Pleasant Conversations Abroad: Jean Hanff Korelitz

You Should Have Known. Or The Undoing, with the fantastic Nicole Kidman and the eternally charming Hugh Grant. That’s all we talk about in Croatia since Indigo knjiga published Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book. And you know how much Studia Croatica likes to talk. So much that we decided to set up a new section within the “Pleasant Conversations” project, just to keep talking, but this time in English and abroad.

“Pleasant Conversations Abroad” is a section within the project “Pleasant Conversations” (“Razgovori ugodni” on croatian), consisting of a series of interviews with authors whose books are popular in Croatia. Jean Hanff Korelitz is the first author we decided to interview, and the interview with her was conducted by a member of the Studia Croatica Club and the president of the Studia Croatica Book Club, Monika Jerkovic.

Photo: Michael Avedon

Jean Hanff Korelitz was born in New York City and graduated from Dartmouth College and Cambridge University. She is the author of six novels, including You Should Have Known (adapted by David E. Kelley as HBO’s 2020 limited series, The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant), the New York Times bestselling Admission (adapted as the 2013 film starring Tina Fey), The Devil and Webster, The White Rose, The Sabbathday River, and A Jury of her Peers. A new novel, The Plot, will be published in May, 2021. In addition, Korelitz is the author of a collection of poems, The Properties of Breath, and a middle grade reader, Interference Powder. With her husband, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, she adapted James Joyce’s The Dead as an immersive theater piece which was staged by New York City’s Irish Repertory Theatre for three seven-week runs in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She is the creator of BOOKTHEWRITER, which runs “Pop-Up Book Groups”, small gatherings with authors to discuss great books. She lives in New York City and has two grown up children of whom she is unreasonably fond.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Was there something else you wanted to do or become when you were younger?

Yes, I was one of those people who knew very early what I wanted to do, which was very fortunate in some ways, but there’s a lot of anxiety about being any kind of artist – what if I fail? Can I make a living?

In your opinion, when does a person become a writer? When did you realize that you were a writer? Can you remember the first time you said it out loud and how did that make you feel?

I remember telling my father, when I was in high school, that I thought I could write a novel, but I was not being truthful. I was terrified of writing a novel and sure I wouldn’t be able to do it. I think what I’m most proud of is trying and then continuing to try when my first novels were rejected everywhere.

What is the first book you think of when you hear/read „this is a good book“? Why?

Throughout my life I’ve read thousands of books, and there probably aren’t more than a hundred that I think of as truly superb. I guess I’m just picky. I have a list of six novels that are my favorite of all time. They are: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen, MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim Potok, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson, THE ODESSA FILE by Frederik Forsyth, A TOWN LIKE ALICE by Nevil Shute, GOOD BEHAVIOR by Molly Keane.

What do you remember the most about your student days?

Lots of books, walks in the woods (I was in New Hampshire – lots of woods!), trying to write poetry (too scared to write fiction), good friends I still see and love. I spent part of my undergraduate years studying at Oxford and one term studying at Harvard.

Would you say that today you are living ordinary or extraordinary life?

Completely ordinary, except for the fact that my husband is well enough known as a writer that I’ve been able to travel to wonderful places with him. We also went around the world on an American program called Semester at Sea, when he was teaching on the program. (I wrote much of YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN on that ship, actually.) I’ve also been extremely fortunate in my family, especially in my parents who really supported the idea that I would be a writer.

Describe your typical writing day.

When I’m writing, I write throughout the day, stopping around four, but usually I’m not writing. There are long gaps between books when I read and do other things. The gaps are very important, because you need time for the ideas to come.

Tell us about your first published book? What was the journey like?

After my first two novels were rejected I made a very practical decision to write a book someone would publish, so I wrote a very commercial thriller called A JURY OF HER PEERS. My editor made me cut a hundred pages from the manuscript, and that felt surreal, but it was a good lesson, too. Every paragraph usually has an extraneous sentence. Many pages have an extraneous paragraph. Your prose may not be as precious as you think it is.

Do you think that your newest book is better than your first published book and why?

It absolutely is. The new book, THE PLOT, is very tight and very twisty with a great pace, and it also contains a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a writer. I think you learn more with each novel – which is good – but you also restrict yourself because there are things you might have done in the past which you can’t repeat – and that’s an additional challenge. If you’re lucky enough to have a long career, the goal is always to improve and innovate.

What does New York mean to you? What’s your favorite part of the city?

I am a forever New Yorker, and after 25 years of living away I was ecstatic to move back. I just love to walk around the city, especially the neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan where the history of the city feels very present. I’m also a big theater lover and see shows all over the city, sometimes in Broadway theaters but often in tiny spaces with tiny audiences.

