Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE LATECOMER

Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE LATECOMER

New York Times bestselling author Jean Hanff Korelitz returns to discuss her latest novel, The Latecomer, which she has been working on for years on and off. Jean tells Zibby about the role Steve Martin played in writing this novel, which episode of the British Antiques Roadshow inspired parts of the story, and what elements of fertility journeys Jean made sure to include. The two also talk about some of Jean’s recent accolades, such as being chosen to be The Tonight Show‘s Summer Read for 2021 and having both The Plot and The Latecomer optioned for television.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jean. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, The Latecomer.

Jean Hanff Korelitz: Oh, my gosh, I have that same book on my shelf right here.

Zibby: That’s so crazy. I wonder how that even happened.

Jean: It’s amazing. Maybe it’s an advanced computer thing. It’s a nice cover, though, isn’t it?

Zibby: I love the cover. I love it.

Jean: Now that you have read the book, you understand what the cover means, that it’s —

Zibby: — Are these test tubes?

Jean: Those are test tubes, right.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so cool.

Jean: We have three somewhat mature — I don’t know how emotionally mature they are — flowers. Then we have a little latecomer poking her head up there. They represent the triplets in the novel and their sibling born eighteen years later after eighteen years of undignified freezing in a strip mall in Connecticut. A tragic touch for any New Yorker to have to cool your heels in a strip mall in Connecticut.

Zibby: Don’t you wonder, is she always cold? He always cold? Whatever.

Jean: I think about that all the time. If you have been in deep freeze for many, many years and you then are born, are you always cold? Do you feel cold all the time? It was, maybe, one of the very few things I never got around to adjusting .

Zibby: It is not easy to follow up The Plot with anything because The Plot not only was totally genius and awesome, but got the acclaim it deserved, which doesn’t always happen. It did. What a blessing.

Jean: It was amazing. It was unexpected and life-altering and very, very sweet. Remember, this was twenty-five years into a writing career and book number seven. That is not counting the books that did not get published. It felt different from the get-go. It was different. Every time somebody comes up to me and says, “I read The Plot,” I want to say, who is it that you know in my life who gave you the book? Was it Mom? Was it my editor? Was it my agent? Was it my friends? No, they’re total strangers. They read the book. It’s just wonderful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How is it life-changing? How did it change your life?

Jean: You might imagine, I might imagine that a writer of seven novels, two of which had been made into film or television things, might —

Zibby: — Wait, you are downplaying that a lot. They were not just film or television things. Explain what they were in case people —

Jean: — I’m sitting next to all my books. Admission was made into this, which was a very, very sweet film.

Zibby: She’s holding it up, with Paul Rudd and Tina Fey, the movie called Admission.

Jean: Paul Rudd and Tina Fey. Tina Fey played the protagonist, who is a Princeton admissions officer. The other one was this little ditty. Sorry, I’m trying to get the light .

Zibby: It’s called The Undoing, the HBO show with Nicole Kidman that was all the rage. What was it? Two years ago? Last year?

Jean: Although, I think if you were doing a Venn diagram of You Should’ve Known, the novel that I wrote, and The Undoing, there would be a modest overlap. Whatever. You would think that with those great experiences, that my work would have been, if not widely known, then narrowly known, but that really wasn’t the case. I have been extremely fortunate to have a wonderful editor and a wonderful agent who really have stood on either side of me and propped me up for many books and believed in me. It’s been a wonderful experience for all three of us to have this happen. Everything felt different with this book. It was being extremely well-published. It was being enjoyed. It was being talked about. It’s just continued to percolate along for an entire year now. Here we are coming up to the paperback publication in just a few weeks. I feel like the book is still selling. It’s been a wonderful experience.

Zibby: And The Late Show recognition.

