Little wonder

Little wonder

Hanya Yanagihara speaks to Cathy Rentzenbrink after claiming the Fiction Book of the Year award for A Little Life (Picador) at The British Book Industry Awards.

Has there been a difference between the publishing experience in the US and UK? Any UK quirks?
Everyone at Picador did a wonderful job. It was able to build upon the American publication, of course, but it also made it its own. This is in large part due to my publicist, Kate Green, who is tireless and unflappable, and of course my editor Ravi Mirchandani [pictured below collecting the award on Yanagihara’s behalf]. When this book was being considered by us publishers, Ravi was on a middle-age wanderjahr [travel year], but I knew I would wait for him to find a new home and then go wherever he roosted—I was fortunate it happened to be Pan Macmillan.

I don’t think any of us knew how the book would be received [in the UK]. I think of it as such an American read, in its excess and extravagance and bigness of emotion, that I wasn’t sure it would translate. But in the end, the people who helped buoy A Little Life in the UK were the same as those who did in the US: independent booksellers and a few impassioned early readers.

The only thing I regret about the UK publication is the cover. I compromised too quickly and should have fought harder for the US jacket. Not a week goes by that a miffed UK/ Commonwealth reader doesn’t write and ask why they got the cover they did and not the [US version, which featured a Peter] Hujar photograph. I’ve just started blaming Ravi for it.

Your first novel got amazing reviews but sales were quiet. What has it felt like to have a hugely successful book?
It’s been extraordinary. I used to work in book publishing, so I know how lucky I am and how rarely this happens. At the same time, I had a job throughout this publication, which was so important for a number of reasons: it gave me something else to think about. It gave me financial stability. It reminded me that life cannot centre around how well your book does or doesn’t do in the world.

How much does success matter, and does it alter the way you feel about the book?
I always tell young writers that there’s a difference between the book you wrote and its reception. Who can say what the connection really is between the two? Of course I'm overwhelmed that A Little Life has found readers, has found people who have read it seriously and closely. but I like to think I’d feel the same about it—proud but uneasy—even if it had vanished.

Will it be easier or harder to write your next book, knowing how much it will be anticipated? Or does it make no difference?
I’m not sure. I do know it won’t be like this one, in tone or subject or style. I also know that I won’t make a deal anywhere until I actually have something written.

What do you most and least like about the process of publication?
I think I can speak for both my US and UK editors (and for myself) when I say that the greatest joy of this book’s publication has been how unexpected it was; how it became a book that found its audience slowly and organically by being passed from bookseller to reader, and then reader to reader. Every fiction writer writes because they have something to say to someone else and it is always an honour when you find that someone else, when some stranger reads what you have written. The fact that there have been many more strangers than any of us could have anticipated has been miraculous.