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Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known may have been adapted as HBO Max’s hit show The Undoing, but the author admits that like the rest of the audience, even she had no idea how the mystery would unfold.
“I really enjoyed it along with everybody else. I didn’t know who did it in The Undoing. I was completely clueless because I had not been shown the final episode,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Going into the sixth episode, I thought it was Sylvia [portrayed by Lily Rabe] and when it turned out to be who it was I felt a little bit vindicated. They had come back to the source material.”
When the finale of the series, starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland, aired last December, it drew the biggest one-night audience for an HBO series in more than a year. The series also secured four Golden Globe noms including best limited series or movie made for television. Despite the series departing from her novel’s original take, the author thought Kidman gave a “terrific” performance as protagonist Grace while Grant made for “a really chilling sociopath.”
Now following the success of the series, Hanff Korelitz is set to release a new psychological suspense, The Plot. It can be surmised that a new novel arriving in the footsteps of a hit adaptation of previous work would add expectations, but Hanff Korelitz is quick to emphasize that she doesn’t pay mind to any potential pressure. However, that doesn’t mean she’s not privy to the timely release: “This is my seventh novel, and I’ve never seen a kind of pre-publication temperature like this,” she says.
In her new novel, The Plot (Celadon), out Tuesday, Hanff Korelitz tells the story of a novelist turned professor named Jacob Finch Bonner who is struggling to follow the success of his previous best-selling novel and has failed to publish anything promising in years. When he begins teaching an arrogant young writer named Evan Parker who ensures he doesn’t need Jacob’s guidance because he already has a bestselling story in the works, Jacob dismisses him — until he hears the impressive plot of his student’s novel. But when Evan unexpectedly dies, Jacob realizes the story was never published after all and passes his student’s story as his own for a new novel, achieving the success he yearned for. However, things take a dark turn when he begins receiving messages from an anonymous person aware of his secret and threatens to tell the world.
Hanff Korelitz reveals that when the idea for her new suspense novel came, she instantly knew, like the character Evan, that she had a good thing. “In my life as a writer, I’ve written novels that literally took 20 years of thinking about before I wrote the first word. Then there have been two that just came out of nowhere and one of them was You Should’ve Known, which became The Undoing, and the other one was this. And those times I knew exactly what I had. It was a very powerful thing,” she tells THR, also sharing that the book is also set to get the adaptation treatment.
Ahead of the book’s release, Hanff Korelitz spoke with THR about writing a new novel in the middle of the pandemic, how it sparks a conversation about writers and releasing a novel following a hit adaptation.
What inspired you to write this story?
The way it came about was that I was literally in my editor’s office having a very depressing meeting about another book that was not coming together and it was a book that I’ve been working on for a long time. I loved the book, but I was exhausted with this book and it still wasn’t working. I had another idea that was literally hours old and it [had] just come to me. I already knew that it was good so I just dumped this whole idea on her. I’d never told the story of this book out loud before, and I could see her getting more and more excited, which was very encouraging. Then when I got to the point about the plot twist, she gasped and that’s a very satisfying thing when you make your editor gasp. So I left that meeting feeling I had a viable other book and by the next day, she actually bought both books.
When did you start writing this?
The decision that we made was that I would put aside the big book that I clearly needed a break from and write this instead. Weeks later, we were in lockdown and I was furious and terrified and in a very, very isolated house in upstate New York. It was a perfect storm to produce this novel, which I did in, I think, three and a half months. But that was three and a half months of ceaseless writing, except for sleep. Apart from those two things, all I did was write this novel and it was propulsive from beginning to end. It never stopped pouring out. I think that’s always a pretty good sign.
I’d imagine there is going to be a different writing process with this book because we were in the middle of a pandemic. Was there a typical routine that you would have when writing that was different when compared to writing this?
I’m not a particularly disciplined person. I am not regimented like that, but when you’re in the middle of a project, you feel this intense pressure to get through it and that becomes more important than whatever else you would be doing if you weren’t in the middle of writing a 400-page novel. I have always written my books sort of lying in bed or at the coffee shop. The accouterment of the productive writer always been completely irrelevant to me. What matters is: Are you writing or are you not writing? What works for me is not forcing it when it’s not happening and letting it build up. That becomes the most important thing that you’re doing.
You mentioned the story for this just poured out of you, but were there any challenges with writing this novel that you experienced?
