Yanagihara talks theatre, pandemics and life as a magazine editor at a packed UEA appearance
After publishing three novels, Hanya Yanagihara has developed a huge following, evidenced by her reaching number one in the New York Times bestseller list and the impressive turnout for her appearance at UEA Live, the successor to the UEA Literary Festival.
In conversation with Georgina Godwin, she began by discussing her Japanese-American father, an oncologist from Hawaii, from where a main character of her latest novel, To Paradise, also hails.
“My father really looked to Jewish-American writers because they were the height of literary sophistication for his generation and arguably still are,” Yanagihara said.
Her father encouraged Yanagihara to pursue her own artistic interests, whether that was drawing – which Yanagihara gave up after having lessons in – and writing.
“Most writers have come from one of two families: very indulgent and think what you’re doing is interesting, or think what you do is a waste of time. Each way you end up as a writer,” she said.
She gave short shrift to concerns over “appropriation” of the kind sometimes raised about people who, like Yanagihara, sometimes write about minority groups to which they do not belong.
“The short answer is I can write about anyone I want,” she said before giving a longer response about empathy suggested by the celebrated American writer Tony Kushner.
What makes Yanagihara stand out from most other authors who have achieved her level of commercial success is that, alongside her writing, she has a demanding day job, as editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
“I think most people can do two things,” she said. “Editing a magazine is much less chaotic than raising children.”
The worst that she has to cope with, she said, was writers turning in copy late or (she joked) plagiarising material, or photographers throwing a temper tantrum. These are, she said, “very predictable disasters”.
She advised other writers to get a job that, like hers, involves interacting with many others regularly.
“[The job involves] being around people every day, people who see the world differently,” she said. “I love working with so many of my colleagues because they see the world through images or sound.”
Yanagihara’s best-known book is A Little Life, which has sold more than a million copies.
“When the book came out, in 2015, no one was interested in it and it had a very slow life and very slow build,” she said.
“I was so lucky because it was readers recommending it to others, people who loved it, people who hated it … I wanted people to really have a reaction, otherwise it was probably not worth doing.”
There was interest in the rights for the book by those keen to turn it into a film or a series, but Yanagihara said that no one had original ideas about how it could be adapted until Ivo van Hove, a Belgian theatre director, approached her and created a Dutch-language production.
“He had actual ideas. Some of these ideas have made it into his production,” she said.
An English-language version, partly rewritten by Yanagihara, is currently playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, with James Norton in the lead role.
“It’s the hardest theatrical role I’ve ever seen. It’s such a physical role. He has to sing. You cannot fake that role. You have to commit to doing a completely humble performance,” she said.
And plenty of stamina is needed, as Norton is on stage for all but three minutes of the three hours 20 minutes production and has to perform the play eight times a week.
“One of the wonderful things about the British theatrical tradition is that they expect to do that. They do take it seriously and they know what they’re doing,” said Yanagihara, whose appearance at the UEA came before the play opened.
Yanagihara said the stage productions “made me see the characters differently”.
Her most recent novel, To Paradise, which attracted mixed reviews but has been a bestseller, takes the form of three stories, each set a century apart.
One section is set at a time when one pandemic follows another. Yanagihara began writing it before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today, she looks back on the pandemic and feels that societies have yet to have a proper reckoning about what went on.
“There are obviously people who are crazy and nuts and scientifically illiterate and irrational about masks, but there’s no real way to have a really intelligent conversation about … how we’re going to handle the next one,” she said.
“Did we give up too many rights? There’s been a collective inability to have this conversation but it has to be had. Is there a point at which you let death happen because the alternative is unlivable?
“When I wrote a novel set in a very restrictive society, I recognised that there are certain fundamental aspects of being human that no dictatorship can stamp out: the need to be loved and the need to love.
“A government can control as much as they want but they cannot control desire. It’s an assertion of humanhood.”
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