Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE PLOT

Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE PLOT

“It’s a great thing about books in general: they don’t go anywhere.” Jean Hanff Korelitz joins to discuss missing Zibby’s in-person salons, why she prefers writing and reading about unlikable protagonists, and how she’s welcoming a surge of popularity following the adaptation of her novel You Should’ve Known into HBO’s The Undoing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jean. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books ” to discuss The Plot and so much more.

Jean Hanff Korelitz: And so much more. I was remembering that you were actually one the last people I saw in person before the pandemic started. We were just meeting that day in not the room you’re in right now, but I believe the room next to the room that you’re in right now at one of your incredible salons. I was already terrified, by the way. I was pretending I wasn’t, but I was completely terrified.

Zibby: In retrospect, maybe I should’ve canceled that one. That week, so much happened. The salon was on a Monday. Then by Thursday, the world shut down. On Monday, it was enough that half the people didn’t come, but the other half still did. They were like, is this okay? I was glad you were there.

Jean: Janice Kaplan was one of your authors that day. We went out for lunch afterwards. We were sitting in Orsay over on Lexington Avenue. We were just looking at the people normally having lunch. Janice didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but I have read too many virus thrillers and too many nonfiction books about epidemiology. I was scared out of my wits.

Zibby: I had no idea what was to come at all.

Jean: I was very grateful for that day, though. Epidemiology aside, it was a wonderful thing to be in a room full of people listening to writers talking about books, and the kind of thing that made you think, what are we going to do when this is over? We’re going to sit in rooms and talk about books.

Zibby: I can’t wait for that.

Jean: I cannot wait.

Zibby: I can’t wait. Yesterday, it was such a nice spring day. I put a skirt on for the first time in months. I was like, gosh, I wish there were somebody here to see. I wish I could just invite over everybody. I feel like we’re getting closer to that where I can go back to live events again and all of that. In the meantime, I get to talk to wonderful authors like you via Zoom still, so that’s good. The Plot, I loved this book. This was so cool. I love how you basically wrote two books, essentially, and stuffed them both in here and interwove it so beautifully. Would you mind just explaining to everybody what this book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Jean: Just before I do that, I want to say that it was while I was on one of your book groups with Lily King last spring — she was talking about what it was like to write a book within a book. In her novel, Writers & Lovers, which we were discussing, she said that no book could ever be as great as the one that her author was writing, and therefore, she did not write a word of it. I thought, great, I don’t have to write mine either. If Lily King can get away with that, I can too. Unfortunately, my editor said, “No, you got to write it.” The Plot does involve a book within a book, which is a very scary prospect for exactly that reason. You’re writing the book that everybody’s making a big fuss about. How good is it really? You think, what book could really fill a stadium of people? Then you go, Gone Girl. Everybody would’ve gone to see Gillian Flynn at the height of that book. She would’ve filled very big rooms.

What The Plot is about, it’s about a failed writer. Failure for a writer is always extremely close to us. Wherever we are in our careers, that failure is right behind us, whether in our imagination or in reality. It’s about a failed writer named Jake who is really watching his career descend and descend and descend. He can’t write anymore. His last book tanked. He has nothing in the tank. He is reduced to teaching in a pretty bad MFA program where they just take anybody who signs up. He has this horrendous student, the kind of student most teachers have had at some point who’s just a real jerk. He waltzes into class and basically says, “I don’t need you. I don’t need to be here because this book that I’m writing is foolproof. It has a plot which is foolproof.” Jake understandably thinks to himself, what a jerk. Also, how good can it be? Then he hears the plot. He knows that this asshole is absolutely going to have a massive success with this book. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s not a terrific writer, but he’s right. This plot is foolproof. That’s where we leave them for a couple of years. When Jake wonders to himself a few years later why this book has never come out, because obviously he would’ve heard about it, he discovers that his former student has died. He has died not long after their encounter. There is no book.

