In February, an editor asked me if I’d be willing to read a weighty, new book and review it, since she’d been hearing murmurs that not only was it an incredible read, but that it was also going to be one of the “big deal” books of the year. My editor was right. Recently, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, hit the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
Throughout the process of writing about her work, Yanagihara herself remained a mystery to me. I read the reviews and the few interviews, and her publicity team did that thing where they send you a tote bag. But further inquiries eventually allowed me to set up an interview, albeit by email. Having read her books, and having seen that she is a discreet and apparently quite private person (no Twitter account here), I wanted to see what she was like, where she came from, and what her thoughts were on the content she works with in “real life,” that life that stands behind every writer’s authorial magic.
The Millions: I’ve read that you were born in Hawaii. Did you grow up there? When did you move to New York, and what was that process like?
Hanya Yanagihara: I was actually born in L.A.; from there, we moved to Honolulu, and then to New York, and then Baltimore, and then Irvine, and then Honolulu, and then a small town in Texas called Tyler—I moved back to Honolulu when I was in high school. I came to New York almost immediately after college; like generations of people, I was beguiled by the city. It was 1995, and it wasn’t particularly difficult, in part because I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know what I should be intimidated by—I just bumbled into town, and within a month had a roommate, an apartment and a job as a sales assistant at Ballantine, which is an imprint of Random House. It was only years later that I truly understood both how lucky I’d been, and how clueless I was.
TM: Why did your family move around so much? Did you like the experience, did it teach you something?
HY: My father was a researcher for many years, and so we moved for his career — and because he was often beguiled by one place or another: California, Texas. In general, I liked the experience, though there were places I liked more than others. However, it taught me that I can always find a person or two for company, even in inhospitable environments, and that a life can be created anywhere. Not happily, necessarily, but a life nonetheless.
TM: Your “About the Author” page in your most recent book, A Little Life, reads only: “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” Are you a private person? Or did you assume simply that if people wanted to know more about you they could google you and find where else you wrote online?
HY: I just don’t think more information makes a difference — or it shouldn’t, at any rate. If you’re writing a nonfiction book or declaring yourself an authority on one subject or another, then yes, you probably need to detail your credentials in some way. But for fiction, it’s irrelevant. Your book won’t be any better or worse than it already is if you’ve published in a particular magazine or not, and your reader won’t appreciate the book any more or less if you have or haven’t. I wouldn’tve had a biography at all, except my publisher said I had to.
TM: When did you start writing, as far as you can remember?
HY: Probably when I was five or six. I was in fact more interested in drawing; words were something to accompany images. My grandfather owned a small print shop, and so there was always lots of thick, cottony paper lying around. I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged both of these interests — although there’s a long tradition of artists who had to rebel against their parents’ expectations in order to pursue their crafts, I’ve been privileged to have been raised by people who actually spent years hoping I might be a cartoonist when I grew up. They were very naive when it came to money, which was frustrating in many ways but had its benefits as well.
TM: Were you a reader as young as you were a writer? What do you think were your literary influences in writing the novels you’ve written?
HY: My parents never skimped on books, but I don’t think I was a particularly precocious reader — I’ve never asked. And while my books don’t have any deliberate literary antecedents, I can tell you that the contemporary writers I admire most are Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and John Banville. Banville because he just writes so beautifully; no one can craft a sentence as distinctively and gorgeously as he can. But as much as I admire writers who are consistently, recognizably themselves book after book, I also admire those who are constantly reinventing what their novel, and the novel, is. I marvel at how all of Ishiguro’s books are united by one or two thematic ideas, and yet are so textually and texturally different each time — I’m not sure how he does it. Mantel is another of those shape-shifters — her early work is very brittle and funny, a series of salty confections, and then her style changed completely with The Giant, O’Brien: everything — tone, language, sentences, rhythms — became something new, yet remained uniquely and identifiably hers.
TM: You’ve written two novels now but you were also editor-at-large for Conde Nast Traveler. How do you differentiate writing fiction from non-fiction?
YH: The kind of writing I did for Traveler was largely what magazine editors call “service writing”: that is, short, information-dense blurbs. I’ve always appreciated this kind of writing, and appreciated people who can do it well. The emphasis is less on form than it is on the efficient, pithy, authoritative conveyance of facts; such writing is the bedrock of all glossy magazine journalism. I found it relaxing, as well as satisfying: so much of this type of magazine work is fitting words to space, not the other way around, and is thus a largely visual exercise. I also found it helpful to be able to practice such a different form of writing than I do with my fiction — you’re using language, of course, but the means towards which you’re deploying that language are very different. Mostly, though, my work at Traveler — and now at T magazine, where I started a new job about a month ago — was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that’ve been useful in fiction: it teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person — your editor — who’ll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing.
