Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara

[writer, editor]

“I’D SAY I’M PROBABLY THE SAME AMOUNT OF ASSHOLE ON THE PAGE AS IN LIFE. I DO TRY TO BE ENTERTAINING ABOUT IT, HOWEVER—IN BOTH PLACES.”
Some of Hanya Yanagihara’s writing advice
to her younger self:

Publishing a book won’t change your perception
of who you are
There’s no one way to be a writer
Being a writer is more of a vocation than an identity

When I requested an interview with Hanya Yanagihara she politely acquiesced under the condition that we converse via email. “I’m afraid I’m not terrifically articulate in interviews (they make me nervous),” she wrote, “so am sticking to email Q&As for now.”

This seemed an appropriate request from an author who wrote both of her novels, The People in the Trees and A Little Life—books peopled with central characters who are elusive and evasive, even to those closest to them—in secret, although under radically diametric time frames. (The People in the Trees took eighteen years; A Little Life, only eighteen months.) “Send the first batch whenever,” she told me. “That way, I can start working on it in quieter moments and give thorough responses.” To my initial list of twenty-five queries, she returned more than five thousand words.

Like the language in her books, her answers were detailed, cinematic, and generous; she is voluble on the page. Yet I admit what drew me to Hanya was her background. She had lived in Hawaii, as I have, and we graduated from the same high school; we have friends in common. But while our paths never crossed at home, years ago I saw Hanya speak in Brooklyn, and in person she seemed neither inarticulate nor nervous.

Sharply intelligent and casually mordant, she exhaled her thoughts without pause or effort. She searched for words, perhaps out of instinctive protection, only when talking about her best friend, Jared Hohlt, who is the print editor of New York magazine and was her sole reader during the writing process of both of her novels. After Hanya revealed to the crowd that Hohlt never cried while reading A Little Life, the woman next to me quite seriously exclaimed, “Monster!,” as if only a sociopath could come away from this book tearless.

Mercifully, my interview with Yanagihara was less traumatic than the experience of reading A Little Life, which, for me, was absorbing but emotionally draining. Hanya’s acuity and corrosive wit permeated her answers. We discussed her childhood, writing versus editing, and, most endearingly, Norman Hindley, our now-departed English teacher who taught us both, many years apart, at our high school in Hawaii. —Alexis Cheung

I. THE PURGATORY OF ADULTHOOD

THE BELIEVER: What was your childhood like?

HANYA YANAGIHARA: I was born in Los Angeles, and then we started moving: to Honolulu, to New York, to Baltimore, to Irvine, back to Honolulu, to a small town in Texas. I didn’t mind moving—children are mostly accepting of the life given them, and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized how excessive the moving was—but I hated Texas. The town was small, about seventy-five thousand people, and the mood was one of constant hostility; it was 1984, and the oil boom had just ended, and people were getting laid off. I was always aware at school that I was the only Asian and that my father had a job when so many of my classmates’ parents didn’t—even then, I could feel that edginess that so often shades into violence, that simmering discontent. Vincent Chin had been beaten to death in Detroit two years earlier, and later I understood the mood that had encouraged and permitted that murder.
When I was thirteen, I decided I’d had enough of Texas, and applied to return to the school in Honolulu I’d been attending before I left; I was fortunate that I had parents who let me go and could afford to send me. I lived with my grandparents for a year before my parents moved back; they in turn stayed a year and then moved to Northern California, and I finished the last of high school living with one of my teachers, Harry.

BLVR: What was that experience like?

HY: It was a wonderful late childhood: Harry and his wife, Tibbie, who was also a teacher and whom I idolized, lived on campus, and after coming home at night, he’d give me the keys to the upper-school pool and I’d get to take a swim by myself. My parents are loving but unsentimental, and I didn’t miss them; they, for their part, were content knowing I was having a good time. I credit them for many things that had never seemed remarkable when I was growing up, and one of those things is how nonthreatened they were by my constant search for backup parents—other mothers and fathers would have bristled at this, but they never did. So I was always looking for other parental stand-ins, and I always found them.

BLVR: In The People in the Trees you thank Norman Hindley. Is that the Norman Hindley from Punahou School’s English department?

