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Interview: Hanya Yanagihara talks about The People in the Trees


Hanya Yanagihara is the author of the The People in the Trees, a book which she says she started writing when she was 21, and which took her nearly 20 years to complete. She is also the author of A Little Life. Hanya started her career in New York working in the publicity department of Vintage Books, working for a number of New York publishers. From 1998-2008, she edited The Asian Pacific American Journal, before joining Conde Nast Traveler in 2005. Her "Word of Mouth" section was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2007. She became an editor at Conde Nast before leaving in 2015 to become a deputy editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Yanagihara has edited several books, and served as a New York Foundation for the Arts Literary Fellow in both 2001 and 2008. She currently lives in New York. She talks to NZ Booklovers about The People in the Trees.


Tell us a little about The People in the Trees.

It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

What inspired you to write this book?

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.


What research was involved?

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.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

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.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

The song I frequently returned to when I was writing this book is the Sunday Manoa’s 1969 version of “Kawika,” an ode to Hawaii’s last king, HRH David Kalakaua (1836-91), who is remembered for bringing hula and Hawaiian song back to the islands after they were banned by the missionary-led government that would annex the country for the US soon after his death.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I’ve always thought the best and only way this could become a movie is if it were animated, specifically by Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animator in history. His films are always about moral and ethical relativities and are deeply generous, and he has a wonderful eye for both nature and animals as well as for aesthetics particular to different tribes and peoples.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Like most Americans, I am (shamefully) scientifically illiterate, and attempting to understand basic biology (albeit in my own small way) was one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of the book. The most fluid part, the part over which I felt I had the greatest natural understanding and control, was inventing U’ivu’s creation myth.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I commissioned a gold-and-enamel ring with the Hawaii state motto, a beautiful piece of poetry: Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness). TREES is in many ways a story of Hawaii and its contact with the West, and so it seemed appropriate. After I wrote my second book, I commissioned a second gold-and-enamel ring, this time with the names of its characters.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Easily Neel Mukherjee’s astonishing A STATE OF FREEDOM—it’s a novel in five parts and an homage to Naipaul’s IN A FREE STATE, and when I was finished, I felt both walloped (as a reader) and deeply jealous (as a writer).

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