Tuesday, March 18, 2014

You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz Excerpt and Q&A

Today marks the release of Jean Hanff Korelitz's highly anticipated latest, You Should Have Known. As such, the publisher is doing a blog blitz featuring author Q&As and excerpts. I'll be posting a review later this week but until then here's a bit about the book from Goodreads to pique your interest:

Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself, devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice. Grace is also the author of You Should Have Known, a book in which she castigates women for not valuing their intuition and calls upon them to examine their first impressions of men for signs of serious trouble later on. But weeks before the book is published, a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only a chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disast and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.

And now for the fun extras!

A conversation with Jean Hanff Korelitz

Q. You’re open about your mother being a therapist – was she a marriage therapist, specifically? What did you learn from the osmosis of her experiences with people over the years that you would say influenced the writing of YSHK? In GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn discusses marriage as the ultimate mystery – is this your take on marriage as well? Feel free to read/listen to this interview Gillian did to help you ponder this: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/05/154288241/the-marriage-is-the-real-mystery-in-gone-girl

A. My mother was a family therapist who specialized in couples. Although she was very circumspect about protecting the identity of her clients, she never missed an opportunity to pass life lessons along to myself and my sister, so that we could avoid some of the pitfalls her female clients were dealing with. Accordingly, we had a lot of dinner table conversations about men: men who lied, men who bullied, men with secret lives. We were really instructed to be as self-reliant as possible, emotionally as well as financially, and to be vigilant about these people, because there are so many of them. I probably knew what “sociopath” meant before I was out of elementary school. 

And yet…in spite of all those discussions and all that warning, our family had a couple of run ins with real sociopaths — people who charmed us, lied to us, and stole from us. And I think we were fascinated by them, even though we were also furious at them, and at ourselves for being taken in. We were (and are!) the sort of people who beat ourselves up over any harm we might have caused to anyone, so a man or woman who blithely used and abused a friend or a business associate or even a stranger was (and is!) sort of an exotic creature to us. Even today, I know exactly which stories my mother is going to sink her teeth into: the Bernie Madoffs and the Anthony Weiners, the pillars of their community with a sideline in some illicit activity, men with extra families, folks who falsify their credentials. Endlessly, endlessly interesting. 

Q. Do you have any personal experiences or with relationships specifically that you looked back on when writing the novel and said “I should have known”? 

A. What, you mean like that professor who announced to his class (which included me) that he was a paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies…and I fell madly in love with him and had my psyche ripped to shreds for about two years? You mean like that? Oh, no, absolutely not. I’m far too intelligent for that. 

Seriously, though…a man I once knew told me about his first date with a woman. They sat down in a restaurant and he said to her, “In some ways we’ll never know each other better than we do right now.” That made a real impression on me, and I think it’s true. We come into a new relationship knowing nothing, and then we fill in all the gaps: sometimes with real (or essentially empirical) knowledge, but often (more often?) with the “story” we generate ourselves, in compliance with our own prejudices, desires, needs. 

Q. He doesn’t talk much because…he’s shy. Because he thinks most women are silly, but I’m the exception. Because he was so harmed by his mother. Because he’s afraid I’m like his ex-girlfriend, who cheated on him. Because he thinks he’s not worthy of me. 

A. I make up stories all the time in my work, and I know how powerful stories are. But I actually think everyone does this, whether they’re writers or not, whether they’re aware of it or not. And while we’re busy conjuring all those backstories and motivations for the people in our lives, the person himself (or herself) may have a very different reality and a very different agenda. People can live for years with that side-by-side dichotomy. What would disturb it? 

(PS. That couple on the first date? They got married. Years later, they got divorced.) 

Q. Can you talk a bit about why you chose the setting of an elite New York City private school as the backdrop for the first part of the novel? 

A. Grace is in the unusual position of sending her son to her own school, and having, as a result, to be a parent in the very hallways and rooms where she, herself, was a child. I was interested in that, especially in relation to the broader socio-economic shifts that New York has undergone since Grace’s childhood. In place of the artists and professionals (doctors, lawyers) in her parents’ peer group, the parents of Grace’s son’s classmates are intensely wealthy and entitled. In a global sense, Grace understands how fortunate she is, but she is also aware that within the culture of her son’s school she is considered financially insignificant, even impoverished. As a writer, that was simply too compelling to be ignored. So when we see the school fundraiser through Grace’s eyes we get a lot of conflicting impressions. She’s amazed, appalled, scandalized…but there’s a part of her that longs to be included. She might be horrified by the young and ignorant wife of a certain captain of industry (i.e. hedge fund CEO), but she also genuinely lusts after the woman’s color wheel of Birkin Bags. 

Q. For readers who have very similar “You Should Have Known” experiences , the novel really was quite chilling for me as it struck a real chord. Is it a hope for you that readers like me will be more careful as they make their choices, particularly, in regards to serious relationship commitments? When writing the novel, did you aim to go straight for the provocative? Are you worried some readers may feel defensive as they read the novel perhaps because they have shame surrounding the choices they’ve made? I wonder if the novel could really strike a raw chord with some readers who are afraid to accept their own “I should have known” reality. Does this make sense? 

