It’s the last weekend in June and I’m Zoom-talking to Jean Hanff Korelitz, one of our best writers of thrillers and literary fiction. She’s sitting against a shelf of pottery in the country house she shares with her husband, highly distinguished, Pulitzer-Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, her long light brown hair giving her a friendly vibe, especially in contrast to the look of hauteur in her author photo.
Please join us for a live Zoom interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz on Thursday, July 7th. Details here.
The Latecomer, the latest of her eight novels, has been out for a month. Unsurprisingly, it is acquiring raves. (“Sparkling, satirical and wise; a sumptuously wrapped gift,” said Allegra Goodman in the New York Times.) I say “unsurprisingly” because of her extraordinary record. Her delicious 2013 novel Admission, about an earnest but charmingly vulnerable Ivy League admissions counselor who confronts a buried part of her past, was adapted into a Tina Fey/Paul Rudd film of the same name. Her smoky, chic, and oh-so-upper-class-Manhattan 2014 thriller You Should Have Known, about a therapist in a supposedly perfect marriage to a pediatric oncologist, was turned into 2020’s slick multi-part thriller, The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman as the therapist and Hugh Grant as the oncologist. And then of course there’s her massive best-seller of 2021, The Plot, a tour de force about plagiarism in the literary and academic worlds, which we’ll talk about in a minute; I’ve hardly ever seen a book garner more ecstatic reviews in such vast numbers.
“Fiction was always my thing, and so was poetry,” she says. After growing up in Manhattan, attending the Fieldston school and graduating cum laude from Dartmouth, she went on to Clare College at Cambridge, where she won a major award for distinguished poetry. There she met Muldoon, whose work she knew about. “I was a poet for a long time.” She published one book of poems, The Properties of Breath, and then moved on to fiction, where she has excelled.
Korelitz and Muldoon married in 1987 and, before moving to Manhattan, lived for years in Princeton, where he was a distinguished professor of poetry. Their daughter, Dorothy, is an interior designer in Brooklyn. Their son, Asher, is a senior at Princeton.
The Mysteries (and Politics) of Reproduction
Korelitz and I are doing this Zoom to talk about The Latecomer, but first, because everyone has one thing and one thing only on their mind right now, we talk about something else: the end of Roe. “Oh!” Korelitz says, shaking her head, her hand to her forehead. “What I hate most about the terrible things that have happened in our politics over the last five years is that it makes me angry to hate a lot of people. It makes me so sad. I don’t want to go through life hating people and wishing them ill! But, thanks to the people who brought us the anti-vaccine ideologies and theocracies and profound disrespect for women, I’m a worse person than I used to be. I remember when Michelle Obama said, `When you go low, we go high.’ And I thought: `I don’t think that’s gonna work.’”
I don’t want to go through life hating people and wishing them ill!
The Latecomer—a novel “about assisted fertility, family configurations, all kinds of things,” Korelitz calls it—is so majestically and complexly plotted it took me two-and-a-half close reads to unwind the twists in the witty, glamorous infighting involving the eccentric Oppenheimer triplets—Sally, Harrison, and Lewyn. They were born in the early days of in vitro fertilization into a massively wealthy patrician German-Jewish New York family: their mother, Johanna sad and tender; their father, Salo, a distant, brilliant art-collecting head of an investment firm.
Salo nurtures, and stealthily acts upon, a heavy secret stemming from a tragedy that he was responsible for. Lush and learned, the book veers from intense passages about Outsider Art (at a gallery Salo re-meets someone who will prove to be of great significance to the story and his whole family’s life) to Brooklyn and Manhattan real estate (the Oppenheimers own plenty). The book also touches on Black conservatives (arrogant, super-intellectual Harrison deeply befriends one, or at least he thinks he does) and Mormonism. Pudgy, dreamy Lewyn is fascinated by his Mormon roommate at Cornel, transfers to Brigham Young University and almost converts.
The New Plot
The Oppenheimer triplets do not like each other—at all—until the presence of “the latecomer,” a wry, self-deprecating but deeply caring girl named Phoebe, changes all of that by subtly bringing them together. In a happy ending that glows with humanity after a twisty torrent of spying, revelations, perfidies, and melodramas (including a 9-/11 death), Phoebe’s mother says to her, “I’m sorry you never got the happy family you deserved. And I’m sorry you ever thought you were born too late. But you were born at exactly the right time.”
When you add the assisted fertility piece there’s a whole other layer of weirdness.
Phoebe, the latecomer, is the daughter of Salo and Johanna born years later than the triplets, yet her embryo went to cryogenic storage rather than their mother’s womb. The embryo that became Phoebe was implanted in the Oppenheimers’ gestational surrogate; the circumstances for this are fully understandable when you read the book. Phoebe is the book’s heroine and she is, Korelitz rightly says, “a very compelling person. It’s hard for people to say no to her. She’s very motivated to create the family she didn’t have—and to do it before she leaves home” for college.
