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Interview: March 20, 2014

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of a book of poems and four previous novels, including ADMISSION, which was adapted into a movie starring Tina Fey. Her latest work of fiction, YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, revolves around Grace Reinhart Sachs, who is the author of a self-help book, You Should Have Known. When a disastrous series of events occurs weeks before the book’s publication, Grace must create a new life for her child and herself. In this interview with’s Norah Piehl, Korelitz talks about labeling her fiction as “cultural commentary” and researching self-help culture. She also explains her fascination with the dating phenomenon of “unknowing” your partner’s potentially irreconcilable quirks as you’re falling in love, how living in Manhattan has changed over the past 25 years, and why writing is easier in New Jersey. Your previous novel, ADMISSION, blew the lid off the often confusing and obscure admissions process at Ivy League universities. Your new novel, YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, seems to start off as a behind-the-scenes look at the private school scene on New York's Upper East Side, but quickly becomes something very different. What draws you to writing this kind of cultural commentary?

Jean Hanff Korelitz: You know, that’s so interesting --- I don’t think of myself as someone engaged in “cultural commentary” at all! To me, every single thing in one of my novels is there to serve the story. In ADMISSION it was the paradox of sitting in judgment of thousands of brilliant 18-year-olds while feeling you, yourself, are inadequate and a fraud. In YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, the protagonist is a woman who commits the hubris of telling others how to live their lives when she has thoroughly failed to take her own advice. Grace’s feeling of superiority to the mothers at her son’s private school is part of that disconnect, and it’s the disconnect that fascinates me.

BRC: Grace's self-help manual, also titled You Should Have Known, is designed to help people (mainly women) trust their instincts and avoid choosing the wrong partner in the face of pretty compelling evidence that he or she is not the best choice. Do you agree with Grace's assessment of the kinds of mistakes women make when they're dating? Is it really that crystal clear at the beginning? 

JHK: It’s been well over a quarter century since I went on a date, so I’m not in a position to make any sweeping statements on dating, or tell anyone else how to live their lives! I will say, however, that the phenomenon of noting --- and then ignoring --- basic, compelling issues that are unlikely to go away in time and conversely likely to cause great unhappiness in a relationship is, shall we say, common. Very, very common. Why do we “know” something and then gradually “unknow” it as we “get to know him better?” You could write a whole novel answering that question.

BRC: You make the choice never to have Grace's husband, Jonathan, actually appear on the page. Instead we learn about him first from Grace's point of view, and later from what other people say about him. Why did you make this choice?

JHK: Poor Jonathan. He was right there on the page in the first draft and there was less and less of him with every subsequent draft, until finally I decided to remove him altogether. I had realized: This is Grace’s story, not Jonathan’s, not a police procedural or a whodunit or a chase story about evading capture. I’m sure that Jonathan’s version of events would also make for an interesting story! But that’s another novel, not this one.

BRC: Grace lives in the same New York apartment where she grew up, and her son attends the same private school she graduated from. Grace seems to find comfort in this consistency, yet is often surprised or dismayed by ways in which New York has changed since her childhood. As someone who grew up in the city, do you know people who are still living their parents’ lives?

JHK: I moved back to New York last summer after a quarter century away. Obviously, I’d been keeping up with things; my family is all here and I’m a devoted reader of the New York Times. But even so it was a shock. While I was out of town (just over the bridge-and-tunnel in New Jersey, to be precise), the middle class largely departed my native isle of Manhattan, and what remained was a concentration of wealth that is mind-boggling. It’s a very expensive place to live. It always was, I suppose, but the distance between rich and poor seems very broad now. There are not many people in Grace’s position --- New York natives who have a very specific type of entitlement based on legacy (connections to private schools, longtime ownership or rent-stabilized tenancy of real estate they could not afford today), but there are some. Her own attitude is a combination of guilt about her own advantages and inverse snobbery about the people around her, who (to be completely fair) are way too rich for their own good.

BRC: Although Grace is a committed professional, her family --- especially her son, Henry --- comes first. Despite his musical talent and privileged upbringing, Henry seems like a pretty down-to-earth and nice kid. Did you have Henry’s personality nailed from the start, or did his nature evolve as you wrote?

JHK: Everything evolves and comes into focus as you write. If you know too much before you start writing a novel the story ends up feeling leaden and the characters prefabricated. I learned a great deal about Henry as the story developed, and the interesting thing about him is that he has his own secrets. Grace herself only truly gets to know her son once the life she thinks of as normal is revealed to be a sham. There’s a lesson there for every parent, I suppose.

BRC: In the course of the novel, Grace is forced to change many of her perceptions of family --- her own nuclear family as well as the family her parents built, and other families, too. Grace's impressions of families (her own and others) seem largely shaped by the stories she tells herself about them. What was the message you were trying to convey about families --- and family happiness --- in YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN?

JHK: I think people’s lives are messy things in general, and families --- well, don’t get me started on families. Perhaps the lesson to draw from Grace’s rather poor record of understanding her own and others’ families is that people usually have good intentions and do the best we can. We could all stand to be a bit more forgiving of people in general, and not cling so tightly to our assumptions about them.

BRC: There's some pretty funny (and spot-on) emotion about Grace's simultaneous excitement and anxiety about her book release. Do you experience any of the same or similar feelings as your new book is published?

JHK: I’m very happy for Grace that her maiden effort is getting so much attention. No, really, I am! Okay, okay, maybe I AM a little bit jealous. For most of us, the period before a book’s publication can best be described as “the calm before the calm,” and we’re lucky if we get a couple of reviews and a few shout-outs on Goodreads after the book comes out. My first three novels were read by very few people, and the fact that readers seem to be aware of YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN probably has a great deal to do with the film adaptation of ADMISSION and the very hard work of Hachette publicity. I am very thrilled that people are so excited about YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN and that it’s being well received by readers.

BRC: Did you read any self-help books as research or background for the novel? If so, were there any whose advice you found particularly compelling?

JHK: No, not a big reader of self-help. I don’t think it’s difficult to get the gist of these books, though. I did recently read Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s memoir, PROMISE LAND: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture, which was fascinating and beautiful.

BRC: How do you and your husband (the poet Paul Muldoon) balance the demands of time and space in a two-writer household?

JHK: It used to be much easier when we lived in a big house in New Jersey! It’s fortunate that neither of us seem to require that “Room of One’s Own” in order to write. (Virginia Woolf could never have made it in Manhattan!) We just seem to sit down somewhere, open a laptop and get on with it

BRC: You've written fiction for adults and kids, as well as a collection of poetry. What project are you working on now?

JHK: I’m just starting a new novel. What’s it about? Shhhhh…it’s a secret.