He has a brief wrestle with the angels. Obviously, you do not take somebody’s idea. You certainly do not take their written language. There are very good reasons for that, but this is a story. It’s a story that was unwritten, obviously not published. Stories cycle through our history. They appear again and again. Can you own a story? Who gets to tell a story? A lot of the questions that we writers obsess about, I’m not sure other people obsess about them as much as we do, but we do obsess about them. Basically, he is on fire with this story. He feels a responsibility to this story, and so he writes his own book, not the book his student was writing. As his former student predicted, he becomes massively successful. He can’t really enjoy it because he’s too terrified that somebody’s going to come along who knows what he did. Then somebody does. The rest of the book is a kind of puzzle to figure out who this person is, what they know. Jake also has to ask himself some questions he ought to have asked himself earlier on like, who was his student? Where did he get this idea? Did he perhaps take it from somebody he shouldn’t have taken it? It all comes round into this, I hope, suspenseful plot. We do get bits of the novel in question because throughout the book I’m sure everybody who reads it is going to be asking themselves, what is this idea that’s so fabulous that it could really guarantee success? I don’t want to give anything away about it. I think it’s surprising the people who have read it. That’s very gratifying.

Zibby: Wow. It was really fantastic. I hate to use the word propulsive because everyone’s using that word these days, but it really did pull you through as if there’s some sort of lasso on your waist and you’re just holding on, almost like water skiing, to try to catch up to see what was going to happen next. I had so much compassion, actually. I felt badly that Jake had taken the story, the anxiety he lived with, and the self, almost, immolation. It broke my heart too. I couldn’t tell if I was rooting for him or not. I won’t give anything away, but I just wanted him to decide he was going to come clean and shout it from the rooftops or something.

Jean: He does reach a point where he actually does that. There’s a scene towards the end in which he’s suddenly channeling Ozymandias from the Shelley poem. If your listeners remember Ozymandias, it’s about this lost tyrant. The ruins of his city and his statue are in some desert in the middle of nowhere. He says, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Jakes does have a moment of that arrogance where he’s like, screw it, I did nothing wrong, I’m going to tell everybody. Does that come to happen? I cannot say. Like a lot of the protagonists I’ve written over the years, Jake is not a particularly likable guy. I’m not a big fan of the automatically likable protagonist. I don’t look for likable people in fiction. I look for them in my real life.

Zibby: I was going to ask if you did or not.

Jean: I don’t need everybody in a book to be my best friend. Jake is complicated. He has been so twisted by his perceived failure and the loss of what he thinks he deserved to have and what he worked very hard to have. Writers’ minds, as I’m sure you know, are very complicated places. We’re courageous people. We do this insane thing where we write a story nobody’s asking us to write, which is an act of great arrogance but also incredible humility because when it fails, as it often does, we have to acknowledge that it’s failed. We have to put it away. We have to start over. These are not easy things to do.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve had so many successes yourself. Have you had failures that maybe I don’t know about? You have all these best-selling movies and books. Your résumé is — I mean, look at this: You Should’ve Known, which was on HBO as The Undoing; and Admission, which was a film with Tina Fey; and The Devil and Webster and The White Rose and The Sabbathday River and A Jury of her Peers and Interference Powder and more and more and more. You don’t seem like someone who we should be like, oh, Jean must have had lots of failures.

Jean: This is probably not the moment in my career to regurgitate all of my failures. There have been many. You have to understand that The Plot is my seventh novel. Until maybe six months ago, it was absolutely ordinary to walk into a bookstore and find none of my books there. I was a completely unknown entity except perhaps among some writers. My name would’ve drawn absolutely no recognition among most readers. I’m not going to say that was no problem, no worries, no big deal. It hurt a lot, but my job was always to write the best book that I could. I was very fortunate in that I had one editor in particular who really believed in me even though I continued to not put the money on the plate as far as book sales. I’m grateful to my agent. I’m grateful to my editor. I’m grateful to the writer friends who stood by me. No, I was not a successful writer at all.

Zibby: Depending on how you’re measuring success.

