Hanya Yanagihara's 'To Paradise' is one of the most highly anticipated novels of 2022
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hanya Yanagihara's huge new novel winds through three epics across 200 years and into an alternative world. In The Free States of America, centered in New York of the 1890s, same-sex love and marriage are the norm. But Black citizens are not permitted. A century later, a descendant of the last monarch of Hawaii lives in the same neighborhood - Greenwich Village - as AIDS ravages a generation, while his heritage is endangered. And in 2093, pandemics and storms push the area now known as Zone Eight into an authoritarian society, locking up millions for society's protection. "To Paradise" is one of the most highly anticipated novels of 2022.
Hanya Yanagihara, author of the highly acclaimed "A Little Life" in 2015, joins us now from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.
HANYA YANAGIHARA: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.
SIMON: My word. These are three eras of exquisite, detailed, intricate interlocking lives all in your head. How do you keep track of it all?
YANAGIHARA: Well, you know, you don't think about it too much. It's a little like when you're doing anything that feels complicated, and if you start overthinking it, then it starts to feel less spontaneous and more labored. And it felt very intuitive to write these sections of this book. Once I had the structure down and had decided on what I wanted to say, the actual physical act of writing came quite quickly and fluidly.
SIMON: What do you hope readers will see in these separate lives across two centuries? Or are they separate lives? Is that the point?
YANAGIHARA: Well, they are, and they aren't. I mean, it's a story of three different outsiders and three different people who are trying to find love because they want to love and they want to be loved. And one of the things that I was really interested in, especially in the third part of the book, which is a kind of American dystopia, is this idea that no matter how bleak a society is or how totalitarian a regime is or a person's circumstances, one of the things that we all want as humans is affection and love and to find some beauty in our lives.
SIMON: You will understand why we have to ask - particularly about the last section. A novel is enormous and ambitious - more than 700 pages. And pandemics feature prominently. But I'm going to guess that you were at work on this story long before we knew about COVID-19.
YANAGIHARA: Yes. I started doing research for the pandemic part of the book in 2017. And I went up to Rockefeller University, which is a postgraduate university on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and met with some virologists there, all of whom predicted that there was going to be another pandemic coming soon. But by the time we actually got sent home because of COVID - so this was for me around March 13, 2020 - I was very deep into the narrative. I was probably about halfway through the third part of the book. And I know this sounds strange to say, but it didn't feel eerie, and it didn't feel like it was a parallel world. It felt completely separate.
You know, as a citizen, I was confused and afraid at times, and certainly helpless. But within the world of this book, I was its God and its master, and I could do whatever I wanted to do. And so the two events - the one of the book and the one in real life - did not, to me, feel and still don't feel particularly related.
SIMON: Yeah. Your father's an oncologist. Your mother was a teacher and a gifted artisan, I gather. What have you learned from them that we might see in your novels now that you've done two celebrated ones?
YANAGIHARA: Well, I think that, you know, disease and dying was never something that my family shied away from discussing. Death was not a fearful subject. And my father was always very careful - because he had so many patients who were terminally ill - not to speak about disease in the language of sports or athletics, which we often do - that someone lost their battle against cancer or they won the fight against such and such a disease. And he always believed that one of a doctor's responsibilities was to help give a patient a good death, if that's what they wanted, and it was also not to discuss dying in terms of victory or of moral approbation.
And in all of my books, you see disease and people grappling with disease. But disease itself is something that always has a name. It's something that characters learn to face forthrightly. And it's something that they eventually learn to live with. And those were very good lessons, not just for the writing of this book, but for living in our current moment.
SIMON: Your first two novels drew such wonderful plaudits. What led you to not just create a new world, which fiction does, but a new world lifted out of our own, and even an old world lifted out of our own?
YANAGIHARA: There's a couple of things. I met with the writer Michael Cunningham, who is a great influence on me and has been so kind to me and so generous to me over the years. And his follow-up to "The Hours" was a book called "Specimen Days," which I feel this book is to some extent in conversation with. And I asked him how - what he decided to write after "The Hours," which was such a phenomenal success for him - and he said, you just have to write the book that you want to write. And what he meant by that was that, I think, that you can't keep trying to write the same book. And he was absolutely right.
But I think the other thing that I always tell myself is that you should really only write a book when it feels urgent and like something that only you can say. And so when I really began researching this book in 2017, it did feel really urgent. It was shortly after the Muslim ban. And I began to really think about this idea of paradise and wondering if the mythology of America as a paradise had been wrong all along.
SIMON: Hanya Yanagihara - her highly anticipated novel, "To Paradise" - thank you so much for being with us.
YANAGIHARA: Thank you so much, Scott. It was an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.