The Millions Interview

‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara

By posted at 6:00 am on August 5, 2015 6

In February, an editor asked me if I’d be willing to read a weighty, new book and review it, since she’d been hearing murmurs that not only was it an incredible read, but that it was also going to be one of the “big deal” books of the year. My editor was right. Recently, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, hit the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Throughout the process of writing about her work, Yanagihara herself remained a mystery to me. I read the reviews and the few interviews, and her publicity team did that thing where they send you a tote bag. But further inquiries eventually allowed me to set up an interview, albeit by email. Having read her books, and having seen that she is a discreet and apparently quite private person (no Twitter account here), I wanted to see what she was like, where she came from, and what her thoughts were on the content she works with in “real life,” that life that stands behind every writer’s authorial magic.

The Millions: I’ve read that you were born in Hawaii. Did you grow up there? When did you move to New York, and what was that process like?

Hanya Yanagihara: I was actually born in L.A.; from there, we moved to Honolulu, and then to New York, and then Baltimore, and then Irvine, and then Honolulu, and then a small town in Texas called Tyler—I moved back to Honolulu when I was in high school. I came to New York almost immediately after college; like generations of people, I was beguiled by the city. It was 1995, and it wasn’t particularly difficult, in part because I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know what I should be intimidated by—I just bumbled into town, and within a month had a roommate, an apartment and a job as a sales assistant at Ballantine, which is an imprint of Random House. It was only years later that I truly understood both how lucky I’d been, and how clueless I was.

TM: Why did your family move around so much? Did you like the experience, did it teach you something?

HY: My father was a researcher for many years, and so we moved for his career — and because he was often beguiled by one place or another: California, Texas. In general, I liked the experience, though there were places I liked more than others. However, it taught me that I can always find a person or two for company, even in inhospitable environments, and that a life can be created anywhere. Not happily, necessarily, but a life nonetheless.

TM: Your “About the Author” page in your most recent book, A Little Life, reads only: “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” Are you a private person? Or did you assume simply that if people wanted to know more about you they could google you and find where else you wrote online?

HY: I just don’t think more information makes a difference — or it shouldn’t, at any rate. If you’re writing a nonfiction book or declaring yourself an authority on one subject or another, then yes, you probably need to detail your credentials in some way. But for fiction, it’s irrelevant. Your book won’t be any better or worse than it already is if you’ve published in a particular magazine or not, and your reader won’t appreciate the book any more or less if you have or haven’t. I wouldn’tve had a biography at all, except my publisher said I had to.

TM: When did you start writing, as far as you can remember?

HY: Probably when I was five or six. I was in fact more interested in drawing; words were something to accompany images. My grandfather owned a small print shop, and so there was always lots of thick, cottony paper lying around. I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged both of these interests — although there’s a long tradition of artists who had to rebel against their parents’ expectations in order to pursue their crafts, I’ve been privileged to have been raised by people who actually spent years hoping I might be a cartoonist when I grew up. They were very naive when it came to money, which was frustrating in many ways but had its benefits as well.

TM: Were you a reader as young as you were a writer? What do you think were your literary influences in writing the novels you’ve written?

coverHY: My parents never skimped on books, but I don’t think I was a particularly precocious reader — I’ve never asked. And while my books don’t have any deliberate literary antecedents, I can tell you that the contemporary writers I admire most are Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and John Banville. Banville because he just writes so beautifully; no one can craft a sentence as distinctively and gorgeously as he can. But as much as I admire writers who are consistently, recognizably themselves book after book, I also admire those who are constantly reinventing what their novel, and the novel, is. I marvel at how all of Ishiguro’s books are united by one or two thematic ideas, and yet are so textually and texturally different each time — I’m not sure how he does it. Mantel is another of those shape-shifters — her early work is very brittle and funny, a series of salty confections, and then her style changed completely with The Giant, O’Brien: everything — tone, language, sentences, rhythms — became something new, yet remained uniquely and identifiably hers.

