One of my favorite novels of 2014 so far is YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, a literary thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Here’s the description from the publisher:
Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: she lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended. Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.
I recently did a Q &A with Jean about everything from the genesis of her novel to her writing practice, parenting in a competitive and acquisitive culture to life in New York City to her exciting new endeavor bringing together authors and book clubs, Book The Writer. Read and comment on our interview for a chance to win a free copy of YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!
Where did you get the idea for this novel? How did you decide to make your protagonist a therapist and about-to-be-author?
I have a longstanding obsession with (to quote Senator Al Franken) lies and the lying liars who tell them. I tend toward the superego end of the spectrum, myself, and people who are unburdened by conscience are just fascinating to me. Most of us (not I) are sure that they can spot a psychopath, but psychopaths operate with general impunity, regardless. I wondered what it would be like to be completely ignorant of the true nature of someone you live with and think you know well. Then I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting if that ignorant person were someone whose profession it was to know human nature — like, for example, a therapist?
What were the special pleasures and challenges of writing a suspense thriller in which everything the protagonist thinks is true and holds dear is thrown into question?
Pleasures? I can’t say I took much pleasure in ripping my poor protagonist, Grace Reinhart Sachs, to little pieces. There were challenges galore — chief among them, not alienating every single reader who can see Grace’s life much more clearly than she can, herself — if she’s so smart about people (and she IS smart about people), why can’t she see what’s right in front of her? Hitchcock’s insight into suspense was that it sharpens as the filmgoer sees the threat that the character can’t. That’s true of fiction as well, but the dynamic is different. We know that even the most suspenseful film is going to be over in two hours, give or take. But a novel lasts as long as we want it to last. It was difficult to keep the balance between suspense and frustration.
What were your fictional or other inspirations for this novel? It reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith.
Actually I did read Highsmith while I was writing YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. I emailed my best friend, a devoted reader of mysteries (as I am not) after I finished THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY and said, in essence, “Where has Patricia Highsmith been all my life?” She said, also in essence, “This is what you get for pooh-poohing mysteries.” I’ve since read the other Ripley books, and other Highsmith novels, as well as Joan Schenkar’s great biography, THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH. She was a fascinating character and really knew Homo Sociopathicus well. (Please note: Homo Sociopathicus is a made-up term. I made it up, myself.)
Your novel is a biting social commentary on the acquisitiveness and competitiveness of life in contemporary NYC, and we both grew up in the less glitzy and more livable New York City of the 1970s. What do you miss most about the New York City we grew up in? What do you not miss?
There’s a lot that I don’t miss. The city is safer, cleaner, and on some level kinder than it was. It’s full of creative young people who are cooking up all kinds of wonderful things for all of us. At the same time, the incursion of the super-rich has decimated the middle class of my own Manhattan childhood. I hate that you’d need to run a hedge fund to buy something like the “Classic Six” apartment I grew up in on the Upper East Side. And the Upper West Side. And forget about downtown. Or Brooklyn.
Your book paints a very appealing picture of rural life outside New York City, but you yourself recently moved back into the city after many years in relatively sleepy Princeton, NJ. What drew you back to the city? What drives you most crazy about the city?
Princeton, NJ? Far from rural, I can assure you. Yes, we had a chicken (two until our dog killed one) and lived on a canal, but the malls (shopping and strip!) were just moments away. I came home because in my heart I never left New York, because I wanted to be closer to family and because I hoped my son would have a chance to attend my old high school. Also, I think New York is a great place to get older — walking is much better (for us, for the world) than driving. And living in cities forces us to interact with people. That may sound nonsensical, but suburban life is very solitary. You’re in your home or your car. You drive through a restaurant instead of going inside, sitting down, and having a conversation. I’m really glad to be back here.
What is your writing process or routine like? Do you write every day? Do you have set hours when you write or do you write only when inspiration strikes? Do you have special places you like to write, use special equipment? Give this new-to-writing-professionally girl some helpful tips!
