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An exclusive interview with literary sensation Hanya Yanagihara

Kiran Dass shares tea, biscuits and literary talk with Hanya Yanagihara.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for her incendiary novel A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara appeared at the Auckland Writers Festival last week. While she was here, I sat down with her at the Langham Hotel, and we were served lemon and ginger iced tea and a plate of biscuits.

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Hanya Yanagihara (right) enjoys high tea with Kiran Dass

What did you read on the plane?

I read Deep South by Paul Theroux. It’s his new travelogue about going into the most impoverished parts of the American South. It’s really wonderful. Nobody can really be as rigorous and looking as he can. And it’s a consistently surprising book about how many Americans are living in poverty and how under the shadow of slavery, the repercussions of that is still felt. I read everything he writes and I really wanted to read this one.

And he doesn’t usually write about America, does he?

No, and that’s one of his points. He says he was appalled and surprised to find out what was going on in his own country. One of the things he keeps mentioning is how US foreign aid gives hundreds of millions of dollars to Tanzania and Zambia and Libya and the same structural problems of healthcare and food and lending problems are also affecting large parts of American south as well, so it’s fascinating. I highly recommend it.

Now I’m reading Carol by Patricia Highsmith and I’m also reading a book called Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. She’s a trained historian and has written this book about the last survivors of the Nagasaki aftermath and the shame, long suffering and consequences of it. What about you? What are you reading?

I just read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

Oh, what did you think of it?

I loved it, she brings all these threads together and it’s an intriguing mix of memoir and cultural criticism to discuss urban loneliness, so it’s loneliness from a different and specific angle.

I’ll have to read it, it’s been on my to-read stack. Her next book is about the body and I think she has this wonderful sense of picking subjects and making them part essay, part critique, part analysis and part memoir.

And I’ve been reading Eve’s Hollywood, the Southern California essays by Eve Babitz. I started reading them before I went to Los Angeles in January.

Oh! Oh! How is it?

Some of the pieces are terrific but they’re not all equal.

It’s the New York Review of Books re-issue, isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s right. And now I’m looking for something else.

I read this book recently in the States and it’s called The Book of Esther by Emily Barton. Have you heard of this? It’s very interesting. It’s about this girl Esther, who is the daughter of a high ranking consulate in a country called Khazaria which is a Jewish run state, it’s probably where modern day Estonia would be, and it’s just such an audacious feat of imagination, this incredibly ballsy re-writing of history. It’s a re-written history, a re-imagining of what would have happened if a Jewish state had armed itself during World War II. That imagination, anger and scholarship, that there’s this fantastical world, just outside our own, is really really interesting.

What are the things that annoy you in writing?

In books in general I hate it when people rely on brand names to try to communicate something about a character, because it asks the reader to assume things about a character that the writer should be writing about herself.

I hate it when there is… I just hate sloppiness. Of language. There should be a sense that the writer has some sense of large schematic in mind. And if there are leaps made outside of that, then I think that should be done with confidence and I can always tell when that’s not happening.

I hate it when writers are timid. And I don’t mean that there needs to be an excess of any sort of emotion. But I think you can tell when a writer is being conservative because that’s who they are as a person and when they’re being conservative because they don’t want to offend sensibilities.

I remember reading criticism about A Little Life where readers were moaning that it wasn’t set in New York as they recognised it because while it was post-911 you didn’t actually allude to that. 9-11 wasn’t referenced. And I looked at that argument from all different angles and I couldn’t really see the point of such criticism because you were dealing with a specific world and the people within that world and I don’t see why it was necessary for you to bring that external element into the narrative.

I thought so too. It was only about these four characters. I guess the argument for including it is because fiction is a reflection of society and what is happening in it.

As a reader, what are the some of the things that you look for in writing?

A writer who takes big risks on the page. I’d rather have something that’s messy and fails, but fails spectacularly, than something polite. Which doesn’t mean I don’t admire writers who do what they do again and again and make it seem so effortless. You know Anita Brookner is one of those writers, Anne Tyler and Alice Munro – people who write perfect books which are completely theirs. And I admire those writers and I like them a lot.

But I really love to see a writer who has an idea and you can sense that the writer feels that they’re the only writer who can write that. That’s what I really want to see.

Who are some writers who achieve that for you?

I love Ishiguro. Who does exactly that. Every book is very different. Every book has one theme. With each book he takes a completely different scenario, a completely different theme and different characters.

And Hilary Mantel I love. Mid-career she just switched styles. I love John Banville. He writes so beautifully. Nobody writes as beautifully as he does.

I just got goosebumps when you mentioned his name.

You did! Oh, I love him. I also love Jonathan Coe, Jennifer Egan, I love Vikram Chandra, I think he’s really wonderful. And Neel Mukherjee. I think his books are really strange, interesting and rich. That’s a shortlist, I can’t think of anyone else!

Who are some of your favourite characters in fiction?

Well, I love Tom Ripley. I love that entire series (Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley) and I just love that she had so much fun with that character. And I love how in the later books there is a sense of his own weariness and flickers of his own guilt but by this point he is so convincingly on the run that neither he nor Highsmith can stop it.

I loved Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

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Patrick Bateman

He’s one of my favourite characters, too, he’s so multi-faceted.

Yes, I think so, too. I just loved the bigness of that creation. And the wholeness of him. You know, I think it would be just so easy to dismiss him as a monster but (Bret Easton) Ellis made him someone bigger and more detailed than we expect our monsters to be. And funny! Just the pace of his speech and the tics, you know. Its just so so detailed.

For a character like Patrick Bateman to work it has to be big, it has to be all or nothing otherwise it’s an obvious caricature.

