A Little Life is 720 pages long and such is its pull that I read it in one sleepless night, feeling more and more convinced that I was in the hands of a genius.
I speak to its author Hanya Yanagihara on the phone. I am in the Pan Macmillan office in London and she is in New York, where it’s 8 a.m.—I imagine her looking down on the streets where she set her novel about four classmates making their way in the city after graduating from a small college in Massachusetts. I ask what initially inspired her. “I always wanted to write a book about a group of male friends in New York. Friendship is one of the reasons people move here. Everyone is on the run in some way and people here will find their family among their friends or create their own.
“There are lots of oddballs and outcasts and it’s perfectly acceptable not to see your blood family for many, many years and to construct a different kind of familial ideal. I wanted to speak to that sort of structure within society and to look at how we live now.
Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB—and their wider circle of friends—are artists, actors, lawyers and architects of varying ethnicities and sexualities. I hesitate to use any of the words I can think of to describe this melting pot but explain that I love the “everythingness” of the characters. “I don’t believe in post-racial or post-gay or post-anything but I do think within a certain group of friends, what matters less is the specificities of race and sexuality and what matters more is the shared experience, shared language and shared cultural touch points,” Yanagihara says.
There are few women in the story and the focus is firmly on friendship between men, a subject which has fascinated Yanagihara since her own college days. “I think men in this society—and in almost every society on earth—are not allowed to have an emotional toolbox. One of the things you don’t hear a great deal about is deep and abiding, unnameable love between men. It manifests itself in a very different way than the love between women. We are much more expressive in our emotions and declarations of love. When you see two men together it’s clear that they do love but they’re not really encouraged to express that in any sort of way other than slapping each other around or making stupid jokes.”
The friendships are all well drawn but the reader quickly realises it is Jude who sits at the centre of the group, as what starts out feeling like a conventional post-university novel becomes increasingly sombre. “I structured the book so there are five turning points where the mood gets darker,” Yanagihara says. “Like taking a dial and giving it half a twist to the right. My best friend, who is my reader on this book, calls it an emotional horror story.”
It is an often gruelling read and I wonder whether Yanagihara worried if readers could take it. “This was something my American editor and I thought about quite a bit. My opinion is that readers will go with you much further than you think . . . and if they don’t, then they don’t. I wasn’t going to try to change the spirit of the book because I was worried about frightening off the readers. I think as long as the reader knows they are in good hands they are happy to follow.”
We talk about the notion of a contract between author and reader as that is how I look at books, often reading a few pages before committing to the full experience. There were several times I had to put A Little Life down and take a few breaths but I always knew I would have to finish it.
“What any writer hopes for is that the reader will stick with you to the end of the contract and that there is a level of submission on the reader’s part. If the reader can’t quite submit it either means that you haven’t done your job in creating a fully convincing world, or it’s just not the right reader for you. I don’t think anything is helped by the writer trying to second-guess what the reader can or cannot take.”
As the novel progresses, we find out more about Jude’s life and what lies behind the physical and emotional scars that are still creating psychological difficulties for him in the present. He is unable to trust because trusting people has always turned out badly for him. “There are people who suffer damage and abuse early in life and who carry it about with them for the rest of their lives—a sort of fragrance in a way, and people can smell that. There are certain people who will always have their antennae out for damaged people, and they can prey on them, and I do think that one of the great tragedies about Jude’s life is that he believes whatever he is taught.”
Does the reader come to the end of the book thinking there are some things that are impossible to get over?
“Absolutely. I think that was one of the main points that I was trying to make. Sometimes we all work so hard to overcome various things, and we are very cruel as a society and tough on people who we think aren’t trying hard enough. I do think that after a certain point, life for some people is such a terrible struggle and the effort and bucking up and willpower and agony it takes to stay alive is perhaps not worth it.”
A grand scale
A Little Life is such a huge novel in every possible way, bursting with humanity and love while looking at the worst aspects of being human firmly in the face. It’s also fascinating from a technical point of view, with a structure that repays close attention. “I knew structurally how I wanted it to go and how I wanted it to move. I hope it is innovative in structure,” Yanigahara says. “I wanted it to be like an avant-garde piece of architecture, so if you wanted to look at the bones of the book you could see them, and if you didn’t want to you could just enjoy . . . well, perhaps not enjoy, but it would be interesting.”
wanted it to be like an avant-garde piece of architecture, so if you wanted to look at the bones of the book you could see them, and if you didn’t want to you could just enjoy
A Little Life took only 18 months to write but Yanagihara had been thinking about it for much longer and was ready to immerse herself in the project of getting it all down. “Everything else in that year and a half got booted. I didn’t go anywhere with friends, I didn’t go out at night, didn’t read the newspapers, watch TV, go to the movies or the theatre. I just sat and worked on this book.”
She did work: she is editor-at-large at Condé Nast and thinks having a day job saves her from being self- absorbed, which she views as the natural state of being for most writers. Getting back to normal life after finishing the book is taking some time, though: “It’s like emerging from one of those space hubs that circle the earth, you are aware that life has been going on around you but the insularity of the life you are leading is so unexplainable that it takes a while to readjust to the rhythms . . . I wasn’t aware I’d been in so deep until it was done. I’m hoping it will leave me soon, but it’s been such a huge part of my life for so long.”
I ask what is next for her. It took me a while to want to read anything else after A Little Life and I wonder if she has been able to think of starting to write another novel. She replies: “I really don’t have anything urgent to say and I think you shouldn’t write unless you have something urgent to say. Sometimes that troubles me and sometimes I don’t really care.
“The hangover from this book lasted much longer and was more intense than I anticipated. I’m just trying to tell myself to be patient, to let it come naturally, but I’m not working on anything else.”
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pub date: 13.08.15
Formats: hb (£16.99)
Editor: Ravi Mirchandani
Agent: Anna Stein, Aitken Alexander Associates
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