HY: Yes, the same. I don’t know if the curriculum was like this when you were there, but when I was a student, there was an outsize, and rare, emphasis on contemporary fiction and, especially, on poetry. All eleventh graders took a yearlong course called American Literature, and all seniors took British Literature. When I think of the combined list of poets we read in those courses—especially Brit Lit: Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith, Carol Ann Duffy—I feel very lucky. Norman was a transplant from Rhode Island who looked a bit like a cartoon sea captain and had taught, extraordinarily, on the island of Molokai for years. Molokai was famous for decades as a colony of exile for people living with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy: the island was (and still is) thought by many to be haunted, or possessed of some inherent misfortune, and yet Norman had truly loved it; he spoke of the place, and its inhabitants, with such affection and wonder.

He also led an after-school group called Late Mail, which was a poetry-writing seminar. I didn’t attend—I didn’t write poetry—but I was a member of his other after-school seminar, which was about reading contemporary American poetry and fiction. He wasn’t the first teacher to take my writing seriously, but he was certainly the most encouraging. And he taught me about other things as well: how to write a critical essay, how to taste wine, how to read a text, how to listen to jazz. He was even my senior prom date. I was fortunate to be at that school in an era in which encounters between students and teachers were encouraged; there were a number of teachers who lived on campus (Norman lived around the corner from Harry), and they’d regularly invite students over for dinner on the weekends. I hope it’s still like that: being treated seriously by an adult you admire is a great gift. Children, like adults, want respect—but it’s only when you’re older that you realize how few people actually extend it.

BLVR: : How did your parents influence your writing career?

HY: I was fortunate because I had parents who believed that being a writer was a perfectly acceptable thing to want to be. They’d actually hoped that I might be an artist, and I was lucky again to grow up with people who delighted in making things: my father wove baskets and painted furniture and carved wood figures; my mother quilted and embroidered and sewed (earlier, she had been an aspiring ceramicist). They both drew—they had in fact met as illustrators of textbooks for the Hawaii state school system. They made my clothes, my bedding, some of my furniture, and many of my toys. And they let me listen to their conversations, they let me be present in rooms while things were being discussed: they let me observe. There is little better training for a writer than that.

It’s occurring to me just now that—although this isn’t about writing in general—they also found their way into A Little Life in a particular way. 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. And yet when I was growing up, my parents always had a diversity of friends, some of whom lived different kinds of lives themselves. Not in all ways: they tended to be educated and professional and middle-class, people who had, like they had, come from working-class families and scraped their way through graduate school. I don’t recall anyone being openly gay. But they had friends of, truly, many different races, and religions, and nationalities. They had friends who were little people. They had friends who were radicals, and friends who were ascetics. They had friends who had disabilities, and illnesses. And they had many friends who had chosen this other path of adulthood, who weren’t married, who didn’t have children, whose lives didn’t resemble their own. So this sort of life never seemed like anything less-than to me. The loneliness of living the life I do comes from the fact that so many people do think it’s a lesser existence, a purgatory of true adulthood.

II. SALTWATER FISH,
FRESHWATER POND

BLVR: Why did you come to New York?

HY: I came to work in book publishing. I graduated college in 1995, skipped graduation itself, went back to Hawaii for a month, packed up two duffel bags, and moved into the living room of a friend’s friend’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. A month after that, I got my first job, as a sales assistant at Ballantine Books. I slept on the sofa in Brooklyn through the summer, and then a college friend and I got a one-bedroom apartment on Twenty-Fifth between Second and Third; I took the living room again.

BLVR: Why did you stay?

HY: I stayed in part because everyone who comes here is determined to not let the city defeat them, and because when you’re young and privileged, you’re often able to convince yourself that you’re having fun here, even when you’re not: like many people who come here, I believed all the songs. But I was also conscious of staying because I didn’t want to be like my parents, moving whenever things became disagreeable or boring. After I’d lived here for five years, I’d achieved my goal of living in one place longer than I’d ever lived anywhere else—and by that time I’d become fond of the city as well. Now, though, what keeps me here is the presence of my best friend, and a couple of other people I love, which is a not-insignificant reason to stay. And my apartment. And inertia. But I desperately want to move: to Hong Kong, to Tokyo, to Mumbai. If I don’t live in Asia at some point, it will be the biggest regret of my life.

BLVR: You claim you weren’t a good book editor. Why is that?

