Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of six novels including a personal favorite of mine, The White Rose, a contemporary take on the opera Der Rosenkavalier. Jean’s latest novel, The Devil and Webster, follows the journey of Naomi Roth, a college administrator who was once a student radical herself, amid escalating campus protests.
Jean was kind enough to talk with me about her creative process and what it’s like to write fiction in the midst of political upheaval.
PW: You’ve mentioned that when you write fiction, you’re interested in personal and interpersonal crises. Where do you begin when you have an idea for a novel that resonates with you? Do you come up with a number of ideas, try them, and discard some of them? How do you know when an idea is “the one”?
JHK: Some writers seem to have multiple stories bubbling up all the time. I envy them, I suppose—except that incubating several novel projects at once does sound extra-stressful; having to choose the right one on top of having to write the thing? In any case, I’ve never had the special burden of two great ideas at once. I feel fortunate if I have one germinating notion that makes me think: Huh. Even more fortunate if it makes my skin crawl, as The Devil and Webster did when I first thought of it. I was having a perfectly ordinary conversation with someone over breakfast, and he began to tell me a story about something that had happened on a college campus twenty years ago. I actually said to him: “Stop. I don’t want to hear any more.” I didn’t want the true events to influence the novel that was already churning away in my head. To this day I have never investigated the incident that—technically—inspired this novel.
It’s hard to generalize about the six initial ideas that became my six novels. Some were “what if” ideas that took years to germinate. What if Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier were set in New York City in the 1990s, and all of the characters were Jewish? (The White Rose). What if The Scarlet Letter were crossed with a bizarre Irish murder case that took place in the 1980s…and all of the characters were Jewish? (The Sabbathday River). Others came from long-held preoccupations, like the one about what Ivy League admissions have come to represent in our helicopter parent culture. Looking back at them, I do see connective tissue: I seem to create strong, not entirely likable women protagonists and then rip them to shreds, and I seem to be attracted to sociopathic male antagonists. I also appear to like college campuses. The Devil and Webster was the first novel that basically occurred to me in the middle of a conversation, but after five novels I knew enough to recognize it for what it was. I’ve learned that much!
PW: Your upcoming novel, The Devil and Webster, includes campus protest scenes that could have come straight from the headlines, but you have said you actually wrote the book before the events occurred that eventually made the news. A fortunate coincidence, perhaps! What led you to write from the perspective of a college administrator? I’m curious about how you balance research and imagination. Do you think you would have written about the events differently if they were actually occurring while you were in the early draft stage?
JHK: It’s the kind of thing you might put in a novel and no one would find it realistic! I sent my first draft off to my editor, and the next morning I opened my New York Times and there were events I had just made up and written about…on the front page. But it’s really not such a coincidence if you think about it, because student activism isn’t new, and our current wave will hardly be its last appearance. When a Dean insults the campus protesters in The Devil and Webster by saying, “They seem to think they’ve invented student activism,” my protagonist, Naomi Roth, thinks: “They have…Because it had to be invented every time. That was the point of it. That was why it meant something.”
It’s possible that if I’d written this novel twenty years ago I’d have gravitated towards the students’ perspective. In college I was very much in opposition to the conservative students’ presence on the Dartmouth campus, and I’m talking about young conservatives who have gone on to create mayhem on a national scale. But I’m fascinated by what happens to youthful positions as we age. Thinking about how a college president whose self-image is wrapped up in her own activist youth might handle a protest on her campus was far more compelling to me at this point in my life.
PS: I hate research.
PW: After the election, a number of my colleagues were saying they couldn’t write fiction at that moment, and others who were well into work on novels suddenly felt that their works-in-progress no longer “made sense.” Several writers have since told me they set aside those projects and started new books that felt more “logical” in the current environment. How do you respond to that sentiment? Do you think writing fiction at this moment is a daunting prospect, or any different from writing fiction at any other time of political unrest or uncertainty?
JHK: I actually did have this experience once, though it wasn’t with our most recent conflagration. (And in truth, I had already finished The Devil and Webster before November 8th, 2016, so I’m not sure it would have had a serious impact.) When 9/11 happened, I was 70 pages into a heavily research-based novel that would have been partly set in France during World War II. (See note above, re: research, and my loathing thereof, etc.). 9/11 hit me in many ways, including my feelings about what I was writing. Before that day, the most significant horror in my personal rear view mirror had been the Holocaust. After 9/11, it was 9/11; my sense of orientation within history had shifted. The change for my novel-in-progress was immediate and absolute: I couldn’t bring myself to care about those people in my novel anymore, at least not as much as I’d have needed to care about them in order to finish that book. The post 9/11 world left me feeling so mired in human ugliness and human sadness that what I wanted more than anything else was to write about people who were decent and kind. The novel that emerged, The White Rose, was set deliberately pre-9/11, but more to the point, it followed three characters whose primary motivation was to do no harm to one another. Our reality became very ugly very quickly, but in this fin-de-siècle New York City, people still struggled to be kind. I needed that.
