Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction: A Little Life

Posted on 3rd June 2016 by Sally Campbell
We continue our special coverage of The Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction shortlist with our Hanya Yanagihara interview; Yangiahara is the author of Man Booker-nominated A Little Life, a subversive and troubling take on trauma that has already sparked much debate.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, ‘one of the pleasures of fiction is how suddenly a brilliant writer can alter the literary landscape’. Hanya Yanagihara did precisely that with her word-of-mouth bestseller A Little Life. Ambitious in scope with a powerful, deeply affecting story, the novel has already been shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize and The National Book Award, and has won the Kirkus Book Prize. ‘Yanagihara’s immense new book, A Little Life,'  The Wall Street Journal continues, 'announces her, as decisively as a second work can, as a major American novelist.’

The novel portrays the evolving relationships between four university friends as they pass through their twenties and on towards middle-age. The group is a ‘pleasingly diverse crew, tightly bound to each other’ (The New Yorker), that consists of Willem, the honest, genuine farm-boy; J.B., the spoilt yet gifted artist; Malcolm, the uneasy inheritor of millions; and Jude, a man scarred by his mysterious past. The novel is multi-faceted; it is a tale of growing up, of friendship through the years, of carving out an existence in New York City, and of private trauma and the life-long shadow it casts.

Yanagihara has chosen to eradicate any reference to significant political and historical events; the result of which is to place the novel in an eternal present tense where the emotional lives of the characters are paramount (The New Yorker). As the novel progresses, Jude emerges as its dark centre; this is, The New Yorker continues, what makes A Little Life such a subversive read: ‘[It] uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.’

A Little Life is unafraid of taking dark, unexpected turns as it reflects on unsettling issues and yet, as The Wall Street Journal observes, this is counterbalanced by its portrayal of fraternity: ‘A Little Life dedicates the same insightful attention to the vicissitudes of friendship as it does to pain.’

Ultimately, as Yanagihara stated in The Telegraph, it is a novel that sets out to ‘capture all the love, distress and horror of life’.

What was the first idea you had for A Little Life – where did it originate from?

Although the book seemed almost to write itself, it's only now, almost two years after I finished, that I realized how much I'd been thinking about it even before I knew it; in fact, I recently found a few pages I'd written about a character who is clearly (I now recognize) a prototype of Jude, the protagonist of A Little Life. But I always knew I wanted to write a book about male friendship -- and about a character who's damaged beyond the point of repair. 

Did you plan the book carefully or did it develop more organically?

Both, actually: I had the framework, the narrative arc, a number of key scenes, and the last lines ready before I even started. But the emotions of the book -- specifically, how the characters came to define both companionship and love, and how they continued their conversation with life itself -- developed over its writing.

How long did the research into the period of the book take?

A few months. There was a point, early on, that I had to stop in order to finish research; the second and third sections of the book are very much about the characters' careers, and I had to make sure I had my facts correct because I knew they'd direct future events. So for eight weeks or so, I stopped writing entirely and just conducted interviews. I was impatient to get back to the actual construction of the book, but those interviews also changed several plot points in key ways.

At times this is a difficult and uncomfortable book to read - was it as hard to write those scenes as it was for us to read them? How does an author know where to draw the line?

I don't think there is in fact a line that an author has to be scared of crossing: I've always maintained (and still do), that there's no "too much" for a reader. When I'm reading something, I want only a sense of logical consistency and a sense of a confident authorial hand, a feeling that the writer knows where she's going and is unapologetic about taking me there. A writer should take big risks; part of writing fiction is ignoring or trespassing that line, is making a book that challenges and is messy and makes mistakes. Tidiness, while admirable, is not necessarily a memorable quality in a work of fiction (well, with exceptions). 

How different was the experience writing this work compared to your first book?

It was much more engrossing. I wrote my first book over a period of 18 years, and it was much more difficult for a number of reasons, among them the simple fact that I'd never written a book before. On a purely technical level, your second book is easier because you know your weaknesses as a writer, and you know (to some degree) how to compensate for them.

Do you have another novel planned?

Sort of. But I started a new job in June and it's been all-consuming; I haven't had any time to write.

Who is the fictional character you would most like to meet?

Tom Ripley. But just for one drink.

Which writer working today do you most admire?

Kazuo Ishiguro.

You’re stuck on a desert island and you can take only one novel with you, which would it be?

Whatever I was working on at the time. Then I could torture myself with it instead of the knowledge that I was stuck on a desert island.


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