Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel, Little Life, is a beautifully written, brutal book about friendship and loneliness and the forever ripples of sexual abuse. Yanagihara wanted to write a book that showed things didn't always get better.
Yanagihara, now deputy editor at T Magazine, the New York Times Style Magazine, is headed to the Free Library on Thursday. She's still surprised people come out and want to talk about the book, which she'd hoped would reach 5,000 copies. Instead, it exploded onto best-seller lists and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
The story focuses on four friends after they've graduated from college, including one, Jude, who struggles with a disability and habits of self-harm after a childhood filled with horror. Can he move beyond his past?
The novel was partly inspired by the Diane Arbus photo The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room, which Yanagihara calls "a beautiful picture portrait of loneliness." She spoke with the Inquirer about her writing process, the special loneliness of city life, the joys of success, and the American tyranny of forced happiness.
This is such an intense book. What kind of questions do audiences ask?
In front of others, they ask about why I chose to do certain things with the characters and about larger themes; it's like a friendly thesis defense. Other times, when it's more personal, when I'm signing a book, they want to share something personal.
You mentioned that they ask about what you were thinking when you're writing something. Are you thinking? Or are you just writing?
I'm just writing. I'm not thinking about how the reader is going to react. It's about if they can follow and am I constructing a complete world for the reader. I can't think about 'Is this upsetting for the reader?' because you can't start trying to guess about what they can or cannot handle.
That's really interesting, considering the discussion about trigger warnings at many colleges.
I just started hearing about those when the book came out. But triggers can happen at anything - if you go to the movies or read the news. Part of any kind of art is to provoke and upset and make one rethink and make one uncomfortable - because it should shake you out of your existence and out of any sense of safety. I could write something beautiful and safe and there is some art that is beautiful and technical. It's not the kind of thing that interests me.
You said you wanted to create a protagonist who never gets better. Was that a challenge? Did you have to force yourself not to have a happy ending?
You have to give yourself a challenge, something that upends everything. Life does get better for a lot of people, but it doesn't get better for everyone. What I hope this book also says is that even if it doesn't get better, that doesn't mean it's not a life worth living.
There's something oppressive about this burden we have about being happy and finding happiness. We're very cruel to people who can't find happiness, and it's like it's their failure for not trying hard enough, or that they're not being committed to the project of being happy.
Are you happy?
I'm content, and that's sometimes.
You've talked about the loneliness that only city dwellers know.
Cities are intensely isolating places, perhaps particularly New York. Everyone who comes here is running away from something or toward something. They're all terrifically ambitious, and that doesn't mean X job or Y money, it's a sense that people want to feel they're all moving toward some blurry-edged vision of themselves. It gives the city its crackle and also makes the city both an irritating and isolating place. Ambition is lonely and by nature it isolates you.
Did you do anything to celebrate when you were finished writing?
I've written before about how I'd seen The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room maybe in 2007, and this book is partly a response to that art. Well, I was in San Francisco, and a friend mentioned that it was up for sale at a local gallery and said, "Maybe this should be yours." And so I bought it.
Are you surprised that such a dark book found such a huge following?
The fact that it has found an audience has been a terrific surprise. My goal was to sell around 5,000 copies, and I know what a struggle it is to get fiction books to sell. People tell me they felt the book was expressing things they hadn't known they were trying to say, and they're so generous and so openhearted. It's been a huge surprise and a huge shock, and it remains so. I know this doesn't happen often, and I'm very grateful.
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[SHIRTTAIL]7:30 p.m. Thursday<NO1>3/31<NO>, Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Free. <NO1>Information:<NO>215-686-5322, libwww.freelibrary.org
Hanya Yanagihara: 'A Little Life'
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street. Free. Information: 215-686-5322, libwww.freelibrary.org