Bestselling UWS Author Says, ‘I Was Remarkably Obscure Until Nicole Kidman’
By Lisa Kava
Upper West Sider Jean Hanff Korelitz, is the author of eight novels, one middle-grade book, and a collection of poetry.
But Korelitz says, despite all those publications, she was not 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, into the HBO television series The Undoing in 2020. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant starred in the series, created by television writer David Kelley. The story is a suspense filled thriller about a New York City psychologist who watches her neatly woven life unravel when a murder occurs, and her husband goes missing.
Korelitz’s summer 2022 novel, The Latecomer, is a drama about a privileged, dysfunctional, wealthy NYC family. There are in vitro fertilization triplets who loathe one another, and a fourth “latecomer” who appears after the triplets leave for college. In her review of The Latecomer, New York Times book reviewer, Allegra Goodman, equated Korelitz to the Pulitzer Prize winner Edith Wharton.
West Side Rag sat down over zoom with Korelitz, to talk about her recent success, her writing process, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WSR: Unlike your earlier novels, both The Plot and You Should Have Known are thrillers with a crime. Do you see yourself as having evolved into a “thriller writer?”
Korelitz: I never saw myself as a thriller writer. But life is too short not to have a plot twist in every single book. I never want a book without a drop-dead surprise. I meandered back and forth between genres for a while and that was a big part of the reason it took eight novels for anyone to know who I was. Publishers always wanted me to write a suspense novel and I was busy writing literary novels. But I am finally with the right people who realize that I am 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.
WSR: 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 let himself off the hook, and it becomes a foundational act of his family. I was worried that I would be chided for leaving behind all my new readers in the thriller genre. But I guess I have learned that readers will come with me. That is an incredible thing.
WSR: The television series The Undoing was substantially different from your novel, You Should Have Known. How did you feel about these differences?
Korelitz: It is adaptation and that is what happens. I am not responsible for what you see on the screen. I am responsible for what you see on the page. I would get credit from viewers for the suspense of the TV show which I had nothing to do with. I also got some criticism. People asked me why Nicole Kidman was walking around in the middle of the night in a ball gown. I can’t answer that. There are writers who do not want to sell their work for adaptation. But I was happy. I am a fan of David Kelley and felt incredibly lucky.
WSR: Do you plan out your stories in your mind before you start to write? Do you know at the outset how you want everything to turn out?
Korelitz: I think if you plan it all out before hand it is going to be terrible. I don’t do that. If I ever run my thoughts ahead, I make myself stop. I do not know in advance where the story is going. If I can see where it is going, so can my reader and that is not going to be any fun.
WSR: So how do you figure out the story as you go along?
Korelitz: I ask myself the question “What is impossible to happen now?” Then I eliminate things. What I am left with is what is going to happen. With The Plot, I knew the direction in which I was going. I knew he was going to do something morally murky. I knew that all he ever wanted was success, and that he would get that success, but that he would not be able to enjoy it because someone will come out of the woodwork.
WSR: Do you draw from your own life experience when writing fiction?
Korelitz: I draw from real life all the time but almost never from my own life. Although I do write about my high school. Ideas are everywhere. They are all around us. All you need to do is keep your eyes open and ears open and ideas fall into your lap. Every day in the New York Times there are 30 novels. The truth is that ideas are always pouring in at different times. An idea might be rattling around in my sub-conscious and it comes out years later when I need it.
WSR: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Korelitz: I always knew. I always wanted to be a writer. It is really the only thing I ever wanted to do. I was afraid to write fiction for a long time. I had fears about failing. Failing to write the books, and failing to get books published. I wrote poetry for many years.
WSR: Do you get emotionally invested in your characters? Do you want to cheer them on? Do you ever feel badly for them?
Korelitz: We are all full of pettiness and envy and jealousy. We are not simple creatures. The new novel is about a family with six people in it. Some of them act in ways that are just appalling, but I have tender feelings for all of them. I did not have loving feelings for Jake in The Plot, because he was a jerk.
WSR: How long does it take you to write a novel?
Korelitz: About 2 ½ years. But The Latecomer was different. I was working on it for years before the pandemic. My editor kept telling me to write it again. Then she said to me “Why don’t you put it aside and write this other story you told me about.” That story was The Plot. I put down The Latecomer, wrote The Plot, and when I came back to The Latecomer, I had a clearer sense of how to fix it. I thank my editor endlessly for that.
WSR: You spent many years living in Princeton, New Jersey before returning to NYC where you grew up, and settling on the Upper West Side. How did it feel to move back?
Korelitz: I did my 25 years in Princeton, where my husband is a professor, and now I am home, and I will never move again. Where would I go? This is New York! I don’t understand why you would live anywhere else. Even though I have not always set my novels in NYC, I am proud to be a lifelong inhabitant. Riverside Park is awesome. My mother was raised 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.”
WSR: What is next for you?
Korelitz: I just signed a two year-book contract. I am pretty tapped out at the moment from writing two novels in five years. But soon enough I will be writing 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 at private homes in Manhattan, but Korelitz added virtual groups since the pandemic began. Click the link for more information.
To learn more about Upper West Side best-selling author Jean Hanff Korelitz, and her work go to https://www.jeanhanffkorelitz.com.