HY: I was at a quite commercial house (Riverhead, at the time more broadly commercial than it is today), and I just didn’t have the eye for the right sort of book: the book that was well written and had some sales potential. (Now that I write this, it sounds absurd—which editors do know that? Well, some do, I guess.) But the bigger problem was that I just didn’t have the polish or the social skills for book publishing. Again, this sounds strange as I write it: now, almost twenty years since my last job in book publishing, I know that there are far more socially inept people in book than in magazine publishing. At the time, however, I just didn’t feel I was enough: smart enough, savvy enough, well read enough, educated enough, charming enough. Much of this was probably because I was very naive, and didn’t really know how to behave in an office. This made me a terrible assistant, which in turn made me a terrible junior book editor. I acquired one book, Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, which had been submitted to my boss, but which she let me buy because I adored it.

I was heartbroken to leave book publishing, but it had been made clear to me that I was never going to advance. So in 1999, I went to an e-content startup called Contentville.com, which was marketing itself as an alternative to Amazon. Contentville had a sister publication, titled Brill’s Content, and the man who hired me, David Kuhn (who was the editor of both), brought me over to the magazine. Right away, it felt like I was a saltwater fish who’d finally been returned to the ocean after spending years in a freshwater pond: I loved the pace, and I loved the personalities—everyone was so brash and indelicate, so unlike the characters I knew from book publishing. (In magazine publishing, a certain amount of zaniness is tolerated and even encouraged.) I was also lucky to have in David a boss who trusted me and who let me explore what it was to be an editor. He’s now a literary agent, and he still gives me good advice.

BLVR: Do you believe you’re a good magazine editor?

HY: I think I’m a reporter’s editor. Being a good reporter is a specific skill, one I admire and don’t possess myself—I appreciate people who know how to ask the right questions, who are excellent researchers, who know how to assemble information, and I enjoy working with them to shape their information into an article. Good reporters tend to be receptive to editing, and to a more collaborative form of writing in general, and you always end up learning more from how they work than you expect you will.

My great strength as an editor, I believe, is structure: I know how to reorder a piece, I know how to reach into a jumbled story and extract the important narrative. And I can do both of these things very fast. I also think I’ve become better at cutting text. You don’t always relish it, of course, but by now I know how to distill something without sacrificing its essence.

I know I’m a better editor than I was when I began, twenty years ago. I’m less scared of the text, I’m less scared of the writer, and, crucially, I no longer believe that I have to leave my mark on every story. Sometimes the most difficult thing you can do as an editor is not make a single note—the idea that everything and everyone needs editing is, in reality, a fiction. I’ve gotten pieces where I thought, Well, I could do this or that, or change this word, but in the end, I leave it. Changing something is not necessarily equivalent to making the piece more true to itself, which is the point of editing: it’s just changing it because you feel you can or should or must.

BLVR: Do you utilize your editor’s eye when writing?

HY: Sometimes. As with editing, I think my strength as a writer is structure. It’s not a skill that’s much discussed when we discuss fiction, or not as much as language or character development anyway, but it’s the first thing I determine before I begin writing—not just books, but anything. I think I know how to pace a narrative well. I think I’m aware of repetition, that I try to create different kinds of sentences as often as I can (though not, I should say, in this interview). Those are all things I learned from magazine editing.

Yet I know I’m also an indulgent writer—I’m not sure, however, that’s something I’m interested in changing. Writing should be indulgent: you should take big risks on the page, you should make big mistakes, you should be excessive at times. I let myself do as a writer what I probably would be less likely to allow as an editor.

BLVR: What do you think writers can take from editors and vice versa?

HY: Much of an editor’s job is in fact pretty nanny-like in nature: in many ways, you’re there to protect and defend, to reassure and clean up. What I ask from writers is respect. By which I mean that I want them to respect me enough to turn in a clean draft. I want that draft to be as good as they can make it. I want the words to be spelled correctly. I want the quotes and references and dates to be accurate. I want to feel the thought behind those words. And I want it to be turned in on time. It drives me wild when I get a story that’s obviously slapped together, and the same can be said for a manuscript; you should respect your reader—in this case, your editor—enough to give her something that reflects your best efforts. (To say nothing of respecting the text itself.)

Ultimately, however, the editor’s most important responsibility is the same as a doctor’s: first, do no harm—no unnecessary surgery, no unnecessary therapy. The editor’s job is to make the writer sound more like herself. It sounds so simple, but accomplishing it is very complicated. The best editors—my first reader is one of them—don’t try to change your writing, but to move you to a closer understanding of it; they’re often able to articulate what you’re trying to say but hadn’t known you were trying to say.

BLVR: As an author, you advocate for the day job. Why?

