Waterstones Book of The Year Shortlist: A Little Life

Posted on 18th November 2015 by Sally Campbell & Hanya Yanagihara
Eight titles have been nominated for the Waterstones Book of The Year Award and we will be profiling one title a day for the next eight days. Our third profile: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is an elegant and ambitious novel. An epic tale, exploring friendship in twenty first century New York, it depicts the huge as well as the minor ways our lives resonate with others.

The story of Jude is a challenging story of private trauma. This is a troubling, yet touching novel, one that explores the notion of escaping the fetters of your past.

Our booksellers loved it, one of whom, Claire Salisbury, summed it up as follows: “[A Little Life] does that really clever thing of breaking your heart whilst making you grateful for it.” You can read a full review of the novel by another bookseller, Isobel Poppel, here.

We were lucky enough to pose the following questions to Yanagihara last week:


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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