2016 april 13: hanya yanagihara in conversation with cfda director steven kolb at neue house!
i have not read a little life, but i enjoyed this talk immensely. i find that i don't have to have read a book to enjoy hearing an author talk, especially one as smart and well-spoken as yanagihara. and smartly-dressed!
(note: steven kolb's statements led into questions, but i didn't necessarily get them all down as questions. [my thumbs and the apple keyboard aren't very friendly when it comes to really fast typing.] i think it's pretty self-explanatory what he's asking.)
steven kolb: given that you are a woman, i was surprised by the absence of significant female characters. why was that?
hanya yanagihara: i went to an all-female college [smith] then graduated into a very female industry [publishing].
HY: one of the things i find interesting about writing about men is that men are certainly less encouraged to discuss some things. this could probably have been written about all women characters, but then it would have been about a third shorter.
SK: the majority [of the book] is told in dispassionate third person.
HY: what i wanted to do was have something that i thought of as a warmer third-person omniscient. it's told about the four different characters' lives, and jude is the only one whose name isn't mentioned -- it makes the reader feel as though you're sliding in his head.
HY: i wanted jude, who's the protagonist, to be someone who was a trustworthy and reliable narrator but not necessarily trustworthy or reliable about himself.
SK: your book is very internal to the characters.
HY: when you have a novel and you strip away everything external, you're left with a new york that's, in this case, an interior new york, and this traps you in these characters' lives and that again has the effect of making the novel feel internal and claustrophobic.
HY: most of the scenes are set inside. there's very little sense of being outside. [...] you become immersed in this particular universe.
SK: how are the characters similar, and how are they different, and what do they bring?
HY: it sounds like a tinder profile.
HY: the book begins a fairly standard literary sub-genre, the post-collegiate story. sort of by the end of the first section, you realize that this might not be what the book is. [...] by the middle, i hope the reader is wondering what kind of book this is.
HY: i wanted them to share a sense of ambition, which is why they're in new york.
HY: in our world, identity means simultaneously everything and nothing at all. and so much of these characters' lives in adulthood is spent trying to make peace of [the thing that] what defines them, whether it's their past or their externals, is inescapable.
SK: do you have a favorite?
HY: jude is a character who never really changes. he starts off at one point and tries and tries and tries but doesn't change. [...] i wondered what the propulsion of that kind of book [where the main character doesn't change] would be.
HY: he's a character i wanted to be lovable, and i wanted him to inspire love but also be maddening.
HY: i would say that 50% of my friends haven't read the book. which is fine because they bought it, and that's really all that counts.
HY: i think a reader can always tell -- if you write a character, you should be able to know everything that's not on the page. even if it doesn't literally make it into the pages of the book, the reader should sense the wholeness of the book.
HY: jude was the easiest to write, but JB was probably the favorite.
SK: did you ever consider one of them not making it and working at starbucks?
HY: one of the reasons i think this is a new york book is that these friend groups aren't uncommon here -- where people have all made it. success is fetishized here [how ever you define success].
SK: what's behind the title?
HY: i do think we identify lives as big or little, but, in the end, every life is equally little and, therefore, equally big.
SK: re: willem and jude.
* wow, i did a shitty job of writing down the questions. ^^
HY: i knew exactly where this book was going. when i started, i knew what the last line would be, how the story would unfold [etcetera]. i wanted it to be about two romances -- the romance between willem and jude and the romance between jude and harold.
HY: i think one of the things this book asks is that romance is often tied with sex and sometimes it is but sometimes it isn't. i think many women will understand what i mean when i say "a romantic friendship with other women." so, when i talk about jude and harold's romance, i'm taking romance in terms of they both have romantic ideals of what it means to be a son and what it means to be a parent and what it means to be loved [... and what it means when those ideals aren't realized].
SK: i was very moved by how you created that family relationship.
HY: this city has always been a sanctuary for people who wanted to find or make families of their own. and here, perhaps unlike other cities, you can have a family that's defined as a tribe. it was really this idea of coming some place and [finding] some people you recognized.
HY: it's still a place where people associate with escape and where you might be able to find someone who recognizes you. that's one of the things that makes the city human. and humane.
SK: is this the great gay novel? [mentions a review]
HY: i don't read reviews, but i know the review you're talking about. [it's the one by garth greenwell. (here)]
HY: it wasn't something i consciously set out to do. the idea of male friends, male love in all its iterations is something that sort of went out of fashion in the 20th century.
[she said something interesting about how the dialogue around gay relationships shifted in the five years between the time she started writing the novel and the time it was published. (altogether, five years, which is insane.) she also said that men over fifty are more rigid when it comes to sexual identification -- they find it harder to believe that a man can have relationships with women and be heterosexual by all accounts then fall in love with a man. people under fifty see sexuality/attraction as a much more fluid thing.]
HY: one of the things i was interested in was are people fundamentally good? there are people in my life who seem to have this innate gift of always doing what's right.
HY: i think it was a love a based in part on pity, but i don't think there's anything wrong with that. i don't think a love based on sorry or pity is any less genuine a love.
SK: have you heard from hollywood?
HY: uhm, yes. and there have been some interesting offers from people i really respect. but i want it to be a very limited series on cable or something. i want it to go to someone who's going to have ideas for it [instead of doing a strictly literal adaptation].
HY: a lot people say ben whishaw for jude, but i say either joseph gordon-levitt or christian bale. who are two very different actors ... [she got a lot of noooos for the latter.]
SK: are they based on real people?
HY: no, except JB's me.
HY: most writers are either assholes on the page or assholes in life, and i think i'm an asshole in both places, and i think JB is, too.
audience Q&As -- or, really, just some As because i didn't record any of the Qs.
HY: i really wanted this book to feel artificial in many ways. there's a real absence of reality in some senses. i wanted things to be turned up.
HY: it's a fairy tale in the guise of a contemporary realistic book.
HY: i do think, for some people, perhaps not in as baroque or gothic a way, i think for some people who've been traumatized is that trauma keeps happening to them again and again and again. when you've experienced trauma at a certain age, that's the way you see the world.
HY: the terrible thing about trauma is that it doesn't just affect your sleeping hours [or similar things] but how you see the world in every way.
HY: [re: the criticism that there's too much trauma for the reader to handle] the reader can take anything as long as they think that [you] have a strong authorial hand and a full world.
HY: [someone talks about her first book] i can't believe you read the first book; no one read it.