Jean: Exactly. In terms of you walk into Barnes & Noble and they have your books, I was not successful, in terms of you meet somebody at a party where there are lots of writers whose work you’ve read and loved, and you introduce yourself and they just have no idea who you are. Again, these are the things that you have to remember. They’re out of your control. What’s in your control is how good the book is and also starting over and doing it again. That’s enough. That’s hard enough without taking on The New York Times best-seller list or whatever other measure is out there. You just have to keep going.

Zibby: You mentioned until six months ago. What’s happened since The Undoing came out? How has your life changed at all?

Jean: I sense in a disturbance in the force. Obviously, I’m in a rural place in Upstate New York. I’ve been here for most of the last year. I’m not going to conferences or frequenting bookstores any more than anybody else is. I sense that my work is being recognized or anticipated. People are engaging with it. I’m seeing a lot of things like, I read You Should’ve Known, which became The Undoing, and I see she has six other books, so I’m going to read them now. This is a wonderful thing to me. It’s a great thing about books in general. They don’t go anywhere. They may not be on the shelf in Barnes & Noble, but this is one thing we can thank the internet for. I’m constantly writing down the names of books that I’m hearing about for the first time even though they came out decades ago or sometimes centuries ago. I can get them. I read them. I do it all the time. In fact, I have an extra-special little Instagram account called Books of Yesteryear which are just old books that I’m reading. I buy them in flea markets. I get them on the internet. This is in addition to all the contemporary stuff that I’m constantly reading. It’s a great thing about buying books. They’re mostly forever.

Zibby: I’ve been a lifelong huge reader, recreationally, just loved to read. I didn’t realize how much focus inside the literary industry was on new releases because that’s never how I used to shop. I would go to that table or look at that wall, but I would look at so much more. That was just one stop. That’s one wall in the whole bookstore. When I started even pitching people to come on the show, I remember asking Michael Lewis or somebody. I was like, I’ll just start with Mike Lewis who, of course, said no. His agent something said like, “And he doesn’t have a book coming out.” I was like, okay, why is that even a thing? Then I realized the industry makes it feel like it’s so much about new releases, but literature is literature. This whole backlist phenomenon, I’m like, what’s a backlist? The other books people have written, backlist sounds so derogatory. It should be their magnus opus or something with a better name.

Jean: The book that I always want to hear about is the book that you read twenty years ago that you have one old, torn-up copy that is out of print that nobody’s ever heard of. I want to know what that book is. I want to order it immediately from ThriftBooks or Better World Books. I want to read it. Those are the books that get me going in addition to all the new stuff as well. It’s impossible. The list of great books that I have not read is so embarrassing, and I read constantly. I read at least three books a week, usually more. We all have our lists of shame of the books that — I did finally get through Ulysses, so at least that’s off my list of shame.

Zibby: I’m not even trying to go back to classics that I’ve missed, so you’re a thousand steps ahead of me. I’m like, I missed those ones. They weren’t assigned in school. Can’t worry about it now.

Jean: They’re still there when you’re ready for them.

Zibby: Yeah, if I want to go back. When you’re reading all these books, three books a week, is it mostly fiction? Poetry? Memoir? What type of genre?

Jean: I read a lot of memoirs. I read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of old fiction. I do like the odd biography, the odder, the better, and nonfiction too if it’s something that I’m interested in. I have about eighty books stacked up upstairs. It’s impossible, but it’s wonderful too. Because I was always a reader, I think the fact that I never suffered from severe depression or anything like that can be directly traced to the fact that I was a reader. There was always a book that I was looking forward to reading. There’s nothing that I can pinpoint in my history or chemistry or whatever that would’ve spared me that. It’s only the fact that I always had something to read. Get your kids reading because I think it’s a great stay against some of the vicissitudes .

Zibby: I totally agree. This whole bibliotherapy thing is long overdue. It’s something people have known for a long time without, perhaps, a name. Plus, the fact that you’re just not ever alone. You’re always in someone else’s mind and always thinking and learning and accompanied no matter what.

