I was just very disciplined about how I did it. I wrote three hours every Monday through Thursday and six hours every Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I was always afraid that during this period that I thought when I have a lucky run I’ve got to ride it out as long as I can and so I just kept on doing it and doing it and doing it. There are periods, there are those jags when you are writing, as you probably know, and it is sweet but it is also all-consuming and you just have to be willing so that when it seizes you, you just have to run with it. And I was lucky that I was able to run with it for so long, although it was also tough and draining, but exhilarating too.
PL: I don’t know if you’ve heard this but how do you feel about your style being characterised as ‘incantatory prose’?
HY: Well that’s really lovely. In this book, unlike the first book [The People in the Trees] which is much more florid, I really stripped back with my style on this one. So I think it is supposed to be very plain-spoken and then there are points in which the language gets richer, but it is meant to be a fairly straight-forward and no-fuss style and almost a recessive style so that the prose isn’t getting in the way of the story-telling as much.
PL: What do you love about living in New York and what, if anything, irritates you about it?
HY: Almost everything irritates me about New York [laughing]. I hate the weather. I hate the subway. I hate how everything shuts down as soon as it rains. I hate that it has become a city for the rich and that the middle class can’t afford to live there anymore. I hate that there is no good South-East Asian food. I mean I hate a lot of things. I hate the weather, I mean I cannot stand the summers.
It so much better to be here [London] in this kind of weather. I suppose what I love about it though is that you meet so many different people who are so smart in so many different ways and that you know that you can walk into any room and not only will you never be the smartest person there but that you will meet someone who is smart in a way that you never knew it was possible to be smart, whether they are spatially intelligent or whether they are great performers, or whether they are just fluid with their bodies.
When people talk about the energy of New York they are talking about all these people who are ambitious coming together in a very small space and trying to prove themselves. And that is the energy of the city that no other city has. Other cities have other great qualities but no other city has that. Everyone in New York is on the run to something and that is the quality of a city that I love.
PL: What are your feelings about being up for the Booker Prize?
HY: I mean it is really lovely. It was the publishing house’s only marketing plan so I’m glad [laughing] but it is really remarkable, I mean, this is a prize that I follow as a reader so it is a huge honour.
PL: What was the book that you read last year, or in the last 12 months that had the most enduring effect on you as a reader?
HY: I really love Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. She is a bookseller and it about a very strange woman called Jake from New Zealand who moves to an unnamed island that’s sort of like the Isle of Mann and is running a small sheep farm and it is a very strange book and I mean that in a great way. It’s told in flashbacks and one of the things I love about it is that it’s maybe partly a ghost story and maybe not; it has a lot of ambiguity, and she writes really beautifully about labour and I always find it interesting when writers can write well about work, about physical work, and so I really loved it. Oh, and The Buried Giant which I loved, by Ishiguro.
PL: What is next for you after you finishing promoting A Little Life?
HY: I don’t know. So I started this job [at the New York Times]. The job is very all-consuming. And there are a few things I’m considering but I haven’t really committed to anything yet. I’ve had kind of a hangover from this book for a while.
PL: Right, well it’s a big book. We’ll let’s stop it there. I just wanted to say thank you, for the book and for the interview.
HY: Well, Uli, thank you so much.
A Little Life is published by Picador and is available from all good bookshops.