Hanya Yanagihara and the liberating powers of fiction

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In Hanya Yanagihara's acclaimed novel, "A Little Life," the reader is immersed into the struggles of its main character, Jude, particularly his recovery from his life as an orphan and the sexual and physical abuse he has experienced.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The day Hanya Yanagihara was in Manila, the results of the U.S. presidential elections were slowly trickling down on social media. “I’m not even checking anything,” she told me nervously as we started our sit-down interview at a cafe in the Manila Peninsula. Yanagihara has just flown in from Hong Kong and had just dropped in, courtesy of Fully Booked, for a brief discussion at the De La Salle University. Later, I would check her Instagram and find a photograph of her breakfast spread at the hotel with the accompanying caption: “Watching CNN and anxiety eating a Chinese breakfast. Please let us not embarrass ourselves.”

Much later, once the results were final and Donald Trump was named the next president of the United States, she would tell the audience that the fact that she’s spending “one of the darkest days for American history” in their company made it a bit bearable. Yanagihara would engage in an elaborate — mostly spoiler-y — Q&A panel on her books: “The People in the Trees,” which is about the fictionalized life of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and “A Little Life,” which, despite the title, is a sprawling exploration of sexual abuse and artistic ambitions in New York City.

Yanagihara has spent years of her professional life as a senior editor in publications such as T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, W, and Town and Country. “The People in the Trees,” her debut novel, was named one of the best books of 2013 by various publications. But it was “A Little Life” that was met with resounding success. In 2015, it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award and won the Kirkus Award. Often described as “deeply moving” and “harrowing,” the story of JB, Willem, Malcolm, and Jude — an artistically and racially diverse group of friends — is more than just about trying to make it in the big city, but is rather a harrowing account of how brotherly bonds can be a reprieve in a life stuffed with abuse and misery.

On the surface, it is astonishing how Yanagihara managed to pull off a masterly feat such as “A Little Life,” which has had such a profound effect on its readers that a few students at the Manila panel hugged the author and later emerged teary-eyed from the encounter. But Yanagihara shares that emotional manipulation was the last thing on her mind while she was writing the novel.

After college, Hanya Yanagihara moved to New York and became a publicist. In 2007, she became an editor for Condé Nast Traveler and then moved to T: The New York Times Style Magazine as deputy editor. Photo by JENNY WESTERHOFF

“I think it’s very cheap thinking that I’m going to write something that’s going to make people cry — and that often doesn’t work,” she says. “It’s not like stand-up comedy where you can go and make people laugh. I’m honored when people do have emotional reactions to it, but it wasn’t intentional.”

As for her success in writing, she gives a two-fold — and admittedly unglamorous — piece of advice to aspiring novelists.

“The first is,” she tells the audience, “when I was really struggling to finish my first book, I had a friend who was a book publisher and he told me, and I always give out this advice, he said it’s either 2,000 words a week or 5,000 words a month." She continues, “And those aren’t very big numbers. But if you hit even the lowest, by the end of the year, you’ll have a full-length first draft or very close to it. And I think for first time writers, the idea of writing a novel is so daunting and you can’t but think of it in terms of pages, when really it’s about numbers and this is something that magazine writing teaches you — it teaches you to start thinking of things in small batches [...] You just have to get into enough of a habit where you’re laying down text, like you’re laying down tiles.”

She adds: “The second thing is you get so hung up on ‘I’m going to publish my first novel before I’m 20, before I’m 30,’ and writing is one of the very rare and few art forms where you can be any age. There is no expiration date on it and it’ll take you as long as it takes you. And it is very easy when you’re in your age to get caught up in the hype of having to achieve something before a certain age. But it’s bullshit, it doesn’t exist, it’s a false sort of deadline. And so it is far better to do the challenging, meaningful book than the book you can just because you can and feel that you have to do before you’re 28 or whatever.”

Earlier, during our brief chat over coffee, Yanagihara touched on her photographic inspirations for the characters in “A Little Life,” the importance of her training as a magazine editor, and the liberation offered by writing fiction. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

First off, I want to ask you something more obvious about the book: the choice for the photograph for the cover, “Orgasmic Man” by Peter Hujar. I heard that the book is largely inspired by a lot of photographs. Can you talk more about that?

I chose [the cover photo] but it was on recommendation by my best friend who said, “What about this image?” and I saw it and I thought “God, it’s exactly right.” I knew of Hujar’s work before but I didn’t immediately think of this. But the thing that I loved about it is the ambiguity and the intensity of emotions. You don’t know whether he’s in pleasure or pain. You don’t know if you’re a voyeur or a witness or you’re trespassing. But there is this sense that you’re seeing someone at this unbearably intimate moment, that you’re seeing something that perhaps you shouldn’t see. I think that it echoes the intensity of the book as well. That sometimes you feel you’re a witness, and sometimes you feel that you’re a trespasser.

I thought that … it’s not how I imagined Jude to look but I did think that the intensity, the ambiguity of what was happening there felt right for the book. So anyway, that was a big fight with the publishing house ...

And as for the photographs … the one that I always talk about is Diane Arbus’ “The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room.” I saw that about six years ago or so, and I thought that I’m going to write something to accompany this image. Shortly before I started writing in 2011 or so, I had been collecting images and they didn’t seem to be related to one another. At some point, and I can’t even remember when or how this happened, I realized that they were related — that within this collection of a few dozens of photographs, there was a story. And it was a story that these photographs collectively were telling in mood and tone. I was going to try and do it with words.

"I think it’s very cheap thinking that I’m going to write something that’s going to make people cry — and that often doesn’t work."

