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The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life

The story behind Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and Man Booker Prize, including the unique elements of the story, the inspiration, and the writing process.

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When A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was published a few years ago, I picked it up thinking it was another book about post-college friends living, struggling, and relating in New York.

This was at a time when I was busy with two very young children and paying no attention to any publishing news.

I only checked out one e-book at a time from the library and often it was hastily chosen.

I wasn’t reading any book blogs or bookish news and I had never heard of A Little Life or Hanya Yanagihara.

It was that cover, plus the promise of a post-college-in-New-York story that drew me in. It’s the type of story I love, and I think many other readers expected the same.

We didn’t know what we were getting into.

15 Things You May Not Know About A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The Story

As you start to read A Little Life, you spend time with JB, Willem, and Malcolm. JB is an artist, Willem is an aspiring actor, and Malcolm is an architect. All are young and struggling, but not in any way that seems unusual.

It’s when the story moves on to Jude, and remains focused on him, that you realize that this story is not what you expected.

Jude is a lawyer, and despite his closeness with his friends, his past is mysterious.

He has a limp that they only know happened in an automobile incident. He has no family and never speaks of his childhood.

As the story progresses and the men age and advance in their careers, a more complete picture of Jude and the intensity of his suffering and enduring damage emerges.

A Little Life covers decades of the lives of the men. It’s one of the most affecting, devastating books I’ve ever read, and I still think of it frequently. I’ve seen many other readers say the same.

This is a book that many readers count as one of their favorites but many also say they would not be able to read it again.

If you have not read A Little Life, I highly, highly recommend picking it up–after preparing yourself for an emotional, upsetting read that will stay with you forever.

15 Things You May Not Have Known About A Little Life

Note: There are some spoilers below–mostly about the overall arc of Jude’s story, rather than specific events. but if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled, you may not want to read the rest of this post.

1. The Eternal Present Day

Events, public figures, and even specific places that would place the characters in a particular time are never mentioned in the novel. This puts the characters in an “eternal present day.”

2. The Immersion in Jude’s World

This eternal present day affects the reader’s experience of the book. Yanagihara says,

“You are in Jude’s world, with Jude, and there’s no escaping it. There should be a sort of out-of-time, out-of-place quality that echoes Jude’s childhood in the motel rooms, a sense that the world and its events have no effect, good or ill, on the relentlessness of your daily, present-tense experience.”

3. The Photo Inspiration

Yanagihara based the story on about 20 photos she had collected–on Pinterest. This Vulture article by Yanagihara includes several of the photos and describes what they brought to her writing. (6)

4. The Too-Muchness of the Book

Her editor asked her to tone down the graphic descriptions of the brutal abuses in the book, but she refused. She says,

“I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror.” (2)

5. The Foils to Jude

One of the striking things about the novel is how little of the focus is on Jude in the first part, and he ultimately becomes the central character. This was deliberate; Yanagihara wanted to create a point of comparison between the three other men and Jude:

“…a study of their normalcy, a foil to the strangeness of Jude’s own life.” (6)

6. The Traumas that Can’t Be Repaired

One of her goals in writing A Little Life was to explore the story of someone who never gets better, who experiences trauma that they can never come back from. This is in part a push-back against the redemption and happiness-seeking stories that are prevalent in western culture. (8)

7. The Unique Freedoms of Friendship

Yanagihara also wanted to explore the unique freedoms that friendship affords to define it in the way that works for the people in the relationship.

“When you are a spouse, a parent, an employee, a citizen, you live by certain rules, some of them dictated by law, others by social expectations. But friendship is the one relationship available to us in which the laws and limits are defined only by the participants.” (4)

8. The Marketing

Yanagihara is not on Twitter, but she does have an Instagram feed dedicated to A Little Life. She was involved with creating the tote bags and t-shirts featured throughout the feed. She explains more about the origin of the Instagram account in this article.

The book has also inspired fans to create art, clothing, and other items–here are a few of ours:

For A Little Life Fans


White 15 oz mug with word art featuring characters, locations, and chapter titles from A Little Life
A Little Life Word Art Mug
Man wearing a navy tshirt with a line drawing of two men hugging, with a label reading Jude and Willem, A Little Life
Jude & Willem T-shirt
A Little Life word art sweatshirt
A Little Life Word Art Sweatshirt
Tote bag with a line drawing of two men hugging, with text reading Jude and Willem, A Little Life
Jude & Willem Tote
See more on Etsy >

9. The Homage to Child-Free, Unmarried Lives

“Part of this book is an homage to the way my friends and I live: lives without children, without marriage, lives you rarely see depicted in popular art, unless as a punch line or a tragedy, lives not considered by many to be full, legitimate adulthood.” (5)

10. The Title:

“…the title is meant to shape-shift as the reader moves deeper into the shadow of this book, and it’s indeed alluded to in different ways, but really, I meant it literally: We have such small lives, all of us. And this is the story of one of those lives.” (7)

11. The Cover

The cover photo is from a series of photos taken in the 1960s by Peter Hujar. The photo is titled “Orgasmic Man.”

