Last week Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life, was visiting the Netherlands and we managed to attend two events with her and had a great time at both! She was at BorderKitchen on the 4th of October and at John Adams Institute on the 5th. Maritza and Esmée will share the highlights of these great evenings with you!
Hanya Yanagihara at BorderKitchen
The moderator for the evening was Volkskrant literary critic Arjan Peters who dove right into the interview with a full room. They talked about all kinds of things, but of course mostly about Yanagihara’s second and bestselling novel. One of the first things that came up was the aspect of time in the novel. There aren’t any specific dates in A Little Life, so if you want to know when the novel is set, you have to do some digging. Yanagihara pointed out that time moves elastically throughout the novel and that as a reader, you can choose to not seek time at all. The tricky thing about time is that you can never be completely honest about it. Another effect that Yanagihara tried to achieve by removing the dates, was to trap her readers in a space that becomes intimate and claustrophobic at the same time.
What I noticed during the evening, was that besides being a very smart person who has many fascinating things to say, Yanagihara also has a lot of humour. When talking about The People in the Trees, her first novel, which took her twenty years to write and which she kept a secret for eighteen years, she jokes that the reason she did this was because living in New York and working at a magazine, there is always a person writing their first novel. She also adds that she had to wait for the people that her characters were based on to die. Besides these reasons she also explained that writing a first novel is different than writing a second, plus the fact that writing her first book took a lot of research.
Yanagihara told us a funny anecdote about the making of the American cover of A Little Life. She always knew that Peter Hujar’s The Orgasmic Man should be the cover. Unfortunately her publisher first refused it, which made her almost walk away from the deal. Luckily Yanagihara won and when she mentioned something about the cover working after the publication of A Little Life her publisher responded by saying that the cover is fucking horrible and that everyone hates it. When the book became a small success Yanagihara could finally tell her publisher that the cover did work, which made the audience laugh. The reason Yanagihara feels so strongly about the cover is because according to her it’s visceral. You don’t know if someone’s in pleasure or pain, yet you can’t look away.
What came as a surprise was that Yanagihara never reads reviews. She calls writers very self-absorbed and according to her reading reviews only adds to this. Peters did mention the fact that one of the reviews stated that the violence in her novel is too much for the reader. Although Yanagihara applauds the passionate reactions and that these are all she could hope for, she does call the accusations about the violence ridiculous. It’s a fiction writer’s duty to show all kinds of lives, and violence marks people’s days. She continues to say that she tried to accomplish a ombre effect with regards to the violence in A Little Life: it goes from very light to very dark until there’s no way out. The novel is an emotional thriller, fairytale and mystery all at the same time.
After the interview there’s room for the audience to ask a few questions. One of the visitors addresses the fact that even though most readers are women, when critics and people talk about readers, they are somehow always a ‘he’. Why does Yanagihara call the reader a ‘she’ anyway? She responds with the simple fact that she is the reader she addresses, adding: “Let’s hope the president becomes a she too.”
Written by Maritza Dubravac
Hanya Yanagihara at John Adams Institute
The evening was hosted by author Auke Hulst, who had a very personal connection to Yanagihara’s latest novel and who was one of the first champions of the book in The Netherlands. My words can’t do his introduction justice, but luckily you can read the whole thing here. Throughout the entire evening it became very clear to me that Auke, as well as many people in the audience, had a strong emotional investment in A Little Life. This emotional bond with the novel and it’s author permeated the entire evening and definitely made this event one of a kind.
Auke and Hanya talked about A Little Life and her other novel The People in the Trees and how differ from each other. ‘No one has read the first one’ Hanya jokes, but then states that the world of A Little Life was one she loved to be in and that she thinks this love really comes across in her book. But both novels share an interest in the decay of the body and the idea of trauma living inside a person for years, only to suddenly attack the body.
The entire evening had a little bit a of therapeutic edge to it. Auke Hulst shared some personal things about why he loved the book, but then also asked Hanya to delve into her own childhood and the reference in her acknowledgement to a couple that taught her how to behave in a loving relationship. Here she explains that she made a very conscious decision to not be ironic in the novel. Sincerity has become a rarity and it’s easy to always go for the joke. Instead she gave her characters a genius for kindness. Then she went on to compare herself mostly to JB, the only character for which friendship doesn’t come naturally and who needs to make a conscious effort to be kind. Showing her own sincerity, she then joked to a silenced Auke: ‘Is that good enough for you doctor? That shut you up.’
Hanya never reads any reviews of her novels, but she does get letters by readers and always reads these. A recent letter that had stuck with her was from a social worker who was working with a young man who reminded her of Jude. She had written that A Little Life had given her peace with the idea that the man was most likely going to commit suicide. Auke then asked her if she believes in a moral obligation for writers. Auke explained his question by telling us about a friend of his who self-harms just like Jude, and who had told him that A Little Life almost felt like an invitation to hurt herself. After a long silence Auke says that in the end the good outweighs the possible collateral damage. Hanya spins his words then, saying that she feels arrogant thinking that her writing will help someone. She’s honored if it does, but calls it a collateral benefit and not a goal on its own.
I started reading A Little Life the day of the event and now I’m slowly making my way through the world of Jude, JB, Malcom and Willem. The conversation between Auke and Hanya was really great in it’s sincerity and honesty and made the evening a special one. I can’t wait to delve further into the novel and I hope to take some of that kindness – of the book as well as the evening – along with me.
Written by Esmée de Heer. Pictures by Gerrit Serné.