Were you always drawn to the power of photographs and its ability to tell stories? Like in the book, JB does a series of paintings based on photographs.

Well, I think that the book is visual, and I hope … it’s an homage to many artists who have influenced me … they’re the only sort of proper names that were in the book and they’re the only things that tie the book to a particular era. But I do feel that photography is the form of art that, more than writing for me, I find mysterious and enchanting, and bewitching. Because I think that it is a way of expressing what often cannot be expressed in words. Sometimes you can see the artist trying to work something out in the image, which is often what the writers are trying to do in a work too, trying to answer something that they don’t have an answer to.

How did your job as a magazine editor help you become a novelist?

I always say there are very unglamorous skills that you learn in magazine. The first thing is that it’s structure. I mean it’s the first thing you teach a reporter. The first thing I learned as a magazine editor was how to make a piece move quickly and how to make a structure that would contain the information that would be lively and interesting to read, how to pace the story, how to make sure it was moving at the right speed. That’s something that I worked on hard, and I think my real skill as a writer is my understanding of structure and pace.

The other thing is that I think it teaches you how to respect the writing. Make sure that things are spelled correctly. Make sure that the world you’re creating is complete. Make sure that the logic is sound. Make sure that things line up. Make sure that if you’re taking a reader down a certain path, make sure you know what you’re doing. Which again, sounds so unglamorous but is very true.

And the third thing is the understanding that at some point you have to file. The piece will never be perfect, whether it’s 600 words or 600,000 words. But at some point you have to end the story or you can tinker forever. So there’s a sort of lack of romanticism about magazine editing and writing but ultimately it’s about conveying information and it’s about finishing the task. Now there are many things about that that is different. I mean, for example, when you’re writing a magazine you do think about the reader, you think about “Am I conveying information authoritatively, efficiently, and clearly?”... in a novel, you don’t think about the reader.

On the cover of “A Little Life” is the photograph “Orgasmic Man” by Peter Hujar, which Yanahigara chose for the intensity and ambiguity of emotions. “You don’t know whether he’s in pleasure or pain,” she says about the photograph. “You don’t know if you’re a voyeur or a witness or you’re trespassing.” On the cover of “The People in the Trees” is an illustration of rare turtle in the islands of Micronesia, which is consumed by a local tribe to retard aging.

Do you think you have more freedom when you’re writing fiction?

Absolutely. No one’s watching and you could do whatever you want and you should do whatever you want to.

You mentioned before that your first book didn’t do as well as “A Little Life.” What do you think made “A Little Life” so much different that it turned out to be such a huge success?

You know what, I have no idea and neither does anyone else. I mean, partly, I think it’s as I said — I began writing the book in 2011, it was published in 2015 and in between, in those four years, the conversations that we have in the States and even in many other countries about the expression of sexuality, the kind or different paths to adulthood, marriage, friendship … have all become more interesting and complicated. Sometimes when you’re a fiction writer you are lucky enough to hit the zeitgeist moment, to hit a moment when the book suddenly becomes or seems to reflect something … a conversation that is happening in the society. I think that was part of it and that was just luck. It just happened and I wasn’t aware of it. Other than that, I don’t know and I think that neither does anyone else. (Laughs.) I mean it’s impossible to know.

Also your first book, “The People in the Trees,” had an unreliable narrator, and then “A Little Life” was written largely in the third person. Was this an intentional decision so the characters in the book are more relatable?

Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve never written in the third person before. It was … but I did want to do something stylistically very different. So the language is much more stripped back in this book, the structure is much different, and it’s a third-person omniscient narrator. But you know, Jude was meant to be a trustworthy narrator but not always reliable, and so there a few literary tricks in this book. But I think it was less about making them more relatable, and more about wanting a format where the narrator in this book is all-seeing and non-judgmental ... rigorously non-judgmental and often gives voice to things that the characters can’t quite name. It was a much more flexible voice in this book. Whereas if you’re in the first person, the voice becomes quite narrow and the reader’s understanding of what’s happening becomes considerably more narrow as well.

Also, I noticed most of the female characters in the book are on the fringes of their relationships. Was this a comment that you wanted to make about the role of women in the bonds of male friendship?

Well, to some extent. My father always used to say, joking around, that men always prefer the company of other men and I think that to some extent that’s true. I did think that they are at their truest amongst themselves. But the book is so artificial in so many ways. The lack of women is another one of those artificialities that’s particular to this book. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t know women. But they’re not a part of this particular story.

"It is very easy when you’re in your age to get caught up in the hype of having to achieve something before a certain age. But it’s bullshit, it doesn’t exist, it’s a false sort of deadline."

What makes you invested in a character both as a reader and then a writer?

Lots of different things. You know there are characters you love because they’re funny or they’re wounded … I think ultimately, if you feel for the characters, somehow you feel an ache for them. This is true for characters who do terrible things too. You feel that you’ve seen something unique in them that maybe their fellow characters don’t see, and it’s because of a character’s vulnerability that the reader responds to them.

As a writer, it’s a character who is often frustrating, is someone who ... I think Jude is very much this way, a character who feels a little uncontrollable in a sense. You know, you create and you feel that you know who they are, and sometimes they lead you down a path that surprises you. I feel that that’s an expected moment and it’s also one to treasure.

How do you release yourself from writing such an immersive novel?

I don’t think there is any sort of release. The book is finished with you when it’s finished with you, and you have to wait for it to happen, I think.


Hanya Yanagihara's novels, "The People in the Trees" and "A Little Life," are available in Fully Booked.