Jean Hanff Korelitz is a bestselling novelist born and raised in New York City, educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge, and is married to the Irish Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon. She began her writing career as a poet but migrated to fiction in 1996 with the publication of her first novel. Since then she has published five more works of fiction, one of which was turned into a movie, and written countless essays for anthologies, contemporary magazines and newspapers. Her latest book, You Should Have Known, has been a Best Seller since it was release in March 2014 and has garnered strong public acceptance. THIRSTY was fortunate to catch up with her at her home to discuss her life as a writer.
THIRSTY: Your new novel You Should Have Known became an instant Best Seller as a literary mystery. When you finished writing this book were you confident that it would be so well received?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: Absolutely not – you never know how people are going to react, and even though the critical response seemed to be positive that's much less important than the response of readers who have to spend their own hard-earned money to purchase your book. I anticipated some resistance from readers because of my protagonist's less-than-likability (at least for much of the novel), and her obtuseness – it can be a frustrating reading experience when you see so much more than the character herself does. Then again, that's sort of the point.
THIRSTY: Your prior novel Admission was called "Compulsively readable…both juicy and literary…" by Entertainment Weekly and was made into a movie starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Did you write that story with at least some thought to its potential to be made into a film?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: No. None of my previous novels had even been optioned for film, and I had no expectation that anything would be different with this one. And don't forget, the big "action" in Admission, which is about an admissions officer, is sitting in a chair and reading applications – not very cinematic, wouldn't you agree? Plus, having a book optioned is really a long shot, so writing with that as your motivation probably isn't a good use of your energy, not to mention the fact that if you're writing with an eye to film you're not giving the novel as an art form the attention and energy it deserves. I learned from my Admission experience that there are very different skill sets involved in fiction and in writing for a visual medium like film. I just don't think like a screenwriter.
THIRSTY: You began your writing career as a poet. Has that discipline had an impact on how you construct and write your novels?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: I consider myself very lucky to have begun my writing life as a poet. Poetry teaches you to appreciate not just the precision of language but also how language sounds. Even today, even writing long novels in which plot is as important to me as character, I can't move from one sentence to the next until I'm satisfied with it – and not just with what it means but with how it sounds. I just can't knowingly leave an ugly sentence on the page.
THIRSTY: In both You Should Have Known and Admission your protagonists are strong women who are complicated, generally unhappy and beset with the current consequences of prior bad decisions. Why do you keep coming back to that character type to lead your stories?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: Not just the last two novels but at least two of my first three novels as well. Strong women, complicated, essentially unhappy, who face extreme circumstances that require them to reconsider everything about their lives and decisions. Clearly this is a preoccupation for me, and it was only with this most recent novel that I even recognized the pattern. I don't think I can explain it to anyone's satisfaction, including my own, but in general I think it has much to do with the position of women in this country over the past half-century: how feminism has changed us and our landscape, our relationships with men and work and children. Luckily, it's a big topic. Maybe I can get a few more novels out of it?
THIRSTY: When you are thinking about a story, in advance of actually starting to write, do you focus more on overall plot development or on the characters that will drive the story?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: I tend to begin, mainly, with a situation, rather than a plot. I think it's fatal to know too much about where your unwritten novel is going to go. If the writer discovers nothing, herself, neither will the reader. I do know writers who can't write the first word until they know absolutely everything that is going to happen in the novel, but if I know everything that's going to happen I can't write the first word. The trick is to begin writing when you know the general direction you'll be going in, and whom you're going to write about, but not much else.
THIRSTY: Your background included working with the admissions department at Princeton University and since you wrote Admission, you had a child apply to college and go through the admissions process. How did it feel to you and to your family moving from behind the scenes to being up close and personal in the search for a college?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: Like hell. And don't think for a minute that knowing everything I knew made it any easier. And I get to do it again in three years. Lucky me.
THIRSTY: How important were your own personal life experiences in the writing of You Should Have Known?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: I have not written autobiographically in my fiction since my very first novel, which was never published (and never will be), but it's relevant that my mother was a marriage and family therapist, and I grew up hearing about patients in her practice (not by name, of course), because she wanted me and my sister to be aware of dangerous people – sociopaths in particular. And by the way, my mother says that this is her favorite of my novels. I probably shouldn't be surprised by that, but I am.
THIRSTY: What message are you sending to your readers with the closed eye image on the front cover of the book and the open eye image on the back?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: Do you love the eyes? I do. Of course it wasn't my idea – I'm not a visual person at all, but when the art department at my publisher came up with them I thought they were very sly and clever. In essence the eyes mean: I didn't see it then. I see it now.
THIRSTY: You have written six novels, including one for children, a collection of poetry and many non-fiction pieces that have appeared in anthologies, contemporary magazines and newspapers. When you think about yourself as a writer, what genre first comes into your mind?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: I have always thought of myself as a writer of literary fiction, but I also love and respect plot. My favorite novels are extremely well written page-turners. Like Pride and Prejudice. The rest is all chatter about which shelf they put it on at Barnes and Noble. I care less and less about the genre question as I get older. Mainly I'm grateful to have had five novels published, and I'm really grateful to have finally connected with readers.
THIRSTY: In addition to your career as a successful author, you started a business called "Book the Writer" where you match New York City-based writers with book club meetings. Has the importance of the book club changed publishing?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: Book Groups (or Book Clubs or Reading Groups as they're variously known) are incredibly important to publishers, but reaching them is notoriously difficult. A Book Group consists of you and your friends in a private home, and chances are that you're not registered anywhere or checking a website to figure out what to read next – you're making your decisions based on something you've heard about, or something a friend has read and enjoyed. "Book the Writer" offers book groups the opportunity to invite the author to the book group – not by phone or Skype; the author is in your home, taking part in the discussion of their work. Right now we're mainly in the New York area, but we have smaller lists in other major cities, and many of our authors are available to travel to places like Palm Beach as well. You can read more about our 100 novelists, memoirists, non-fiction writers, biographers and poets at bookthewriter.com.
THIRSTY: Are you taking some time off before you start your next project or is it already underway and, if so, any hints about the theme and storyline?
JEAN HANFF KORELITZ: I was all set to start this summer but instead...I'm moving, and my hopes of a nice productive summer have disappeared in construction, packing, and other enjoyable activities associated with total upheaval. But I do have an idea, yes. It's about this strong woman who is complicated, generally unhappy and beset with the current consequences of her prior bad decisions...