Hanya Yanagihara took almost two decades to finish The People in the Trees, her outstanding novel about a doctor who perhaps discovers the secret to immortality in a remote island chain. Yanagihara, who writes for Condé Nast Traveler, talks about unreliable narrators, laziness, and making stuff up.
How long did the book take you to write?
I wrote this book in private for so long. I started writing it when I was 21 and working in the Vintage publicity department, so that was almost 18 years ago, and I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it until 2009. I told my best friend, who was my first and only reader, and then I started submitting it to agents in 2011. For many years it was just me and the book, year after year, which is horrible and I don’t necessarily recommend.
I’m hesitant to say this because it makes it sound like it’s going to be some masterpiece, but the truth is I was just lazy. There were long periods, actually years that went by and I would touch it only a couple of times. I really got the bulk of the writing done in the first three years, and then maybe the three years after that, and then in the last two years. And then in between, they weren’t even Edward P. Jones-like periods where you’re sitting around thinking actively about the book, they were periods of being completely lazy and not touching it.
What made those productive periods productive?
I think I was mostly just very unhappy in my personal life. I always knew how I wanted to begin the book and end the book. I wrote the ending first, actually, and that was the one thing that didn’t really change, everything else around it changed. But I have to say that I’m really happy I ended up waiting. When I look back on earlier drafts of the book when I was 21 and trying to project what an older man would sound like, it’s much more florid, much more baroque, and I was trying to sound older than I was, and it sounds really false. I was also much, much harder on the character of Norton [the main narrator and protagonist] than I ended up being [in the published version]. I think I had a lot of disdain for him, and I think as any writer knows, when you have disdain for your character, it’s never going to be good. As the years went by, I became much more sympathetic to him and enjoyed spending time with him, and by the time I was in the last laps of it, he was someone I felt I knew in and out and also was someone I was sad to leave in the end. I hope my respect for the character comes through.
For a book to take you nearly 20 years to write, there has to be some sort of central, driving force to keep you going. What was it for you?
I grew up knowing about Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the doctor upon whom Norton is based. He was one of these larger than life figures who was always hovering over my childhood. My father is a research doctor and he was fascinated by Carleton so I always knew his story, and I always thought he was far too good of a character to squander to time. So there was that: there was feeling an ownership of the character and always knowing that I would have to say something about him. And the other thing is, these are themes—colonialism, moral relativism—that really occupy my life. There comes a point when you’re writing a novel when you’re in it so deep that the life of the novel becomes more real to you than life itself. You have to write your way out of it; once you’re there, it’s too late to abandon. It may take you 18 years or 20 years or 30 years. You hope you enter as an immersion, and after a certain point, it becomes getting out of it as an exorcism, if that makes sense. If you’re lucky, that’s what happens.
Did that sense of immersion happen for you right away?
I guess it was more of a haunting. Even in the years when I wasn’t really working on it, it was always in the back in my mind. It was a sort of second world that only I had access to. You can’t live like that forever. You’ll go crazy. The only way to get out of it is to finish the story. It’s that broken-limbed baby doll with one eye that’s sitting there staring at you from the corner and you can never throw it away. You keep saying to people, “What am I going to do with that baby doll?” and they’re like, “What baby doll?”
The book takes place in a fictional archipelago called U’ivu and one of its islands, Ivu’ivu. How did you create and develop such a fully realized setting?
I wanted to write a story about colonization and about Hawaii. I went to college right at the height of identity politics, and that’s how I always read The Tempest, for example. I always wanted to do a kind of modern take on The Tempest, with the triangulation of Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero, and that’s how I started constructing this book in a literary sense. I did want to write about colonization and Hawaii without actually writing about Hawaii, and that’s what drove the creation of the island, Ivu’ivu.
If I were writing this when I were 21, it would have been much more of a screed against colonization and imperialism in general, but it’s obviously not that easy and it’s much more nuanced. One of the things I also wanted to talk about was when you have a place like Hawaii that’s unspoiled and offers such solutions in a scientific way and in a cultural way, what do you do? There’s no good answer. Do you neglect the science that could help millions of people, even if it means destroying a certain smaller group of people, or do you not? Do you respect these smaller communities, even if it hinders further scientific advancements?
Hawaii wasn’t the case where scientific advancement, at least in the biological sense, was made, but I did really want to create a place that was living outside of civilization as we know it, and chart the inevitability of those places disappearing from the world. One of the things that’s been interesting for me to see as a traveler in my day job is how these small communities like the Omo river tribes have had to struggle with the fact that the world is so small now and everything is discovered. How do you survive in a place like that? Do you retreat as far as you can? Is primitiveness always a good thing, and if it is, how do you draw those boundaries around yourself? Hawaii didn’t do that, both because they couldn’t and because they chose not to, but I wanted to draw an alternative history of Hawaii.
The novel goes into some pretty dark, disturbing places. What sort of feelings did you want your reader to take away from the book? Or were you unconcerned about potential reactions while writing the book?
Was I ever worried? No. One of the nice things about working on something alone, working on it so long—you know, I’ve seen so many publishing trends come and go over the last 15 years—when you never have to think about the market and you have a job to pay the bills, you don’t worry about these things. It just became the life of the story and I was lucky that I never had to think about how it would figure into its actual selling or not. I was lucky that I had an agent who was prepared to make no money on it and then I was lucky that Gerry Howard and Bill Thomas [of Doubleday] wanted to buy it.
I thought it might not sell, but that didn’t bother me. I was just happy to have it done. But I never thought, “I have to soften this because this is too much.” You just have to think about what makes sense in the internal logic of the book.
Because of the unreliable narrator and the structure of an editor presenting someone else’s writing, your novel reminded me of Pale Fire. How did you set about crafting this unreliable reality, and did you have any models from literature?
When I started having conversations with my editor, one of the things a couple people in the house had asked for was to get rid of the articles that precede the narrative. To me, that felt something like authorial abandonment. It’s the one objective document in this book, everything else is told through the lens of someone who’s writing his own hagiography, and someone who worships Norton [Ron, who does the footnoting and the editing]. With Ron, I wanted to echo the reader’s experience of trusting Norton. Ron is the most trusting person in Norton’s universe, and even he wavers a bit.
One of the fun things about unreliable narrators is they can be funny. You can admire things about them, and laugh with them. I was careful to not make Norton duplicitous. I don’t think he’s someone with guile. When he says he hasn’t done anything wrong, he really believes it. A narrator who might have been loathsome, and might be a narcissist, and is probably kind of a soft sociopath, but also without strategy. He thinks what he’s saying is true because he thinks it.
My favorite Nabokov was always Pnin, who is another character who is seen one way by the world and another way by himself, and is probably one of my favorite characters. I also love Patrick McGrath’s characters, who are so slippery and so hard to get a handle on. But my favorite unreliable narrator is from John Banville’s The Untouchable, which is one of my favorite books of all time. I love the sleight-of-hand he pulls off.
What aspect of the book was most difficult for you?
The science. That’s the stuff I did the most research about. One of the things I tried to do was create two specific worlds: the life of the lab and the life of the island. For the life of the lab, I have very dim memories of going to my father’s lab when I was a young girl, and you would see these rows and rows of cages, and there would be all these dogs or monkeys or mice. The life of the lab is so conscripted and specific. A lot of the things I was able to lift for this book were sensory memories. I remember there was someone in my father’s lab who made moonshine in the beakers. These strange little anthropological details that are as odd in their way as the village Norton later encounters. But all those technical odds and ends—how the experiments would work, what Norton would be published in, where would he get the materials from—these were the most difficult. The easy stuff was making everything else up.