PW: I think we still need that!
Now we’re seeing the growth of a broad-based political activism across the country that we haven’t seen in the US in decades. Too often when fiction writers consciously try to respond to current events, the writing ends up feeling controlled or intentional and programmed. How do we separate the work we dream up in our writer’s “garret” from what’s happening in the street?
JHK: I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to say that I “responded” to current events in my fiction. For me, my activities in the real world and my creative activity through fiction come from utterly separate places. Moreover, I’m so reluctant to shine a light on the mystery of creativity that I would never subject it to the additional burden of a political or sociological “message.” (I don’t think this is a cowardly position, but I’m prepared to be wrong about that.) I try to be a good activist in my real life but when I go into that dark room where the fiction gets made, I try to bring as little personal baggage as possible. Do my characters explore my own preoccupations with the world? Naturally. Do they share some of my attributes—both the good and the bad? Undoubtedly. I do recognize that other novelists, great novelists, are entirely capable of creating fiction that artfully and effectively communicates political truths (The Plot Against America, to cite one current example, but it’s a tradition that goes back to my beloved Dickens), but it’s just not something I’ve ever sought or tried to do.
Ironically, my personal response to the election was something that might have been laughable for someone else: I started a personal Twitter account. I’d been on Twitter for a couple of years, but only as a rigorously apolitical and impersonal promoter of writers (via the account for my author appearance business, BOOKTHEWRITER, @book_the_writer) and an equally apolitical and impersonal promoter of THE DEAD, 1904 (via @thedead1904), the immersive James Joyce adaptation I did with my husband, Paul Muldoon, and produced with my sister for the Irish Repertory Theatre. In both cases, I stuck closely to my cheerleading and informational role and avoided tweeting or retweeting any content that was off-topic or that reflected my personal opinions. The day after the election, I joined Twitter as myself: @hanffjean. And I’ve been a raging militant bitch on it ever since.
PW: I’m going to follow you on Twitter. “Raging Militant Bitch” is probably my favorite sort of profile right now.
You wrote a book that featured a sociopath—You Should Have Known. I am fascinated by stories about sociopaths and have done a bit of research about them myself (both intentional and unintentional…). I can’t help analyzing our current administration with that in mind. Since you have been interested in sociopaths, I wondered what you think about this—What are the signs that our country is perhaps being “governed” by sociopaths?
JHK: Sociopaths: the gift that keeps on giving, at least if you’re a novelist. Not so much if you’re, say, a human being trying to live in a culturally diverse democracy with a free press and the teeniest respect for human rights. Yes, there is a sociopath in my new novel, The Devil and Webster. (Actually, now that I think of it, there may be more than one.) Yes, like you, my fascination is lifelong, and I don’t doubt that my future novels will return to this endlessly entertaining species. I’m not in a position to diagnose our current president, but I do note that when it comes to psychopaths diagnosis is itself of limited practical use; the general advice to those unfortunate enough to come in contact with a sociopath or psychopath is to do whatever you need to do to get out of the way. That is going to be a tough one for us, individually and collectively, given that we—as people who care about our country and about our fellow citizens—are very much in the way of this person.
PW: Given all that is going on, do you think you’ll try to avoid addressing our current situation in your next book? Can you talk about your next project at all?
JHK: As of this very minute, there is no next book. Personal history teaches me not to freak out about it. Some of us may be like Trollope, who famously started a new novel if he completed a book before the end of a writing day, but I suspect there are many novelists like me who need to walk around feeling totally empty for months or even years before the next novel-worthy idea strikes. Looking back at my thirty years as a writer, I have to remind myself that I spent most of that time feeling unproductive and (often) lazy…and yet somehow all of these books (the six published novels, the two unpublished novels, the children’s novel, Interference Powder) did actually get written. By me. How did it happen? It happened because when I did get a good idea I knew enough to recognize it for what it was, and then I got down to work. But to answer the first part of your question, if the next book does end up addressing our current political situation, I’ll probably be the last person to know it (see “dark room where the fiction gets made,” above), and for me that’s just how it needs to be.
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. Her sixth novel, The Devil and Webster, will be published on March 21st, 2017.
She has also written a novel for children, Interference Powder, and a collection of poetry, The Properties of Breath. From November 2016–January 2017, her immersive adaptation (with Paul Muldoon) of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” THE DEAD, 1904, was produced by Dot Dot Productions, LLC, for the Irish Repertory Theatre at the American Irish Historical Society. For more on the production, see here. Born and raised in New York City and educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge, Korelitz 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.