Let’s talk about Nicole Kidman, who stars in The Undoing mini-series, based on your book You Should Have Known. Are you a fan? What’s your favorite Nicole Kidman’s role? The same goes for Hugh Grant. Are you a fan?

It’s hard not to admire the insane range of her work. I remember seeing her in the very first of her Australian films to reach America – DEAD CALM – and thinking this girl was unbelievably talented. I also loved her in TO DIE FOR. Hugh Grant is a wonderful romantic lead but was also excellent in A VERY BRITISH SCANDAL. Many years ago, when I was a visiting student at Oxford, I was actually in a crowd scene of a student film he was starring in.

Have you watched The Undoing? What were your thoughts about the series? Were you included in the process of making it?

I was not at all involved in the process of making it, though the screenwriter allowed me to read some of his scripts and we were also able to watch most of the episodes early in the pandemic, which was really a wonderful thing to be able to do with my family – we were in different places. I thought it was great, though it does really diverge from the book.

When you were writing You Should Have Known book, could you ever imagine that the book would become so popular? That so many people would feel connected with the story and the characters? And how does that make you feel?

I’m still not really aware of that – perhaps it’s the pandemic. Everything “out there” feels a bit unreal. I often write about women (like the Grace character) who are deeply unlikeable, and readers always let me know how much they dislike them, so if people are feeling connected to the characters – well, I’m a bit surprised! But I like to read about less than perfect people, myself, so I suppose I understand. I don’t know why I’m drawn to these people, but they just interest me.

If you could change anything in your so far published books, what would it be and why?

My books have landed on both sides of the literary/thriller dividing line, and that’s been hard for readers and especially hard for publishers to deal with, and it’s probably a big part of the reason that I’ve stayed all but unknown through seven novels, until HBO made a show based on #5. That has been frustrating at times, but I’m also grateful that I’m still here 25 years after my first novel was published. Many of the writers I have envied along the way – for the reception of their work, if not for the work itself – have not gone on to publish work that was either good or successful. As for my books themselves, I don’t think I’d change anything. That first novel was very much a first novel, but I’m proud of all of them, and I’m really proud of the new one, coming out in May.

Do you like poetry? What’s your favorite poem?

I was a poet for years before I was a novelist, and I published one book of poems in the 1980s. Apart from my husband (!) Sylvia Plath is my favorite poet.

What’s the best advice you ever heard?

When it comes to writing, the only advice that matters is (1) read (you can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader) and (2) do whatever you need to do to get the words on the page – it’s the only thing that matters. Thinking about writing, talking about writing, wanting to write, preparing yourself to write, comparing yourself to other writers – none of that matters. Getting the words on the page matters. (Of course, once they are on the page you still need to be prepared to revise them many times!)

Photo: Ervin Felic

Quick Questions:

  1. The last book I read was… I read and listen to books constantly. In addition to new books I like to read old, forgotten and out of print books. Right now I’m reading a book by Fanny Hurst, who was a hugely famous author of the 1930s and 1940s and is completely forgotten today. It’s called BACK STREET.
  2. Three words that describe me the best are… nervous, angry, grateful.
  3. When it comes to food, I will always… choose chocolate.
  4. The person I admire the most is… Oh, so many. Harriet Tubman, Nando Parrado, Jane Austen, Kamala Harris (our new Vice President!).
  5. For me writing is… insanely satisfying (when it’s going well), but still not “fun”.

Yes or No Questions:

  1. Book Club? I’m not in a book club but I run a book club called  We hold “pop up book groups” with authors, and we’re doing them online at the moment, so you should come and join one! (Probably the middle of the night for you, however, as we generally begin 7:30 PM ET.)
  2. George Clooney? Am I in favor of him? I guess! Actually we have a mutual friend who keeps saying she’s going to have us all round for dinner, but we’ll see…
  3. Political talk? It’s all we’ve done for the past four years, which have been awful. Everyone I know threw themselves into politics. I wrote postcards to voters all over the country with a group of women – some of the candidates we supported got in, others didn’t.
  4. Wine? Not so much.
  5. Country music? My husband and I just watched a 16 hour documentary on the history of country music – it was fascinating. But I don’t listen to a lot of music of any kind. I’m usually listening to an audiobook or a podcast…

Something to say about Croatia:

I want to go there! There are two places in particular I want to visit: Zadar and Rovinj – both places I’ve read about. I suppose the closest I’ve been to it is Venice… When this is over I am so excited to travel again!

“Then comes the story…”, from YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, translated by Ervin Felic

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