I don’t know if you’d consider it equipment, but I freely acknowledge that I could never have become a writer without the advent of the keyboard. I learned to type in a high school basement in 1977, on an electric typewriter. It absolutely freed me to keep up with the speed of my thoughts. If I’d had to wait for a pen to move across a page (in my terrible handwriting) I would never have had the patience to write fiction. I’m in awe of the Austens, Dickenses, Woolfs and Brontes (all) who had to write…down…every…single…word…separately…
As for routine, it varies with where I am in the book, or whether I’m between books. I have long gaps between finishing a novel and starting the next, and I’ve found that it’s counterproductive to begin before I know what I’m doing. Once I’ve started it goes from slow and excruciating to quick and (almost) actually pleasant. I’m not one of those writers who actually enjoys the process of writing (who are they? I envy them!), but there are great satisfactions that come with doing work you believe is good. I feel very fortunate to have managed a career writing fiction, and I’m grateful for the readers who’ve recently discovered me, and especially for the ones who have been reading my work when it was much more obscure.
The novel is about, among other things, parenting in a culture of privilege, and you’re the mother of a college senior and a high school freshman. What is your best advice for other parents on navigating the tricky teenage years and raising kids of any age in our increasingly materialistic and superficial culture?
I’d never claim to be a perfect parent, and if my kids were answering these questions I’m sure they could give you a long list of things I did wrong, but there’s one thing I have no hesitation in saying was the right choice: I’ve never allowed a video game, Game Boy, X-Box, Wii or any other game playing device into my home. Our rule was: if you’re at a friend’s house and they have it, fine, but in this house: no. You can’t shut out technology entirely, and we wouldn’t want to, but staring at a screen and wiggling your thumbs for hours, days, weeks, months, years…how is that good for anyone, let alone a kid? As for materialism, I certainly appreciate beautiful things, but I refuse to pay for a logo. (If Ralph Lauren wants me to wear a shirt with his name on it, he should be offering ME money, not vice versa.) My daughter went through a designer phase but I’m pretty sure she’s coming out of it. She did make a rare request for a certain item of jewelry as a college graduation gift, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to get it. (College graduation? That’s a big deal.) My son could care less who makes anything he owns, except when it comes to filmmaking equipment. (His version of Nirvana is B&H Camera. He wanders around that place in a daze.) In the time he didn’t spend playing video games he became a filmmaker.
What are some of your favorite books of all time? some recent favorites?
I adore Thomas Perry’s novels, and read them immediately as soon as they are published. Perry is extraordinarily gifted at writing about pursuit and evasion. His protagonists are constantly thinking, planning, measuring, working things out. They are trying to stay a step ahead of whoever wants to kill them, or find someone who’s managed to hide in plain sight. The best book I’ve read recently is Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology: GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF. I’m interested in religion in general and have a bizarre fascination with Mormon history. The best of the many Mormon-related books I’ve read are John Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A STORY OF VIOLENT FAITH, and Fawn Brodie’s NO MAN KNOWS MY HISTORY, a biography of Joseph Smith.
Tell us about your exciting new endeavor, BOOKTHEWRITER.
BOOKTHEWRITER is a new New York City based service that sends great writers to the homes of book groups who are reading their work — not by phone or Skype but in person. There are about 100 novelists, memoirists, biographers, non-fiction writers and poets on the BOOKTHEWRITER site (including ORPHAN TRAIN author Christina Baker Kline, THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB memoirist Will Schalbe, novelists Carole Radziwill, Jane Green, AM Homes, Jayne Anne Phillips and Kurt Andersen, and Ilene Beckerman, the author of LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE), and all are available to visit book groups in New York City and the surrounding areas. (We have smaller lists of available writers in other major American cities — contact us for more information.) We also run “Pop-Up Book Groups” which are small, one-time gatherings with our authors that people can sign up for on an individual basis.
For booking and fee information, and to read about our writers and books: www.bookthewriter.com
To sign up for one of our upcoming Pop-Up Book Broups (with Christina Baker Kline and THE PERFECT SCORE author Debbie Stier): http://bit.ly/1hhsvBs
To be kept informed of Pop-Up Book Groups as they’re scheduled, sign up for our newsletter: http://bit.ly/P9gRip
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of the novels YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, ADMISSION, THE WHITE ROSE, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER and A JURY OF HER PEERS. She has also written a novel for children, INTERFERENCE POWDER, and a collection of poetry, THE PROPERTIES OF BREATH. Her non-fiction has appeared in various anthologies and in publications such as Vogue, Real Simple, Reader’s Digest and The New York Times. She has appeared on “Books du Jour” (NYC) and Bloomberg TV.
ADMISSION was adapted for film by director Paul Weitz, and starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin. It was released in 2013.
Born and raised in New York City and educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge, she lives in New York City with her husband, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, and their children. She is the founder of BOOKTHEWRITER, a New York City based service that connects authors and book groups. www.bookthewriter.com