I think the challenges that I had are the same as we’ve all had. When I say I was angry and I was afraid, those are not idle words. I certainly wouldn’t admit to being angry and afraid if I hadn’t been out of my mind with fear and anger but I was. I should also point out that I’m the only person, that I know, who was afraid of this happening for many months before this happened. I was thinking Stephen King back in the fall of 2019. I was in that frame, but when it actually happened, something flips in your head and you say, “Okay, I’m not gonna waste any more time being afraid of this happening.” Now, I’m going to move into another space where I’m certainly afraid of getting sick and I’m afraid for my family and I’m afraid for the stranger I passed on the street last week, but I’m no longer going to spend all of that effort being afraid that a pandemic would happen because guess what? It already has. So after that, I was in this sort of tunnel vision place. I’m in a very isolated house in upstate New York here with my husband and we were not seeing a soul. My whole day-to-day existence was about writing this book, checking in with family members and friends on zoom, which we all learned how to use remarkably.
I’d imagine writing this book became a sense of relief or form of therapy.
It was a wonderful distraction and thank goodness it was a book that kept reassuring me. I didn’t lose interest in it. It kept reassuring me that it was compelling and interesting and exciting. As I began to figure out all the twists, I never got that terrified thing that you get sometimes in the middle of a book where you go, “You know what, this is just kind of stupid.” I was really, really happy about that.
This book centers on two different kind of writers named Jake and Evan. Can you talk about your process of creating these characters that readers are bound to have some kind of love-hate relationship with?
It’s so funny because the timing of this book [is] coming after The Undoing and this has already started to happen where people essentially said to me, “Well, what do you know about being a failed writer?” But the thing is, Jake is all of us. It doesn’t matter where we are. You name a writer and deep down inside, they totally identify with Jake; Certainly, all the writers that I know, even the ones who have had massive best-sellers, the book after that didn’t do well or the books before that were completely unknown. We’ve all had that experience where you go to Barnes and Noble to give a reading, and there are three people in the audience and one is your mom. It’s horrible! So this is not an unknown character to me, no matter what people think. I have never in my life had the experience of opening the New York Times Book Review and seeing my name on those lists and, believe me, I would love to have that! But it has been far more common until this point to walk into a bookstore and there isn’t a single one of my books there.
As far as Evan, I tried to teach in an extension course — this was many years ago — and I walked into a room with I think four or five students and there was this guy there couldn’t have been more than a couple of years younger than me. He was sitting there with his arms crossed across his chest, giving me this look like, “Who the hell do you think you are?'” And I’m telling you, that’s Evan! I know that guy is in every creative writing class and some people are a lot better at handling him than I was probably. When I needed to make an Evan, he was right there in the front row with his arms crossed across his chest, staring at me. So that’s pretty much a lingering character as well. The conventional wisdom is believe in yourself and you’ll be successful if you truly believe that you have the talent. This guy absolutely does that, but he also knows what he has. Weirdly he knows what he has the same way I knew what I have with this book, but he’s a lot more arrogant about it (laughs).
Jake’s written story of Evan’s idea is included in this book which makes it seem like you’re reading a book within a book. What was it like approaching that and figuring out the twists and turns of that story while also writing the main story?
Huge challenge and I don’t mind telling you that I did try to get out of doing it. About halfway through the book, I listened to an interview with [author] Lily King. Lily King wrote a novel called Writers & Lovers and in this novel, the protagonist is a novelist who’s writing a novel and she said in this interview, “I decided that no book that I wrote within my novel would be good enough to justify how good the editors are all saying it is. So I decided not to write it” and I thought “Great! If Lily King can get away with that, I can too.'” So I had attempted to write a few chapters of Jake’s novel Crib but I left them out of the manuscript when I turned it into my editor. And she said, “uh, where’s the book in the book?” And I said, “Oh, well, Lily King didn’t have to write it. So maybe I don’t have to write it either.” And she said, “uh-huh you have to write to it.” (laughs) It wasn’t fun. It was hard. It’s like having to start a whole other book again, which is always very heavy lifting. I was worried that readers would not find Crib that compelling and some of them have not, but many of them have, and you’re never gonna make everybody happy. I liked that there are all these versions of the same story being told. There’s the version of the story that Evan tells Jake, there’s the version of the story that Jake writes and then there’s the real story which we find out at the end.
I loved the cheeky, meaning behind the title. How did you come up with that title in that playful concept?