TM: I wonder how you feel about “click-bait” titles. Looking through your travel articles for Conde Nast Traveler – though not your current job anymore – the titles are so similar to many that can be found on other, less prestigious, and more bloggy websites. Just for example, the first two: “Three New Books to Bring on Your Next Trip” and “How to Get the Most Out of a Travel Specialist.” How do you feel about the internet readership culture that has made titles like this necessary?
HY: Oh, well, this is just part of having a job in any sort of publication whose digital strategy is based on traffic (which is to say, almost all of them). There are some stories you write just for eyeballs, and others that are re-titled by the web team to sound grabbier. It happens everywhere. I suppose I don’t have strong feelings about it; when you’re working at a consumer publication, your job is to attract readers, which in turn attracts greater traffic, which in turn attracts advertisers, who then give the publication money, which pays for your job. Sometimes there’s a nuanced story beneath that clickbait headline; sometimes there isn’t. But I understand the need for such reductive titles — there’s too much content online for subtlety.
TM: Do you think the internet needs some sort of quality control? Or do you accept that we’re just watching the evolution of how journalism and entertainment are conveyed?
HY: I’m not even sure how you’d do that. And I don’t think it’s even necessary: people who want trash will always be able to find it, and that doesn’t just apply to the world of online writing — it applies to print journalism as well. Or film. Or books. Or art. Or food! The dangerous or unfortunate thing would be if trash came to totally eclipse the non-trash — but I don’t think that’s happened yet.
TM: Returning again to your novel, A Little Life – I wonder what it was like to conceive of, ingest, digest, and then write the characters in the novel, and more specifically, the extremely traumatic events some of them remember or go through. How harrowing was the process, and how did you manage those scenes?
HY: The one truly difficult section to write was the part about Jude’s time with Dr. Traylor in the fifth part of the book. This wasn’t just the fact of the story itself, though; I was in Japan on my annual holiday, and feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Normally, this trip is the most blissful event of the year for me, but that year, it just wasn’t. Part of this, of course, was attributable to the book, and what felt like its urgency to announce itself on the screen. So I’d be walking through streets and temples that have never failed to bring me joy, and all I could think about was this section, and how I needed to exorcise it. And so I did, writing it over the course of four nights. I cut my sightseeing short and came back to the hotel at 4pm on each of those days, and wrote until 1 or 2am. It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I’d had. And not necessarily because I think that’s the most upsetting part of the book; but it was the time when I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I’d somehow become possessed by it. Much of the process of writing A Little Life was a seesaw between giving myself over to the flow and rhythm of writing it, which at its best, even in its darkest moments, felt as glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn’t conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment. At its worst, I felt I was somehow losing my ownership over the book. It felt, oddly, like being one of those people who adopt a tiger or lion when the cat’s a baby and cuddly and manageable, and then watch in dismay and awe when it turns on them as an adult.
TM: Those nights writing so intensely in Japan – is that your usual process in terms of writing fiction? Having a few days of intense, impossible, yet exhilarating word-production, or do you usually write slower or with a certain method in mind?
HY: No, it was unusual. There are occasions when I go on binges, but because my job doesn’t really allow time for binges, I’ve trained myself to use the hours I do have efficiently.
Hilary Mantel has had Margaret Thatcher in her sights for over thirty years. Somewhat surreally, the Prime Minister wandered into view around noon on Saturday, August 6 1983. Mantel’s flat, on a quiet Windsor street lined with cherry trees, overlooked the private hospital where Thatcher was having an eye operation. She was just standing by the big sash window in her bedroom when she spotted Mrs Thatcher “toddling” around the hospital gardens unguarded.
“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” says Mantel, measuring each syllable, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.”
Imagining you are someone else is the essence of fiction. Mantel has been a medium, in Beyond Black, a giant, in The Giant O’Brien, and most successfully, Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won her the Booker and are now packing theatres in London and soon, perhaps, Broadway. “We’re in negotiations now,” says Mantel in a tone that you wouldn’t try to negotiate with. The television adaptations, starring Damian Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell, have just finished filming. She’s part-way through The Mirror and the Light, the last in the trilogy: “I don’t write chronologically so I can’t say where I am exactly but it’s not finished. It should be done next year.”
Her dark new short story collection offers her – and us – a break from the Tudors. It pulls together ten tales, nine of which have appeared before. They range from the subtly sinister to the outrageously gothic. “I was going to call it Ten Transgressive Tales,” she says. “But then, after thirty-some years, I finally finished my Thatcher story.”
In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Mantel succeeds where terrorists failed. It’s an unexpectedly funny exploration of the Maggie mythos delivered with sniper-like skill. It’s a horror story for her fans, a fantasy for her detractors. Either way, it’s shocking. Her tale is a true character assassination.
In it, an unnamed and unsuspecting householder waits in for a plumber who never turns up. So far, so normal In the plumber’s place arrives a stranger with a Liverpool accent. At first she thinks he’s a photographer hoping to avail himself of her view. So begins a tragi-comedy of quintessentially English misunderstandings.
“How much will you get for a good shot?”
“Life without parole,” he said.
