Hanya Yanagihara and Dean Baquet Take the Stage
The editor-in-chief of T talked with her boss about her latest novel, To Paradise, but not about staff departures and complaints at the magazine
Hanya Yanagihara, the novelist and editor-in-chief of T, The New York Times’s style magazine, did not respond to our questions for Tuesday’s story about complaints about her management style by current and recently departed staff at the magazine. As far as we know, there’s been no mention of the report in this week’s staff meetings at T, either. So, when Yanagihara took the stage at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Thursday evening with the person who did speak on her behalf, Times executive editor Dean Baquet, for a talk connected to her latest book, To Paradise, we went in search of answers.
A little past 7:30 p.m., Yanagihara and Baquet walked out of the wings onto the stage and sat down on two identical armchairs atop a spotlit carpet spread on the dark expanse. Both wore all black, except for Baquet’s bright blue socks; Yanagihara in a dress and Baquet in a suit and turtleneck. The executive editor clutched a sheaf of notes and a copy of Yanagihara’s new book, To Paradise, the subject of the night’s talk. “This is my very marked-up copy,” he explained before delivering a short preface. “Hanya is not only a colleague at The Times, but she’s somebody I love to talk to about art and culture and is a good friend. But that won’t keep me from asking probing questions.”
Yanagihara interrupted for a quick obsequious address. “Thank you so much for being here,” she said. “I’m so glad it was a relatively slow news day. I didn’t know what I was going to do if there was a major disaster.” Turning to the audience, she added, “Dean is my boss, people. so try to laugh at all of my jokes, so I score points.”
“Nobody laughs at my jokes,” Baquet said, eliciting muted laughter.
Though there’s no possibility he intended it this way, Baquet’s questions about Yanagihara’s book echoed some of the complaints T employees had expressed to The Fine Print. “Throughout the book, servants are on the outside looking in. Even the kindest bosses don’t know the lives of their servants,” he noted. “What are we to make about what the title says about paradise? Whose paradise? And whether paradise is a possibility anyway?”
Yanagihara circled her answer around to her life as a Times employee. “As a member of The Times, I’m not allowed to express my political opinions frankly, even though no one’s interested in hearing my political opinions,” she said. “But within the space of a novel, you can do whatever you want. And I think as an American, it was something that the world of fiction gave me a license and freedom to think about how in America someone’s paradise is always someone else’s hell.”
At times, Baquet seemed surprised by her take. “I hadn’t thought of this as a political novel,” he said, “but I guess it is.”
As they shifted from an open-ended conversational interview to Baquet’s reading of questions submitted by the audience, Baquet shifted from interviewer to editor. At one point, after Yanagihara delivered a slightly rambly answer, he jumped in to offer a more concise suggestion. “It wasn’t because of the elusiveness of paradise?” he prodded. “Yeah, that too,” Yanagihara said. “Thanks, Dean.” The realization of the replication of a newsroom-style exchange dawned on Baquet. “I’m an editor,” he joked. “I’m trying to get to the hard news.”
The relationship between the two seems to be grounded in a kind of playfulness. “I really don’t like New York,” Yanagihara declared at one point. “Dean, do you like it?” Baquet quickly but quietly responded, “I do.” Yanagihara took a moment to tease her boss, alluding to his prior posting at the Los Angeles Times and the home he bought in L.A. last year in anticipation of his retirement. “Dean likes L.A. at heart, I think,” she said.
Scanning through audience questions, Baquet alighted on one for which he felt a particular affinity. “This is a question I could ask,” he said. “You wear many hats professionally, how do you find time to write?” Yanagihara was ready with a bit of sarcasm. “I slack off all day. My boss doesn’t know,” she said, before taking on a more contemplative tone, delivering either an anti-nostalgic reverie, an empathetic look at her employees’ attempts to work with a demanding boss, or an expression of dismissive mistrust. “I will say — this is not a great thing to say to your boss — when you are the boss, it gets easier. Because when you’re a younger editor, you spend most of your time trying to trick the editor-in-chief into allowing you to assign things,” she said. “There’s a lot of song and dance.”
“When you’re the editor-in-chief you can plan much farther in advance,” Yanagihara added. “I am not the hardest worker, I’m not the most disciplined, but I’m very good at time management because I’ve learned how to cheat it,” she explained, “I’ve learned how to really recognize my own flaws and how to work around them.”
“Hmm,” Baquet said.