Life & Culture

An author with a plot for success

Jean Hanff Korelitz wrote the book behind the HBO hit The Undoing - and now her new book is set for success


Clear your calendar for August 5 — that’s when Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is published. This literary thriller tells the story of Jacob Finch Bonner, a creative writing teacher and one-time novelist who steals a plot idea from a dead student. When the resulting novel is a hit, Bonner’s career is revived. But then he starts receiving anonymous and increasingly threatening emails accusing him of being a thief…

Dubbed “insanely readable” by Stephen King, who really knows insanely readable, The Plot is garnering rave reviews in the author’s native US. It’s expected to be similarly successful in the UK, where it will be available in paperback and e-book. Online presales are brisk, and “It’s had an amazing response from the press,” according to Hannah Turner, publicity manager at Faber and Faber.

The excitement surrounding The Plot has both pleased and surprised its author. “Usually when your book comes out, it’s like you’re holding your breath, and nothing happens,” says Hanff Korelitz, who’s published seven novels for adults, a poetry collection, and a children’s book. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s just been wonderful.”

While the novel’s premise and Hanff Korelitz’s skillful writing are hard to resist, some of the buzz may be due to the success of the HBO limited series The Undoing. Based on her 2014 novel You Should Have Known (Faber and Faber), the twisty psychological drama, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, was a hit for Sky Atlantic in 2020.

You Should Have Known is the second of Hanff Korelitz’s novels to be adapted for the screen. Admission, the 2013 Tina Fey film based on the novel of the same name, didn’t prompt “a surge of interest in the book,” but after The Undoing aired, “it felt different,” Hanff Korelitz says. “It felt like people were noticing.”

Although The Undoing has triggered greater interest in Hanff Korelitz’s writing, she is careful to point out that You Should Have Known and The Undoing are different creations. “You have to watch an adaptation of your work with a certain amount of detachment, because it’s not your work anymore. It’s become something else,” she explains. Adaptations are what her friend and fellow novelist Meg Wolitzer calls “a variation on a theme” rather than a replica of the original.

One of the most notable variations between the page and screen versions is that while You Should Have Known’s main characters are Jewish, their on-screen counterparts are not. This prompted some criticism from Jewish outlets, but Hanff Korelitz isn’t bothered: “An adaptation should be free to be an adaptation. The adaptor, in this case [writer and producer] David E. Kelley, went in a different direction, and that is absolutely fine with me.” Although almost all the protagonists in her novels are Jewish, “for the Tina Fey character in Admission, or the Grace character in You Should Have Known, Judaism is not central enough to the identity of the character for me to get exercised about the change.” (For a Hanff Korelitz novel in which the characters’ Judaism is inextricable from the story, pick up The White Rose.)

Besides, Hanff Korelitz adds that she’s in no position to protest: She herself adapted James Joyce’s The Dead for the stage with her husband, the Irish poet and professor Paul Muldoon. She laughs, “I’m not going to be the hypocrite who says, ‘I’m allowed to change James Joyce, but you’re not allowed to change Jean Hanff Korelitz!’”

The Plot has already been optioned for the screen, and Hanff Korelitz hopes to contribute to the variation on the theme in the writers’ room. She can’t reveal much, but “It’s really exciting.” As a newcomer to screenwriting, “I hope to learn something new. At my age,” — she is 60 — “to be able to learn something new is the great gift.”

Learning something new is a big part of what drives Hanff Korelitz. As a reader, “I read to learn, like I live to learn,” and her favorite subject is “human nature, about our capacity to lie to ourselves and one another; to behave horrendously, to learn that our heroes are not heroic — these are the great discoveries.” As a writer, she’s likewise drawn to situations that turn on “revelations, people learning that they’re not who they think they are, that the people in their lives aren’t who they think they are… this is the greatest stuff in the world.” Her curiosity about people’s seemingly inexplicable behaviour “will take me to the end,” Hanff Korelitz says cheerfully. “They’ll never be answered, these questions.”

While there are currently no plans for a UK tour for The Plot, she’s eager to visit, possibly because she’s an avowed Anglophile: “It was hard-wired into me,” she jokes. Hanff Korelitz was just four on her first visit to England, and “It’s always been an incredibly special place to me, probably because of the literature but also because of the landscape.”

There may be a genetic component to Hanff Korelitz’s love of England, since she’s a cousin of the late Helene Hanff, author of the 1970 classic 84, Charing Cross Road. The book chronicles Hanff’s decades-long correspondence with Marks & Co., the antiquarian booksellers at the titular London address. Hanff Korelitz was at the dedication of the plaque that commemorates the site, which she visits every time she comes to England.

Hanff Korelitz herself was so enamoured of England that after graduating from Dartmouth College in the US, she got a second BA in English from Clare College, Cambridge. England is also where she met Muldoon. After several years in the UK and Ireland, the couple settled in the US and married in 1987.

Today, Hanff Korelitz and Muldoon live in New York City, where she founded and hosts Book the Writer, a pop-up book group that includes a live discussion with the book’s author. Hanff Korelitz schedules a spring and an autumn series, each consisting of about 10 events. Interested readers register for individual events. Until Covid-19, book groups were held in private New York City locations, usually apartments.

Because in-person interaction — with the author and other readers — is so central to Book the Writer, Hanff Korelitz was reluctant to move the series online when the pandemic hit. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘No, we’ll just wait until we can be back together,’” she recalls. But in autumn 2020, she relented. The online edition was well-received, and Book the Writer has been meeting via live video conference ever since.

These sessions have been popular with readers Hanff Korelitz never expected to reach, as she realised soon after Book the Writer debuted on Zoom. At the beginning of each session, when attendees introduce themselves, “I began to notice that people came from well beyond New York City,” Hanff Korelitz says. “I was amazed at who was Zooming in.” Readers hailed from as far away as South Africa, England, and Syria. “It really kind of opened up the world.”

Live video meetings also allow Hanff Korelitz to organise events with authors outside of the New York City metro area. Book the Writer recently hosted English writer Sophie Ward, author of the Booker longlisted novel Love and Other Thought Experiments. “We couldn’t have had her in person, since she wasn’t in America,” Hanff Korelitz notes. “But that was one of the most interesting conversations that we’ve had.”

As pandemic restrictions ease, Book the Writer will resume in-person get togethers, but Hanff Korelitz is determined to develop a model that will enable people outside New York City to participate. (Interested UK residents are welcome to attend Book the Writer events; registration is $25 for online sessions. However, unless the author is outside the United States, discussions start after midnight UK time.)

There’s another reason Hanff Korelitz is looking forward to a trip to England: “I’m a big mudlarker,” she admits. “One of the first things I do when I go to the UK is put on my wellington boots and go down foreshore,” the bed of Thames that’s revealed at low tide.

“I love it,” she says. “We can’t mudlark in New York; we don’t have that history, or the tides. In London, there’s two thousand years of continual habitation, so there’s lots of stuff to find. And then the tides reveal these things.” Hanff Korelitz looks for china, using the broken pieces she recovers to make picture frames. Mudlarking, like writing, allows Hanff Korelitz to uncover and examine hidden things, whether it’s the remnants of a tea cup or an explosive secret. And from these hidden things, she creates art.

Hanff Korelitz’s current creation is a new novel, The Latecomer. It won’t be out until 2022, but “The thing about having a late career surge is that all the books are there—anybody who wants to figure out what I’ve been doing all these years can do that,” she says. “The thing that makes me happiest is when people say, ‘I’ve never heard of her before, but now I’m going to read her other books.’”


The Plot is published by Faber and Faber on August 5

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