It’s a warm Wednesday evening in central London when Hanya Yanagihara and Cathy Rentzenbrink take the stage in Foyles’ flagship shop on Charing Cross Road. They’re here to discuss Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life, recently longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.
The event begins with Yanagihara reading from the fourth section of the novel, ‘The Axiom of Equality’. Before she starts to read, Yanagihara comments on the number of people in the room. ‘I feel like Donald Trump,’ she says, ‘Which would make you all Donald Trump supporters.’
Following the reading, Rentzenbrink conducts a straw poll to see how many of the audience have already read the novel. The poll will determine whether the event needs to be spoiler free or not. As over half of the audience have read the book, they decide to proceed with a full discussion. As a result, THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned!
Rentzenbrink begins by asking Yanagihara about the inspiration for the novel. Yanagihara says that the first section of the book is a fairly typical post-college, New York novel based on the idea that everyone at that stage, living in New York, thinks they’re interesting! But then the book changes. She compares it to boiling a lobster. The change happens at the point the lobster realises he’s fucked but then it’s too late. She says the first turn happens at the end of part one and she hopes by that point the reader has realised they’re not reading the type of book they thought they were.
Yanagihara says she wanted to write a novel that if it were ombre cloth would run from a shade of light blue to dark indigo. She tells us that Jude was pretty fully formed when she began writing. She wanted to write a character who can’t get better or change or survive his own life. It’s very American to think that life is something to win, she says. Jude is oppressed by hope.
What about the lack of women in the novel? Yanagihara states that she wanted to marry fairytale with a contemporary naturalistic novel. She wanted it to lack parents, to be timeless. She wanted Jude’s redemption to be hollow.
Why male friendship? Rentzenbrink says she doesn’t think it’s been written about this way in literature before. Yanagihara says that she thinks men are allowed to have a more limited emotional toolkit: shame, fear and vulnerability are not there. They’re not encouraged to express these emotions. She says society asks men to change as they grow up and relates an anecdote about two male friends of hers who would wrestle with each other. She says they were wrestling the inexpressible: their love for each other.
Rentzenbrink asks about the reader and how much thought Yanagihara gave to them when she was writing. She mentions Jude and wonders how much a reader can take. Yanagihara says you can never guess accurately what the reader can take but they can tell if you’re withholding. She says readers want to be taken somewhere they haven’t been before. She mentions her two editors – it was edited in the USA and the UK simultaneously – and said they talked to each other which was like having annoying parents! She said they had very different reactions to what they thought were the problem areas in the book: her UK editor thought Jude and Willem’s relationship was a problem, while the US editor thought the length of the novel and the violence were the biggest issues. Yanagihara says that if you believe strongly in something and can answer why it’s in the book, you shouldn’t have to change it.
She goes on to talk about the structure of the book which was the trickiest part to get right. Initially it was two novellas and a coda. The first novella looked at Jude as a success and the second at Jude with a marginal life, the characters from the first novella becoming his counsellors. The coda was his childhood. She wanted to explore different reactions to damage.
Retzenbrink asks about New York City as a setting. The book’s about the sorts of characters and kinds of people who come to NYC, says Yanagihara. There’s a shared sense of collective ambition and whilst that ambition takes wildly different forms, these people are united by being on the run and running to something.
What about the absence of time in the book? Initially every chapter was in present tense, she says, but that was too artificial. She hates readers having to fill in how characters react to big events. Mentioning 9/11 or even that a character is wearing a Prada suit is lazy shorthand, it also dates quickly and the references are never quite right. She says she wanted the reader to have no tethers. The reader is surrendering to the emotional lives of the characters with nothing to ground them. She wanted the reader to feel like they were on one of those wobbly balls.
Yanagihara goes on to talk about social media. She’s not on it, apart from Instagram and she doesn’t read reviews. She says she thinks Twitter’s a great boon for fiction writers now there’s no central cultural authority. She’s too fragile and insecure to read her reviews. She says if you only believe the good ones, you’re a douchebag and if you only believe the bad you become a walking mess.
The discussion turns to the difference between the UK and US covers. The latter is a photograph by Peter Hujar (a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe) called Orgasmic Man. It dares you to look then dares you not to look, says Yanagihara. You don’t know whether the expression on his face is pleasure or pain. Yanagihara tells us that she fought with the US publisher for months over using the photograph for the cover: ‘It’s so obvious he’s coming,’ she says was the comment from the US publisher.
Rentzenbrink says that the book is gruelling to read, what was it like to write? Yanagihara says that when you’re in the groove you have to stay in it so there were long jags of writing, several hours each day. She found it physically hard, working on it at night. She had one reader whom she burdened with questions while she wrote in a sprint. ‘I think it was a singular writing experience.’
The final question from Retzenbrink is whether there’s any redemption for Jude in a parallel universe. ‘I don’t even know what redemption would look like here,’ says Yanagihara. ‘His life concludes in the only way it could possibly conclude.’
With that, the discussion opens up to questions from the audience.
Did she think about the moral responsibility of considering anew the horrors of child abuse?
She didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t think of the book as cathartic or as a book with a moral. She’s interested in sexual abuse because of the impact on someone’s life. She describes it as the ‘ultimate abuse of power of the most vulnerable in our society’.
Why is the end of the novel narrated by Harold?
Jude is meant to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator but Harold stands in for the reader and provides another perspective. He’s a Greek Chorus appearing after traumatic moments in Jude’s life, providing a pause. She says she knew what the last line was going to be and wrote towards it.
How long was she living with the characters before she began writing?
Five years but she didn’t realise that until she sat down to write.
Which questions was she pondering whilst writing?
She was thinking about friendship, what it can do for us and what we can expect from it and about love, how it can never save or redeem you. Is there a moment when life becomes unbearable? Do we owe it to the people we love to help them find a way out of it?
How do you feel about redemption?
She doesn’t believe in it but thinks that as humans in society we have to pursue it.
How do you get into the minds of your male characters?
She says it helps if your characters aren’t meant to stand in for anything larger, including men in general. How do you write something other than you and do it convincingly? You don’t make them stand in for or represent a group. They just need to be compelling, distinctive, interesting characters.
Was A Little Life the first title?
Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days was the alternative title. She says she wanted to show that all of our lives are equally meaningful and meaningless at the same time. She says the title has proved difficult to translate into some languages.
Would she consider writing any extra scenes for A Little Life?
There are things she wishes she’d done to make the book a little longer, particularly with Jude and Willem’s relationship, which she describes as defying what a relationship is allowed to be. It’s a more lineal relationship – it borrows from love and friendship but takes a third path.
Why did she decide to give all of the characters a level of privilege that meant they’re all successful? Does it allow her to go to dark places with them?
She made them successful because groups like this are a phenomenon in New York City. Also Jude’s life is easier with money to cope with his disabilities and constant care. Money prevents people from seeing Jude clearly, he’s reduced to being successful.
Which books move you/do you enjoy/appreciate?
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is the best book this year. Ishiguro has a single theme – the oppression of memory – but does it differently in each book.
Hilary Mantel had a complete change of style mid-career with The Giant O’Brien and she’d love to know how she pulled that off.
John Banville writes beautiful prose. She tells us she hid from meeting him in Dublin when he came to her event there.
Rentzenbrink ends the evening by asking Yanagihara if there’s anything next. She’s interested in ships and books set on ships because they’re a microcosm of people thrown together. She’s interested in the change the shipping trade brought to Asia in the 1840s but knows that this will take a lot of research so she might write something else in between.
With that, Yanagihara takes her place behind the signing desk as the queue to meet her stretches the length of the room.