Best-selling UWS author says, ‘I was remarkably obscure until Nicole Kidman’ – West Side Rag
By Lisa Kava
Upper West Sider Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of eight novels, a middle-level book and a collection of poetry.
But Korelitz says despite all those publications, she wasn’t always a well-known author. “I was remarkably obscure until Nicole Kidman,” she told West Side Rag, referring to the adaptation of her 2014 novel, You should have known, in the HBO television series The defeat in 2020. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant starred in the series, created by TV writer David Kelley. The story is a suspenseful thriller about a New York psychologist who watches her carefully woven life unfold when a murder occurs and her husband disappears.
Korelitz’s summer 2022 novel, The Latecomer, is a drama about a privileged, dysfunctional and wealthy NYC family. There are in vitro fertilization triplets who hate each other, and a fourth “latecomer” who appears after the triplets leave for college. In his review of the latecomer, New York Times Book reviewer Allegra Goodman likened Korelitz to Pulitzer Prize winner Edith Wharton.
West Side Rag sat down on zoom with Korelitz, to talk about his recent success, his writing process, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WSR: Unlike your previous novels, the two The parcel and You should have known are thrillers with a crime. Do you consider yourself to have evolved into a “thriller writer?”
Korelitz: I never saw myself as a thriller writer. But life is too short not to have a twist in every book. I never want a book with no surprises to death. I wavered between genres for a while and a big part of that was why it took eight novels for anyone to know who I was. Publishers always wanted me to write a thriller and I was busy writing literary novels. But I’m finally with the right people who realize that I’m going to write what I want to write. It’s going to be suspenseful no matter what, but it might not involve a recognizable crime.
CSR: The Latecomer differs from your two previous novels in that it is not a thriller but a drama. Can you talk about that?
Korelitz: The novel begins with a terrible accident, but there is no crime. The protagonist cannot get out of trouble and this becomes a founding act of his family. I was afraid of being reprimanded for leaving behind all my new readers in the thriller genre. But I guess I learned that the readers will come with me. It’s an incredible thing.
CSR: The television series The defeat was substantially different from your novel, You should have known. How did you experience these differences?
Korelitz: It’s adaptation and that’s what happens. I am not responsible for what you see on screen. I am responsible for what you see on the page. I would get viewers credit for the suspense of the TV show I had nothing to do with. I also received some criticism. People have asked me why Nicole Kidman walks around in the middle of the night in a ball gown. I can’t answer that. There are writers who don’t want to sell their work to adapt it. But I was happy. I’m a David Kelley fan and felt incredibly lucky.
CSR: Do you plan your stories in your mind before you start writing? Do you know from the start how you want everything to go?
Korelitz: I think if you plan everything in advance, it’s going to be terrible. I do not do it. If ever I advance my thoughts, I force myself to stop. I don’t know in advance where the story is going. If I can see where it’s going, so can my reader and it’s not going to be fun.
CSR: So how do we understand the story as it goes?
Korelitz: I ask myself the question “What is impossible to do now?” Then I eliminate things. What I’m left with is what’s going to happen. With The parcel, I knew in which direction I was going. I knew he was going to do something morally wrong. I knew all he wanted was success, and he would get that success, but he couldn’t enjoy it because someone would come out of the woodwork.
CSR: Do you draw from your own life experience when writing fiction?
Korelitz: I always draw from real life but almost never from my own life. Although I write about my high school. Ideas are everywhere. They are all around us. All you have to do is keep your eyes open and your ears open and the ideas fall into your lap. Every day in the New York Times there are 30 novels. The truth is that ideas always come at different times. An idea can float around in my subconscious and it comes out years later when I need it.
CSR: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Korelitz: I always knew. I always wanted to be a writer. It’s really the only thing I ever wanted to do. I was afraid to write fiction for a long time. I was afraid of failing. Not writing the books and not having the books published. I wrote poetry for many years.
CSR: Do you invest yourself emotionally in your characters? Do you want to encourage them? Do you ever feel bad for them?
Korelitz: We are all filled with pettiness, envy and jealousy. We are not mere creatures. The new novel is about a family of six. Some of them act just appalling, but I have tender feelings for all of them. I didn’t have romantic feelings for Jake in The parcelbecause he was a moron.
CSR: How long does it take you to write a novel?
Korelitz: About 2 and a half years. But The Latecomer was different. I worked there for years before the pandemic. My editor kept telling me to write it again. Then she said, “Why don’t you put that aside and write that other story you told me about.” This story was The parcel. I ask The Latecomerwrote The parcel, and when I came back to the latecomer, I had a clearer idea of how to fix it. I am very grateful to my editor for this.
CSR: You lived for many years in Princeton, New Jersey, before returning to New York where you grew up and settling on the Upper West Side. How did you feel going back?
Korelitz: I spent my 25s in Princeton, where my husband is a teacher, and now I’m home and will never move again. Where would I go? It’s New York! I don’t understand why you would live anywhere else. Although I haven’t always set my novels in New York, I’m proud to be a lifelong resident. Riverside Park is awesome. My mom grew up on the Upper West Side. We have a “family folklore” story where my grandmother was once named in a local West Side newspaper as “Miss Columbus Avenue Shopper.”
CSR: What’s next for you?
Korelitz: I just signed a two-year contract. I’m pretty tired right now from having written two novels in five years. But soon enough I will write again. I will know when I am ready.
Korelitz is also the founder of a Pop-up Book Group, “BOOKTHEWRITER”, where readers can join small book clubs with the author in the room. These take place in private homes in Manhattan, but Korelitz has added virtual groups since the pandemic began. Click on the link for more information.
To learn more about Upper West Side bestselling author Jean Hanff Korelitz and his work, go to https://www.jeanhanffkorelitz.com.