HY: For a number of reasons. First, the financial one: when you don’t have to depend upon your creative work for money, you’ll never really have to compromise (or if you do, it won’t be because paying your bills depends on it). Knowing that is hugely liberating as well as artistically clarifying. When I was arguing with my editor about A Little Life—he wanted me to cut it by a third; I didn’t want to—I was able to tell my agent that I was going to stand my ground, even if it meant the house didn’t buy it. Being practical about where your money comes from means you can be romantic about your writing. That’s not a tradeoff everyone can or wants to make, but I can and I did. I believe that a healthy society is one that supports its artists, but I also know that that privilege, of being only an artist, is afforded to just a small number. Most of us have to find something else—or live a highly disciplined life, which I’m not willing to do.

Second, writing is essentially interior work, and many writers are interior personalities. If I didn’t have a job, I know I’d spend virtually all my time indoors, never speaking to anyone. Having a job forces you out of the world of your work, and into the one in which you get to observe people: how they speak and move and think. Yes, you can imagine all this, but as a fiction writer, you can never observe enough the rhythms of how humans move through the world, how they possess their own bodies, how they say and don’t say things. One of the most helpful things in the writing of this book was the respite my job provided—it flung me out of this universe I was creating and into another; it gave me, in a real sense, a break from the book. A job demands that you structure your time much more carefully. You learn how to be resourceful, and that in turn provides a certain intensity of focus.

It also provides a daily, sobering (sometimes depressing) reminder of your own insignificance. Four years ago, I was in an edit meeting at my former publication, Condé Nast Traveler, when the executive editor announced he’d gotten a call from a well-known literary agent who said that her client—he looked at his notepad for the client’s name—X, was wondering whether we might be interested in giving him a writing contract. I knew this writer’s name and his work, and so would the readers of this magazine: he is considered (rightly) a star in many literary and publishing circles. And yet not one of the ten or so other editors in that room had ever heard of him. These were people who bought and read more books, and certainly more literary fiction, than the rest of America—by far. Good writing mattered to them; we regularly discussed books and authors in the office. But when you never leave the literary biosphere, you forget how few people actually read books, and that in turn makes you start overestimating both your ability to make money and your relative renown, which has dangerous consequences: the first means you may end up in debt; the second means you may end up a horrid bore.

Of course, there are times I wish I didn’t have a job, even though I love my job: I get to work with interesting, eccentric colleagues and equally interesting and eccentric subject matter, both of which are rarities. But, naturally, I would treasure having more freedom someday: of time and of movement. Will I always have a full-time job? I don’t know. But I do know that I need to spend at least part of my week in an office, with other people. [Editor’s note: Yanagihara was deputy editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine during the interview, then took a year off before being named editor in chief in March 2017.

BLVR: What did you find most difficult about being unemployed?

HY: Health insurance, which is exceedingly difficult to secure as an individual in New York (as in most states). Obamacare, while certainly better than nothing, is pretty awful, and if you have a complicated health history, as I do, you need premium insurance, which means private insurance. The challenge, though, is finding a company that will give you the privilege of paying up to $1,400 a month for it. When I didn’t have a job, I spent more time thinking about insurance—again, not just paying for it, but securing it in the first place—than I wanted to.

III. A VERY LEADING QUESTION

BLVR: What would you tell/advise/warn your younger self who was just beginning The People in the Trees?

HY: That publishing a book won’t change your perception of who you are. When you want to be a writer, you think that actually getting published will make you feel somehow more real to yourself. But it doesn’t. And nor should it. If publication is the pole around which your entire identity pivots, you’re in big trouble.

I’d also add that many wonderful books by brilliant authors get ignored or overlooked, and that poor sales aren’t (necessarily) a measure of your abilities.

BLVR: As a writer, what’s the benefit of developing as a person versus a persona?

HY: That’s a good question. There are some writers who also enjoy being authors, and are good at it as well. There is nothing performative about writing, but there is about being a writer.

But as with every profession, there’s a difference between the actual doing and the assumption of a role, and I’m content to just do. When you’re young (and certainly, when I was young), your perception of what it means to be a writer is often less about the writing and more about what seems to be the accompanying life: speeches and travel and hanging out with other writers. You think that when you finally get published, your life and identity will clarify itself to you somehow—and perhaps they do. But when you don’t get published until you’re middle-aged—as I was—you know who you are already, and your life expands to make room for your writing, rather than orbiting around it. You also realize that there’s no one way to be a writer, and that the job is less of an identity and more of a vocation.