Yanagihara fought to use the photo on the cover because of the ambiguity of whether the man is in pleasure or pain. It gives the viewer a sense that they may be seeing someone at their most vulnerable–as readers witness Jude throughout the book. (8)

12. The Fairy Tale Elements

Yanagihara says, despite the realism of the novel, there are fairy tale elements to the book: the enormous professional success of the characters; the extreme darkness that plagues; the absence of parents; the absence of time, among others.

She says part of the responsibility of the reader is to surrender to some of those more fantastical elements. People who read it as straight realistic fiction will have trouble with those elements. (8)

13. The Other Novels

Yanagihara’s only other novel is called The People in the Trees and was published in 2013. In 2015, she said she may not write anything again. Writing A Little Life was so immersive, and she doesn’t want to write another novel if she doesn’t feel she has anything urgent to say. (April 2021 update: A new novel is coming in January 2022!)

14. The Time to Write

The People in the Trees took 18 years to write; A Little Life took 18 months.

15. The Writing Process

In 2017, Yanagihara was appointed editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. She has always worked at least a four-day week while writing.

While writing A Little Life, she wrote for about four hours per night on her work days and six hours per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

BONUS: Will There Be an A Little Life Movie or TV Show?

Since I first published this article, I’ve noticed that many people are arriving here because they want to know if there will be a screen adaptation of A Little Life.

And I want to know, too! Here’s what I do know, as of September 2018 (I will update here if I learn more about future adaptations):

  • In 2015 and 2016, there were several articles about A Little Life being adapted as a limited TV series, and even an announcement on the book’s Facebook page. That announcement is no longer available, and in 2018 I haven’t found any updates about the potential series.
  • Right now, a stage adaptation of A Little Life is running in an Amsterdam theater. Yanagihara worked with the director to bring it to the stage, and it sounds brutal. You can read more about the production on the New York Times. Also see the A Little Life Facebook page for updates on the production:

Sources:

  1. The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life – The New Yorker
  2. Hanya Yanagihara: I wanted everything turned up a little too high – The Guardian
  3. A Little Life Author Hanya Yanagihara Is the New Editor of T Magazine – The Cut
  4. Hanya Yanagihara – Foyles
  5. Hanya Yanagihara – The Believer
  6. How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life – Vulture
  7. Interview with Hanya Yanagihara – National Book Foundation
  8. Video: Hanya Yanagihara and Matthew Spektor: “A Little Life: A Novel” – Library Foundation of Los Angeles

I have been deeply immersed in the world of A Little Life while putting together this post–I almost feel like I read it again.

I’ve only done a couple of these Story of the Story posts, but one of the things I love about doing them is the deliberate reading of multiple interviews with the authors.

They reveal different things about the books, their process, and themselves in each interview, and sometimes they have new revelations about their own work through the discussions.

A Little Life is such an internal, character-centric book that researching the story behind it was much different than researching the story behind historical fiction novel Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.

Hanya Yanagihara is a fascinating author and I only included a fraction of the insights she revealed in her interviews. If you are as intrigued by A Little Life as I am, visit some of the links above–I especially enjoyed the video interview!

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Have you read A Little Life? I’d love to hear what you thought of it. What questions do you still have?

15 Things You Didn't Know About A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara | MindJoggle.com
Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn't Know About A Little Life | MindJoggle.com
A Little Life: The Story of the Story

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24 Comments

  1. I quite liked this book and this is great info from behind the scenes.
    I did think that at one point the story got a bit over-exaggerated and i couldn’t decide if Jude was being an unreliable narrator, or the author was going for shocking the audience.
    Without being too spoilery i mean the part where certain things happened to Jude, but according to his recollection every single person he met in his young life did something bad to him.

    1. Norrie, I totally agree! I remember having those same feelings while reading the book–wondering if it was gratuitous or exploitative. The interviews with Yanagihara actually made me feel a little better about it, knowing that the extreme nature of it all was thoughtfully done.

      It’s kind of been on my mind non-stop as I wrote this, and I’m working on a discussion post on this topic. Basically, about the use of horrific circumstances in stories, and dealing with the discomfort and our role as readers. Hopefully will be up tomorrow or Friday.

  2. Oh, my gosh, Allison; this is the COOLEST post ever!! I am borderline obsessed with A Little Life; I was resistant to reading it for quite some time, but don’t really know why, and finally read it at the beginning of last year. It is now one of my all-time favorites. These details and behind the scenes stories are fascinating; thank you for doing this work and sharing it with us!

