On November 30th, I went to hear Hanya Yanagihara discuss her new book, A Little Life, with Christopher Castellani at the Cambridge Public Library. I didn’t know anything about this novel, besides that it had been nominated for the Booker Prize and the National Book award, and had won the Kirkus Prize. Over the course of the evening, Yanagihara laid out her motivations for writing the book and her ideas about art, while trying to avoid spoiling the novel.
From what I inferred, A Little Life is based around a man named Jude who is living in New York during the AIDS crisis, although New York is never named explicitly in the novel. Yanagihara explained that this omission was intentional; it’s part of the fairy tale aspect of the story which allows her to write with exaggeration and melodrama without turning the novel into farce. Therefore, the setting of the novel is influenced by the people and culture of New York, but is not specifically New York. Yanagihara emphasized that there is a distinction between the true and the plausible, and that she wanted to write a book which was true. However, the hallmarks of the contemporary naturalistic novel are also there. The descriptions of interiority, dialogue, conflicts, and themes are drawn from the style most people would identify as literary. A Little Life combines these genres to be a novel which doesn’t fit comfortably into either category.
Jude is a gay man living during the AIDS crisis, and the book focuses on the particular type of friendship and pain that arose from that time. Castellani mentioned that A Little Life has provoked an enormous reaction from the gay community, with one prominent critic claiming that it might be “the gay novel of this generation.” Yanagihara replied that she thinks her novel is stereotypically gay in tone, due to its melodrama and excess. However, she was more interested in the dynamics of friendship that existed in that world, especially given the complexity of demonstrating affection in male friendships.
Ultimately, however, the book is about Jude’s static character and his inability to achieve any type of redemption. Castellani quoted an interview in which Yanagihara said that “she wants to write about someone who never gets better.” Yanagihara elaborated when presented with this quote, saying that art often focuses on people who change and ignores a large part of reality in which people do not change. She thinks the redemption narrative is limiting and often comes across as hollow and unconvincing. Therefore, she wants her novel to push back against this trend in art. Another way the novel differs from typical literary books is its focus on a non-nuclear family. Yanagihara thinks that adults in fiction are often depicted within a nuclear family, which again ignores a large section of the population which is not part of a family. Instead, Yanagihara wanted to capture the experience of struggling to create or choose one’s own identity.
With such an unconventional novel in her hands, Yanagihara did run into some conflicts with publishing houses which wanted her to compromise her vision. However, she won the vast majority of these conflicts, due to her ability to separate her identity from her writing. Yanagihara thinks that there is a great amount of confidence in being a middle-aged writer who doesn’t treat writing as her main job. She never attended an MFA program, so she is more willing to break conventions she doesn’t know exist. She was able to stand her ground, knowing that she would get along fine if the publishing house chose not to publish her work. However, she did have a hard time writing this emotionally exhausting novel. One of her close friends and “first readers” helped her get through writing the novel, and she said that her idea of friendship and the friendship contained in the novel were shaped by him. She hopes that the reader will engage with her novel in the same way: giving himself to the novel emotionally and coming to a new understanding after finishing it.