Jean: That was just a cherry on the sundae. It was an honor just to be nominated. It was one of six books that were finalists for the Jimmy Fallon Summer Reads thing. When I saw the other five books, I thought, okay, honor just to be nominated. They are great books. Most of them, I had read and admired, Crying in H Mart and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, a wonderful book. I really wasn’t expecting to win. I got a call from my editor. I was on vacation on an island in Lake Michigan that I’d always wanted to visit. The whole thing was just completely surreal. Then what you saw, or perhaps didn’t see, on The Late Show was me not eating for four days because I was so nervous. The plus was I could fit into my best skirt. It all worked out well. After it was over, I went immediately for the cookies in the green room and just stuffed them . It was quite a visceral experience.

Zibby: Wow. That’s why I was even more surprised when The Latecomer showed up so quickly after The Plot, and not like something you just whipped out overnight.

Jean: Oh, no, no, no.

Zibby: Did you write this before? Tell me what happened.

Jean: The Latecomer and The Plot are such different novels, very different novels. In fact, they probably represent the two opposite poles of my writing life, the more thriller, plot-driven and the more contemplative, literary, observant novel. Yet in my brain, they’re completely enmeshed because I wrote and rewrote The Latecomer before the pandemic. It was not where it needed to be. I wasn’t sure why. I just kept banging my head against the wall and trying to figure out what the problem was, the solution was. It was during a meeting with my editor in which she was explaining to me why she wasn’t ready to buy the book again that I told her this other idea that I had, which was about a washed-up novelist who’s teaching in some horrible low-residency MFA program. He has this terrible student who has a brilliant idea. Then the student dies leaving the idea unclaimed. She got very excited about this idea. She said to me, “Put down this book that you are struggling with. Just walk away for a little while. Why don’t you write this other thing?”

When the pandemic began, that is just what I did. I wrote The Plot in four months, which is stupid. I do not recommend that to anybody. In fact, I don’t recommend that you read a novel written in four months because it’s probably not going to be very good. Everything just came pouring out with The Plot; again, quite the opposite of what I was dealing with with this novel. After it was finished, a few months later, I picked up the manuscript, and the skies opened up. I could see it. I could see what the problem was. I could see what the solution to the problem was. Then I did have to rewrite it a few more times. It was that change of focus and that break and maybe the palate cleanser of a world-altering global event — who knows? — that allowed me to see it again. Once I saw it, I could write the story that I wanted to write. Ironically, it became the latecomer. It took this book so long that it was almost like being this last child in this family that I’m writing about, the child that comes out finally and has to evaluate who she is and who these people in her family are and what she is going to do about them. It was a case of the book kind of becoming itself.

Zibby: Wow. I love the idea of the pandemic being just a palate cleanser. If only.

Jean: Heavy irony. I was at one of your salons literally that week. I was super scared. I know you were because we talked about this. Here we are still on Zoom. Although, my building here on the Upper West Side has gone to mask-optional. Let’s hope that’s a tick in the right direction.

Zibby: You’ve should’ve actually just come here.

Jean: I almost suggested it.

Zibby: I wish you had done that. That would’ve been so much better.

Jean: Next time.

Zibby: Next time.

Jean: Next time if I ever write another book. I think I need to take a little break now.

Zibby: Let’s talk about The Latecomer. I immediately got invested. There are some books where it takes a little while to get into it. From the way you write and the way you develop these characters, immediately, I am like, I am in. I want to know what happens. I want to know every little thing. You have so many details. I love the New York angle and the son going to Collegiate and all these little references. I just love all these insider-y New York — not so insider-y, but how you depicted this world and that we all got to come right in and then the way that you developed the — the novel starts, there’s a horrible thing that happens. It spins off for the rest of the book. I’ll let you describe the overall plot. Because of this event, you are immediately hooked, but it’s the writing. It’s the way each character — you just keep wanting to see this one character crack. You just keep waiting. The woman he ends up with, what’s going to happen? What happens when you’re involved in something that’s so horrible and then life still has to unspool for you?

Jean: Because this appears literally in the first lines of the book, I think it’s okay to share what we’re talking about.

Zibby: Okay, I never know what to say and what not to say.