Right! Exactly. The writer has to be prepared to just really go for it. And then, the best characters are the ones who are divisive. If you can’t remember the characters or if you just shrug at them, then I don’t think the writer has taken their chance to make the character everything it could be.

Have you read Edward St Aubyn?

Oh yeah, I do love those books too (the Patrick Melrose Novels). My favourite was the first of them, Mothers Milk. Or was it called Some Hope?

They all have really droll names like Bad News. I think the first one is called Never Mind.

I haven’t read the last one but that first section is a-mazing! It’s one of the funniest books.

I know, savagely funny. I haven’t read the last one either. Just because I love that series so much I don’t want it to end so I’m saving that last one, for what, I don’t know, but I’m quietly keeping it aside to look forward to.

Yeah yeah, I know. I get that, I do that too.

What are some books that you think have been over-hyped?

One of the benefits of not being on Twitter or Facebook and not reading the paper is that you really don’t have any idea of what’s going on. So the books that get sent to me, I just sort of pick them up but I have no idea what they go out and do in the world.

So you don’t keep an eye on the literary pages?

No. No. It’s just better for everyone, I think. I know writers who do and they manage to keep their sanity but I wouldn’t.

Have you read any New Zealand writers?

You know when I was in high school and college, I bought a lot of it because the University of Hawaii Press published a lot of it. The only writer I’ve read with any depth, I’m embarrassed to say this, is Alan Duff. Because when I was at Vintage (Yanagihara was an editor at Vintage), when I was working at Vintage books in the States in the 90s Once Were Warriors had just come out. And Albert Wendt was required reading at school. And there’s a sequel to Once Were Warriors called…..

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.

Yes! There it is. Oh, and Patricia Grace, I’ve read a little bit of her too. Who do you like?

Oh, well, I don’t like a lot of recent New Zealand fiction because nobody is writing social realism and about the here and the now. They’re all to busy researching at archives and writing historical fiction and personally, I’m not really interested in that.

Oh really? That’s interesting. That’s too bad that’s happening.

When I was in book publishing last century. The community of people who were in the literary community was very small. It was the editors of the houses, the editors of the literary magazines and the authors. And now, the book-sphere is so much bigger and so much livelier.

Do you miss working in publishing?

No, because I still have a lot of good friends who work in publishing. I mean, I guess one of the things this year has given me access to is people who are creators of culture and they are by far the people I’d rather hang around, whether they’re editors or publishers or curators or gallery owners and I’ve been able to meet people I admire in those categories and that has been a great thrill that this book has given me.

So I think it’s very difficult to be someone who is not necessarily a frustrated creative person, but is the facilitator and caretaker of creative people. It takes a special kind of personality. They’re also kind of business people, they’re also kind of creative. They’re really, really passionate. And the best ones are so passionate, and so excited to find something new. And all the best gallery owners and publishers and so on, share a sense of humility. So that aspect is what I miss. That excitement when you find something special and you want to share it.

But you know, it’s great being in a bookstore for that too, right? You know, the feeling of, “I can really do something with this.”

Yeah, it’s amazing to be in the position to find something amazing and the to be able to share that, to have an outlet where you can tell people about it and see this thing that might otherwise go under the radar, take flight. You know, those weird oddball books that no one would ever know about unless their bookseller nudges them and tells them about it.

Absolutely! All that is standing between them and the book is you! I love that. You know, I did a couple of stints over the Christmas break at (amazing independent bookshop in New York) Three Lives & Co.

Three Lives & Co.

Three Lives & Co

Ah! I knew that! I was in New York in February and I went there. I was talking to one of the lovely booksellers there and I told him about how you had previously told me it was your favourite bookshop and he told me you were an honourary shopgirl at Christmas and did some gift-wrapping for them.

I said I was going to go in and help with wrapping, and you know how tiny that place is. And over Christmas week it is so crowded, you know, it’s a real hangout place, too. You know, they have tonnes of regulars, they come in with their dogs and shoot the shit and they didn’t think I’d be good enough so I had to go in and audition! But I knew I’d be really good. And it was so amazing! They are so passionate about bookselling and it was just one of those basic highs.

When I went in there I was talking to the bookseller and he asked where I was from and he got all excited when I said I was from New Zealand because he lived in Wellington for three months as part of the Iowa Writer’s Programme and used to go into Unity Books there. You’re right, Three Lives is an amazing bookshop. It’s small but so perfectly formed.

Yeah, and everything you hope they have is there.

That’s true. Whenever I go into a bookshop I always check to see if they have certain authors. Like, any Richard Yates. I mean, anything by him other than that ugly film tie-in edition of Revolutionary Road. That’s one gauge of a good bookshop for me. And they did. I did like McNally Jackson Books, too.

I do, too. And that is technically closer to me, but it’s more like a breeze in and buy something kind of a place for me. It’s a very different feel. I don’t linger there.

You’re on the road a lot – how do you fit that all in?

Well, I recently quit my job. I  was an editor at T, the style mag at the New York Times. Monday was my last day of work and it was very sad. I really loved it. And if it really truly was a 10-6 job I would have tried to stay but it’s too many pages and I made the mistake of answering my bosses emails at the weekends early on when I first started.

Oh, that sets a precedent, doesn’t it?

It really does. And there were other people there who didn’t do that, and if you didn’t do it she’d leave you alone and because I started replying to her emails, she wouldn’t stop. I’m just thinking of this as a gap year and then I’m going to have to go and find another job!

Do you think you’ll stay in the trade?

Yeah, yeah. But the media industry is in a shambles in New York and is changing so fast. It’s all going online. So I’m just going to have to see what I do next…


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