Korelitz wrote the book because “you can write endlessly about families and never write the same book twice. And when you add the assisted fertility piece there’s a whole other layer of weirdness. You’ve got magic and science and chance and randomness all feeding into it.”
A memoir by English author Susie Boyt, “about a big bohemian family gallivanting around the world,” formed the original idea for the book. “So I was already thinking of this—and then there was the idea that you could be almost done with raising your kids and then start over with an `extra’ embryo. So then the question was: What has to be going on in a family for that to happen? And the biggest question was: How is that kid”—the latecomer—“going to feel when they realize they missed their whole family? Those questions got me going.”
The Bonus Book
The soulful echoes of history enrich the novel. Korelitz “decided very early that I wanted [the Oppenheimers] to be [imaginary] descendants of Joseph Oppenheimer,” a seventeenth century German court Jew whose life has been the subject of books and films. In Korelitz’s own life, “the main thing with my family is: We’re a mixed marriage. My mother’s family is German—who were considered elite Jews. My father’s family was from Belarus—shtetl Jews.”
Mormonism enlivens the book, and Korelitz’s fascination with it started randomly: with her reading that one of the stars of the Broadway musical Hair, Will Swinson, was actually a Mormon movie star. “I’m a musical theater person,” she says, “and I was fascinated by that fact. I asked Paul to drive me upstate to Palmyra, to the annual production of the Hill Cumorah Pagaent,” the LDS Church’s theatrical tribute to Joseph Smith. “It was an incredibly powerful experience—even if you happen to be a Jewish atheist, like me. I went five times!” The pageant is in the book. But, “I had to fight to keep it in. People said, `Who cares?’”
I wrote it in bed, under the covers, during the pandemic. I was scared, furious—a lot of things—and all I did was write.
Korelitz wrote the book in conjunction with writing The Plot. “These two books were intertwined,” she says. In fact, The Plot—astonishingly, because of the raves it’s received—popped up merely as a quickly-written bonus idea when she was struggling with The Latecomer. “I spent the fall of 2019 rewriting The Latecomer. I went in many directions, and I was lost.” In one draft the Oppenheimer triplets were on a boat sailing around the world; in another they were in Germany making a documentary. Then she landed on the idea of them living in elegance in historic Brooklyn. But the novel still wasn’t working—it was rejected by her editor.
“Then, in January 2020, I submitted it again and my editor turned it down again. It still wasn’t `there.’ I was incredibly upset and exhausted. And I was very afraid of the pandemic I was convinced was about to happen. I told my editor, `I have this other idea. It’s about a washed-up writer and his student. The student has a brilliant idea but he’s an asshole. The writer takes the idea and he becomes a bestselling author”—and my editor became very excited about it. She said, `Put down The Latecomer and write this other thing. And that’s what I did.” That was The Plot.
“I wrote [The Plot] in five months. I wrote it in bed, under the covers, during the pandemic. I was scared, furious—a lot of things—and all I did was write.” To sketch out the uber-complicated plot of The Plot she relied on Google spreadsheets. “It was an incredibly productive time, but, because of Covid, also a bad time. When I finished The Plot, I went back to The Latecomer—and now I could finally ‘see’ it. I decided in my mind whose story it was and even what the title was. The Latecomer was the hardest book I’ve ever written.”
Guessing and Wondering
But it’s The Plot that is by far her most—wildly—successful. In the book Jake Bonner, a washed-up novelist, may or may not have plagiarized and stolen the killer idea for a novel from his obnoxious and eventually deceased student Evan Parker. Elizabeth Egan, in the New York Times, called The Plot her gutsiest, most consequential book yet—an addictive Russian nesting doll. It keeps you guessing and wondering, and also keeps you thinking: about ambition, fame, and the nature of intellectual property.” Malcolm Gladwell called it easily his “favorite book of 2021” and said of it: “Good Lord, is this a fantastic book! In addition to being an absolutely perfectly told mystery story, it also happens to be an especially deft satire of the literary scene.” New York Magazine said, “Imposter syndrome has never been so thrilling!” And Jimmy Fallon named it his summer read.
Imposter syndrome has never been so thrilling.
Her reaction to the success of The Plot? “I was stunned and ecstatic.” It’s being adapted for Hulu, with Mahershala Ali (he of Green Book and Moonlight) starring as Jake Bonner. The Latecomer is also being adapted—as a series—and she will executive-produce.
Korelitz has another business: She owns the company Book The Writer, through which she offers pop-up book-and-author evenings around Manhattan. She is busy— she just acquired another two-novel contract—but what she’s most excited about is the production of her son Asher’s musical The Butcher Boy, which will open soon at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York. “So this summer I’m taking it easy. It’s all about the kids.” After having two masterful novels come out in one year: fair enough.