Writer Hanya Yanagihara writes about the inner lives of men

After A Little Life was published, author Hanya Yanagihara heard from social workers that they have patients whose lives are similar to that of her protagonist

For readers stunned by the unrelenting trauma in Hanya Yanagihara's second novel, A Little Life, it may come as a surprise that it was something she did not research.

"It felt organic to me," says the 42- year-old, of the ways in which her character Jude tries to cope with his abusive past.

"The way he would react, the coping mechanisms he would find for himself - they made sense. I didn't do any research on what it's like to live with great trauma."

Her 720-page chronicle of pain was tipped to win the Man Booker Prize last year, which eventually went to Jamaican Marlon James' A Brief History Of Seven Killings.

The New York-based writer, a fourth-generation Hawaiian, will be in town next month for the Singapore Writers Festival.

The theme of male friendship is central to A Little Life (above), the second novel of Hanya Yanagihara.

Speaking to The Sunday Times over the telephone from Sumba, an Indonesian island where she is on an assignment for lifestyle magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Yanagihara describes A Little Life as a hyper-realistic fairy tale.

"There's a lot about it that is artificial," she says. "What I told my editor when I turned it in is that it won't always be believable, but it will always be truthful."

The novel starts out as an ensemble piece of four inseparable college friends in New York who, over the years, rise from post-graduate poverty to glittering careers. But one of them, the obscure Jude, becomes increasingly consumed by the trauma of his unspeakable childhood.

His friends know nothing of his past as an orphan, although they observe its consequences: the way he walks with a limp, the sudden episodes of pain that seize him and even his bouts of self-mutilation.

Gradually, the narrative begins to piece together the full horror of what Jude survived, even as his past becomes ever more present in his life.

The sheer amount of abuse heaped on Jude was too much for Yanagihara's editor Gerald Howard, who suggested she make it "less upsetting". But as he was not able to pinpoint the specific scenes she needed to remove, Yanagihara - herself a former magazine editor - stuck to her guns.

To her, the practice of handling readers with kid gloves "gets condescending very fast".

"A reader will go anywhere a writer takes him and that is a reader's great bravery," she says.

Some critics found the suffering in the book excessive. Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books called it an "unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence", which prompted a rebuttal from Howard.


  • WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 11, 8.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass event. $20 for a pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

Yanagihara, who is single, has received validation from other quarters, but of a more chilling kind.

"After the book was published, there were doctors and social workers who told me they have had patients whose lives resembled Jude's."

One social worker said she was treating a young man who had been abused almost exactly as Jude had been and that she was certain he would kill himself at some point.

Yanagihara says: "I always knew that Jude's life was possible. I knew it wasn't common or typical, but I knew it was possible.

"It's not vindication, hearing some of these stories that are worse than anything I could have conjured for Jude. It's just deeply sad to think of what humans live with and endure."

The theme of male friendship is central to A Little Life. Yanagihara says she is fascinated by the way men interact. "It's like watching a different species."

At the first magazine she worked at, she had observed the relationship her colleague had with his close male friends from college.

"The way they expressed their love and concern was often through joking, wrestling or punching," she says. "That didn't mean there wasn't a depth of feeling, but they were limited in how they could express it."

This stifling of emotional expression in men surfaces as a key problem in both her books, which look at the "corrosive effects" of half the population growing up discouraged from showing fear or weakness.

Her 2013 debut novel, The People In The Trees, is about a prize- winning scientist who discovers a lost tribe on a Micronesian island who may hold the key to longevity. It was inspired by the true story of a family friend, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who was jailed for sexually abusing one of the boys he adopted while on a South Pacific research trip.

Meanwhile, women have but a peripheral presence in her books.

"It's not like I decided I was not going to write about women," she says. "It's simply that the stories I wanted to tell were about men."

She adds: "I don't think any writer should have an obligation to represent who he is, whether through gender or race. All writers are asking fundamental questions of identity - it just might not be your own identity."

Will she write a book about women next? She is not ruling that out, but has no plans to do so yet.

In fact, she has no plans for another book for now. She is still haunted by the characters she created for A Little Life.

She says: "The mistake I made was thinking that once writing the book was over, I could regain control of my life. That's not how it worked. The life of the book has lingered far longer than I expected.

"I am still always aware of what they might be doing or saying, if they were alive. And that's something I'll always be wondering about."

Novel as a television mini-series?

Hanya Yanagihara's second novel, A Little Life, might soon make it to the small screen. Fans rejoiced when she posted on her Instagram account in August that the book has been optioned for a television miniseries of eight to 10 episodes.

She is quick to avow that all is up in the air for now. "We need a streaming service and a network to buy (the show). Until that happens, it's all theoretical."

The book was optioned by Scott Rudin, the producer behind award- winning films such as The Social Network (2010) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

The director attached is Joe Mantello, best known for his work on Broadway productions such as Wicked, Take Me Out and Assassins.

Yanagihara is an admirer of his, having watched his plays when she was younger. "I knew from talking to him that he was someone who would have a different perspective on the book than I could bring to it alone," she says.

She is open to different ways of telling her story on-screen and wants it to be "an interpretation, not a translation".

"The best adaptations are those which don't faithfully follow the book in terms of plot details, but do in spirit and tone," she says.

Her favourite book-to-film adaptation is Wes Anderson's stop- motion animated comedy film Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), based on Roald Dahl's children's novel of the same name.

Rudin was one of its producers. The film diverges greatly from the book in terms of plot and character, but preserves the "madcap quality" of the original.

There are some things, however, that Yanagihara is adamant about, such as the characters rarely saying "I love you" to one another and diverse casting.

"I want to keep as many people of colour in the series as there are in the book and I want a full representation of diversity in as many ways as that word can be interpreted," she says. "That's something I'd fight for."

Of the four friends who form the book's central quartet, one is of Haitian descent, one has Danish- Icelandic parents and one is bi- racial. The race of the main character, Jude, is undefined; he is described only as "post-race".

His friend J.B. says: "We don't know what race he is, we don't know anything about him."

Yanagihara will only say: "I have a clear sense of what he looks like in my head and we'll never find someone who looks like that."

As one of the co-executive producers, she declines to say which actors she prefers for each role as it might jeopardise casting decisions.

On Instagram, however, she has encouraged her followers to suggest who should play Jude.

Fans have named actors such as American Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Briton Eddie Redmayne and Rami Malek, who is American and of Egyptian descent.

Jude, says Yanagihara, will be a difficult role to play. The character was violently abused as a child and the resulting trauma exacts a toll throughout his adult life.

She is not sure how the graphic horror of Jude's past can be translated to the screen, but she hopes it will not be dialled down for television audiences. "I would like the series to be visceral as well."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline Writer Hanya Yanagihara writes about the inner lives of men. Subscribe