TM: You’ve written two novels now but you were also editor-at-large for Conde Nast Traveler. How do you differentiate writing fiction from non-fiction?

YH: The kind of writing I did for Traveler was largely what magazine editors call “service writing”: that is, short, information-dense blurbs. I’ve always appreciated this kind of writing, and appreciated people who can do it well. The emphasis is less on form than it is on the efficient, pithy, authoritative conveyance of facts; such writing is the bedrock of all glossy magazine journalism. I found it relaxing, as well as satisfying: so much of this type of magazine work is fitting words to space, not the other way around, and is thus a largely visual exercise. I also found it helpful to be able to practice such a different form of writing than I do with my fiction — you’re using language, of course, but the means towards which you’re deploying that language are very different. Mostly, though, my work at Traveler — and now at T magazine, where I started a new job about a month ago — was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that’ve been useful in fiction: it teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person — your editor — who’ll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing.

TM: I wonder how you feel about “click-bait” titles. Looking through your travel articles for Conde Nast Traveler – though not your current job anymore – the titles are so similar to many that can be found on other, less prestigious, and more bloggy websites. Just for example, the first two: “Three New Books to Bring on Your Next Trip” and “How to Get the Most Out of a Travel Specialist.” How do you feel about the internet readership culture that has made titles like this necessary?

HY: Oh, well, this is just part of having a job in any sort of publication whose digital strategy is based on traffic (which is to say, almost all of them). There are some stories you write just for eyeballs, and others that are re-titled by the web team to sound grabbier. It happens everywhere. I suppose I don’t have strong feelings about it; when you’re working at a consumer publication, your job is to attract readers, which in turn attracts greater traffic, which in turn attracts advertisers, who then give the publication money, which pays for your job. Sometimes there’s a nuanced story beneath that clickbait headline; sometimes there isn’t. But I understand the need for such reductive titles — there’s too much content online for subtlety.

TM: Do you think the internet needs some sort of quality control? Or do you accept that we’re just watching the evolution of how journalism and entertainment are conveyed?

HY: I’m not even sure how you’d do that. And I don’t think it’s even necessary: people who want trash will always be able to find it, and that doesn’t just apply to the world of online writing — it applies to print journalism as well. Or film. Or books. Or art. Or food! The dangerous or unfortunate thing would be if trash came to totally eclipse the non-trash — but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

TM: Returning again to your novel, A Little Life – I wonder what it was like to conceive of, ingest, digest, and then write the characters in the novel, and more specifically, the extremely traumatic events some of them remember or go through. How harrowing was the process, and how did you manage those scenes?

HY: The one truly difficult section to write was the part about Jude’s time with Dr. Traylor in the fifth part of the book. This wasn’t just the fact of the story itself, though; I was in Japan on my annual holiday, and feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Normally, this trip is the most blissful event of the year for me, but that year, it just wasn’t. Part of this, of course, was attributable to the book, and what felt like its urgency to announce itself on the screen. So I’d be walking through streets and temples that have never failed to bring me joy, and all I could think about was this section, and how I needed to exorcise it. And so I did, writing it over the course of four nights. I cut my sightseeing short and came back to the hotel at 4pm on each of those days, and wrote until 1 or 2am. It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I’d had. And not necessarily because I think that’s the most upsetting part of the book; but it was the time when I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I’d somehow become possessed by it. Much of the process of writing A Little Life was a seesaw between giving myself over to the flow and rhythm of writing it, which at its best, even in its darkest moments, felt as glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn’t conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment. At its worst, I felt I was somehow losing my ownership over the book. It felt, oddly, like being one of those people who adopt a tiger or lion when the cat’s a baby and cuddly and manageable, and then watch in dismay and awe when it turns on them as an adult.

