Now and again, not often, a novel and a novelist comes along and knocks everyone on their ass. It’s happening with Elena Ferrante and it’s happening with Hanya Yanagihara, the New York writer whose novel A Little Life has mesmerized readers with its story telling and its ability to harrow. It’s shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, announced later today; Kiran Dass spoke to her this week.
Thank you for fitting this interview in so close to the Booker ceremony – you must be busy.
No, no. This is actually really nice, it’s a good anxiety reliever because I’m actually freaking out and bewildered right now.
And you’re at the Rosewood Hotel – it looks pretty flash.
Yes it is nice! [laughs]
Hanya, congratulations on making the Man Booker Prize shortlist. A Little Life is one of the most immersive and rewarding literary experiences I’ve had in a while. How did you react when you found out you had made the longlist?
Wow, that’s amazing to hear, thank you.
I was shocked! [laughs] It was my UK publisher’s one and only promotion plan. I said, ‘But the odds are against me, what if I don’t win?’ And they said, ‘We’ll just deal with that if it happens.’
I was overjoyed. This particular award means a lot to me. I mean, when my father and I read books together when I was a kid, it was the prize he watched closely so it was the one that I watched, too. But this was just something that I never ever would have thought could be possible. It’s been hugely thrilling.
I love how the book starts as a seemingly breezy novel about four bright young friends in New York and then it suddenly jolts itself into another place altogether. I felt that heightened the impact. Was that intentional?
Yes. Very much. It’s a bit of a trick with this book. I wanted it to feel unsettling and play a trick on the reader. Not in a manipulative way but more like a magician. You know, the post-collegiate book is a lit genre I adore but then here, it becomes darker and then it moves along and it gets darker and darker still.
I was astonished that a book that comes in at 720-odd pages and which is so refined only took 18 months to write. But you’d been thinking about the book and mentally planning it for much longer, hadn’t you?
Yes, for about five years. And it wasn’t until I started writing it that I realised I had the book at my fingertips. I had this idea for a character [Jude] who never gets better. I had the whole logic in my mind from the start. I didn’t actually realise how much I really had to work with until I started writing it. I’d been thinking about things like, who is this character and what are his motives?
I said it’s a completely immersive novel for the reader. While I was reading it, people would try and talk to me and they’d just sound like white noise. I just lost the inability to detach myself from the book and engage with people. I couldn’t drag myself away from Jude and his world. So what was it like for you as the writer while you were writing it? Did you find yourself living inside this world too, or were you able to set up boundaries for yourself?
You know, it’s very gratifying when readers say it was immersive because it was for me as a writer as well.
The experience was both intimate and claustrophobic. It was such a sprint to write it because it was so difficult to remove myself from the book. There was certainly a sense that my own world fell away from me in favour of this world that I was writing. That was necessary, though. It is a wonderful feeling that you have created something that is so real to you that it’s pulling you along rather than you controlling it. But it could also be oppressive as well as bewildering.
The cover image of the American hardback of A Little Life – that face on the cover, the man’s expression basically sets the tone for the novel, doesn’t it? It’s such a strong, violent image – what were you trying to do with that?
I really, really fought hard for that image. It’s called The Orgasmic Man by a photographer called Peter Hujar. He was a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s so visceral. You wonder, is he in pleasure or pain? And I love that. You can’t turn away from it in the same way as you can’t turn away from the book, well, I would hope. And for me, the best compliment is if people have a violent reaction to it.
I think it’s more effective and appropriate as a cover image than the UK edition cover. You took a fair bit of inspiration from photographs and art when you were ‘preparing’ to write this book, didn’t you?
Yes, I agree. It was more that I was drawn to certain images which had that same sort of thing – where they would give me a visceral reaction.
Such as Diane Arbus images?
Yes, there’s an image by Diane Arbus called The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room. It’s not a great picture technically but it’s a great image of loneliness. I wanted to have a collection of pieces in my head which would evoke unnamable feelings.
There are some scenes which are set in motel rooms. And those scenes are upsetting and vivid. You yourself spent time in motel rooms as a child. Is there a connection there?
Yes, very much so. We drove across the country quite a bit when I was growing up. America is a vast country made for driving across. And there’s a real sameness to motels. I was very young so didn’t have the language to articulate it but there was a scooped out feeling I got from these rooms. You couldn’t help but wonder about the people who had passed through them. In that way it’s a very ‘American’ book because it’s about the transitory nature that America is used to – so much is unknowable, there are so many places to hide. It’s a faceless, humourless environment, motels.
You don’t have a mobile phone, do you? Is that because you’re a private person?
I have an iPod touch. I did have one [a mobile phone] in the 90s but you know, it was just to let people know if I was running late. Then I figured that you just show up on time and then you don’t need one. It’s actually fine. But it irritates people, mainly because they can’t contact you when they’re running late [laughs]. But if you just show up on time then everything works out – so just be on time!
Tell me about your day job.
I’m an editor of T Magazine [The New York Times style magazine]. Right now I’m working every day and I love the work. I work 9.30am-6.30pm. I’m not writing anything right now. Oh, and I’m the last person who still lives in Manhattan. Everybody else has moved to Brooklyn [laughs].
Jude. He is such a special, singular character. He’s complex and there is so much detail and so many dimensions to him. How did you manage to externalise his emotional inner life so vividly?
Oh, thank you very much, Kiran. He was someone I had in my mind very clearly. You know when you’re taught from a young age that you are to blame, and that everything is your fault. Those are lessons that are very difficult to unlearn. And Jude’s never able to come to the conclusions for himself that the reader would hope for him. He’s loveable but he’s unfixable.
He’s someone I gave a lot of gifts and talents to as a character, but he doesn’t have the gifts and talents that could be useful for him. You know – the capacity to be angry, the capacity to blame someone else.
For all of the confronting emotional and psychological impact, one thing that really struck me about A Little Life is that while it deals with abuse, what it really tackles is the fallout and impact of abuse. And in many ways that is more interesting. What was your approach to this?
I do think we pay a lot of attention to abuse. I’m always interested in what happens after the tragedy. Purely in America there are very few safety nets in general. And once people who have slipped through the cracks are found, there’s not much in the way of support for them, and for, and I hate this word, but ‘recovery’.
I think one of the strengths of A Little Life is that everything is amplified, extreme and confronting. Everything is heightened, whether that be absolute horror or empathy. But it had to be like that didn’t it? Otherwise what would be the point?
I didn’t want to write a book which was… I know it’s very in vogue right now to write remote or ironic books. As you say, everything is turned right up. I wasn’t shy of asking its readers to have an emotional engagement with the book.
I understand your editor wanted you to soften the blows. How did you handle and negotiate this? How staunch were you in standing your ground and keeping the grit in?
My US editor was much more cautious and asked me to tone it down and to cut it down by one third. But my UK editor wasn’t concerned with that. They were more concerned with the sexual relationship between Willem and Jude.
You realise when you’re writing a book that publishing a book is about business and that is a fair and legitimate thing. But there was no way I was going to cut it down by a third.
At one point, I was going to walk away from the book if he’d made me make the cuts. I wasn’t reliant on the advance. When you have a day job and you have an income, you don’t have to rely on the book to be commercially successful.
You know, and this sounds pretentious, but you make your decision because it’s right for the book.
We tussled for a while but in the end I triumphed.