Jean: Even though I don’t think anybody who reads The Latecomer would call it a thriller, there are plenty of plot twists in this book. I love a good plot twist. I think of myself as a literary writer, but I have deep, deep appreciation for plot. I wrote a book called The Plot. It’s very hardwired into me. The foundational event of this family — they’re the Oppenheimers of Brooklyn. They’re a very wealthy New York Jewish family. They’re also descended from a real person, Joseph Oppenheimer, whose story was manipulated by Goebbels in the Third Reich as character he’d named Jud Süß and made a propaganda film about. In real life, Jud Süß, who was an eighteen-century Jewish martyr in Germany, did not have any descendants, but this family are descended from him because it’s fiction. We can do what we want. This character, his name is Salo Oppenheimer, is involved in a terrible car accident in which he is driving a car. He’s driving a Jeep. The Jeep flips over and kills two of the people in the car. One is his girlfriend and possible future fiancé. The other is a fraternity friend. Then there is one more person in the car who he’s just met, so it doesn’t occupy a lot of his psychic space. That person survives. He survives. At the beginning of the novel, we find him at the funeral of his girlfriend. One of the mourners is a woman who is going to be his future wife, is going to marry him and going to devote her life to making it up to him, this horrible thing that he did, this guilt that he’s frozen inside. She can’t do it because nobody can do it. To be more accurate, there’s only one person who can forgive Salo Oppenheimer, and he has yet to encounter that person.

What Johanna, his wife, is trying to do is create such a beautiful and happy family for him that he can be forgiven, he can forgive himself. To that end, she produces triplets, in vitro triplets. There is one leftover embryo who is randomly dispatched to that strip mall in Connecticut to linger in cryogenic suspension for forever. They don’t think they need that embryo because they’re not expecting this incredible fecundity of these triplets. Then they just keep paying the maintenance fees. They have these triplets. These triplets hate one another. They hate one another since the Petri dish, basically. The only thing they have in common is that they’re trying to get away from one another. This magical happy family that Johanna is trying so desperately to create is just off the rails from the beginning. The family makes an unfathomable decision just as the triplets are about to leave home for college. That is to have this fourth child by surrogate. We who are parents might ask ourselves, why would anyone do that? You have three kids. They haven’t robbed a post office. They’re graduating from high school. They’re going to college. They’re out. They’re okay. Why would you start over with an infant at that moment? That is the question that we answer. That’s one of the questions that we answer in this book. The why questions are the ones that get us going as novelists. Why would you do that? Can you imagine doing that? Let’s say the last of your four kids is about — bye, honey. Have a great time at college. Oh, I know. Let’s have a baby. No. You would not do that.

Zibby: I’m going to be in the AARP by the time that happens, basically.

Jean: So is this family. That is one of many questions that pushes this narrative along. The biggest question is, what is wrong with this family? What has to happen for this family to reach some kind of detente? That becomes the problem of the latecomer, of this final child. I feel like I have already said too much and I’ve kind of ruined .

Zibby: You haven’t ruined anything. No, no, no.

Jean: I just think, in my head, that I’ve ruined everything.

Zibby: No, you did not ruin anything. Not in the slightest. I was really interested in the way that you wove in art and the Cy Twombly that Salo — Salo?

Jean: Salo Oppenheimer, yes.

Zibby: Salo sees in this random — and has this very physical, emotional response to. It’s the only thing that seems to elicit any emotion out of him from anything that he experiences. I love the image of the Twombly just on the floor in this Third Avenue one-bedroom apartment, trying to hang it on one hook on the wall and it falling off. I’m literally cringing. Oh, my gosh.

Jean: It’s a seventy-million-dollar painting. Be careful with it. I’m extremely fortunate. I’m not all that knowledge about art, but I have a good friend named Steve Martin who is.