Jean: Absolutely. You’re not alone. You’re transported. You know what? If it’s not working for you, there’s an infinity of other worlds and other minds you can be entering. Books have ordered my life and enriched my life. To me, the highest thing that I could ever aim to do was write a novel. I remember when I was a kid, my father asking me if I thought I had a novel in me. I lied. I lied to him. I said yes, but I didn’t think I could do it. Maybe it was just an early example of fake it until you make it. I wanted it so desperately. When I started to do it and I failed quite decisively, picking yourself up and saying, now I’m going to do it again and try harder and do better, that’s really something I’m proud of.

Zibby: When you started writing your own fiction, did you just sit down and try it? Did you try to learn the craft? How did you approach it?

Jean: I was a poet at the beginning. I started writing poetry in high school and all through college. Then I went to Cambridge for two years after college. I was only writing poetry, but I was only reading fiction. My natural inclination really went towards the novels. One of the things I realized at one point was that the dream was fiction. I had to stop putzing around with poetry. I think writing poetry was a fantastic way to begin because poetry teaches you respect for language in a way that maybe even fiction doesn’t. Every word in every book that I write is weighed and compared to ten other alternatives even in a so-called thriller. I can’t leave a sentence if I don’t think it’s — beautiful may be too big a word. If I don’t think it’s as fine as it can be, I just can’t leave it there. It bothers me. I’m glad that I started with poetry. I stopped completely after my only book of poems was published. That was another indication that I was really not going to be a poet. Although, some of my best friends are poets and I’m married to a poet. I’m still in the poetry world, but I took the road deeply traveled.

Zibby: If you have that approach to writing where every sentence bothers you — by the way, I loved just hearing that because I’m sure so many people can relate to that perfectionism in something that can’t be perfected. It’s a sentence. You have to, at some point, let it go. How long did this book take? How long have some of your other books taken to write?

Jean: This novel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience fueled by, I think you will agree, some rather unusual circumstances. The story is that around the time that you and I met a little over a year ago I had this extraordinary meeting with my editor in her office. The purpose of this meeting was for her to explain to me why she was not buying the book that I’d been working on yet. It was a big novel. It was quite a different book than this. It was about a New York family with triplets, a big family saga. It just wasn’t working. She called me into her office. This was the second in a series of meetings basically telling me the exact same thing, which was that she was not going to buy it yet. I was so upset because I had been working on it for so long. In the middle of this meeting, which was not a great meeting, I heard myself say to her, “Well, I have this other idea.” Then I just upchucked this idea that had really just come to me. I knew that this idea was good, I mean, good. The last time I had had an experience like this, Zibby, was You Should’ve Known. That became The Undoing. It just came to me. I’ve had books that I thought about for literally twenty years before I wrote the first sentence. This was just there.

I started to tell my editor the story, the plot of The Plot, which was already called The Plot even though it was just being born on the spot. I could see her get more and more excited, which was very gratifying. The next day, she bought both books. It was amazing experience professionally. It also meant that I had a new project just as everything was shutting down. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I was very, very upset and very scared and very angry about what was happening. Suddenly, I was up in this very snowbound house in Upstate New York, and I had this book to write. It was a kind of perfect storm propulsion, to use your word. I wrote this novel in three and a half months, which is insane. I hope I never have an experience like that again because it took a lot out of me. It was three and a half months of writing every day, all day. At the end of it, I had this novel that I was very, very happy with and am very happy with. There were not many changes that were made. There was a lot of revising of sentences. Basically, the story, the characters, it was all there. Usually, a novel takes two, two and a half years for me to write. This took three and a half months. I hope people will not hear that and think it was just dashed off. It was a very intense writing experience.

Zibby: That’s still close to a hundred days of just sitting there writing all day. A hundred days in a row of doing anything —

Jean: — What else did I have to do?

Zibby: But not everybody wrote — you could’ve done a million things. You could’ve baked banana bread like everybody else.

Jean: I did not bake any banana bread.

Zibby: I figured. You couldn’t. How could you?

Jean: I did not bake any banana bread, no.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors other than perhaps not stealing somebody else’s story?