TM: Those nights writing so intensely in Japan – is that your usual process in terms of writing fiction? Having a few days of intense, impossible, yet exhilarating word-production, or do you usually write slower or with a certain method in mind?

HY: No, it was unusual. There are occasions when I go on binges, but because my job doesn’t really allow time for binges, I’ve trained myself to use the hours I do have efficiently.

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6 Responses to “‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara”

  1. Susan
    at 5:51 pm on August 6, 2015

    I became absolutely possessed while reading A Little Life– so compelling I literally could not put it down. About half-way through I thought, who the hell IS this author? And set off in search of those few bare scraps of information available about her. So thanks for doing this interview and dispelling some of the mystery.

  2. Steven Axelrod
    at 5:45 pm on August 7, 2015

    I reeled out of a week consumed with reading this book with one pressing question. How exactly did Jude St Francis get from a field in the middle of nowhere, his legs crushed by a psychotic’s car, to the unnamed college (Bennington? Oberlin?) where he met his friends and started his new life? As far as I can tell, this is a a crucial blank spot in the book. I’ve spoken to other readers and no one has come up with an answer. The elision speaks to the central flaw in the novel, the slow daunting transition from cruel fate to authorial perversity that we sense in the Job-like accumulation of Jude’s traumas. For me the car crash, such a familiar trope from the world of movies that I could actually see the way it might be shot and edited on screen, was the final blow. But in pulling me out of the story it brought me back to the gap in Jude’s biography. Why does Ms. Yanagihara choose not to tell that crucial part of the story? I think it’s because she knows, as we come to believe reading the book, that Jude simply could not have transitioned from the newly crippled victim in a barren field in the middle of the night — his vindictive tormentor still presumably on the scene and revving up for round two — to the slim enigmatic but brilliant student who roomed with JB, Malcolm and Willem at school. The gulf of experience, action, intention and even simple geographical logistics is too wide to cross. So the impossible tale is left to the reader’s imagination. Fine — but for this reader at least, all the other impossibilities start to resonate with this central one, and together they reach a harmonic pitch that shatters glass. I’m left with shards … like the glitter of windshield fragments on the tarmac after a road accident.

  3. Sarah
    at 3:17 pm on August 10, 2015

    Thank you for this enlightening interview.

    I was given a prerelease copy of A Little Life that I read with some curiosity. I was a little flabbergasted (or not) to see that it ended up on the Booker longlist. There’s a charm to it, but it’s so long and contrived (as a previous commenter has pointed out) that as a reader I ended up feeling taken advantage of.

    It’s also interesting that this apparently private author with no Twitter account comes off as so relaxed on a nationally aired television show (Seth Meyers — check out the interview if you can). Privacy and television appearances – if only all writers could have it both ways. The idea that biography is irrelevant to fiction is a myth only a privileged few can afford to believe. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the world the author builds in A little Life feels so flat and hollow.

  4. david tenney
    at 3:26 pm on August 10, 2015

    I finished A Little Life about 6 weeks ago & I still can’t get it out of my headlights. Fortunately, I am a bookseller & have the opportunity to cajole, coerce, & even bribe customers into reading it. It IS a hard sell: but nothing stops me…… My partner also questioned the transition from under the tires to elite college, but I am ok with it. Where i did stumble was with the plausibility of a romantic, marriagelike relationship between two men who are conceivably both heterosexual. Any thoughts?

  5. Brendon
    at 9:50 pm on September 3, 2015

    To Steven Axelrod, above:

    It’s pretty obvious how Jude got to college after having his legs destroyed — it was largely through the work of Ana, the social worker who counseled Jude after his traumatic childhood and died soon after working with him. Yanagihara writes about her relationship with Jude a little more than a fifth of the way into the novel.

  6. Chris
    at 8:07 pm on November 29, 2015

    Just commenting to echo what Brendan said above. I did have to go back and re-read the section with Ana at the hospital once I had a better feel for Jude’s trajectory and understood what she had accomplished.

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