Jean Hanff Korelitz on Masochism and Movies
Figuring out what you really want to do in life is hard. And then once you figure it out, making it happen is usually even harder. But you know what helps? Knowing that almost everyone who’s ever made it has been in the same boat as you. Commiseration + inspiration — such a winning combination! (P.S. That’s what my novel is all about. Did I mention it comes out in two weeks and that you should read it?)
Today’s real life commiseration + inspiration: Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of four novels, including most recently Admission, which is set to be released as a movie starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in 2013. (Go Jean!) But, naturally, things didn’t start off quite that rosy. In fact, when Jean was fresh out of school and applying for jobs, among those she failed to get was a position assisting the woman who is now her editor. (Twists and turnabouts — they’re not just for novels!) Read on for that story and Jean’s answers to all my questions about the early years of her career.
What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
Pathetically, I only ever wanted to be one thing: a writer. Granted, within that definition, I wanted to be all kinds of writer: a poet, a novelist, a magazine writer, a book reviewer. When what you want to do has such a high failure factor, you offset that happy secure feeling of knowing exactly what you want with that terrorized feeling of knowing you’re probably not going to be able to pull it off.
What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school?
After two years of further study at Cambridge University I lived for another year in England and Ireland with my husband, Paul Muldoon, during which time I read all of Dickens and obsessed about writing a novel. (I didn’t actually attempt to write a novel until the following year, but I obsessed in preparation!) After we moved back to the States I applied for jobs in publishing (interestingly, one job I failed to get hired for was as an assistant to Deb Futter, the woman who is now my editor) and got one as assistant to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (who would later be the editor of my second novel, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, but reject my third, THE WHITE ROSE!). I read manuscripts, wrote assessments, and watched my boss change the publishing landscape that landmark year of Tom Wolfe’s BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES and Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT.
What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it?
My mother found the apartment because we were still living overseas. It had once belonged to her exercise instructor, who taught calisthenics classes in what would become our living room. That makes it sound much bigger than it was! It was a small one bedroom on the upper east side. We lived there for two years, and the most atrocious thing about it was the superintendant, who made passes at many of the women who lived there (including me).
Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
I remember the day my first novel was accepted. I definitely felt that everything had changed – the earth was just a tiny bit differently angled. I had waited so long and worked very hard (my first published novel followed two novels that had been rejected by every publisher on the planet). It was a wonderful day.
How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
Not gonna lie, watching fifty super-efficient people scurrying around a movie set on which your novel is being adapted for film, hearing Lily Tomlin and Tina Fey speak lines you made up in your pajamas – that feels pretty good. But it’s also accurate to say that I have never in my life been introduced to someone who recognized my name from one of my novels. None of my novels have been best sellers — most of the time they’re not even present in bookstores! I’m never going to win literary prizes – I just don’t seem to be on that track. In short, the writing world will never fail to find ways of reminding you that you haven’t made it. We are such masochists! If we didn’t love language and stories, we’d never do it.
Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
So many. My early mentor Janice Kaplan showed me that you had to work like a dog. My late cousin Helene Hanff (the author of 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) showed me that you could work like a dog and still labor in obscurity, though the lightning of success could strike at any time). Some years ago I interviewed Rani Arbo, a musician I truly admire, for REAL SIMPLE magazine. When I asked her who she admired she said: “Anyone attempting to live a creative life, without bitterness.” Could not have said that any better.
Thanks so much to Jean for this interview! And if you’re looking for a great read — literary and page turning, with meat for your mind and your heart and some wonderfully real and surprising characters — check out Admission. I couldn’t put it down!