Thursday 29 September 2016

Hanya Yanagihara interview - A little life, a big book

Tanya Sweeney talks to Hanya Yanagihara, hot favourite to take the Man Booker Prize 2015, which will be announced on Tuesday

Tanya Sweeney

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Intense journey: Hanya Yanagihara wrote A Little Life in just 18 months. Photo: Jenny Westerhoff.
Intense journey: Hanya Yanagihara wrote A Little Life in just 18 months. Photo: Jenny Westerhoff.

Four friends trying to climb greasy career poles in New York City is a careworn literary narrative trope, but suffice to say, it's never been done quite like the way Hanya Yanagihara has mastered it.

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A Little Life follows the varying fortunes of four men of varying sexualities and ethnicities - JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude - as they move from college to New York. Willem is a kind, aspiring actor; JB a slightly self-involved painter peeking through the keyhole of the art world; Malcolm is a frustrated architect; while Jude, crippled by ongoing chronic pain, rises highest of all to become one of the city's most fearsome lawyers.

The four initially eke out precarious existences, then learn to navigate their own emotional landscapes, tackle addictions and follow their dreams. Charting their varying fortunes and travails as they move from their 20s to their 50s, their friendships shape-shift in nature as they move through the decades.

There are also bigger questions being meditated upon in the book: what is it like to try to find a place in the world as a man? What are the far-reaching consequences of an imperfect start in life… or even a truly catastrophic one? Can a life that has been destroyed in childhood ever be reclaimed?

Though the book is chiefly about masculinity and friendship - Yanagihara has spoken in the past about the limitations of the male 'emotional toolbox' - the flashbacks to Jude's childhood leave the deepest marks on the reader. Abused extensively in his childhood, Jude grows up to become a fearless litigation lawyer who takes no prisoners. He is brilliant and successful, yet his childhood tormentors cast long shadows.

Mention to Yanagihara herself that A Little Life is a heartbreaking, devastating and staggering work, and it quickly becomes clear that she is used to such strong, emphatically adoring reactions. Reviewers, incidentally, have been lavishing praise on the book: a reviewer from the Los Angeles Times admitted it left her "sobbing", while the New Yorker warned the book might "consume you (and take over your life)".

She bats the compliment away graciously and genuinely, but with a "thank you" that's by now threadbare. Her second novel is the hot favourite for the Man Booker Prize 2015, with the winner announced on Tuesday. The 700-page A Little Life, with its lyrical sway, ambitious scope and tapestry of characters, marks Yanagihara as one of contemporary fiction's leading lights.

"I don't know if I'm just hanging with cold-blooded people, but I have one reader who reads everything for me and he didn't have that strong of a reaction," she muses. "My hope for this book was that it would find a very small audience and it would speak to them personally. [The reaction] has been really humbling and it's taken me by surprise. Instinctively, I wrote for me and my best friend, and didn't really write with anyone in mind."

Still, several readers have approached Yanagihara to tell her of their personal experiences of childhood sexual abuse.

"I didn't intend the book as anything therapeutic and I don't think that's a novel's goal or responsibility," she observes. "I think perhaps what's less discussed is the long-term, sustaining consequences of abuse. Certainly, it's less discussed in literature.

"It's been interesting hearing the reactions from UK and Irish readers, as they've been much more focused on childhood abuse," she adds. "Here, the legacy of it and the institutionalisation of it has had a scarring legacy. But it's happening in the US as well."

By her own admission, the world of A Little Life is not an easy one to immerse oneself in. But for evenings and weekends over 18 months, stopping only to go to work as Conde Nast Traveller's editor-at-large, Yanagihara wrote almost 1,000 pages of punishing prose in a sort of fever dream.

"Working on a magazine teaches you a lot of not-especially-glamorous skills, like writing on deadline and observing structure and pace," says Yanagihara. "It also teaches you that at a certain point, you can't be precious about it."

Her social life and family were pushed on to the back-burner: not something she would readily recommend to another writer.

"I had written a book, but never been this disciplined about doing anything," she reflects. "By the end of it, I felt exhausted, but it was a great experience in so many ways. But when you feel it (the writers' flow) coming, you feel very assured. While I had the wind in my sails, I had to take advantage of the moment, because it could end at any minute. One of the reasons it wasn't easy to write wasn't just because of the brutality. It's very much a fantasy in a lot of ways, but the rest of your world starts to look a little… grey."

When Yanagihara presented her 1,000-page manuscript to Gerry Howard, her editor at Doubleday, the feedback notes that made their way back to her broached the idea of going a little easier on the reader: notably, cutting back the passages that described Jude's abuse ordeal. Both parties went back and forth about quite how much the reader would be able to handle. Eventually, the manuscript was cut by a third, but the brutality remains.

"We had a really big philosophical talk about the level of brutality in the book," recalls Yanagihara. "My editor's argument was about protecting the reader… but I don't think the reader needs protecting. If you guide the reader steadily, they'll follow you."

Curiously, Yanagihara's first novel, The People In The Trees, took the editor a full 12 years to write. Narrated by an anthropologist who takes young male Pacific Islander subjects under his wing, the book also features childhood abuse as a theme. The author's unflinching fearlessness around the subject is certainly noticeable, although she admits that to flesh out Jude's psychology of shame, self-loathing and blame, she didn't need to do much research.

"In terms of writing Jude, it was quite instinctual," she says. "I did most of the research on their jobs. I talked to architects and actors and, because Jude's law is most foreign, I spoke to a US general attorney and corporate litigator. One thing about being a novelist is that it gives you entry to nosy questions."

The themes of A Little Life that stand out vividly for Yanagihara herself are nationality, identity and displacement. Born in LA, the 40-year-old moved around a lot by dint of her dentist father, growing up partially in Baltimore, Hawaii and New York. For now, she calls New York home and is currently the editor of the New York Times' T magazine supplement. But Yanagihara has a keen eye trained on the plight of migrants, describing in one fine passage "their newness to America and their identical expressions of exhaustion, that blend of determination and resignation that only the immigrant possesses".

"My father had a real sense of wanderlust and my mother hated moving," she smiles. "But for better or worse, I did get to see the world, seeing so many people's lives that you'll never have access to.

"In America, work is a central part of your identity and it's more about where you're from and where your family is from," explains Yanagihara. "Your work is, for better or worse, primarily what people ask you about."

Far from being a hindrance to her ordered life and routine as a writer, Yanagihara's extensive experience as a travel writer and editor has become one of her strengths as a novelist.

"I always think that young writers are being told to write about what they know but even though that's useful, it's sometimes taken too literally," she says. "Part of the pleasure of fiction is that you can take an idea about what you think about the world and flesh out the details. With fiction, you are able to go somewhere that your life hasn't yet led you. Travel reminds you of the similarities between people. It broadens your scope and makes you aware of others' stories."

And Yanagihara's travels may be about to go full circle, with Hollywood making its first tentative enquiries. A few film offers have trickled down the pipe, but the novelist prefers the less confined and more expansive scope of serial TV.

The hangover from her 18-month 'fever dream' has abated, but in so many ways this is only the beginning.

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