Zibby: The Steve Martin, or just another —

Jean: — The Steve Martin, who is an incredible collector of art and very knowledgeable about art. We, together, created Salo Oppenheimer’s fantasy art collection. Salo begins to collect art in the 1970s. He is moved only by his emotional response to specific pieces. He doesn’t care about money. He has money. He doesn’t care about the prospects of a particular artist becoming valuable. He doesn’t care about any of that. He cares about the solace that these paintings offer to him, beginning with the Twombly, which he actually faints in front of when he sees it in a museum. This is a thing. This is an existing thing. It’s called the Stendhal syndrome in which usually tourists faint before great art. It’s the kind of thing you read about and you think, one day, I’m going to put that in a novel. He keeps his passion for his art collection completely separate from his family. All of the love and passion and care that should be going into the family that his wife has gone to such effort to create for him is going into this. It’s not exactly a secret collection, but it’s a private collection. He houses it in a warehouse in Red Hook in Brooklyn. Most of the art that he collects is art that would not become valuable for some time. He’s incredibly prescient. If he were collecting for money, he’s done very, very well.

Zibby: I like that you don’t even have the artist. I love art history. I’m like, okay, so these two gray splotches, this is a Rothko. You never say, he just happens to buy a Rothko at this particular time.

Jean: I had a lot of fun with that.

Zibby: I bet.

Jean: Later, one of his children gives us more of a specific tour of the collection, so we kind of get the breadth of what he accomplished. When you’re a novelist, ideas come from all sorts of places. You don’t use them right away. Sometimes they linger in your head for a long time. Many years ago, I was watching television in a London hotel room. I was watching an episode of the British version of Antiques Roadshow. There was most extraordinary story unfolding on this episode. It had to do with a man who had died. His son and his widow had brought this collection of silver to the Antiques Roadshow. Every time the host or the appraiser pulled an object out of this bag, he freaked out more and more. This is the most rare. I’ve only seen this once before in the museum at the Tate. Not the Tate, but the British Museum. You would think that the family members would be happy. Wow, we’re going to have an inheritance. They were more and more visibly distressed with every object that came out of this bag because it was clear to them and to the host and to us that this man’s love and passion and care and delight had all gone to this collection and not at all to his family. The family didn’t even know about the collection. They maybe knew that Dad went to a museum on the weekend. He went to a trade show. He went to an antique show or something. This, they had no idea. It was the most fascinating family dynamic. Years later, I went to that memory for this man and his art. The idea that he’s assembling a world-class collection of twentieth-century painters in a warehouse in Red Hook while his family languishes without his attention is just unbearable, really. That’s where that came from.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Inspiration comes in all sorts of places, right?

Jean: It does. If anything, you would see a story like that and say, I’m going to make that the centerpiece of a novel one day. In fact, this isn’t the centerpiece. This is just one element of this very, very — this story has so many pieces. This is just one piece.

Zibby: Wow. The fertility journey also, I was actually really interested because this dovetailed, to me, more with what happens these days or in the last twenty years or something. This happened a while ago.

Jean: For people who know their assisted-fertility history, the dates are a little off. I’m off by about three years. My fictional fertility journey jumps the factual gun by a couple of years. Certainly by the time you and I were having our kids, this was more of a story that we were hearing a lot. The more common story is, you produce these eggs. You have one. A few years later, you have another. This was a case where she’s not expected to have a successful pregnancy or one child, let alone three. After many failures, it just works. Because one is superstitious about these things, you keep paying the maintenance fees. Every year, I write a check for my twenty-two-year-old son’s umbilical cord blood.

Zibby: I have that too. What on earth? I don’t even know if I could find that receipt, honestly. It’s to the wrong email. I know it’s out there somewhere. Do people even still talk about that? That was such a big deal before, cord blood banking.

Jean: There’s a superstition about it. There’s a Greek myth about a baby who’s born. The baby hears some supernatural creature say, it’s too bad that when that log is finished burning up that baby is going to die. She snatches the log out of the fire and saves it until many years later. She’s really mad at him for something. She throws it back on the fire, and he dies.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jean: It’s true. I love that story. You never know where the ideas are going to come from.

Zibby: I also feel like there’s a lot of — Johanna’s very ashamed of her family and relationship to this other family. You have this one scene where I think they ran to his family’s apartment to grab something. She’s wandering around looking at Manets. It’s dawning on her, what she’s gotten herself into, basically, and that culture shock, if you will, or just this whole new world that has opened up for her that she doesn’t even really quite know how to deal with, which I feel like many people, not in this particular way with grandmaster art and all of the rest, but many people find themselves in a new family situation with the person they’re marrying. They’re like, okay, this is a whole new world. How do I navigate this? Which is interesting.