A. I think we all assume we’re too smart to be taken in, but the truth is that we’re probably taken in all the time. It’s easy to look at someone who’s been betrayed in some massive, in-your-face way, and ask “How could she not have known?” (at one time this was actually my novel’s title!) but hindsight is 20/20 and no one’s immune. Or, as Kierkegaard put it: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." In other words, it’s easy to see it all NOW. But while it was happening? Not so much. And being smart is no protection either. (I’m nowhere near as smart as the wives of Eliot Spitzer and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Didn’t help them.) Will yet another cautionary tale make readers more careful in their own lives? Probably not. Even truth is no match for our storytelling capacities! 

Q. What about the Grace in the final chapters of YSHK do you like better than the Grace in the earlier chapters? Is there a sense of hope you were trying to gift to your readers? 

A. I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve been scolded for creating “unlikeable” female protagonists, to which I say: Fine! Guilty! In five novels I have not created one main character I haven’t wanted to smack at some point. And yet, each of them has been brave enough to change, and for that I do respect and even like them. (I’m not sure what’s so great about “likability”, in any case. How “likable” is Elizabeth Bennet, with her snobbishness and short temper? Don’t we love her in spite of these very qualities?) So yes, the Grace of the early chapters is plagued by irritating qualities. She’s closed off, a snob, judgmental, remote to her patients, withholding to friends (or people who might be friends, were she capable of accepting them), a brittle and probably very lonely person in the middle of a “happy family”, in the middle of a huge, teeming city. It is only when she discovers how alone she really is and how misplaced her sense of security is and how unfounded are the pillars on which she's set her life, that she can actually begin to connect to other people: some of whom are new to her, some of whom have been there all along. Do I “like” her more at the end than at the beginning? I do, because I can see that reaching out and letting people into her life is hard for her -- but she does it anyway. 

And if that's not enough to convince you to run out and snatch up a copy of You Should Have Known immediately, here's a little excerpt for you to enjoy!

“My editor sent it a few weeks ago,” Rebecca said, placing the galley on the tabletop next to the Kleenex box. “Loved it. You know, people don’t really ever hear this: Don’t screw up at the beginning and you won’t have a lot of these problems down the line. And it’s very in-your-face. The typical book on this subject has a bit more of a kinder, gentler approach.” 

Grace, aware that the interview had now actually begun, tried to summon that cock of the head and those perfectly formed sound bites. Her voice, when she spoke next, was not the voice of what she considered her real life; it was a situational voice. It was what she thought of as her therapy voice. “I understand what you’re saying. But to be frank, I think kinder-and-gentler hasn’t served us especially well. I think women are ready to hear what my book says. We don’t need to be handled gently. We’re grownups, and if we’ve screwed up, we should be able to take a little truth about it, and make our own decisions. I always explain to my clients that if all they want is for someone to tell them everything’s going to be all right, or everything happens for a reason, or whatever the pointless jargon of the moment is, then they don’t have to come to my office and pay me for my expertise. Or buy my book, I suppose.” She smiled. “They can buy one of the other books. Any of them. How to Love Your Marriage Back to Health. How to Fight for Your Relationship.” 

“Yes, but your title’s rather . . . confrontational, isn’t it? You Should Have Known. I mean, that’s what we always say to ourselves when we’re watching the press conference and some politician’s just tweeted a photo of his penis to the world, or got caught with a second family, and the wife’s standing there next to him looking stunned. You know, Really? This surprises you? ” 

“I don’t doubt the wife is surprised.” Grace nodded. “The question is, should she be surprised? Could she have avoided finding herself in this position?...You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lied about everything. Or he’s just garden-variety selfish and the fact that he’s married to you and perhaps you have children together—that doesn’t seem to stop him from behaving as if he’s still a single, unencumbered teenager?” 

“Oh yeah,” Rebecca said. It sounded, Grace thought, a little personal. Well, that was hardly surprising. That was sort of the point. “And when it happens we just throw up our hands: We say: Wow, you never know about people. And we never hold ourselves accountable for what we bring to the deception. We have to learn to be accountable. If we don’t, we can’t act in our own best interests. And we can’t prevent it next time.” 

“Uh-oh.” Rebecca looked up. She fixed Grace with a plainly disapproving expression. “We’re not about to blame the victim, are we?” 

“There is no victim,” said Grace. “Look, I’ve been in practice for fifteen years. Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her—the very first time they talk to each other, or the second date, or the first night she introduces him to her friends. But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows. She lets these early impressions, this basic awareness, get overwhelmed by something else. She persuades herself that something she has intuitively seen in a man she barely knows isn’t true at all now that she—quote unquote—has gotten to know him better. And it’s that impulse to negate our own impressions that is so astonishingly powerful. And it can have the most devastating impact on a woman’s life. And we’ll always let ourselves off the hook for it, in our own lives, even as we’re looking at some other deluded woman and thinking: How could she not have known? And I feel, just so strongly, that we need to hold ourselves to that same standard. And before we’re taken in, not after.” 

Excerpted from the book YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Copyright © 2014. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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