I laughed. “It’s a not a crime.”
“That’s my feeling.”
Only when the not-plumber begins unpacking and assembling a gun does she realize she’s admitted an assassin. But, rather than screaming for help, she goes on to domestic autopilot. She tidies up. She offers him tea. The gravity of the situation dawns only when he asks for sugar. Such a man will kill.
I am no friend of this woman, though I don’t (I felt compelled to add) believe violence solves anything.
Yet, in just a few pages, this seemingly ordinary citizen ends up assisting an assassin. The “why” is more interesting than the “how.” Mantel wonders if we are all capable of being so culpable.
She started writing it the day she spied the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t published then but I immediately saw a story.” It’s hard to imagine a time when Mantel didn’t top the bestseller list and win every prize going. But she hasn’t forgotten it. In the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” a housewife trapped with her husband in Saudi – “no one reads in Jeddah” – writes a comic novel in secret. Just as Mantel did. “I have had a little success, I explained, or I hope for a little success, I have written a novel you see, and an agent has taken it on.” That agent was Bill Hamilton, ‘the man in William IV street’ who represents her to this day and to whom this collection is dedicated.
So, why has it taken Mantel 30 years to pull the trigger on this tale? “I just couldn’t see how to get them to work together. The characters must examine their own myths and those of their communities. Each colludes for their own reasons.”
Was she freed by Thatcher’s death? “I am concerned with respect. I’m not concerned with taste. I would have happily concluded the story in her lifetime but couldn’t—it was my technical difficulty, not any delicacy. I believe in walking that line. You mustn’t be too timid to risk getting it wrong. ”
Last year Mantel was thrown in the stocks for describing the Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic princess born to breed” in a lecture on “Royal Bodies.” Unbowed, she is uncowed at the prospect of more “fuss.” She even seems slightly excited about it.
“As a writer you have a choice to make—are you going to accept censorship or not? In the case of the Duchess, the great outraged weren’t at the lecture and didn’t read the article. I was saying ‘please back off and treat this young woman as human.’ I was speaking in her favor! I wouldn’t be so petty as to criticize someone for their appearance. Look at me and Mary Beard and all the other women whose arguments are not engaged with or dismissed by fixations with appearance. As for Baby Number Two: I congratulate the Duchess.”
Whether its 1580 or 1980, style versus substance is a key preoccupation for Mantel. Thatcher embodies this debate. Says the householder:
“It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice.”
The assassin counters:
“It’s not about her handbag. It’s not about her hairdo. It’s about Ireland.”
“Both positions are riven by contradiction,” says Mantel. “As was Thatcher. She is the very stuff of drama. She is a fantastic character. Why did she – does she – arouse such strong reactions?”
Thatcher dominated my childhood and shaped my life just as much, if not more, than my parents. Thatcher was the blond bogey-woman blamed for everything bad that happened in the former pit-village where I grew up. And a lot of bad things happened. But I found Maggie’s certainty inspiring and her Terminator-like rise from the rubble of the Grand Hotel impressed me as a child. Mantel has only grudging admiration.
“When I think of her I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life but I am not either of those people in that room. I am standing by the window with my notebook.” And yet, the trigger is pulled.
“I never voted for her but I can stand back from my political views and from hers and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen I suffered from her but as a writer I benefited.”
“Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it,” Mantel admits. “Cromwell did too. But there are big differences. He was a negotiator and she detested consensus—she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”
Cromwell and Thatcher were both self-made. As is Mantel—her mother was a mill worker and her father disappeared when she was eleven. As am I. We were all the first from our families to go to university. But, Mantel believes, Thatcher hated the end result: “She couldn’t turn herself into a posh girl with the right vowels. If you’re that dissatisfied with yourself you try to fix other people and if they won’t be fixed you become punitive.”
Women beware women.
“It’s true, no one can now say a woman can’t run the country but I think she set back the cause of women in public life. She imitated masculine quantities to the extent that she had to get herself a good war. It [The Falklands] was great stuff—limited casualties, little impact on the Home Front and great visual propaganda. I am not suggesting this was conscious. I suspect Thatcher was the last person in the world to be able to examine her inner life but she could sell a myth. The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite.”
Ultimately it is neither style nor substance that persuades the householder to help the assassin.
“It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?”
“Lack of empathy was Thatcher’s fatal defect,” says Mantel. “Without it there is no shared humanity. Without regret there can be no contrition, there can only be an agenda which is prepared to sacrifice people for ideology.”
When the householder realizes the assassin is effectively on a suicide mission she decides to show him mercy—a quality strained in the woman they despise. In her flat is a door which leads to the building next door. It offers escape. It is their – our – chance for redemption.
“Who has not seen the door in the wall? It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope…It is a special door and obeys no law of wood or iron…it is visible only to the eye of faith…Note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise.”
The trigger is pulled and a new history is written but the real target is not Thatcher—it is us, the reader. And Mantel does not miss. Her aim is merciless.