What’s so weird about doing anything creative is you are in the dark so much, you may not be in possession of the full meaning of much of what you’re doing. For example, I thought I was so clever coming up with the plot of a book and the plot in a graveyard, and then my daughter said, ” I just loved the three meanings of the word.” She saw it much more clearly and I had been in the middle of it for so long that I hadn’t seen it. We’re writers, we love words. We love to play with words. We love the slide of hand. “Crib” has two meanings too! It is something that your child goes in and it’s the theft. [If] you crib something, you’re stealing. So it’s a stolen idea. It’s a stolen life. Sometimes we get too much in the weeds with these things cause we have such a crush on language but it’s a lot of fun too.
I can’t help but feel like there will be back and forth discussions among readers on whether Jake’s decision to use Evan’s story was right or wrong. What was your personal opinion of what Jake does?
I guess I don’t know. On one hand, it should be right, because if you start putting your foot down on this kind of ownership of a story or an idea, you are strangling many of the lines that connect some of our great stories to stories that came before. If you want to make that argument, you better be prepared to eradicate centuries of stories that we consider some of our greatest stories. On the other hand, it feels wrong. Somewhere between it’s technically all right and it feels wrong is the line. I don’t know where it is. It’s a moral thing.
This book really dives into a conversation about writers. Was there something specific that you would hope that it adds to the conversation?
I think the shame, the fear, the feeling of failure, the worry about disappointing everybody that believed in you. It’s a real burden for almost all of us, I would say. And the ones who don’t have that burden, they’re just super lucky.
Do you envision this story being adapted into a film or series?
It will be adapted actually, I can’t say much more about that. I’m very happy with where it might go and look forward to seeing that.
I, of course, have to ask you about The Undoing, which was such a huge success. What was your reaction to seeing this great response to an adaptation of your novel?
Well, I got all of the weirdness of adaptation out of the way with Admission. That was a really delightful film, I thought. But the first time an author is handed a script in which so many things are changed, you really feel like you need your smelling salts. By the time, The Undoing came around, I was very, very chill about it not least because it was obviously in such great hands all around. Were there massive differences in the adaptation? Absolutely. Was I okay with it? Like water off a duck’s back. It really was fine! I had no problem seeing the two things as different animals, and I really enjoyed it along with everybody else. I didn’t know who did it in The Undoing, I was completely clueless because I had not been shown the final episode. I thought it was Sylvia and when it turned out to be who it was, I felt a little bit vindicated. (laughs) They had come back to the source material. David E. Kelly was doing something different in The Undoing than what I was doing in You Should Have Known. I was never interested in who did it. It was clear who did it. I was interested in her [Grace] and the deconstruction and reconstruction of her life. It was a different story being told.
How different was your personal interpretation of Jonathan when you were writing the book to the Hugh Grant interpretation that you saw on the show?
I thought he made a really chilling sociopath actually. That was not an accident that I made Jonathan a pediatric oncologist. Somebody who is fascinated by emotion and craves emotion is not going to choose to be a dermatologist or pick another pedestrian specialty. They’re going to want to be a savior. They’re going to want to be the guy. So that’s why I made him so focused on attracting love and emotion.
Given that the original novel was centered on Grace, what was your take on Nicole Kidman’s portrayal?
I thought she was terrific. We didn’t get to see her rebuild her life, which the whole second half of the novel is about. I don’t know, maybe we’ll all get a nice surprise and they’ll do season two and then we’ll get to watch her come back from the dead a little bit.
With more fascination for coats, perhaps.
The minute I saw the very first photograph from the set in that coat, I said, “It’s going to be all about this coat!”
Following the show’s success, the original book could very much attract new readers. What would you hope that new readers picking up You Should Have Known take away from your version?
I would hope that they remember which came first. People who are looking for a quote novelization of the TV show are going to be very disappointed. I just hope that they are open to a different experience and to seeing the characters in a different way. The characters in the novel are not nearly as wealthy as the ones in the TV show and they’re having a different experience. [Also] Jonathan’s not there. It is not about Jonathan. In the immediate aftermath of the TV show, there were a bunch of reviews on Amazon that basically said, “Where’s the body? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the whodunnit?” It is a suspense novel, but it was never a whodunnit. I hope people aren’t disappointed. What I cared about was how do you confront how little you know, despite your professional expertise, about the reality of your own life? What is that like to have your sense of self, your professional self-worth, your family relationships, your friend relationships, everything blow up at once and in such a public way? That, to me. was fascinating.
Does the show’s success ever put any pressure on the release of your new novel?
No, because remember I’ve never had a best-selling novel. This has never happened before. If it does well, I will be absolutely thrilled. I’m already thrilled with some of the great things that have happened. Certainly, they’re unprecedented in my life. This is my seventh novel, and I’ve never seen a kind of pre-publication temperature like this. So I’m already thrilled.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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