In her spellbinding debut novel, The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara drew on her life as a well traveled woman and editor at Conde Nast Traveler to compose stunning, visual descriptions of place. In these fictional memoirs of a scientist who has fallen from grace, readers find themselves seduced by a remote jungle setting and all the mysteries it holds. BookPage spoke with Yanagihara about her experiences as a travel writer, the love of reading and the joy of exploration.
The story that you’ve woven is utterly captivating, but one of the things that truly makes The People in the Trees shine is the writing. How have you developed your craft? Are there any authors that you turn to for inspiration or that have been particularly influential for you in terms of shaping your own authorial voice?
Thank you for the kind words. I don’t know that I’ve done anything to consciously develop my voice, but some of my favorite living fiction writers are John Banville, Jonathan Coe, Hilary Mantel, Jennifer Egan, J.M. Coetzee, Anita Brookner, Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, Aatish Taseer, Mohsin Hamid, Rose Tremain, Peter Rock, Anne Tyler, Steven Millhauser, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zoë Heller, Michael Cunningham . . . and, well, I know I’m forgetting lots of people.
Prior to writing The People in the Trees, you worked as a travel writer. If your next assignment saw you heading off to Ivu’ivu, what would be the three items you’d be sure to pack?
I actually still am an editor at Conde Nast Traveler (unasked-for tip to first-time novelists: For a variety of reasons, don’t quit your day job); I’m on the road about a fourth to a third of the year, but the rest of my time is spent in our offices in Times Square, assigning and editing pieces. But if I were going off to Ivu’ivu—hmm. I actually think the characters do a pretty good job of packing. So I’d bring a knife (to kill one of the turtles); a cooler (to bring back orchid cuttings); and a wider diversity of food than I allowed my characters.
"Travelers, like readers, are united by our sense of curiosity, as well as a willingness to have our most closely held notions—of a people, of a place, of human behavior—be dispelled, sometimes crushingly."
As someone who has primarily written nonfiction previously, what prompted you to shift your focus to literary fiction? Do you feel that your previous experience as a travel writer was a natural stepping-stone to writing novels?
I don’t really consider myself a nonfiction writer: I mean, I do it for work, but that’s a very specific type of writing—less essayistic and more practical, and more about the whats and wheres (as opposed to the hows and whys) of a given destination. I worked on this book for so long—I was in book publishing, not magazines at all, when I began it—that I can honestly say that the writing I do at work is something I was simply lucky enough to tumble into.
However, I can also say that working as a magazine editor has helped me enormously as a writer. When you’re publishing a magazine story, the editor has the final say. When you’re publishing a book, the author has the final say. Being a magazine editor has taught me to be more ruthless about my own writing—it’s made me more aware of repetition, for example, and the importance of pacing—but it’s also taught me when and how to not compromise, which is an underrated skill but one every writer must develop.
Given all that you’ve seen throughout the world, do you believe the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”?
It always is. In fact, there’s only one specific incident in the book that I took from my own life—and, of course, it was the one incident that my editor found unconvincing. But I kept it anyway.
After finishing your book, many readers will wonder whether places like Ivu’ivu truly exist. Based on your own rather extensive travels through Asia, what destinations would you offer up as real-world substitutes for those with a taste for untouched paradise?
Although much of Ivu’ivu’s history—from discovery through the ruins of Christian colonization—is borrowed from the history of Hawaii, I found its physical contours in Angra dos Reis, which is an archipelago off the coast of southern Brazil. When I went there for work—this was probably in 2008—I was still trying to decide how I wanted Ivu’ivu to look and feel. I knew I wanted it to be densely, lushly tropical, but Hawaii itself wasn’t quite florid enough for my imaginings to be an appropriate visual reference. But when I stepped onto my first island in Angra, I knew that this was Ivu’ivu: I had never before been to a square of land so intimidatingly green, so suffocatingly overgrown.
I stayed at a hotel on one of the islands, but the next day I took a speedboat and did some island-hopping, including to a number of rocks that’ve remained untouched by construction and are still as wild and untamed as they probably were a thousand years ago.
Would you say that travelers tend to be pretty voracious readers? If so, why do you think this might be?
Travelers, like readers, are united by our sense of curiosity, as well as a willingness to have our most closely held notions—of a people, of a place, of human behavior—be dispelled, sometimes crushingly.
There’s also something about the act of travel itself, its sense of suspension, that pairs beautifully with the sense of suspension that reading, especially reading fiction, encourages. One of the most exhilarating states of being is to find yourself in a strange place, surrounded by strange scenery, reading about places both familiar and not. Whenever I travel, I like to take a book that’s set in a location far different than the one I’ll be in, so that the foreignness of one experience plays against the foreignness of the other: it makes every sensation seem sharper and more vivid. I’ll always associate the Nigeria of Half of a Yellow Sun or the Mumbai of Maximum City with Tokyo, for example, which is where I read them.
When you travel, do you go paper or digital when it comes to your reading material?
Only paper. Last year, I took a 51-day trip through Asia for work and brought along 27 books: galleys, mostly, so I could discard them as I went (I like the idea of someone coming across a book I’ve left behind in a hotel room night table drawer and being drawn to it as they lie awake with jetlag). I always figure a book per every two days, plus a book for every 15-hour-plus long-haul flight.
What are you working on next?
Last month I finished a novel about male friendship that spans 30 years. Unlike The People in the Trees, which took almost 16 years [to write], this one took 18 months; but it was a book I’d had plotted in my head—down to the last lines—for years. And that period between selling your first book and its actual publication is, I learned, a wonderful, singular year and a half or so in which to write: you have all the validation you need, and none of the disappointments.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The People in the Trees.