“You Should Have Known” is the title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s fifth novel, and also the title her marriage counselor protagonist, Grace, has selected for a self-help tome she has written scolding women for failing to recognize signs of pathology in their male partners. Grace’s self-satisfaction unravels during an investigation of a murder that reveals that her own husband, a Harvard-educated pediatric oncologist, has been living a secret life.
Korelitz, 52, who lives in Morningside Heights with her husband, the New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, and the younger of her two children, Asher, 14, (her daughter Dorothy, 21, goes to NYU), will be reading from “You Should Have Known” at 6 p.m. Tuesday March 18 at The Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison.
Q: Were you ever romantically snookered by a sociopath?
I have a very sparse romantic history as I met my husband when I was 23. But I had a professor in college who announced that he was a paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies. That might have chased some women away, but of course I went right for him.
Q: What is the attraction of dangerous men?
We all think we’re so smart and have our guard up, but when it comes to love, we don’t. My mother was a therapist and she always brought home cautionary tales to my sister and me about not believing what someone tells you. She went to great pains to get us to understand that just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s true. We all want to believe that someone is telling the truth – especially if we’re attracted to them. Charm is a very, very scary quality. I’m terrified of charm. I trust (now) in the good opinion of people who are established in my life.
Q: Many women are told that doctors are great catches as husbands. But doctors also have the perfect cover to lead secret lives: They can always say they’re handling an emergency, or need to see a patient.
Not only is (Grace’s husband) an oncologist, he’s a pediatric oncologist! Grace as a character goes right to that place: He saves children’s lives! He can’t be bothered with petty, stupid stuff. I was heavily influenced by Gavin de Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear.” I gave it to my daughter when she moved to New York. He gives just hair raising examples of how a soon-to-be victim realizes she is afraid of this person, but then she deconstructs her own fear and the crime goes forward. Don’t ignore the flashing lights! The gift of doubt is a variation on that: Stop what you’re doing and really, really look and think. Cold feet at the altar has become a “romcom” convention, but you get cold feet for a reason.
Q: Grace seems willfully blind and prideful – yet she’s a therapist who counsels others on their relationships. Is the moral here that pride goes before a fall?
Alfred Hitchcock said suspense is when the audience knows something that the character doesn’t. (“There is no terror in the bang; only in the anticipation of it,” said Hitchcock. ) Grace does not give up her judgments easily. She has every reason to believe she has succeeded where others have failed and is very secure in her opinions and very judgmental about her parents’ marriage and other relationships. She has a deep hubris. I’ve always had a compulsion to create very strong characters and then just rip them to shreds.
Q: Are men as gullible as women in choosing poor mates?
Deep down, we all want to be protected, no matter how ardent a feminist we are, and I am an ardent feminist. But it’s not just men who can present a false self, and we all disclose things selectively. When men talk about being duped, though, they’re usually just talking about infidelity.
Q: Women choosing successful men and getting something other than they imagined is very zeitgeisty, recalling Ruth Madoff and evoking Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” Who would you like to play Grace in the event “You Should Have Known” is made into a movie?
There are some nibbles to turn it into a movie, but I can’t talk about it yet. I was so surprised when (director) Paul Weitz told me he was thinking of Tina Fey for the lead in “Admission” (another novel by Korelitz). I was thinking of someone like Kate Winslet. But I’m not a visual person: I’m a word person. So I don’t know.
Q: You show a suspiciously accurate knowledge of how the tabloids cover crime in NYC. How did you come by that?
I’ve been reading the tabloids for 40 years! Having grown up in New York, and reading New York Magazine cover to cover every week – well, now every other week – I know that they’re going to gravitate to crime stories involving the trappings of class. And I’ve been fascinated by charlatans and fakirs and sociopaths for as long as I’ve been alive. I read so many true crime stories about the guy next door who – fill in the blank! From about 1988 to 1995 true crime was all I read. I had two literary novels that had been rejected by everyone on the planet. So when I did write again, I wrote a legal thriller – “A Jury of Her Peers,” which was my first novel to be published.
Q: The novel reveals the folly of buying into false and superficial values. The whole beginning of the book, Grace is obsessed with her standing on the Upper East Side and affording life there. She loses that life completely – but gains something that seems more real and true.
The future for Grace is promising – she is headed to a more open life with more open people in her life and being less judgmental. And what has happened to her will make her a better therapist. I couldn’t conclude the novel without putting in that bit about the Birkin bag. My love of the Birkin bag is an incongruous fact about me that my friends make fun of: I don’t have one and I don’t want to own a $6,000 purse – but I think they are things of beauty and I adore them.
Q: You have a new project to help authors make money.
Yes! Bookthewriter.com. We send writers to book groups in NYC. It costs $600 and $400 goes to the writer. Right now I’m only working with writers in NYC. People are excited because at a signing, you don’t have much time to talk to a writer other than to say, “I loved your book,” and then it’s time for the next person. But when you book a writer through us you can sit down and really have a long, meaningful conversation about what the work meant to you. People really want to have substantive conversations about literature in this city. And writers are excited about it because it’s a new income stream. We’re all suffering. This is a very expensive city to live in – especially if you have children.