As the A Little Life sequel releases, the author talks about America, the response to her books, and why she still needs a job
“I’m in the office,” she says, peering through the window of the Port Authority Bus Station, Manhattan’s dingiest corner. “It’s pretty empty.”
It’s halfway between Christmas and the New Year, and Hanya Yanagihara, one of America’s most popular — and most polarizing — novelists is at work.
Although he is a hugely successful author, his 2015 novel a little life, about four friends in New York, sold a million copies and was nominated for the Booker Prize, Yanagihara still has a job as an editor The New York Timesmagazine “style”, T, and must therefore confine her writing to the nighttime.
“In the States you have to work because you need health insurance,” she explains.
“Besides, I really do have the best job in the American media when it comes to glossy magazines. I have a lot of freedom and can more or less do what I want.”
As her third book, she will once again be tested on her time management skills, To paradise, comes. The Hawaiian-Korean writer, 47, doesn’t know how to write short books; Essentially three separate and vastly different (long) novellas, her latest novel – all 720 pages of it – is set in an alternate USA during three different eras, its only constant being a large house in New York’s Washington Square.
It opens in 1893 in America’s so-called “free states,” where gay marriage is rampant but true love’s journey continues to falter.
In the next section, 100 years later, AIDS is rampant and much of the narrative revolves around a long dinner party where one of the guests is “lucky enough” not to die of AIDS but of cancer.
After all, in 2093, the USA is a totalitarian state, ravaged by global warming and back-to-back pandemics in which people’s lives are curtailed by disease.
Yanagihara writes about the “shrunken faces, the soft teeth, the hair loss, the limbs covered with bumps. [The] Survival rates are dismal.”
After all, To Paradise starts out hopeful, but it becomes increasingly dark. A US reviewer wondered why the novel wasn’t called To Hell instead.
“After the 2016 election and then again after the ‘Muslim ban’ in early 2017, I started thinking a lot about how we used to think of America as some kind of paradise, but that this might have been the wrong metaphor all along,” Yanagihara said says.
“Not just because it’s a lie, but because it’s not possible for any country to live up to it.
“So what does it mean to be a citizen, a responsible member of society? What are the boundaries between the individual and society and what happens when they start to blur?”
Yanagihara’s books tend to evoke reactions. a little life was not only viscerally compelling but often unbearable, in which illness was the overriding theme alongside endless mental and physical abuse.
The readers loathed it or were completely consumed with it. And although To paradise is written with an obsessive energy, it’s not exactly steeped in optimism. Its author clearly likes it when her readers suffer.
She laughs. “Oh! I don’t think I’m a particularly dark writer. However, what I do offer is honesty and truth. If you’re making up a universe for a book, you can do whatever you want as long as that universe is consistent in its logic And if you do, I think a reader will follow you just about anywhere.”
Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii. She suffered from chronic asthma as a child, which she says “made me aware of the limitations of the body.” Always a bookworm, she wanted to be both a magazine editor and a writer, so in a way, her own paradise has come true. She is happily unmarried and surrounded by a close circle of friends. She seems to love her life.
“I like to think that I’m a very hopeful person,” she says, “but part of hope is telling the truth and participating in the social construct that you belong to: your family, your society, yours Nation.
“I feel very fortunate that the readers have been so generous to me,” she adds. “For them to walk into my books with such vulnerability and react with such emotion – I know that’s rare and that it’s a gift. I know how lucky I am.”
To paradise is published by Picador for £20