    1. Thanks, Tara! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It really is one of those books that gets under your skin. I thought it was one I’d never be able to read again, but after spending so much time thinking about it this week, I might actually pick it up again. I’ll have a related follow-up post later this week πŸ™‚

  3. First of all, I love that you cite your sources! I love this idea of delving deeper into the background of a novel. I’ve never read A Little Life, but I definitely want to read it now!

    1. Ha–thanks! Looking over it now, I guess I wasn’t totally rigorous about it, but at least they’re all there πŸ™‚ I wish I’d known or noticed a few of these things when I read it (like the “eternal present day” thing), so I hope they’re helpful if you do decide to read the book. I’d love to hear what you think of it!

  4. I fall into the ‘one of the best books ever but don’t know if I could read again’ category. I’d go even further because despite how important I thought it was I don’t even recommend it to everyone. I know people who could not handle the graphic brutality.

    I saw Yanagihara here in Seattle and she was fascinating to listen to. Along the lines of what you already pointed out about immersion she said she wrote such long chapters, with no breaks or shifts in perspective, to keep the reader stuck in the same place as the characters. No line or page break to allow escape. Having said that, she was quite charming- not at all dark.

    1. You’re so right–I’m not sure I’ve ever recommended it to anyone I know. It’s a hard book to say you “like.”

      I find Yanagihara really fascinating. She has a very strong presence and is unapologetic about her life, her choices, and her writing. There are so many things she did to make this such a gripping read. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read it again or not (previously I would have said no) but I’m tempted to pick it up again just to marvel at her skill.

  5. I love this. A Little Life is one of my all time favorite books and unlike many, I do want to read it again. I feel even more strongly about that since reading this post. I’d like to re-experience it in light of some of this little known facts.

    I agree with Catherine, that it’s not a book for the faint of heart. When I recommend it to someone, I always try to warn them about the devastation. It truly is a brilliantly written story.

    1. I think I’m with you, after writing this post. I actually re-checked it out from the library to look at a few things, and I kind of had to stop myself from getting too far into it. I’m reading some other things now, but I am going to read this again–when I feel like I can handle diving back in.

  6. I love this! I adored A Little Life and didn’t know so much about the book! Thanks for doing all that research…even if you uncovered that she may not write another book (heart-breaking…).

    1. Thanks! I know it–I was sad to read that, but she also said it in 2015 while promoting the book, so I’m hoping she was just a little burned out at that point. I didn’t come across anything more recent (other than her current job), but I’m crossing my fingers that she’s writing something new.

  7. I love this review!
    I hadn’t even heard of this book, but it definitely sounds worth a read.
    πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you! It can be a tough book, but I hope it’s a good read for you if you check it out!

  8. I actually did read it again. Six months after reading it I was still devastated and just couldn’t get over it. In the end I re-read it because I didn’t know what else to do. I’m so glad I did. I feel like the first time I read it it broke me, but the second time healed me again. Three years later I still think about it often (hence why I’m seeking out blog posts!). I too never recommend it to people. I want everyone to know Jude, but in the other hand I want to protect him and keep him all to myself.

    1. That’s amazing, Vicky! Thanks for sharing. I wonder if I would have a different experience reading it a second time. I hope to get to it at some point, but I’m not sure when–it’s definitely something I’ll need to prepare myself to do.

  9. Absolutely loved/hated this book.Didn’t want it to end, cried while reading it, cried when I finished it. Fabulous, fabulous book. I passed it onto my friends who passed it on to more friends and each and every one of them loved it.
    Even my husband read it which is no mean feat! It remains my best ever book .

    1. Felicity, I agree! It’s a book that stays with you forever, but it was definitely one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.

  10. it took me a while getting into the book but when I finished it, I wanted to started again (obviously i didn’t). I am not sure if I love it but definitely it impacted me deeply. So vivid, so tender, showing the best and the worse of human kind. Definitely a life-time worth of book.

  11. This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. There were times during my first reading that I had to put this book (audiobook, actually) down and walk away in order to stop sobbing or catch my breath or swallow the words that were stuck in my throat. But since finishing it I have had such a book hangover that I am now going back to reread, paying particular attention to all of the other characters, their interactions, their relationships, and how they all interacted with Jude. To me, we are all Jude. Perhaps we don’t harm ourselves in the horrific way that he does, but in my life I do not know one person who does not harm himself/herself in some way. Like Jude, we all (meaning I) rely and lean on others to keep us moving from one day to the next. And like Jude, we all (again meaning I) fall short of attaining grace.

  12. I can only imagine the editor’s shock when Yanagihara pushed back on toning down the trauma. To be honest, I would have been in the editor’s corner if I’d been in the room… but ultimately, it would seem Yanagihara was right. Would we still be talking about this book if she hadn’t been so brutal? I honestly can’t imagine it being faithfully adapted for the screen; surely the producers would have to tone down the trauma to make it palatable (and, as we’ve seen, Yanagihara isn’t particularly receptive to that). Love this behind-the-curtain peek, thank you! πŸ™‚

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