BLVR: Are there any constraints to being a female Asian American author? Your books are such a departure from “typical” Asian American literature that depicts the first or second generation’s experience. I’m thinking of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Chang-rae Lee. Have you felt pressure from the publishing community to write something of this nature? One theme that seems very Asian American in A Little Life is silence, which Jude struggles with tremendously.

HY: Throughout the entire publication process for A Little Life, I kept wondering whether someone would ask me about this, and only one other person ever has. I suppose it’s a sign of some sort of progress that no one has demanded to know why the book isn’t peopled with Asian Americans in central roles, and why the questions I hope it provokes about race aren’t questions that specifically pertain to Asian Americans. Or is it in fact troubling? Does people not asking me about Asian American literature mean they don’t see it as its own literary tradition? I certainly believe in it as its own literary tradition, because your race plays a great factor in how you are seen by the world, and how you see the world; the fact that I’m an Asian American isn’t incidental to who I am as a writer. Where it becomes difficult is defining what, if anything identifiable at all, makes an Asian American book an Asian American book, other than the fact of its creator being Asian. And I’d argue that there is nothing identifiable beyond that.

But anyway—the answer is no: no one has ever asked me why there aren’t more Asians in the book, for either literary or commercial reasons. I always anticipated it, but no one has. Certainly my first book was, I thought, explicitly about race, and the fact that Ron, the secondary character and Perina’s apologist, was Asian felt elemental to me.

BLVR: Has anyone commented on the fact that you’re female and writing about the interiority of four male characters?

HY: Yes, all the time. But I don’t know why it’s such a surprise, as many writers write across difference of one kind or another. Sometimes the difference is large and recognizable: gender, or race, or religion, or sexuality. And sometimes the differences are smaller. Just as a writer endows every character with something of herself, so, too, should those characters be in some way distinctly different from herself. Where authors get into trouble is in trying to make those different characters stand in for whole groups of people, or for creating characters only to fetishize or explore their supposed otherness. Your character can be wildly different from you, as long as he’s written with respect and, moreover, specificity. His difference—and again, we’re talking about his difference to you, his creator—cannot be the only thing you know about him, or the only thing that makes him interesting to you.

IV. RUN, RUN, RUN

BLVR: A former colleague lovingly calls you a “monster” and describes you as a jewelry fiend. Do you confirm or deny those accusations?

HY: I know exactly who this former colleague is—a former assistant of mine, and a lovely person. And yes, she’s right: I have a sustained interest in frippery. I can’t refute the monster accusation, either. Some writers are awful on the page and kind in person. More often it’s the other way around. I’d say I’m probably the same amount of asshole on the page as in life. I do try to be entertaining about it, however—in both places.

BLVR: Your books center a lot around ambition. What were, or are, your own ambitions? Personally, professionally, and literarily?

HY: I am an ambitious person, though of course my ambitions have shifted and morphed over the years. But I’m not going to tell you the specifics of them, and certainly not in print!

BLVR: Do you think people like the book or the tote bags more? (Also, please tell the origin story of those A Little Life bags!)

HY: Before this book was published, I decided I was going to involve myself in its marketing in a much more aggressive way than I did with my first book. Many writers hate the shilling process, and I understand that. However, it’s really the only thing about the publication process you can (somewhat) control. You can’t affect reviews. But you can try to find your book an audience. One of the problems with the book publishing industry is that their publicity efforts tend to be spent on people who already read, and know how to discover, literary fiction. Those five thousand or so people are, inarguably, hugely important to the life of a novel like this one. But I knew that there were many other potential readers who struggle to surface books, who never look at book blogs or book-centric Twitter feeds, and who want to read but don’t know what to choose.

Because this novel was inspired by art and specific images—a subject I’ve written about before—and because Instagram is a relatively underutilized platform for readers, I decided I was going to concentrate my energies there. I had a brilliant colleague, Leonor Mamanna, who’s now a photo editor at Bloomberg, and who called some of her photographer friends and had them shoot original images based on scenes and lines from the book: she still handles all of my social media accounts and is in fact now coordinating a few projects for other authors whose agents have contacted her because of the work she did for my book. I had the idea of creating these bags to thank the people—bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, sales reps—who I knew had been the most passionate, and to whom I remain deeply grateful. Leonor had her friend Josef Reyes—at the time the creative director of Foreign Policy, and now also at Bloomberg—create them. We did an initial printing of fifty, which I paid for, followed by two subsequent printings, paid for by first Doubleday and then Anchor, and two in the UK, which were paid for by Dubray Books and Waterstones. The German, Spanish, and Greek publishers made their own versions as well, as have many individuals—and not just bags, but coffee mugs and T-shirts and tattoos—using or inspired by the typographical art that Leonor made available on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter to anyone who wanted to download it.