Jean: Johanna’s from New Jersey. Her father is the accountant at The Lawrenceville School, so she is used to one version of American prosperity. That is not what she’s looking at in her fiancé. By the time she figures it all out, it’s a moot issue because apart from these paintings, which aren’t costing a lot of money in the seventies and eighties, they’re kind of frugal people. They don’t splash out a lot. When she sees a Manet in her in-law’s, she’s like, could that be a fake? No, that’s not a fake. That’s the real thing.

Zibby: I wish you would do a — maybe you already did this, and I just didn’t even see it anywhere. The art collection piece of it — then I’ll stop talking about the art. It would be neat to see as a slide show. Put it on the website.

Jean: I was just asked to do a list of the paintings, which was a lot of fun. I did that. Of course, it’s an important moment in the story that Salo steps out of his usual art collection to collect the work of one particular outsider artist. That is a real artist named Achilles Rizzoli, who I revere, who has really not gotten a lot of attention. Although, he emerged at the beginning of outsider art. His star has really not risen in the way that I thought it should’ve. This is a real artist whose life and work I appropriated for my novel because I can because it’s fiction. Salo acquires this entire collection of this real artist’s work. Then it mysteriously disappears. What happens to that is a very important part of the story.

Zibby: We’ll just leave that with a dot, dot, dot.

Jean: We’ll just dangle that there.

Zibby: Amazing. What are the updates on film stuff with this and with The Plot and everything else? Are there any more?

Jean: The Latecomer will be a television series. That’s pretty much all I know. It’s going to be produced by two producers. One is Bruna Papandrea, who is part of the team that did The Undoing. She’s also produced Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers, nine or Ten Perfect Strangers, and also Jessica Knoll’s book, the Luckiest Girl Alive, which I’m very excited to see, and a lot of other stuff. The other producer is a woman named Kristen Campo, who will be producing The Plot. There’s more to say about The Plot. It’s been announced that the protagonist of The Plot, Jake, is going to be played by Mahershala Ali. That will not start filming until next year. That’s all we got right now. It’s going to be at Hulu. That, I know. Incredibly exciting. I’m hoping to be part of the writing team for The Plot, which is going to be an adventure. I’ve never written for screen before, so I expect to learn a lot.

Zibby: Amazing. Jean, this is so exciting. We met a couple years ago. You’re like, I have been working on these things. Yeah, these have been films. You’re just so humble and so self-deprecating. It’s just so nice that all these things are happening for you.

Jean: My is saying, don’t do them. Don’t do them.

Zibby: No, it’s so great. You still have your BookTheWriter series where you’re promoting other authors, which is so wonderful. That’s great literary citizenship. I’m so excited for you. I’m excited for The Latecomer.

Jean: I love writers. Some of my best friends are writers. This crazy thing that we do, sit in a room in our pajamas and put words on the page in the weird expectation that somebody will read them one day, somebody will take their precious time to open a book that we wrote and sit with it, it’s a lot of to ask of the universe, for somebody to spend their time with your words. It’s an incredibly generous act when people do that. Hey, you can’t see what I’m looking at, but I’m looking at — they’re not as pretty as your shelves because I’m alphabetical, not by color. These are all the books that have meant something to me. Believe me, there are many more that didn’t make the shelves. I am grateful for every one of these books that I’ve read. I guess it’s part of the way we touch other people. That’s probably not the best way to put it. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to have this from other people and give this to other people.

Zibby: Very well said. Jean, thank you. Thank you for coming on. I was very honest with you that I have not finished this whole book. I am very excited to do so. I’m glad I didn’t postpone the interview because I wanted to talk to you about it. I’ve already been recommending this front, right, and center to my best girlfriends who I trade books with. I anticipate this being a huge book this summer. Congratulations.

Jean: I hope so. Thanks. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks, Jean.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE LATECOMER

THE LATECOMER by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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