Jean: The best advice to anybody who wants to write is to read. I know this is where people insert, write, you must write. Yeah, of course, you must write. If you don’t write, you can’t be a writer. People seem not to recognize the crucial element of reading. It helps if you’re an obsessive reader from a young age. Thankfully, most of us who want to write are. There are a lot of people out there who don’t feel it’s necessary to read other people’s books. They have some idea that their voice is just waiting to say wonderful things in a scintillating way. Everybody will stop what they’re doing and want to read their book. I’m not saying that never happens. For most of us, you must read. You must want to read. You should want to read. Never fear that it’s dangerous to read because you’ll incorporate other people’s voices. This happens. It happens to all of us. It’s an important phase that we all go through. My husband went through a T.S. Eliot phase where he was writing like T.S. Eliot. He was very young. It’s something that is an important part of finding our own way of speaking. If you don’t love language, you shouldn’t be a writer. Do something else. Be a ballroom dancer. I’d love to be a ballroom dancer. I can’t do that. Literature should be left to those of us who love literature. It seems like an awful thing to say, but it’s also a no-brainer.

Zibby: That’s a good point. You have to love what you do. Otherwise, why do it?

Jean: Why do it? Do something else.

Zibby: Like you said, nobody’s assigning you these stories, necessarily.

Jean: Nobody was saying, Jean, where — actually, my mom and dad, ninety-four and eighty-eight, were waiting for every chapter as I was writing it. I was very happy to be sending them along because it was distracting all of us last winter.

Zibby: What happened with the other book? Is that going to come out next?

Jean: Yeah. I have a deadline of July. I think I know what I need to do to make it work. It is a very different book from The Plot. In my career, I’ve always ricocheted back and forth across this genre line. I don’t have control over the books that I am given to write. I think it’s been part of the reason why I have not been better known. Every time I get traction with one book, the next book will disappoint people because it’s so different, but I can’t help it. You could hold up You Should’ve Known next to the book that was written before it, Admission, which was a literary novel that became a comedy movie with Tina Fey, adorable movie, it was a really sweet movie, and then the book before that which was called The White Rose, it’s about New York in 1990s, it’s the plot of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier among wealthy, Jewish New Yorkers, and think, these can’t be by the same person. That’s a flaw in the publishing world. Bookstores and readers really want a kind of branding. I’ve just not been able to do that. I hope that people will enjoy The Plot and the next novel, which is called The Latecomer, in different ways. I hope they’ll give The Latecomer a chance.

Zibby: I feel like Jake might weigh in on this and say you’re only as good as your last book. Everybody keeps saying that. That’s his mantra. I don’t think readers care as long as they like the books.

Jean: I hope so.

Zibby: It’ll be a great book. People will read it. Just go from there. Marketing is a separate animal.

Jean: It is. I was just having a phone call this morning with the head of digital marketing from Celadon this morning. This is another first in my career. I just feel so supported by my publisher. They’ve been really, really fantastic. Your readers or followers may or may not be aware that for every publisher and every season, there are two or three books that they’re going to hear about, and then there’s another fifty, sixty, seventy books out there. To get that magic fairy dust from your publisher, it’s a wonderful thing, but there are a lot of books right behind them that are also terrific and want us to read them.

Zibby: Very true. Jean, thank you. Thank you for The Plot. Thank you for writing the book, by the way, that became The Undoing which I inhaled in a single day with my husband once. I think you should feel really awesome about your career more so than you do.

Jean: I actually do. I’m proud of myself for keeping going. I’m proud of myself for writing books that pleased me. There’s a lot to be proud of. It’s been a long time since that first book was written. I’m here. Just like at the end of The Color Purple, I’m here and I’m fine. It’s all good.

Zibby: It’s all good. Thank you. That’s actually super inspiring. Thank you. Thanks for sharing everything.

Jean: Thank you.

Zibby: I hope to see you back at an event once they start in person again.

Jean: IRL, yeah.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, THE PLOT

THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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