BLVR: Did you ever fear that you wouldn’t succeed or write in the way you wanted?

HY: I still don’t feel I have. Doesn’t everyone?

V. A GOOD DEATH

BLVR: You’ve said that A Little Life is a response to the “cool” novel. That insight also reminded me of Susan Sontag’s Rolling Stone interview in which she claimed: “Everything in this society—in the way we live—conspires to eliminate all but the most banal level of feelings.” Would you agree? Why did you want people to bear witness to Jude’s story?

HY: I was recently reminded of these lines by David Foster Wallace: “The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh, how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.” I think he’s right. We’re living in a literary age (at least in America) that is marked by a sense of distance, a coolness, in all senses of that word. To be too obviously, unapologetically emotional is to risk being considered foolish, or at the very least not serious.

I hadn’t intended this book as a response to that coolness, but I suppose I now see it as such. What I did know was that I wanted to write something big, something excessive: something extravagant and self-indulgent and large of emotion and feeling—the kind of book I wanted to read myself, the kind that is comfortable ignoring the parameters of good taste. I’ve talked before of how I wanted to marry two unlikely forms—the fairy tale and the contemporary naturalistic novel—but I also wanted there to be something operatic about the book, in both its structure and its celebration of melodrama. I sometimes think we need to be reminded of violence at its most visceral and explicit: it exists, after all, and there should be no sense that its detailing is not a subject for serious literature.

BLVR: What was being nominated for both the Man Booker and the National Book Award like? And, conversely, not winning?

HY: The nomination is the honor, and a giddy-making one—you can’t really comprehend how extraordinary it is to have people interested in your book in such a concentrated way until months later. The moment of losing is pretty terrible; at the Booker, you’re sitting there at a table with eight people from your publishing house who have worked hard on your book and who have such hopes for it. You know they know how much money they’ll be able to make if you win. And then you don’t. You feel like the biggest failure in the world. My UK publicist had told me to make sure to bring someone as my companion who didn’t stand to profit off of me, and she was absolutely right: I brought my best friend, and he turned and looked me directly in the eye as everyone else looked down at their plates, which was exactly what I needed.

BLVR: You’ve said a lot about the themes of childhood, friendship, abuse, and ambition in your books, but I’m interested in the inexpressible: whom we decide to reveal ourselves and our stories to. Or is that an extension of friendship?

HY: I’m not sure we ever really reveal the whole of ourselves to another person, and I’m not sure we should. Or rather, just because you don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful relationship with another person. It’s important to remember that this idea of confessing your most shameful, embarrassing stories and self to someone else as an expression of love and intimacy is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a new definition of what it means to be close to someone. After all, the self is by its nature secretive.

I have one friend to whom I’ve told more than I’ve ever told anyone, and yet there are significant territories I have and will never let him access—in large part because I’m trying to protect him, and one of the responsibilities of loving someone is protecting him or her, even if who you’re protecting them from is yourself.

BLVR: Your books are preoccupied with death. Longevity is a waste but truncation is a tragedy. What to you would be a satisfactory middle? A “good life”—whatever that means—if you will?

HY: I actually had a hard numerical answer, but my best friend–reader told me that stating it would cast everything else I’ve said here in “the darkest possible light.” So I’m not going to say. Even I occasionally know when to listen to my editor.

BLVR: Are you afraid of death?

HY: No. I’m frightened of the pain, of course. And the uncontrollability of many kinds of death: the unpredictability of it makes me… if not scared, then anxious, I suppose. But—and again, this comes from being raised by a father who worked with terminally ill patients daily—death itself is not mysterious to me, and therefore not scary. Of death, my father has always said that the best conditions are the ones in which you have plenty of time to prepare (to say what you need to say; to arrange your estate), and the ones in which you get to choose, or at least have some knowledge of, how and when it might happen. One can’t elude death, but one can have a good death. O

Alexis Cheung is a journalist and nonfiction writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, T Magazine, New York magazine, and on Elle.com, among other publications. Originally from Hawaii, she currently lives in New York.

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